An ethical approach to power, water conservation that protects the poor


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Keeping the Lights On

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Keeping the Lights On

USC Viterbi’s Bhaskar Krishnamachari and USC economist Matthew Kahn have proposed an ethical plan to promote power and water conservation that targets the biggest users while protecting the poor.
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Americans want their electricity cheap, reliable and green, with 24/7 access 365 days a year. They also expect inexpensive water available, anytime, anywhere, even in the increasingly arid, sunbaked West.

Unfortunately, Americans’ desires clash with the reality of climate change.

With record-setting heatwaves, tornados, fires and cold spells becoming ever more commonplace, the power grid has grown less stable. When blackouts occur, especially on scorching or frigid days, the elderly are at risk, as are people in need of dialysis and other urgent medical services. Similarly, years of drought threaten the future economic growth and development of several western states and cities. In June, for instance, Arizona announced that it would halt new home construction in the area surrounding Phoenix because of a paucity of groundwater.

As the demand for electricity and water continues to soar along with the population, the need to conserve precious resources has never been greater. However, raising electricity and water prices when demand surges, say during a brutal heatwave, frustrates consumers, who accuse power and water companies of price gouging. Government mandated cutbacks often engender angry political backlashes.

Matthew Kahn, an economist at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and USC Viterbi’s Bhaskar Krishnamachari believe they have come up with a better approach to conservation by offering targeted financial incentives to the biggest electricity and water users. Machine learning algorithms would identify users most likely to significantly reduce their power and water consumption, based partly on their responses to past price hikes, while market forces would help determine the size of the incentives.

“We’re trying to use economic and engineering ideas to help us to adapt to climate change,” said Kahn, Provost Professor of Economics and Spatial Sciences.

Added Krishnamachari, Ming Hsieh Faculty Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering-Systems and professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science: “What appeals to me is the fact that you’re not asking everybody to bear the brunt of higher energy or water prices, especially those that have the least resources. This is a more ethical and fair approach.”

Keeping the lights on

Climate change has made it difficult for utility companies to consistently provide reliable power. In other words, it’s harder than ever to keep the lights on. Extreme weather, such as heat waves and wildfires that knock out transmission lines, accounted for more than 80% of reported major outages in the U.S. between 2000 through 2021, according to a report by the nonprofit research organization Climate Central.

To reduce energy demand and encourage conservation, Kahn and Krishnamachari suggest offering money to big users, such as larger companies, that would agree to pay extremely high energy rates during the 15 or 20 days of peak power demand.

Knowing that they would face exorbitant prices two to three weeks a year might spur them to invest in conservation measures to reduce their overall annual energy costs, including insulation, energy-efficient appliances and solar panels, Kahn said.

“Bhaskar and I are focused on the very largest consumers of power who, we think, have more fat in their energy diet and energy inefficiencies in their homes that they would root out if they face these higher price points,” he said.

The USC researchers would like to enlist hundreds of participants in an initial pilot study. By tracking who turns down the offer, who accepts it, how much they modify their behavior, their ages, where they live and other data, a machine learning algorithm could become better at identifying the type of person who would conserve the most energy. That information could inform which customers receive future financial offers and even the size of the incentives, Krishnamachari said.

“The more data we have, the better the model we’ll get over time,” he said.

Let it flow

Until last year’s heavy rains, the western U.S. had experienced its worst “megadrought” in 1,200 years, according to a study in Nature Climate Change. Water scarcity remains a big problem in the region. In May, for example, California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to cut water use by 3 million acre-feet between now and the end of 2026, slashing usage by about 14% across the Southwest.

Confronted with a shrinking supply of water for agriculture, industry and residential uses, water agencies have pursued different strategies to encourage conservation.

They have asked consumers to cutback, which has had only limited success. They have enacted restrictions, which have resulted in water savings but left some customers fuming at what they consider governmental overreach. The Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts, among others, has offered customers rebates to rip out their thirsty lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping, an approach that has won favor with consumers but failed to dramatically reduce water consumption.

As with electricity, the USC researchers offer a new approach. Building on the success of the lawn-removal programs, they suggest offering a subset of the biggest water users financial incentives to reduce their overall consumption. In exchange for a yet-to-be-determined amount, program participants would agree to much higher water rates for a number of years or days during a year.

“Today, most water agencies don’t know how responsive individual customers would be to higher prices,” Kahn and Krishnamachari write in the paper “A New Strategy for Western States to Adapt to Long-Term Drought: Customized Water Pricing,” which appeared in The Conversation. “By conducting the type of pilot study that we have described, agencies could answer that question without raising prices for vulnerable households. If such initiatives succeeded, they could be replicated in other drought-prone areas of the West.”

Kahn believes farmers are the key to water conservation. With agriculture consuming 80% of water across the West, even small changes in their behavior could have an outsize impact.

“Why is any alfalfa grown in Arizona at the same time the governor is saying that Phoenix needs to grow more slowly (because of a lack of water)?” he asked. “We need to incentivize them to use less water, or even sell their water rights.”

Data, data, data

Data – and lots of it – would be the key to evaluating the success of the water conservation pilot program, Krishnamachari said.

“Using customer-level water consumption data over time, water agencies could track usage and compare customers who participated in the price increase program with others who turned down the offer,” he said, “This would make it possible to estimate the water conservation benefits of introducing customized water prices.”

Kahn and Krishnamachari want to test their ideas in the field. They are currently in talks with an unnamed power company in Southern California.

“We need to partner with a major electric utility or water utility to get from the blackboard to helping people in the real world,” Kahn said.

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Q&A: Toxic algae, warming waters imperil marine life on U.S. coasts

The images are heart-rending: hundreds of dolphins and sea lions washing up along the shores of Southern California, sick and dying from toxic algae poisoning. Photographed earlier this summer, they are the latest reminders that the climate crisis is becoming impossible to ignore.

