A Clever Fix to the Biggest Climate Problem
By Jeremy Deaton
Climate change is a big, unwieldy problem with no easy fix. To stem the rise in temperature, we need to transform how we power our homes, fuel our cars, grow our food and get rid of our waste. The change won't happen overnight, and time is running perilously short, which is why we need to prioritize actions that will have the biggest impact.
As it happens, the most effective way to fight climate change is to make a better fridge.
Manufacturers use a class of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators. Regrettably, hydrofluorocarbons are prone to leaking into the atmosphere, where they trap an enormous amount of heat—thousands of times more than carbon dioxide—worsening climate change. In 2016, countries agreed to end the use the use of hydrofluorocarbons, but the phase-out will take decades, and the substitute chemicals are either toxic, like ammonia, or flammable, like propane.
It seems there is no entirely safe way to cool down a conventional fridge. So, instead of trying to update existing technology, some manufacturers are building a new kind of fridge—one that doesn't make use of potentially dangerous refrigerants.
North Carolina-based Phononic, Inc. is building thermoelectric refrigerators that use less energy, take up less room and pose fewer environmental risks than conventional refrigerators. The company's name refers to phonons, quantum particles that transmit heat. "A phonon is quite literally a heat wave," said CEO Anthony Atti.
Phononic's thermoelectric technology represents a real breakthrough in refrigeration. To appreciate what makes it noteworthy, it helps to understand how it differs from a conventional refrigerator. The fridge in your home takes advantage of a long-understood fact of physics—when a liquid evaporates, it soaks up heat. That's why sweating cools you down. Sweat absorbs heat from your body as it evaporates into water vapor. Conversely, when that water vapor condenses, it releases heat. Refrigerators make use of this phenomenon to cool food.
Liquid refrigerant flows through what are known as evaporator coils inside the fridge, absorbing heat along the way. As the refrigerant heats up, it turns to gas. The hot gas flows through condenser coils outside the fridge, where it releases heat and turns back into a liquid. The compressor raises the pressure of the refrigerant, thereby raising its temperature. As a result, the temperature of refrigerant is significantly higher than the temperature of the room, and it cools off quickly.
The whole system serves to gather heat from inside the fridge and release it outside. That's why the coils on the back of a fridge feel so warm—they are releasing heat captured inside. While this basic technology has worked for around a century, it has a few shortcomings. The compressor uses a lot of energy, makes a lot of noise and takes up a great deal of space. And, as mentioned above, the most common refrigerant is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas.
A thermoelectric cooler. Luis María Benítez
Phononic does away with all of that. To cool a fridge, it makes use of the thermoelectric effect, by which an electrical current can produce a difference in temperature. Run a current through a thermoelectric cooler, and the device will draw heat from one side to the other. Thermoelectric coolers make very little noise, take up very little room and make no use of dangerous refrigerants like hydrofluorocarbons, ammonia or propane. Unfortunately, thermoelectric coolers have largely been too expensive and inefficient to be used in refrigeration.
With the help of a grant from a Department of Energy program that funds cutting-edge research, Phononic developed new materials that would make thermoelectric coolers more efficient. In addition to using less energy, Phononic's thermoelectric coolers chill the inside of a fridge more slowly and evenly than the machinery inside a conventional fridge.
A Phononic thermoelectric cooler (left) and a compressor (right) that might be found in a conventional fridge. Phononic
"Because you're removing that heat and using the entire surface area of the product itself, the rejected heat is very low temperature, so we can stack multiple refrigerators in a room," Atti said. "We can stack them on top of one another. We can build them into cabinetry, and you don't have that high waste heat temperature that a typical compression system does."
Phononic is deploying this technology in a variety of ways—cooling electronics, chilling wine, refrigerating medicine and vaccines at hospitals, among other applications. Soon, the technology could be deployed in food delivery, which may cut down on waste from meal kit services, like Blue Apron or HelloFresh. These companies deliver food in packages lined with ice packs so the ingredients survive shipping. Those ice packs inevitably end up in the trash. Atti imagines instead using energy-efficient, battery-powered thermoelectric coolers on delivery trucks to keep food cold until it reaches its final destination.
A Phononic refrigerator. Phononic
"What we're proposing is that you would put one of our refrigerators or freezers right on the delivery truck, so this way you just pull the package right out and deliver it right to the door," Atti said. The company does not currently produce consumer refrigerators or air conditioners, but it could make a dent in those markets as it drives down costs. "We're not afraid to compete on cost, but what we're trying to demonstrate—and we've had a decent level of success—is how, at this stage, we can compete on value."
Atti believes the technology could be a game changer. The way that solar technology is transforming energy and LEDs are changing lighting, thermoelectric coolers could give a long overdue makeover to refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners. The researcher turned investor turned entrepreneur said, "One of the things that irritated me when I was on the investment side was this belief that clean tech or sustainability could not be competitive." Now, he's intent on showing that next-generation refrigerators will do exactly that.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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