Sunday, April 27, 2008

Article for the Courier-Tribune

Solutions to Global Warming Addressed at Conference

By Owen George, Special to the Courier-Tribune
Published: April 23, 2007

GREENSBORO — Dr. Richard Leakey has a challenge for Americans .He hopes the U.S. can be a team player in a worldwide effort to reduce waste and begin solving the environmental challenges that are certain to grow.

Dr. Richard Leakey
photo credit: Owen George

“It has taken quite some time for the public to get behind the seriousness of global warming — scientists have known about this for a long time. Climate change is going to bring on all sorts of crises that will have an impact on all of us,” Leakey told a group of environmental leaders and concerned citizens Wednesday. Widely considered the world’s foremost paleo-anthropologist and recognized by Time magazine as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Leakey was the keynote speaker at the first Mobilizing N.C. Conference held in Greensboro.

Two hundred and fifty environmental and community leaders gathered to focus on the issues of air quality, energy and transportation. Sponsored by the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University, the conference brought together a broad coalition of concerned citizens, state and local officials, fleet managers and entrepreneurs seeking ways to improve air quality and lessen the Tar Heel state’s dependence on imported oil.

Asheboro City Councilman Talmadge Baker attended the conference and was impressed by Leakey’s message.

“His stories of life in Kenya, where each day he sees schoolchildren gather firewood as they walk along miles of dirt roads on their way to school, reminded me of my 4-H days many years ago,” said Baker. “We took live chickens with us — and whatever else we would need for our meals.”

Like other cities represented at the conference, the City of Asheboro is seeking ways to reduce its carbon emissions and other types of environmental waste. In July, Asheboro will begin the implementation of a citywide curbside recycling program. “That’s a big step for us,” said Baker.

During the day-long meeting, attendees had the opportunity to share information on the latest advancements in the development of fuels such as biodiesel, a fuel that converts vegetable oil into a clean burning alternative to conventional petroleum-based diesel. North Carolina already has four commercial production facilities for biodiesel, as well as a smaller facility located at the N.C. Zoo. Other experts discussed nuts-and-bolts technologies currently available to reduce up to 90 percent of the particle pollution pumped into the air by diesel trucks and buses.

Larry Shirley, director of the State Energy Office, is passionate that North Carolina can lead the South in the development and conversion to the use of alternative fuels — and that it is the right thing to do. “What would happen if the Iranians or our friend Hugo Chavez in Venezuela decided not to sell their oil to the United States?” he asked. “We must move now to remove the noose of dependence upon foreign oil.” Shirley’s Energy Office is one of several state agencies determined to push North Carolina to the forefront of alternative energy development.

Leakey spoke on why that’s important as he addressed “Global Challenges, Climate Change and the Future,” sharing with the audience his unique understanding of the human impact of burning of fossil fuels. He has plenty of experience to draw on. He has served his native Kenya as a senior government official, political activist, conservationist, scientific researcher and farmer. He became director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989 and led a movement to end elephant poaching in Africa that all but eliminated the international ivory trade.

Now a visiting Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, Leakey continues to educate others about the dangers of environmental degradation. “On Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, and great mountains of the Andes in South America, there has been permanent ice for 10,000 years. In 10 years this ice will be gone,” said Leakey. He pointed out that rising water levels from the global warming and melting ice could render countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia uninhabitable. “When 450 million refugees come knocking on your door, what will you do?” he asked.

Leakey and his wife live outside the city of Nairobi on a farm located down seven miles of unpaved roads. With no electrical lines connected to his farm, the Leakeys use wind, solar and biofuel created from the waste products of his livestock. “When I show these systems to my Kenyan friends, they want to have similar systems for their homes — it’s embarrassing because the cost is far beyond their grasp,” said Leakey.

Leakey is skeptical of the popular buzzword “sustainable” that is often used to describe an approach to solving environmental problems. “It seems to imply, ‘You stay where you are and we stay where we are,’ ” he said. “With 90 percent of Africa living in poverty, is that fair?”

Mark Englander of Charlotte
photo credit: Owen George

Leakey pointed out that currently 850 million Africans, 1 billion Indians and 1.4 billion Chinese are all striving for the quality of life that most local citizens take for granted — the right to have at least one car per family. As these economies expand and the populations can afford more cars there will be more pressure on the environment. For example, China will have a phenomenal number of vehicles on the road. In terms of global warming, the consequences of this situation are certain to pose great challenges for years to come.

When asked by audience members what an individual could do to help solve the environmental problems he had described, Leakey stressed the importance of working together to reduce waste in our daily lives. “When you take a shower for 15 minutes, washing and rinsing your hair three times — that’s such a waste of resources,” he said. “Just look at the plates of food at many restaurants. Almost as much returns to the kitchen as comes out.”

Other highlights of the conference were the displays of innovative alternative vehicles such as Segway human transporters, electric vehicles and biodiesel vehicles. Mark Englander of Charlotte drove to the conference in a converted 1985 Mercedes that is fueled on 100 percent vegetable oil. After spending around $700 in conversion costs, Englander is now able to fuel his vehicle with used cooking oil that he collects from local restaurants. “The Chinese restaurants have the best quality oil,” he said.