Toxic algae blooms, a recurring natural phenomenon, have long been observed in water off the coast of Southern California. But scientists are increasingly concerned over the frequency and severity of these deadly algal outbreaks. As climate change continues to warm ocean temperatures, these favorable conditions allow harmful algae to proliferate.

USC News spoke with David Caron, an expert in biological oceanography who is closely examining the ecological crisis and its potential impact on local marine ecosystems, and Carly Kenkel, at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who focuses on coral reefs.

Domoic acid, a neurotoxin emitted by a type of algae called Pseudo-nitzschia australis, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of marine animals from Santa Barbara to San Diego. How do toxic algae blooms affect other marine species like fish, shellfish and seabirds?

Caron: Beyond marine mammals, sea birds that feed on small fish such as anchovies and sardines are at risk for significant intake of toxins if the planktivorous fish they prey on are consuming toxic algae. Most fish and shellfish appear to possess a reasonable tolerance for domoic acid (although some may be affected), but contaminated fish, particularly filter-feeding shellfish, pose a significant health risk to marine animals — and humans — that might consume them.

But not all algal blooms are harmful. Many are beneficial and support aquatic food webs. When those blooms are dominated by algal species that are noxious or toxic, however, they can result in very harmful effects on biota.

With rising ocean temperatures attributed to climate change, what changes have you observed in the timing and geographic distribution of toxic algae blooms?

Caron: There is growing evidence for shifts in the latitudinal distributions of toxic algae along the U.S. West Coast that appear to be driven by changes in temperature (i.e., a warming ocean). However, overall, temperature plays a secondary role to nutrients in explaining the occurrence of algal blooms in general and toxic blooms in particular. The availability of essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and some trace nutrients such as iron is key to understanding the location, frequency and severity of coastal algal blooms, and that extends to toxic blooms in freshwater ecosystems as well.

Usually, when one talks about “bloom-forming nutrients,” the elements nitrogen and phosphorus are most discussed. Those two elements are needed in significant quantities for producing biomass, but generally, they are in the shortest supply for algae in many ecosystems. Thus, nitrogen and phosphorus tend to have a “controlling influence” on the magnitude of algal blooms.

There are natural sources of nutrients, generally arising from the decomposition of dead organic material, but also man-made sources. Sewage, agricultural and domestic animal facilities, and urban runoffs tend to have very high concentrations of these elements. In waters where man-made sources are significant relative to natural sources, they can lead to or augment algal blooms.

Why are coral reefs crucial for ecosystems worldwide?

Kenkel: Corals are the foundation of tropical reef ecosystems. Reefs are incredibly biodiverse — like rainforests of the sea. They are home to 25% of all marine species. But they also play several other roles. They act as a natural breakwater and can prevent erosion and waves and are a major source of income from tourism and livelihoods around the world through subsistence fishing.

Through your research, have you noticed any recent changes or patterns in coral reefs, or any other notable developments that can give us insights into the current state of these delicate ecosystems?

Kenkel: Right now, the Caribbean is experiencing an unprecedented heat wave. We’re seeing signs of major coral stress everywhere from Florida to Belize to the eastern tropical Pacific. The Florida Keys reef tract — the third largest barrier reef in the world — has not experienced temperatures this extreme in at least 40 years. The effects are particularly bad in the lower Florida Keys, where we do most of our research. Just this week, we had to mobilize to sample a long-term field transplant experiment early. The experiment was originally planned to run until next October, but the corals are unlikely to survive until then.

It’s fascinating how coral, an almost universally beloved symbol, resonates with people and inspires action. What is it about coral that makes it so effective in conveying the urgency of climate change?

Kenkel: I think it’s really the reef ecosystems that inspire. While the coral itself is beautiful, my sense is that it’s the diverse array of fish and other animals that inhabit the reefs that truly bring the system to life. I think it’s all that diversity, together, that brings joy and inspires action.

Climate change is a global problem, and we’re seeing these extreme heat events because of how much carbon dioxide is currently in our atmosphere. Every bit helps — taking public transit, buying locally, turning up your air conditioning just a few degrees, and, for those who can afford it, opting for clean-air or all-electric vehicles and installing solar panels and battery storage systems that will reduce your carbon footprint.

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To free ourselves from fossil fuels, USC scientists are letting nature be their guide


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Oil Is for Fossils: The Future of Energy Lies in Nature’s Other Power Sources

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The Power of Nature
Relying on fossil fuels to power our industrialized world has had devastating consequences. To release us from this Faustian bargain, USC Dornsife scientists are letting nature be their guide.
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Formed from the ancient remains of plants that lived and died millions of years ago, fossil fuels once seemed like supremely promising, benign gifts bestowed upon us by nature for our progress and prosperity.

Scientific ingenuity developed raw oil and coal into fuels for powerful engines that helped spur the greatest improvements in human living standards. More than that, they supercharged economies, transformed cities into bristling forests of skyscrapers, extended lifespans and landed men on the moon. They also came with a heavy cost.

These same fuels have polluted the atmosphere, contaminated ecosystems and poisoned our lungs. The emissions we create by burning them are on track to warm our planet to a perilous degree — unless we quickly change course.

Fortunately, nature offers potentially limitless alternatives to fossil fuels. Our sun beams down more energy in an hour than humanity uses in an entire year. And the soil beneath our feet is rich with tiny bacteria, silently conducting an electrical dance that dates back more than
3 billion years.

As scientists turn once again to the natural world for solutions to our energy needs, they are also taking precautions to avoid recreating a relationship as fraught as our centuries-old dependence on fossil fuels.

“We want to create a new paradigm, but not one that’s just as bad as the old one,” says Stephen Bradforth, senior advisor to the dean for research strategy and development and professor of chemistry. He is one of many researchers at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences who are looking to nature to inspire scientific solutions and to provide green, reliable energy to meet our global needs.

Bacteria’s electric slide
In Moh El-Naggar’s lab, looking to nature requires a powerful microscope.

