Professor Explains Science Behind Climate Change

December 12, 2014by Robert M. Bovarnick

Dr. Richard Alley asked the audience to think back to last January. “You may remember the polar vortex. It was cold here.” But at that time, the rest of the world was dealing with milder-than normal temperatures. “But we happened to be in a cold spot.” Skeptics pointed to those milder temperatures and repeated their claims that global warming was a hoax. “It’s physics,” Dr. Alley said of climate change. “There isn’t another side of that.”

Dr. Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of Geo Sciences in Penn State’s College of Earth Mineral Sciences, focusing on glaciology, sea level change and abrupt climate change. He and Robert B. McKinstry Jr., practice leader of the Climate Change and Sustainability Initiative at Ballard Spahr LLP, were the speakers at a Nov. 6 Chancellor’s Forum on climate change.

In June, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution to increase awareness of global climate change as a critical issue, which called on local, state and federal government to take action.

Dr. Alley’s presentation focused on the causes, current trends and solutions of global climate change. He began by highlighting the staggering ironies underlying general awareness of global warming. For instance, the effect of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere was actually discovered more than a century ago. Although rooted in well-established laws of science, it remains a hotly debated issue among the people responsible for effectuating change. Examining this paradox, Dr. Alley pointed to general reactions to regressions in temperature. No matter the regressions, Dr. Alley said the temperature has steadily increased, glaciers continue to shrink at a rapid pace, the grain belt is drying and yielding fewer crops and sea levels are rising. Yet, the average driver in the U.S. still generates 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions every year.

The solution? Dr. Alley believes that feasible technology designed to capture and produce external energy sources, i.e. wind farms that have the capacity to generate one third of the world’s energy; solar technology that requires small areas of land; or, if properly extracted, the use of natural gas to power energy turbines. Additionally, Dr. Alley explained that systems such as California’s cap-and-trade program can greatly incentivize emission reduction.

From a legal perspective, McKinstry discussed the relevance and implications of effectuating change. Following the U.S. Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA (where he was also co-counsel), McKinstry explained that the Environmental Protection Agency was required to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act of 2007, and establish guidelines for emissions reduction. In turn, each state is mandated to submit a plan adopting and implement these guidelines. To date, California and nine other states have submitted plans. California’s “cap and trade” model, McKinstry explained, establishes an annual greenhouse emissions cap on companies and in turn, generates revenue for clean energy technology through the purchase or trade of emissions allocations.

Concluding the forum, Dr. Alley and McKinstry agreed that these systems are not only feasible for reducing necessary emissions, but also generating economic benefit.

-Luke W. Sampson
(This article originally published in Philadelphia Bar ReporterDecember 2014)

by Robert M. Bovarnick

Rob Bovarnick is a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law. Prior to starting his firm, he was Vice Chair of the Bankruptcy Group at a 170 lawyer firm and head of the Creditor’s Rights practice at a 20 lawyer firm. He is the former Chair of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Conference.