In late 2015, representatives from 185 countries met in Paris to commit to a framework for addressing climate change. The accord was hailed as a historic victory, but even the deal’s biggest supporters say a great deal of work remains. The goals discussed in Paris are modest and the path to achieving them is unclear. It seems unlikely that politicians will save the planet by themselves. Fortunately, they won’t have to.
Chemists have the opportunity to be the driving force in addressing anthropogenic climate change. Conservation and regulation are essential to solving the climate crisis. But they’re not enough in the face of population growth and rising standards of living. Chemistry helped build the modern world with its insatiable appetite for energy and dependence on fossil fuels. But if chemistry once helped contribute to the climate problem, it is now at the heart of our search for a solution.
“We all know that people’s demand for a high quality of life will continue to increase the global demand for energy,” notes ACS Central Science Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Bertozzi. “We look to chemical reactions to provide energy and in turn to novel energy sources to power chemical reactions.”
Addressing climate change tops this list of the most important issues in science for three reasons. First, climate change is a truly global problem. Second, developing an effective response to climate change will require contributions from a broad swath of scientific disciplines from around the world. Finally, as politicians, businesses, and consumers alike become more concerned about the issue, climate change is having a major impact on research funding and publishing. “The need to develop alternative energy sources is at a critical point and has economic, societal, and scientific implications,” says Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Reviews.
Climate change is often discussed as a single problem, but solving it will require a wide variety of solutions. Some areas already get a lot of attention. “Research efforts related to energy conversion and storage, as well as improving the efficiency of devices, will continue to provide a major research thrust,” says Prashant Kamat, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Energy Letters.
But to effectively address climate change, we will also need to create better methods of removing greenhouse gases from our atmosphere and develop more complete understandings of the reactions taking place in our atmosphere and our oceans because of our changing climate.
The seriousness of the problem, combined with the breadth of disciplines involved, will have a significant and lasting impact on research funding throughout the world.
“In the aftermath of the COP21 conference on climate in Paris, world leaders have committed themselves to ‘Mission Innovation,’ in which they develop plans to double scientific research in their countries aimed at mitigating climate change,” explains Harry Atwater, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Photonics. “Each country is charged with developing its own plan and execution pathway. “Meanwhile, Bill Gates and other corporate leaders have founded the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to spur corporate and private investment of more than $1billion in scientific research funding related to sustainability science and technology. This will have profound effects on research directions for chemists and all physical scientists, who will be at the heart of this new initiative.”
And what about fossil fuels? They’ll still have a role to play, but an increased emphasis on renewable energy will mean we can reserve their use for other tasks. “Petroleum is so valuable as a commodity chemical for production of plastics—I cannot believe we are burning it for energy!” says Courtney Aldrich, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Infectious Diseases.