El-Naggar, divisional dean of physical sciences and mathematics, is exploring the curious qualities of a power-generating bacteria. As part of their metabolism, Shewanella oneidensis move electrons from the inside of their cells to surfaces outside their cells.

Building on the research of Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences Kenneth Nealson, who first discovered these “electric bacteria” in the 1980s, El-Naggar says it’s possible to “wire-up” these bacteria to metal or semiconductor technologies to extract renewable energy, make biofuels or build new bioelectronics.

For instance, the bacteria could potentially be deployed in wastewater treatment plants where they would dine on what’s been flushed down the drain while providing the energy necessary to power the plant.

“In the United States, more than 5% of the energy from our electrical grid is used just to treat our waste,” says El-Naggar, Dean’s Professor of Physics and Astronomy and professor of physics and chemistry. “Technology that can treat waste while also generating its own electricity would obviously be a very welcome development.”

El-Naggar is hopeful his research will one day lead to “living electronics”: small devices, such as phones or lamps, powered exclusively by bacteria.

How do you hold a sunbeam in your hand?

Of course, bacteria are not nature’s only energy offering. The sun pumps out an astonishing 173,000 terawatts of power continuously — more than 10,000 times the world’s energy needs.

Solar panels enable us to capture some of this energy bonanza, but the silicon used to fabricate them is not a very efficient material, says Richard Brutchey, professor of chemistry. Its popularity, he notes, was driven largely by advances in low-cost production by China, which now dominates the solar panel market.

Game-changing new solar cell materials absorb light much more effectively than silicon, but these innovations use rare elements like indium and tellurium.

After digging through the rock catalog at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, near USC’s University Park campus, in search of a better alternative to conduct solar energy, Brutchey discovered a potential candidate: bournonite. Named after the French mineralogist Jacques-Louis, Comte de Bournon, this stable, black mineral is made of abundant elements, absorbs light well and can be printed into a thin film for solar panels.

There’s just one drawback.

“It’s really promising, but it contains lead,” says Brutchey. “We’re investigating the possibility of substituting a non-toxic element for bournonite’s lead content.”

Brutchey isn’t the only USC Dornsife faculty member working on better, thinner solar energy technology. Visit Barry Thompson, professor of chemistry, in his office and he will unfurl a roll of thin plastic coated with a dark pattern of thin stripes. Each stripe is composed of organic molecules that can generate electricity from sunlight.

Because solar cells made of silicon require a lot of the material, they are bulky and rigid. The molecules

in Thompson’s organic solar cells could be inserted into materials flexible enough to bend, fold and even stretch. Plus, they are cheap to produce. With this sort of technology, Thompson thinks we could someday “print” solar panels. Long sheets of the molecules could be plastered over the exteriors of skyscrapers to generate energy for air conditioning, computers and water coolers.

And while we’re at it, why not do the windows as well?

Mark Thompson, Ray R. Irani, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Chair in Chemistry, is currently working on an exceptionally thin solar film that could cover windows and capture some 8% to 10% of the energy provided by sunlight falling on the building.

Thankfully, there is no need to worry that his idea would transform offices into inhospitable caves. The solar film does not affect the transparency of the glass. It also won’t dramatically boost costs, says Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and materials science. Coating glass with solar film would only slightly raise the cost of window production, and the increase would be offset by savings on energy bills.

This innovation could be a boon for cities like Los Angeles, which is aiming for all newly constructed buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Rooftop solar panels won’t be enough to achieve that.

“When you get to buildings over two stories, there isn’t enough roof space for the panels necessary to generate the building’s energy needs. You have to add solar panels somewhere else,” says Mark Thompson. Adding his thin solar film to windows, and perhaps Barry Thompson’s printed solar sheets to building exteriors, could be just the trick to meet the city’s ambitious goals.

Sunshine on a cloudy day
Though the sun is a powerful generator, its energy can be partially — or even totally — inaccessible, depending on location, season and time of day. To entirely replace fossil fuels with sunshine, we need to solve our storage problem.

Lithium-ion batteries provide decent solar storage at small levels, but scaling up has been a major challenge. Once these batteries become large enough to contain the amount of solar energy necessary to power our industrial world, they will require complex, costly systems to avoid bursting into flames.

Plus, lithium-ion batteries use pricey metals such as nickel that (you guessed it) come from destructive mining in only a few locations on the planet. Our growing dependency on them could trigger similar geopolitical conflicts to those sparked by oil.

Scientists at USC Dornsife are devising better options. G. K. Surya Prakash, George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry, worked with the late Sri Narayan, professor of chemistry and co-director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute based at USC Dornsife, to develop redox flow batteries, which use chemical baths to store energy.

Charged electrons captured from solar panels are stored in one tank of chemicals. Once they have been used — to power a lamp for example — the electrons are returned to a different vat where they are recharged using solar power or other renewables, such as wind. It’s possible to scale up this process simply by adding more chemical tanks. Just as important, the systems have a low risk of catching fire.

Narayan and Prakash, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and materials science, were figuring out how to make this technology rely on low-cost, readily available materials. In 2020, they demonstrated the success of a redox flow battery that uses iron sulfate and anthraquinone disulfonic acid for the chemical baths. Both materials are inexpensive and abundant.

Iron man

Redox flow batteries are a good solution to storing solar energy to use as electricity. But what about nonelectric energy needs? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for almost 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Electric cars are gaining in popularity, but the batteries are heavy and require rare minerals. Plus, replacing every car and truck with an electric vehicle would generate an enormous amount of carbon during production and assembly.

Scientists think there’s a better way: hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen can store considerably more energy in less space than batteries, and refueling is quick. It’s also powerful. NASA already uses hydrogen to launch its rockets into space. Plus, existing combustion engines can be easily converted to use hydrogen instead of gas.

