We know that our fondness for the internal combustion engine plays a part in climate change. But a new study out of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City indicates just how much cars are hurting us, now and in the future. In a new paper published earlier this month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of NASA climatologists presented an economic model for the climate change that will take place this century, which measures the contributions of 13 specific industry sectors based on the unique portfolio of airborne chemicals each one emits.
It’s well known that road transportation is doing the most damage, but researchers arrived at that conclusion by figuring out that cars produce few aerosols, which help mitigate the warming impact of the pollutants and greenhouse gases they produce. Industry, by contrast, pumps a ton of aerosols into the environment, which actually have a cooling effect on the environment. This positive impact of aerosols, which has factored into a number of previous climate-change models, is something of a Pyrrhic victory, however, since aerosols’ deleterious impact on human and ecosystem health is well-established. That’s why much of the developing world has spent the last few decades trying to eliminate them in everything from hairspray to fire extinguishers.
As a result of that effort, by the year 2100, industry will be hot on the heels of transportation in its overall contribution to warming. However, by then, our thirst for electricity will have made power generation the head of the class when it comes to climate change, ahead of road transportation and industry. We’ve got dauntingly big problems, as the study shows, which makes it a bit depressing. But better analysis of the specific patterns of human behavior that lead to those problems will, one hopes, make the solutions clearer.