A Fashionable Hat for a Smokestack

   Global warming is increasing at a previously unprecedented rate, as the IPCC now projects that we will reach a global temperature exceeding 2.0 degrees C by 2040 if nothing is done (Davenport, 2018). Should planet Earth’s temperature continue rising, every living thing upon its surface will suffer, from the tiny coral polyp to the enormous blue whale. If neither the smallest nor the greatest among us can escape the consequences of climate change, then what chance do we humans stand? To think that in a measly twenty years, we may enter the point of no return is nothing short of alarming. If we really want to undermine climate change, we would need to alter society. But in twenty years? Is that even feasible? For all our criticisms towards technological fixes, they illustrate a depressing fact about human nature: it’s incredibly resistant to change. Technological fixes serve to delay change, allowing us to carry on with our lives in same fashion. Given the short timeframe, a quick fix might be our only option, especially when it comes to burning coal. As such, I’d like to throw out my own suggestion for a techno-fix, albeit a strange one. It appears to me that carbon dioxide ought to be stopped before it even gets the chance to enter the atmosphere. But how do you stop a molecule? Well, what about plants? It’s common knowledge that plants absorb CO2 and release oxygen. This is done through a process known as the Calvin cycle (Nave, n.d.). My question is whether or not it’s possible for humans to invent a device that either mimics the Calvin cycle or directly utilizes plant cells to absorb CO2. Mind you, the Calvin cycle is a very complex system that plant biology majors take multiple semesters to learn. In the case of coal plants, we could place this theoretical invention on top of their smokestacks like a fez. These “plant fezzes” would then take in the smoke through the bottom, releasing the oxygen into the atmosphere while storing the leftover carbon…somewhere. Carbon monoxide would also be absorbed in this process. I suppose this would be easier to achieve using plant cells, perhaps by genetically engineering them so that they’re heat resistant and can only release oxygen in one direction (in this case, up). Then you could place these cells in giant mats of agar (a growing solution) inside of the fez before putting it on top of the smokestack. Of course, an even better way to stop climate change instead of putting hats on factories is to cease coal operations. Politicians as well as many citizens have been presented with facts about climate change, but these warnings are falling on deaf ears. Perhaps instead of reiterating the same rhetoric about why climate change is bad, we should try to employ a method of empathy. That is, we should understand why these individuals feel so reluctant to close down coal plants. Greed is a part of the denial, but so is job security. Politicians of this nature are clearly more concerned about jobs than the environment, so why not play to their interests? Rather than presenting renewable energy as a means to mitigate climate change, why not present it as a way to employ thousands, maybe even millions? As recent as 2016, solar energy alone generated close to 75,000 jobs, and it’s expected to keep growing (Christopher, 2017). I don’t possess the confidence to convince politicians why they should take clean energy seriously, but I guarantee there are people that do. It may not be the reason a lot of us want change, but does the reason matter if it works? If a person donates money to charity for their image rather than altruism, does their intention matter so long as help gets to people who need it? I know I started this post saying that humans are resistant to change, but that’s the thing: we’re resistant, not impervious. If we’re going to change minds, we might need to go about it in a different way.

    Claiming that climate science is unreliable because it’s a “young science” is choosing to ignore history. John Tyndall discovered that carbon dioxide hoarded heat as early as 1861, nearly one hundred sixty years ago (Riedy, n.d.). In addition, the IPCC has been conducting research since the late 1980s (1., 2018). Now, that isn’t nearly as long as the time since Tyndall, but it proves further evidence that climate science is hardly a new development. This in mind, I can only wonder how long climate science must carry on to be taken seriously. Fifty years? Five hundred? Five thousand? It just seems arbitrary. We see this same logic applied to children and teenagers. How old must a child be to be taken seriously?  Do the young, be it science or children, have nothing valuable to contribute? It should be noted that concepts such as spontaneous generation (in which certain animals suddenly appear out of non-living matter) had been considered fact for centuries before modern science disproved them (Levine and Evers, 1999). Time is a factor in developing an understanding of our universe, but it is not the only component.

As a side note, the term “plant fez” has a double meaning. One, it’s made for coal plants, and two, it’s designed to act as a living plant. I’m aware the term sounds ridiculous, and that is 100% the reason I chose it.

In addition, funding the research for such an invention, or really any techno-fix, might be more challenging than actually developing it.