Currently, the cheapest way to make hydrogen is by burning coal. A greener way to manufacture it is through electrolysis, a process that sends electricity through water and splits hydrogen away from the oxygen molecule. The machines used for this, called electrolyzers, need expensive and rare materials such as nickel. This bumps up the price of production, making green hydrogen too costly to compete with gasoline — so far.

Narayan was developing a much less expensive way to build these machines to lower the price of hydrogen fuel by replacing all the nickel in the electrolyzer with inexpensive, iron-based materials. His all-iron prototype has already successfully racked up more than 1,500 hours of durability testing.

Liquid sunshine
There is another way to make green hydrogen: by copying nature. In photosynthesis, the sun’s rays spark a chemical reaction in plants that turns water and carbon dioxide into the sugars needed for growth.

Researchers want to mimic this process to generate hydrogen and other fuels. They aim to use the sun and precise chemical reactions to form hydrogen from water — with no electricity required. This approach, called photocatalysis, will need a little human assistance to meet our power needs.

Photocatalysis requires the use of a photosensitizer — a molecule that will absorb the sunlight — and the energy generated is used to kick-start the chemical reaction. Materials currently in use as artificial photosensitizers don’t take in much of the solar spectrum, which means they don’t convert as much of the energy available to us in sunrays. They also rely on rare, expensive materials like ruthenium and iridium.

Thabassum Ahammad, a doctoral student in chemistry under the supervision of Bradforth, is experimenting to see if Earth-abundant options for photosensitizers convert light as efficiently. He tests molecules that are designed and synthesized in Mark Thompson’s laboratory.

A visit to the lab reveals large tables on which a maze of spectrometers for measuring light is carefully arranged. When Ahammad flips a switch, a bright laser beam shoots out, bouncing swiftly across the surface of these instruments before hitting the sample of the test photosensitizers. Starting with the brief event of light absorption (faster than a nanosecond), the experiment captures, moment by moment, how well the photosensitizer is able to transform the energy from the captured light.

In addition to a photosensitizer, artificial photosynthesis requires special catalysts to help boost the production of energy. “Photosynthesis is actually not that efficient,” says Smaranda Marinescu, associate professor of chemistry.

“We’re interested in making this process faster and more productive.”

A chemical catalyst can be used to help speed up the process of generating hydrogen from water. Platinum is an excellent catalyst but — as anyone who has bought a wedding ring may know — it’s an expensive and rare metal.

Marinescu is looking for more abundant materials to create catalysts that are also more powerful than those available in the natural world. She’s currently investigating cobalt and sulfur-containing materials — both elements are much more commonly found than platinum — as promising and affordable options.

If all this innovation can produce cheap, cleanly produced hydrogen, fossil fuels could be replaced with relative ease. Plus, converting solar to fuel can help emerging nations and rural communities that may not have access to electricity. “If you can only convert solar to electricity, that doesn’t help people who are off the grid,” Ahammad notes.

The methanol cure-all
Using existing infrastructure to create a greener future is consistent with Prakash’s decades-long “methanol economy” work to replace fossil fuels with methanol.

An inexpensive wood alcohol, methanol can be mixed with water then dropped into a fuel cell to produce electricity.

It’s a clean-burning internal combustion fuel and avoids some of the complications of hydrogen, which must be stored as a pressurized gas and can diffuse into the atmosphere over time. Methanol, which can also be converted to all petrochemical products, could also use existing pipe infrastructure originally built for petroleum or natural gas transportation.

Most of the methanol in use today is created by using coal or natural gas, but “green” methanol can be made by capturing carbon from the air. In direct air-capture systems, air is drawn in by fans then cleaned of dust using filters. Next, it’s passed through a chemical solution that attracts the carbon dioxide, separating it from other molecules. Add some “green” hydrogen and catalysts to this collected carbon and presto — “green” methanol.

It’s a welcome way to clean the atmosphere of excess carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels, while producing a green and renewable energy source.

“CO2 is not a bad molecule, we just need to manage it,” says Prakash. “Nature manages it through photosynthesis: we can manage it through chemistry.”

Plant power

Methanol and hydrogen represent just some of the cleaner-burning fuels out there. Off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, in the waters near the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, lies a thick forest of kelp that USC Dornsife scientists hope could one day power airplanes and cars.
Unlike terrestrial crops, such as corn, which are grown for biofuels, kelp doesn’t need massive amounts of land, fresh water or fertilizer.

It is one of nature’s fastest growing plants, and the fuel derived from it doesn’t give off atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide. A Utah-sized patch of ocean kelp could potentially supply 10% of America’s energy needs.

Diane Kim, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, has been working on an ingenious mechanical contraption, dubbed the “kelp elevator,” which raises and lowers stocks of kelp to give them optimal access to sunlight and nutrients. A recent study found that this technique quadrupled production.

The future is (almost) now

Kelp fuel, skyscrapers clad with solar panels, electronics powered by tiny microorganisms — this might all seem a little farfetched. Don’t be too skeptical: USC Dornsife faculty already have an impressive track record of success.

A renewable methanol plant in Iceland, named for the late USC Dornsife chemist and Nobel Prize winner George Olah, an early collaborator with Prakash, already uses their innovation. It captures as much carbon as the local power plant emits and produces almost 530,000 gallons of methanol annually. And you might already be using technology invented by Mark Thompson to read this article. He came up with the molecules that display red and green colors on phone screens.

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Researchers at USC Dornsife are finding better ways to harness nature’s bounty, from kelp to sun beams, in order to power our industrialized world.
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When it comes to climate change, what motivates us to act?

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Getting to Sustainable: How to Help People Make Better Energy Choices

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The Human Factor
Individual attitudes toward renewable energy and climate change are based on myriad psychological factors that range from the straightforward to the obscure. So, what motivates us to make positive changes?
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Comprehending the scope of climate change can feel like trying to connect an ever-expanding set of dots. Disparate indicators, such as rising global temperatures, retreating glaciers and increasingly severe weather events, are frequent reminders that life on Earth is shifting. This constant influx of worrying news can make people feel overwhelmed, confused and fatalistic, unsure of how — or if — they can help offset transformations taking place regionally, let alone half a world away.

