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‘Fears for the Future’ so do something NOW

By Claire V J Skipper, on 8 June 2011

Dear All,

My first Cheltenham festival day of lectures seemed full of fears for the future. Mark Maslin (head of the Department of Geography at UCL) chaired ‘The Limits of Our Planet’ and the closely related ‘Acid Acidification’, and then Andrea Sella (UCL Department of Chemistry) was the experimental star of ‘Endangered Elements.’

‘The Limits of our Planet’ highlighted that we have already passed the sustainable limit of our planet in terms of the rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and the nitrogen cycle. More than 100 species for every million become extinct at the moment, which in my mind is 100 above the ‘acceptable level’, but the experts have put the ‘acceptable level’ at 10. Climate change was measured on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which gets enough media attention for everyone to know that it needs reducing. The nitrogen cycle is less well known and the amount of nitrogen that humans take out of the atmosphere to use as fertiliser is at 121 million tonnes per year compared to the sustainable level of 35.

‘Acid acidification’ highlighted that the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will dissolve in the seas causing the alkaline seas to become more acidic. By 2030 using medium projected levels of carbon dioxide the shells of the sea life will be dissolving at the poles because of the increased acidity.

Mark Maslin linked these two talks together by getting the speakers to mention their experiences of trying to influence policy makers in government with their findings. I think that it was summed up best as overcoming the beliefs of ‘limitless and mastery’. Strangely many people can simultaneously believe that humans are so small that they cannot affect the planet and are so arrogant that they believe they can overcome any problems with technological advances.

‘Endangered Elements’ ended the day on a lighter note. Whenever Dr Sella does a talk there always seem to be experiments and humour and even in a discussion panel of three with geologist Frances Wall and mineral economist Malin Stein he managed to sneak a pile of demonstrating equipment onto the coffee table. ‘Endangered elements’ meant the rare earth elements of the f block of the periodic table. These turned out to be neither endangered nor rare. They are mined for many diverse uses, from making extremely strong magnets for wind turbines to making catalytic converters and iPhones. Dr Sella held magnets through his hand, illuminated the Europium rare earth metal compound in a Euro note (someone has a sense of humour somewhere) and made sparks with a cigarette lighter to show off some of the rare earth element useful properties.

The one message of today was that NOW is the time to do something about the state of the planet.

Until something else sparks my interest.

Your Computational Chemist

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