Why caring about climate change means caring about chemicals of concern
Finally. Climate change has risen to an unprecedented level of mainstream public discourse with the ramping up of 2020 U.S. presidential campaigning. In just five years, the number of Americans believing climate change is a threat to our country has increased by 49 percent. Globally, this view is held by more than two thirds of people across 23 countries surveyed by the Pew Foundation, with climate at the very top of a threat list that includes terrorism, cyberattacks, North Korea’s nuclear program and the global economy.
If the trajectory of these perceptions translates quickly enough to sufficient action, there obviously will be much to cheer. But meanwhile, there’s a quieter discussion on a seemingly parallel but separate track that risks getting too overshadowed in the battle for public and corporate mindshare. Yet its climate change implications are profound. And that discussion is about chemicals of concern.
It’s far too crude a measure to point out that, for example, climate change gets 834 times more attention in Google searches than does "chemicals of concern," 40 times more than "toxic chemicals" and 38 times more than "hazardous substances" — or nearly 20 times more than all three combined. The thing is, climate and hazardous substances are much more closely intertwined than most people think. That includes most consumers, economists, policy makers, politicians and even corporate sustainability professionals.
Why? Let’s start with some simple truths about how the proliferation of chemicals of concern is even more threatening in a hotter world, as well as making the world even hotter still.
- The toxicity of air pollutants and pesticides is exacerbated by hotter temperatures (PDF), which affect the way these chemicals are distributed in the environment and absorbed by our bodies (and all species). The more pollutants, pesticides and other chemicals of concern, the more toxicity present in the environment that can be adversely acted upon by global warming.
- Hotter temperatures weaken the ability of humans and animals to cope with chemical toxicity, inhibiting metabolism and excretion necessary to detoxify the body.
- Inversely, the suppressed immune systems of chemically compromised bodies are less capable of withstanding climate change effects including extreme temperatures, severe storms, tainted water or food shortages.
- The more chemicals of concern in the environment, the more runoff contamination of watersheds (PDF) from increased intensity and frequency of storm events as well as storm surge contamination of coastal water supplies — contamination that ultimately finds its way into our bodies and imperils biodiversity. Also, flooding events not only produce mold in buildings, but release hazardous chemicals (PDF) such as formaldehyde from wood products and plasticizing chemicals from flooring products that have not been sustainably manufactured.
- Hotter temperatures make the increasing quantities of chemicals in the ground and water much more likely to become airborne health risks, and allow them to travel great distances.
- The overwhelming majority of harmful organic solvents are petroleum-based (92 percent of all organic chemicals are petroleum-based), the production of which intensifies climate change in all the ways that fossil fuels do.
- Some chemical companies are working hard to reduce energy consumption, but the fact is that tremendous amounts of non-renewable energy are used in production of hazardous substances such as sulfuric acid, nitrate-based fertilizers, soda and caustics, cement and pharmaceutical and organic chemicals. (Where this has been carefully studied in Switzerland, for example, chemical and pharmaceutical production exceeded all other industrial sectors in energy use and was responsible for 25 percent of total industrial CO2 emissions.) These processes not only exacerbate climate change directly via emissions, but also through indirect effects (PDF) such as wastewater that pollutes soil and underground water when untreated and generates solid and slurry waste. The energy supply required for these manufacturing processes also indirectly charges the environment with emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and particulate — yet more reasons that reducing production and use of chemicals of concern translates to less warming of the planet.
Fighting climate change with green chemistry
Given all the above, I find it astonishing how seldom the proliferation of hazardous chemicals is present in the climate change discussion and the plans to mitigate it — especially when we consider the powerful solutions emerging from advances in green chemistry. As an example, with the proviso that there is wonderful work underway in many places across the globe on this front, let’s look at one source of green chemistry solutions and how such solutions relate to climate change.
How this all affects climate change is less obvious to the casual observer. Yet it’s powerfully significant when considered in the dual contexts of global warming and the 12 principles of green chemistry that WBI espouses and that have become pillars of safer chemical development around the world.
So, let’s make some connections here in the table at the end of this article. (Don’t be put off by some chemistry terminology in Principles Nos. 8 and 9; I’m certainly no chemist, but we lay people can get the hang of it — and the links provided can help too.)
Fighting climate change with chemical substitution
As with green chemistry itself, far too seldom are the connections made to climate change when considering the ways in which NGOs are helping companies more easily and confidently find safer substitutes for hazardous substances. Again, with the proviso that very good work on this comes from multiple organizations as well as internal methodologies at some of the world’s more enlightened chemical companies, let’s look at the example of the NGO Clean Production Action and how its efforts relate to climate.
Clean Production Action provides strategies and tools to simplify for companies the complexity of substituting safer chemicals and materials for hazardous ones. Its globally used GreenScreen benchmarking tool helps companies and governments identify chemicals of concern and find safer alternatives, and track progress. In tandem, its Chemical Footprint Project enables companies to measure and more transparently disclose their chemical footprints, further incenting them to reduce hazardous chemical use.
Green chemistry’s potential to help with climate is constrained by how challenging clean production is even for the best-intentioned companies. Solutions that facilitate safer substitution are key. The first principle of clean production — knowing and disclosing product chemistry — is the on-ramp to mitigating all of the issues highlighted earlier in this article. Despite the well-deserved credit that has accrued to Clean Production Action’s programs and other safer chemicals initiatives, too seldom is there recognition that every reduction in hazardous chemical use represents a reduction in the damaging interactions between these substances and the macro environment of a hotter, scarcer world.
We must recognize that climate and chemicals are closer cousins than generally has been acknowledged. We must recognize that green chemistry, paired with strategies and tools for safer substitution, can be and has to be a bigger part of the arsenal in attacking climate change. As our existential climate challenges mount, all the galvanized action to attack them can be amplified if green chemistry is fully seen and supported by policy makers and company decision-makers. Its power to mitigate both the human health and environmental impact of the warming of the planet cannot be left partially untapped.
All of this is more simply understood in the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 13’s targets for urgent climate action.
So next time you think about climate change, think about chemicals. It’s all one issue, inseverable, in our interconnected web of environmental and health challenges in this anthropomorphic era of climate shock and chemical proliferation.
If you care about climate change’s impact on human health and survival, ask yourself and your company or organization this: What more can I/we do to reduce demand for chemicals of concern, replace them with safer alternatives and support advances in green chemistry? Underusing such a powerful weapon in the fight to save our planet and ourselves is no longer an option. We have too much catching up to do.