Scholars at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences are conducting research to better understand how people obtain and process information on climate change and make decisions regarding energy use. By examining the role that external factors — such as the pricing and availability of alternative sources of energy — and internal motivations, including self-identity and personal beliefs, play in driving these choices, they are finding valuable insights to help shift the conversation.

“Individual behavior change in the direction of more climate-friendly decision-making is crucial for the future of our planet,” says Joe Arvai, Dana and David Dornsife Chair and Wrigley Institute director. “To encourage positive action, we need to look at what motivates people to make important daily changes, such as investing in non-fossil fuel-based vehicles or cutting back on things like eating meat.”

A balanced approach
Arvai, professor of psychology and biological sciences, explains that good decision-making often involves a balance of analysis and emotion. For people to make environmentally friendly energy decisions, these ways of thinking need to inform one another. Having the critical thinking skills necessary to discern good information from false, and being able to process data to understand how individual behavior can contribute to — or mitigate — climate change are two abilities necessary for calculation. At the same time, engaging our emotions helps us determine what we do or do not like, what does and does not excite us, and what feels like the right thing to do for our neighbors and the planet.

Once people understand the interplay between analysis and emotion, organizations such as companies and governments can work to develop strategies that trigger both so that people can make better decisions in their daily lives.

“We are looking at decision support tools, ones you might find in a showroom or in a search engine, that help people understand the range of goals in play when they are contemplating a ‘green’ decision,” Arvai says. “What kinds of data, comparisons and trade-offs are going to help people make the choice that makes the most sense for them given their values and financial realities?” While not everyone can afford an electric vehicle, almost everyone can make small steps in a greener direction, he adds.

“You need to figure out who you’re talking to, what they care about, and what trade-offs they are willing to make given their current situation. And then you need to show what’s possible within that range of opportunities and constraints,” Arvai says. “If we’re going to promote and facilitate a more climate-friendly lifestyle, the most important thing we can do is respect people and meet them where they are.”

Appealing to a broader consumer base
Diversity in energy messaging is necessary to reach a broad swath of the population. But one of the issues in this arena is the fact that renewable energy items like electric vehicles and solar panels do not fit seamlessly into the lives of most people, particularly those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, says Dean’s Professor of Psychology Daphna Oyserman, professor of psychology and education. Currently, Oyserman explains, “living green” is still packaged and viewed as a luxury lifestyle choice, available to those who can afford to buy a luxury electric vehicle or hire a landscaping team to craft a garden filled with native plants.

Measures such as rebates for electric vehicles and tax breaks for the installation of solar panels have helped increase affordability, but people on lower incomes — who likely live in a rented home with no access to a vehicle charging station or solar panels — are often left out. In addition, decisions such as whether to purchase an energy-saving appliance can be economically challenging for low-income households, since many of these devices cost more than their wasteful counterparts.

“If energy-efficient appliances and cars are more expensive, then taking care of the environment is being framed as a kind of boutique identity,” Oyserman says. She adds that there is a double impact to such a situation: Those who cannot afford to adopt these measures may end up feeling that environmentalism is not part of their social identity, but something that is owned by people who do not look like them. That is why some activists have tried to connect environmentalism with pollution concerns — having access to clean air and water is not something people can do alone; it requires active engagement in the political process.

Financial incentives that give property owners, including landlords, an impetus to install energy-saving items such as electric vehicle chargers and solar panels are one step toward greater adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors, Oyserman says. But this will take time, given that more alternative energy infrastructure will need to be developed before the cost can start to decrease. Individual choices are important, but engaging in the political process is often overlooked as an efficient way to engage in environmentally friendly behavior.

In whose backyard?
Developing this infrastructure, however, is not without its own complications and requires the acquiescence of another set of individuals: those who live in communities adjacent to proposed renewable energy plants. Jennifer Bernstein, a visiting scholar at USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, says that individual and community sentiment regarding such projects is often complicated and tricky to gauge.

“There’s a dichotomy between the fact that we all want renewable energy, but folks who advocate the most for the renewables are often the ones who think that they need to be developed somewhere else, far away,” she says.

Bernstein notes that when determining where to locate renewable energy plants, spatial scientists focus not only on quantifiable metrics, such as waste or pollution output, but also on how such factories affect — and are received by — people living nearby. Some lower-income areas respond well to the prospect of extra jobs, Bernstein explains, while wealthier retirees might need to be persuaded that the impact on their lives will be minimal.

Although people may have an initial, knee-jerk negative reaction to an industrial solar or wind plant in their own neighborhood, these concerns may not last, she says.

“I’ve looked at attitudes toward nuclear power, and there’s something called a ‘good-neighbor effect,’ where the people who live closest to nuclear plants are the most supportive of them,” Bernstein says. “I think communication between residents, developers and scientists would go a long way toward dismantling these presumptions people have about industrial energy development.”

Engaging the emotions
We can publish data on severe weather events, wildfires and rising temperatures all day long, but until we connect with people emotionally, they are unlikely to take consistent steps toward fighting climate change, Arvai says.

“A lot of people in government or at private companies look at climate change as a math problem that can be ‘solved’ by looking at things like cost or carbon footprint,” he says. “But viewing it in this way increases psychological distance from it, which may make people feel less compelled to act. We need to look at climate change not just as a math problem to be solved, but as a human problem we can work through together.”

