Teaching of global warming flawed, says chemistry chief
11 January 2007
Climate change and global warming teaching in schools is flawed through omission, simplification and misrepresentation, says the Royal Society of Chemistry's chief executive.
"The problem needs to be addressed if the UK is to play a key role in tackling the issues raised, and exploiting related business opportunities," says Dr Richard Pike.
He added: "These deficiencies are partly the result of needing to give youngsters easily digested concepts, but many teachers now agree that in doing so there is the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture."
That picture is not being articulated because of the very limited, quantitative references to climate change in school text books, if at all, says the head of the 43,000-member society.
"Support from web-based organisations is making progress, but is fragmented and lacks engagement with leading academics and industrialists in the field."
These, says Dr Pike, are the four key facts children should know, but have been distorted or overlooked:
Water vapour, not smoke, emerges from cooling towers. These structures are needed whether the heat source is from bio-fuels, concentrated solar rays, coal, gas or nuclear, and are necessary to cool down the circulating vapour (usually steam) that drives the turbines for electricity generation. The heating of water for high-pressure steam to pass through the turbines, followed by condensation, is a fundamental process in the power industry. The use of pictures of cooling towers as 'iconic' representations of global warming, therefore, is completely false, as even 'green' energy will need these facilities. Additionally, the water vapour emitted from these towers forms part of the natural water cycle.
Very low-sulphur fuels can be worse for the environment than higher-sulphur fuels. Although they are attractive for consuming countries, their manufacture from oil, gas or coal elsewhere is energy-intensive, and therefore globally can leave a larger carbon footprint than conventional higher-sulphur fuels. In the extreme, a tonne of natural gas will produce only half a tonne of liquid fuel, with the remaining half tonne being consumed in the manufacturing process, with associated releases of carbon dioxide. This emphasises the need for full life-cycle analysis of energy processes. This example also illustrates the difficult balance between reducing pollution and acid rain at one location, while adding inadvertently to global warming.
Oil and other fossil fuels may be burned for another century. Whatever advances are made in renewable and nuclear power, there is likely to be a transition period of at least 100 years during which fossil fuels will continue to be burned globally, driven by the inertia of millions of people depending on their countries' oil, gas and coal production for their own economic prosperity. High priority must be placed on the technologies of carbon dioxide capture and storage, and the coordination of this. Even today, throughout the world, tens of millions of tonnes per day of carbon dioxide would need to be removed from the atmosphere, just to keep the concentration of this gas constant. This puts into perspective the scale of all other activities to reduce global warming. Perversely, even when use of fossil fuels ceases, there could still be further warming. This is because there will less particulate matter in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, and a greater proportion of the sun's energy will then reach the Earth's surface.
Energy storage and transportation (as electricity or hydrogen generated from electricity) will be essential for long-term sustainability. Like many of the energy issues for the future, these will be resolved only through the application of an innovative scientific base in this country, coupled with strong leadership linking education with society's needs, and encouraging constructive engagement amongst all interested parties.
Dr Pike added: "Young people are clearly concerned about global warming and we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that they are well informed and feel confident in challenging the status quo for the benefit of us all."
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