Works Cited:

Christopher, D. (2017, April 24). 5 of the Fastest Growing Jobs in Clean Energy. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/5-fastest-growing-jobs-clean-energy

Davenport, C. (2018, October 08). Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html

Levine, R., & Evers, C. (1999). The Slow Death of Spontaneous Generation (1668-1859). Retrieved October 20, 2018, from http://webprojects.oit.ncsu.edu/project/bio183de/Black/cellintro/cellintro_reading/Spontaneous_Generation.html

Nave, R. (n.d.). The Calvin Cycle. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Biology/calvin.html

Riedy, M. (n.d.). The Strange Deaths, Varied Lives, and Ultimate Resurrection of John Tyndall. Montana Professor,12-14.

  1. (2018, October 8). Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC approved by governments. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/session48/pr_181008_P48_spm_en.pdf

4 thoughts on “A Fashionable Hat for a Smokestack”

  1. Rebecca- Wow, awesome post and suggestions. You offer much more in the way of optimism than I could (it’s because I’m old and tired, don’t listen to me..)! I really like that you brought up the concerns about job security- indeed that is one of the biggest challenges to advancing climate policy. Making technological fixes lucrative is certainly necessary for succeeding within our current economical/ political framework. Your plant “fez” suggestion is interesting- I had not heard of such a thing before. I am curious though, about such an organism’s capacity to withstand copious amounts of coal smoke directly permeating it. It would take some serious engineering for sure, but I appreciate the ingenuity of it. Is it your idea?

    I also really enjoyed what you said about the young having valuable contributions, and time being one factor of many in the quest for understanding. Time is also relative, and a complete social construction. On the timeline of billions of years we are but a blip, so everything humans have done and imagined and created is a ‘new development’, but when you consider the smaller timeline of human existence, the developments within it become more pronounced. This contrast is really one of comparative perceived significance. I could afford to take a few pages out of your book. I mean, we’ve still gotta live here, so we might as well do the best with what we’ve got. Again, awesome post. NAILED IT.

  2. Thank you, Hilary. I was actually really concerned about my techno-fix sounding too silly to be practical (hence the name “plant fezzes”). Not that I have the knowledge to develop such a device, but I will admit it is my idea. Mind you, this didn’t just spring upon me. How I tend to handle the blog posts is to read the articles and then think my answers over, basically letting my ideas “compost” a bit before I sit to write anything. You make an excellent point about the heat coming off the coal plants being too intense for plant cells. I think we could solve this problem via genetic engineering. In Yellowstone hot springs and near underwater volcanoes, there are heat-resistant bacteria called thermophiles. It blows my mind that there are creatures that can live in scalding water. It would take some work, but I imagine we can splice the DNA from these organisms and insert them into the DNA of plant cells. In addition, perhaps we could utilize cells from plants that are naturally resistant to harsh conditions, such as cacti and Joshua trees. Again, it’s all speculation, but at the very least, it’s fun speculation.

  3. Woah, woah woah, Rebecca…this just might be one of the greatest ideas I’ve heard in along time. I am so refreshed by the fact that you took the approach of just jumping in and offering your own fantastic solution. We need a techno-fix, people need to keep their jobs, coal is an important resource, and your “plant fez” takes all of this into account. Sure, it’s specific to plants and reducing their CO2 (and CO) emissions but it’ll make a big difference for sure. Thank you for addressing the fact that not everybody’s on board with shutting down things like coal plants. Sure, we need to think about the environment but that doesn’t mean we can just cast aside some poor fella just trying to provide for his family with his job at the coal plant. I know a lot of people think humans should just feel bad for even existing but hey, we’re here and we’re just trying to lead happy lives so give us a break. (That’s like way more extreme than you were probably going for but I get excited). Also thank you so much for making the point that the intentions don’t always have to matter in the end result. I make this point to people all the time. If I go out and do community service just to put it on my resume, the same trash gets picked up, or whatever, than if I genuinely cared and did it just to be a good person. Not saying I don’t care whenever I do community service, just making a point. Also, yes climate science is older than many believe so assuming it’s brand new is just ignoring history and that’s never cool. Awesome post! I apologize for the rant. Keep on being creative and coming up with super cool solutions!

  4. Madalyn, I’m really flattered by your compliments. Believe me, the “anti-human” rhetoric makes me just as uncomfortable as it does you. Like, the people who made these films and TV shows are human beings as well. It isn’t like they’re aliens who can make sweeping judgments about the rest of us. Again, really appreciate the kind words. Keep on keeping on!

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