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$2.9 million grant from Bezos Earth Fund boosts USC urban greenery work


Where urban tree canopies and environmental justice meet

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Where urban tree canopies and environmental justice meet

USC Dornsife researchers aim to help increase urban tree canopies, lower city temperatures and address longstanding environmental inequities, powered by a $2.9 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund.
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What would you do if you had more resources for your work?
When this question hits a researcher’s ears, it usually sparks more than a little interest. For John Wilson and Manuel Pastor, it led to a $2.9 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund.
The two USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences professors, invited by the Earth Fund to apply for the grant, will use the funds to counter some of climate change’s negative impacts and to narrow existing environmental equity gaps plaguing cities across the United States.
Over the next two years, Wilson, director of USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, and Pastor, director of USC Dornsife’s Equity Research Institute, will develop tools to promote and prioritize equity-driven urban greening.
In practical terms, this means finding the best places to add tree canopies, which have proven effective in lowering urban area land temperatures, where they are sorely needed in underserved communities.
“Together, we want to strengthen the voice for climate justice and greening cities,” says Pastor. He and Wilson will work closely with community partners to provide tools for understanding the issues they face and advocate for real-world change based on scientific findings.
The grant comes as part of the Bezos Earth Fund’s Greening America’s Cities initiative, a $400 million commitment through 2030 to create more equitable access to urban green spaces by increasing the number of parks, trees and community gardens in U.S. cities.
“The Bezos Earth Fund is proud to partner with local communities and government to expand urban green spaces,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. “In partnership, this new initiative will support historically underserved communities, supporting their health and well-being.”
Tools to inform action
Over recent years, researchers at the Spatial Sciences Institute — as part of the USC Urban Trees Initiative led by USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange — have been working with the City of Los Angeles and community partners like North East Trees to analyze the existing urban canopy and plantings in five low-income L.A. neighborhoods.
The Bezos grant will help advance this work and complete data analysis. It will also enable Wilson and his team of USC students and postdoctoral fellows to deploy remote-sensing methods, shifting from hand counting and planting new trees to measuring tree loss and canopy growth more consistently.
“We want to bring solid measurement tools to the table, so we can know if we’re making progress,” says Wilson.
Equity Research Institute scholars, meanwhile, will expand their relationship with PolicyLink, a longtime partner in producing the National Equity Atlas. The atlas provides community leaders and policymakers with national and regional data on demographic change, racial and economic inclusion, and the potential economic gains from racial equity.
They’ll also cultivate deeper connections with community-based partners like TreePeople and the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity to accelerate urban greening initiatives.
Specifically, institute researchers will identify and integrate four new environmental indicators into the Atlas to support climate justice efforts in U.S. cities. Advocates can then use that data to push for government action and funding.
“Data combined with a good narrative, advocacy and community pressure helps to create action,” Pastor says.
Helping community changemakers
Wilson and Pastor, who first teamed together some 25 years ago to elevate the work of Los Angeles area conservation agencies, believe their latest collaboration can help public agencies, nonprofits and community groups alike craft pragmatic, even-handed proposals for greener cities.
By sharing their suite of tools and data with others, the USC Dornsife researchers offer others a playbook to increase their urban tree canopy while respecting environmental justice goals.
“Tools like ours combined with a strong community voice and advocacy can help people make a case for policies and funds necessary to make a difference in their neighborhoods,” Pastor says. “Ultimately, we want to get the right tools into the hands of changemakers.”
Both Pastor and Wilson describe their joint effort as a way to uplift lives and strengthen communities, especially in light of swelling evidence that greening U.S. cities can improve physical and mental health, increase local resilience to extreme weather events and trim energy consumption.
“One role that researchers like Manuel and I play is to help demonstrate the value proposition and pathways to alternative futures that can improve environmental quality and human well-being in communities with less resources and amenities than others,” Wilson says. “That’s critical because we need to change how we live to build more sustainable and resilient communities everywhere.”
Featured USC Dornsife faculty
John Wilson, Professor of Sociology, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Computer Science, Architecture and Population and Public Health Sciences, and Director of the Spatial Sciences Institute.
Manuel Pastor, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity, Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change, and Director of the Equity Research Institute.

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USC Dornsife researchers aim to find the best places to add cooling tree canopies in overheated, underserved communities.
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Q&A: Why extreme weather, not climate change, drives concerns about water safety

Access to safe drinking water is a pressing global issue, with approximately 2 billion people currently lacking consistent access to this fundamental resource — a sobering number that is projected to soar to 5 billion by 2050. The United Nations has made global water safety — ensuring universal access to drinking water that is clean, uncontaminated and properly treated — a key priority within the Sustainable Development Goals for the millennium.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022In their efforts to raise awareness about this environmental threat, researchers at USC made a surprising discovery: While investigating the relationship between water safety concerns, climate change and severe weather, they found that — around the world — people’s worries about water safety were more strongly connected to their concerns about severe weather than climate change.

Findings from the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, challenge conventional approaches to environmental communication and suggest that capturing people’s attention and driving meaningful action may be better achieved by framing conversations around the immediate impact of extreme weather rather than relying on messages about climate change.

MULTIMEDIA: Listen to the audio version of this story on USC’s Ideas in Action podcast.

USC News caught up with study authors Wandi Bruine de Bruin, Provost Professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Department of Psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Joshua Inwald, a USC psychology doctoral student and first author of the study.

Why does extreme weather resonate with people more than climate change?

Bruine de Bruin: It’s easier to see how severe weather threatens water safety. People can witness these events happening and understand how they might impact them personally, whereas climate change is a more abstract concept that is challenging to observe directly.

Inwald: Right. When it comes to the public’s understanding of science and acceptance of climate change, we have observed that while most people now recognize climate change as a threat, they are more inclined to acknowledge the local impacts of severe weather. They readily notice changes in rainfall patterns, increased heat waves or less intense winters in their own lifetimes and local areas.

What surprised you about the study findings?

Inwald: Our results were remarkably consistent across different regions of the world. By analyzing countries based on their economic development and the state of their water infrastructure, we consistently observed that worries about severe weather had a stronger predictive power for water safety concerns than individual concerns about climate change. These patterns held true across all groups of people, regardless of the statistical techniques we used during our analysis.

What makes this study unique?

