Lee Gerhard has a challenge for you: “Defend the sciences ... Do a better job of critical reading and analysis. Separate fact from agenda.”
Gerhard is speaking about “Energy and Environmental Challenges of the 21st Century,” which happens to be the title of his upcoming luncheon address to the Division of Environmental Geology at AAPG’s Annual Convention in April at Long Beach, Calif.
“We deal too much with public myth and not enough with hard data,” Gerhard said.
With more than 40 years in geology and environmental studies -- including helping develop DEG -- Gerhard is not shy of controversial topics or opinions.
“The sciences and the public are imbued with computer models instead of observational data,” Gerhard said of the ongoing climate change debate.
Models, he said, often include assumptions that may or may not be correct.
“This is a huge issue in anything we look at,” he said.
- Polar bears are proposed for listing on the Endangered Species List because of apparent climate and environmental factors -- but their numbers are as high as at any point in history, he said.
- Radon gas was trumpeted as a threat in home basements across the United States when studies showed the only population experiencing adverse effects was quarry workers who smoked tobacco -- a group already at risk of lung problems, he said.
- All types of asbestos were called risky and subject to expensive cleanup regimes and litigation, Gerhard said, though research showed clear differences in the effects of different types of the material.
While “public myth” often pictures mankind as losing the global environmental battle, Gerhard said that “from the 1960s onward, we have improved the U.S. and global environment -- otherwise we’d still have a flaming Cuyahoga River,” a reference to a heavily polluted river through Cleveland, Ohio, that occasionally caught fire.
The planet’s growing human population is another main theme for Gerhard.
“We are facing a 10 billion population future world,” he said. “We must supply energy resources for them and maintain adequate standards of living, despite declining resources -- all within acceptable environmental impacts.
“The human ‘footprint’ is unique among animals,” he added. “We have the ability to modify our environment and to tap and use resources no other animal can use.”
Gerhard’s third major challenge to AAPG and DEG in particular: Heed the “Law of Unintended Consequences.”
“Political choices often ignore the long term,” he said.
For example, in the search for alternate energy sources, ethanol is popular but not always cost-effective.
In Bolivia, crushed sugar cane is used to produce ethanol. “It’s a very efficient way to produce fuel using a spent product ... waste,” Gerhard said.
In contrast, ethanol produced in the United States may have only a slight cost advantage, “depending on how you count cattle feed, increased food costs” and other factors, he said.
“In western Kansas we’re using valuable water ... (and) growing produce to produce energy,” the former Kansas state geologist and head of the Kansas Geological Survey said. “It’s a great farming program” -- but ignores the long-term consequences of draining the Ogalala Aquifer, increased erosion from irrigation and other concerns.
In the debate over drilling in Alaska and offshore United States, we must make a choice of “adequate vs. inadequate supplies and the consequences of both,” he said.
“We have to find out if there’s any oil there,” he said of the debate over drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Looking ahead, he cautioned that “we have to focus our decision-making.”
Gerhard urged DEG “to look at bigger issues -- educate the public and our decision makers.”