Melillo Takes on Climate Challenge
“We can make a whole series of life choices that would less disrupt the carbon cycle,” said Dr. Jerry Melillo on Wednesday night. A professor of biology at Brown, Director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory and father of Oberlin’s visiting assistant professor of history Edward Melillo, Dr. Melillo wowed the Oberlin community with definitive statistics and carefully designed models proving drastic climate change.
Such models are important, asserted Dr. Melillo, because “the most meaningful action is memory, and [modeling] scenarios provide us with a memory of the future.”
Melillo outlined three scenarios for approaching the carbon emissions crisis. The first is the “pedal to the metal approach” — aggressive fossil fuel consumption to intensively exploit an integrated world economy.
The second option is “business as usual.” Moderate economic growth would be coupled with the gradual introduction of new technology.
The final scenario is to pursue the “eco-friendly” path by providing solutions to the economic, social, and environmental crises brought on by climate change.
Before discussing biofuels, the focus of his lecture, Melillo re-inforced the audience’s understanding of climate change. Every year humans release 7.5 petagrams — one quadrillion grams — of carbon into the atmosphere, 6.5 petagrams of it from fossil fuel burning. Natural mechanisms like the ocean, can only remove 4 petagrams each year. This leaves 3.5 petagrams of carbon to rest in the atmosphere.
Melillo cited Dr. Charles Keeling’s famous accumulated carbon dioxide graph, which is considered to be the discovery of climate change. This graph depicts a steady increase in carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, measured in parts per million, over the last fifty years. Other evidence shows that, since the Industrial Revolution, the number has risen from 280ppm to 380ppm, an unprecedented leap in human history that is the result of new modes of production.
Additionally, said Melillo, the Arctic Sea ice is at an all time low. Since 2005, 23 percent of the sea ice has been lost — an area the size of California and Texas combined. 2007 was also the second hottest year since the 1860s, when records were first taken.
Melillo then turned his talk to possible role of biofuels in solving this crisis. Melillo explained that however helpful first generation biofuels, including corn-grain ethanol and soy biodiesel may have appeared, the amount of carbon needed to produce these products on a massive scale would make the “advantages in the end pretty modest.” Even if this scenario were less grim, there wouldn’t be enough crops to supply America’s fuel demand. If every single piece of corn grown in the United States were used for ethanol production, it would fulfill only 12 percent of our demand for fuels. Likewise, soy biodiesel could supply only six percent.
Some hope that prairie grass may be a possible fuel source. However, despite the environmentally sound nature of the process, growing enough grass to sustain the fuel demand would mean covering nearly half the earth with managed agricultural lands by 2050. Although excited by the recent leaps toward a viable replacement energy source, Melillo believes “We have to look for a much more robust biofuel product.”
Melillo’s intent was not to discourage. Rather, by identifying the progress scientists are making everyday, he attempted to instill realistic hopes for a future solution.
“He let me in on possibilities I hadn’t considered,” said College first-year Mike Rauscher. “It wasn’t doom and gloom.”
When asked which presidential candidate was the most likely to follow the “eco-friendly” scenario once in office, Melillo mentioned, “Edwards is becoming pretty environmentally savvy.” Yet he said that any elected president is likely to take the environment as a serious issue, because, “People in the business community are paying attention.”
“I have long admired this place from afar,” Melillo said of Oberlin. Considering that every seat in Hallock Auditorium was full and many students crowded along the back wall and the aisles, Oberlin seems to admire him, too.