Bruine de Bruin: Most studies on public concerns about environmental risks tend to be conducted in the United States, Europe and other high-income countries. Ours draws from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s World Risk Poll. This comprehensive data set asked participants from diverse populations to report on their concerns about water safety, climate change and severe weather, among other environmental issues.

Inwald: This is especially significant in the context of water safety, which is a major concern in regions outside of the U.S. and Europe. While pockets of developed nations face significant water challenges, the most immediate and pressing impacts are felt by people in developing countries. Up until now, we haven’t had robust data for these important populations to show how this issue is playing out on the global stage.

What are the impacts of this research?

Bruine de Bruin: Our findings have broad implications that extend beyond water safety. They can provide valuable insights for nonprofits, policymakers and other groups working to raise public awareness and promote behaviors that mitigate different environmental threats.

Inwald: It’s also important to consider that messages about water safety and other risk communications are often disseminated from the top down, usually from organizations led by individuals from high-income Western countries. This can lead to cultural misunderstandings that make it harder to communicate with diverse, global audiences. These organizations need to adopt language that aligns with how people actually perceive climate change, weather and the quality of their water supplies.

Our approach also offers a distinct advantage in the U.S., where climate change is a highly polarized issue. When climate change or the climate crisis is mentioned, it often triggers political divisions, causing a significant portion of the audience to disengage. By focusing on severe weather instead, we can bypass these political concerns and potentially reach a broader audience.

About the study: Co-authors also included Joseph Arvai, the Dana and David Dornsife Chair and professor of psychology and biological sciences at USC Dornsife and director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability, and Marc Yaggi of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

This research was supported by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

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Farms of the future: How the mung bean, chickpea and kelp can survive climate change

Cultivated for thousands of years, mung beans and chickpeas are two of the most vital crops on earth. The legumes are an essential source of protein to billions of people in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

As climate change affects local, delicate ecosystems, it’s essential to develop new ways to grow these crops. An international team of researchers including Sergey Nuzhdin of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is investigating how mung beans and chickpeas evolved in hopes of discovering ways to ensure the crops’ future.

We recently spoke to Nuzhdin, professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife, about his research and his recent receipt of the President’s Sustainability Research Award.

You’ve had two recent papers on the evolution of mung beans and chickpeas — why is this research vital now?

The mung bean and chickpea are two of the most productive legumes and sources of protein for humans on the planet. For example, the chickpea originated in Turkey about 10,000 years ago. But most domesticated chickpeas come from a very limited genetic base. That means they lack traits which are responsible for drought resistance, dry root resistance or resistance to different diseases.

Our research for mung beans and chickpeas focused on going to native locations, getting samples and integrating those samples into varieties that make them suitable to a wide variety of environmental conditions.

How is climate change affecting these crops?

Our colleagues at the World Vegetable Organization in India and at National Taiwan University focused on the climate aspect of the study. We used that data to understand how the distribution of crops should be shifted to optimize future environmental conditions for production.

The same thing is happening in different countries across the world, including the U.S. As a result of climate change, new crops will be introduced for cultivation, and current crops will be redistributed. For example, rice production has been prominent in Northern California: However, the limited number of water sources in Northern California makes it unclear whether they’re still productive. So, the agricultural community is undertaking a substantial amount of work to understand how industry will look into the future and how farmers will survive the change in conditions.

What is next?

Ocean research is consuming a substantial amount of our attention now. We’re taking some of these approaches to try to make some useful progress in the ocean.

We have projects supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (Arpa-E), Sea Grant and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for designing kelp which will represent efficient growth and will not be harmful to the environment. We’re specifically designing kelp that will grow, but not reproduce, and provide an essential food source for ocean life. Why? Because that removes the concerns about farmed kelp sending their genes into the natural population. This will enable safe cultivation of those crops in the ocean, which is necessary for regulators to permit big farms in the ocean.

Why do we need big farms in the ocean? Because we can produce less biomass on land and use that land for reforestation — which is important and very efficient for carbon sequestration.

You recently were named one of the first recipients of the President’s Sustainability Research Award to investigate sunflower sea stars — how does this research fit within this work?

Kelp in California have been decimated — bull kelp has lost 90% of its population and biomass. That was due to a confluence of factors. One is that water is warming, but another is that because urchins eat it.

Normally what happens is that kelp grow near these urchin barrens and the urchins eat “drift kelp,” or aged and shredded blades. But when there is not enough drift kelp, the urchins switch to eating live kelp, forming barrens off the coast of California. Urchin barrens are proliferating because the predators that would normally help control urchin density — sea otters and sunflower sea stars, or starfish — have been overhunted and wiped out by disease, respectively.

Southern California doesn’t have those sea stars anymore — you can search for them, it’s like 100% loss. So, nature conservancies are advocating for growing them and releasing them into the wild. It’s a difficult task because these species take years to reproduce, but we have to introduce them to help save kelp for us.

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How the mung bean’s evolution provides cultivation clues for climate change


Unraveling the Historic Journey of the Mung Bean: A Tale of Evolution, Migration and Climate Adaptation

The mung bean, commonly known as green gram, has played a pivotal role as a cheap protein source in regions where access to meat is limited. Spanning over 4,500 years, the cultivation of this humble legume has sustained civilizations throughout its history. While its migration routes and cultivation expansion have been a mystery, a new study by researchers at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences that was published in eLife reveals insights into the circuitous odyssey of this resilient crop.

The study, co-led by Sergey Nuzhdin, professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife, employed cutting-edge genomic techniques to trace the evolutionary trajectory of the mung bean. The team analyzed mung bean seeds from three global seed banks, including the Australian Diversity Panel, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan and the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in Russia.

The research unveiled a distinctive path of cultivation and shed light on the factors influencing its expansion. Contrary to previous assumptions — based on the geographical proximity between South and Central Asia — genetic evidence suggests that the mung bean first spread from South Asia to Southeast Asia, and then finally reached Central Asia, including Western China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia.

