Peter LaPuma, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, sits down with GE Reports to discuss society’s “inevitable transition to cleaner energy sources,” and what’s missing from the climate change debate.
- You focus a lot on climate change in your work. Where are you seeing the most progress?
I believe most European countries are making great strides in adding low-carbon power. Germany in particular is enjoying a large percentage of clean electricity from utility-scale wind and solar projects, and the people in Europe generally support efforts to reduce carbon-based energy.
Developing countries are doing their part, since air pollution is a huge concern to the citizenry of India and China. The governments have been shifting emphasis to favor low-carbon energy sources, which also helps combat air pollution.
In the U.S., I am very encouraged when I look at some state and local governments as well as corporate America, but I am very discouraged with a lack of leadership at the national level. It makes no sense that we bicker over human-induced climate change in 2016. The science is strikingly apparent. We should be having a national discussion over what to do about it.
A more coordinated national policy and a strong political will would certainly help speed up what I see as the inevitable transition to cleaner energy sources. Without national leadership, we end up with many different approaches by the states, which makes it very challenging for anyone working in the energy industry. However, I also acknowledge that solutions will not be “one size fits all,” and that the role of state leadership is very important as well. What works in Florida may not work in New York or California.
Many states are finding the renewable industry can create lots of jobs in construction and maintenance. One of the fastest growing jobs without a college degree in the U.S. is a wind turbine technician. In windy states like Iowa, lots of wind turbines are popping up and bringing lots of living wage jobs to that state.
- What about offshore wind? Are there prospects there?
I think offshore wind’s day will come. Offshore winds are often very constant and predictable – highly desirable attributes for wind turbines. Almost 50 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of a coastline, so the potential to make electricity near where people live means we don’t have to run thousands of miles of high voltage power lines from the midsection of the U.S. to the coastlines to get the power where it’s needed. And no one likes those large transmission lines passing through their neighborhood.
One of the delays with offshore is the cost since the ocean is a lot more difficult to construct a very large machine that will have to tolerate many powerful forces. It’s a lot easier to mount a wind tower that’s several football fields off the ground on land.
- Is cost a factor here too? There’s a perception that renewable technologies like wind or solar are more expensive to build.
I believe this question perpetuates an inherent misunderstanding. The payback period on things like more efficient buildings, LED lights, solar and wind are often well within the lifetime of these technologies, which means you save money in the long run.
This also protects us from potential future price spikes. If coal and oil prices become volatile again like they did in 2008, rather than trigger a recession, we can come to rely on sources of power that allow us to become more self-reliant. You start using free U.S. sunshine, not oil imported from other countries.
And climate change is already costing us a lot more money than people realize. Think of the money it’s taking to fight forest fires in the Western U.S. and the cost of rebuilding after powerful storms like Hurricane Sandy. We are spending much more today on disasters because climate change is already causing profound shifts in weather patterns. This only promises to get worse if we wait any longer to get serious about climate action.
This does not even begin to account for the public health costs of climate change such as additional asthma, lung cancer and heart attacks from fossil-based air pollution. Interpersonal conflict jumps during heat waves – we are designed to be irritable and agitated when we are hot, hungry, thirsty or tired.
This all adds to the societal cost of things like law enforcement and emergency medical care in not only dollars but lives.
So rather than see sustainable solutions as expensive, I see the cost of inaction to be much, much more expensive. Climate change is too big to ignore not only for future generations but for us today.
(Top image: Courtesy Thinkstock.)
Peter LaPuma is associate professor with the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at George Washington University.
All views expressed are those of the author.