The global climate crisis is one of the most pernicious problems facing wildlife and humanity. Not only is it a slow-motion train wreck of global scale requiring global response, the very process of warming often makes itself worse—it creates “feed-forward” loops that send the system out of balance even faster. For example, it’s commonly taught in schools that the increase in temperatures in the Arctic is driving more extensive and faster melting of permafrost. In turn, the melted permafrost increases the release of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. Which increases Arctic melting, which increases methane release…and so on.
Working for solutions to climate change has long been an focus of Defenders’ work, from mitigation to adaptation, and species-specific attention to broad international policies. In the Center for Conservation Innovation, we both lead cutting-edge science and track scientific and technological advances that offer solutions for wildlife, including solutions to the threat of climate change. So my interest was piqued a few days ago when I saw a new research paper come out: “A polydimethylsiloxane coated metal structure for all-day radiative cooling.”
Polydimethyl- what? What does this possibly have to do with wildlife?
Consider another climate feed-forward loop. What do most of us do when it gets hot during the summer? We turn on the air conditioning. With climate change, more people will turn up the A/C in more places. Which means using more energy use, more greenhouse gas emissions, more warming, and still more A/C. . .and so on. This energy use for cooling is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions: the authors report it accounts for some 15% of the energy used in buildings in the U.S. and gets as high as 70% of electricity use in Saudi Arabia (!). This is the link from our A/C to polar bears, Sitka spruce, Atlantic puffins, and thousands of other species threatened by climate change.
But what if you didn’t need to use energy to cool your house or your office? What if there was a way to let buildings cool off during the day the same way they cool off at night?
That’s what this research is about. The authors figured out how to create an inexpensive “appliance” from readily available (but advanced) materials configured in a way that emits heat-carrying light back out into space without using any electricity to run compressors or fans. There are evidently other, similar hi-tech solutions out there, but they involve expensive materials and complex production processes. Here the authors just mixed the coating in a beaker then spread it on the metal surface. In testing, they found this structure cooled the target areas by up to 19.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Think of the cost and energy savings if you only had to pay for electricity to cool your house to, say, 75°F from 80°F when it’s the middle of a 100°F heat wave outside!
To be clear, tracking the details of this branch of science isn’t our business—we’re about finding and advocating for potential solutions for wildlife. But reducing the amount of electricity we use and greenhouse gases we emit will ultimately protect both our wildlife and our wild lands. To conserve wildlife and habitat in a changing climate, we must use the best available science to understand the specific threats that wildlife and ecosystems are expected to face—such as sea level rise, higher temperatures, and more frequent storms and droughts–and develop measures to mitigate these impacts or provide opportunities for species and habitats to shift in response. On Thursday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its newest report, this one on Climate Change and Land. This latest IPCC report reiterates the critical need to address climate change and the dangerous consequences we will face if we continue to abuse our resources.
Will this new development really work, and can it scale to be a truly global climate solution? Why not? Twenty years ago, hardly anyone had cell phones and today we’re lost without these computers in our pockets. This advance could be exactly the same.
So here’s to hoping that in the next few years you will get a new polydimethylsiloxane coated metal structure—who knows what we’ll call it then—installed to cool your house or your office without using energy. And if you do, you’ll be able to say you heard about this from Defenders of Wildlife and know that it’s helping save wildlife and the planet!