Adapting to climate
Nuzhdin and his team of international scientists used an interdisciplinary approach that looked at population information, environmental conditions, empirical field and laboratory investigation, and historical records from ancient Chinese sources. Through this analysis, they discovered that divergent climatic conditions and farming practices across Asia shaped the mung bean’s unique trajectory, not deliberate human cultivation choices.

Nuzhdin was surprised that the evolution was not solely driven by human activity through domestication but instead was intricately intertwined with the mung bean’s adaptation to diverse climates encountered throughout its journey.

What the research unraveled was the existence of two distinct adaptations of the mung bean, each favored in specific geographic locations. The southern variant, originating in South Asia before 1068-107 CE, is characterized by larger seeds, favoring higher yields in regions with scorching climates. In contrast, the northern variant, originating in northern China around 544 CE exhibited drought tolerance and a short vegetative period during the summer planting season. The mung bean later spread to the rest of China and Southeast Asia including Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Genetic variations
While the study’s historical revelations are compelling in their own right, their implications have relevance to new ways of breeding crops. The mung bean’s genetic makeup, including its short growing season and resilience to extreme heat, hold significant potential for mitigating the impact of climate change on agriculture. Particularly in Southeast Asia, where prolonged heat waves and the severity and impact of flooding threaten valuable agricultural areas, these genetic variants could prove to be a game-changer in the face of climate change.

“Our findings offer a critical roadmap for breeders aiming to enhance mung bean production in the face of climate change predictions, especially in the southern regions. This fundamental research holds immense importance in guiding the selection of genetic materials for breeding programs,” Nuzhdin said.

About the study:
The study, “Environment as a Limiting Factor of the Historical Global Spread of MungBean,” was published in eLife. The USC components were funded by the United States Agency for International Development and the Zumberge Foundation. Funding was also provided by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research; the strategic long-term donors to the World Vegetable Center; The Republic of China (Taiwan); the UK government; Germany; Thailand; Philippines; Korea; and Japan. The Russian Scientific Fund Project and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation also contributed.

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Unlocking the ocean’s secret: Natural carbon capture

Scientists around the world are racing to develop new methods for combating the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that are driving climate change and threatening the health of our planet.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022Ocean carbon capture, which involves using natural ocean processes to trap and store greenhouse gases out at sea, is one promising method. Two L.A. researchers — William Berelson of USC and Jess Adkins of Caltech — are looking to harness this technology to address the problem.

“Behind every potential solution for a more sustainable world lies a story of hard work and collaboration,” USC President Carol L. Folt said. “This promising research to reduce carbon emissions between USC and Caltech will help us all achieve a more sustainable future — starting right here in Southern California.”

We met up with Berelson, professor of earth sciences, environmental studies and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Adkins, the Smits Family Professor of Geochemistry and Global Environmental Science at Caltech, at the docks of AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles — one of the largest harbors in the world and a leading gateway for international trade in North America.

How does the shipping industry play a role in climate change?

Berelson: At seaports around the world, huge quantities of goods arrive daily that feed the global economy. Those goods are transported across the ocean on container ships, cargo ships and other vessels that burn diesel fuel. Collectively, all the ships in the world are contributing about 3% of the carbon dioxide that’s being added to our atmosphere every year.

Adkins: Over 90% of the products we use in our daily lives traveled on a ship at some point. If we’re going to think about how to deal with our CO2 problem as a society, we have to be mindful of the fact that we can’t electrify all parts of the industry. Shipping is a good example of an industry that doesn’t electrify well. It’s hard to imagine ships running off batteries, even though we must, as a society, get ourselves onto renewable energy.

(Q&A continues below video)

How do carbon emissions affect our oceans?

Berelson: As carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in ocean water, it increases its acidity thus causing ocean acidification. The rising annual rate of CO2 emissions leads to a corresponding increase in ocean acidification, resulting in dramatic impacts on marine ecosystems like corals and other organisms that use calcium carbonate to build shells.

People care about corals for their beauty, but these organisms are also crucial to biodiversity and sustaining the populations of fish and other marine life that live in and among the coral communities.

Adkins: Exactly. As you acidify the ocean, you make it harder for the main components of the ecosystem to grow. But another reason we should care about ocean acidification over and above the photographic megafauna that are corals is the algae out in the middle of the ocean and far away from the coast. They are the primary producers and bottom of the marine food chain where sunlight is first turned into organic matter and then becomes food for the rest of the system, humans included.

How does the ocean naturally capture carbon?

Adkins: The planet has been capturing carbon for billions of years. As the ocean absorbs excess carbon, the CO2 reacts with calcium carbonate, or limestone, that naturally occurs at the sea floor — this reaction makes the neutral salts of bicarbonate and calcium ions.

Berelson: The natural reaction that happens in the ocean is exactly what happens when you treat an upset stomach. The analogy we like to use is that when you have excess acid in your tummy, you take a little antacid tablet, which is effectively ground up calcium carbonate, to neutralize the acid.

What are you working on now?

Berelson: An idea came about during our research on how the ocean naturally mitigates excess CO2. We discovered that if we could accelerate the dissolution of limestone, it could be a way to mitigate CO2 at a larger scale. We’re developing a startup company that could one day build machinery that would allow this reaction to happen at a fast enough scale and at the right quantity to make a greater impact on CO2 reduction.

Adkins: Right. Although the ocean naturally captures carbon, it does so at a slow rate. We want to find ways of speeding up the neutralization of that extra CO2. All we have to do is follow the natural process of what happens when, say, volcanoes erupt and release CO2 into the atmosphere.

What inspired this collaboration?

Adkins: We’ve known each other for decades as friends in the field and have always talked about finding something to work on together. But it was our shared concern about ocean acidification and the idea that we might be able to make a breakthrough that brought us together to think about joining labs.

Berelson: True, we initially bonded over our common interest in chemical oceanography. That and all things having to do with major league baseball.

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