Q&A: Climate change is already here, says ‘father of green chemistry’

Paul Anastas, the Yale chemist widely known as the “father of green chemistry,” talks about greenhouse gases, science policy, Richard Nixon, and being “a sworn enemy of the status quo.”

Formerly head of research for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a White House science adviser, Anastas directs Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and serves on the faculty of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Text condensed and edited from a transcript of his Feb. 19 broadcast appearance on @YaleLive. (See video below.)

I'd like to ask you about an essay that you wrote as a schoolboy that was noticed by the administration of Richard Nixon. Tell us that story.

I grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts. It's a small town right south of Boston. And I was overlooking this beautiful wetland, teeming with wildlife, all kinds of birds and things, until the bulldozers rolled in. Now if you go up to where I was born, you will see nothing but glass buildings and banks and insurance companies. So I was furious and I wrote this essay because the EPA had just been founded and they were trying to popularize it and get attention. I wrote that essay as part of an essay contest, never thinking that I was going to be receiving some kind of recognition from Richard Nixon.

Do you still have it?

Oh, it's on my wall. If you go to my office here at Yale, you will see my plaque from Richard Nixon when I was eight years old.

You are often called the father of green chemistry. How did the term come about and what is green chemistry?

I'm very proud to be part of a worldwide community of folks that are doing green chemistry. “Green” conjures up images of the natural world, [and] in the U.S. it is also the color of our money. Really, what green chemistry is about is: How do you meet all of the goals of making things healthier for people and the planet, while at the same time meeting your economic goals?

Say more.

Everything we see, touch and feel is a chemical. Everything that is the basis of our society and our economy is made from a chemical. When we look at all of the positive that chemistry has done — revolutionized medicine, revolutionized agriculture, communications — that cannot be dismissed. But it also has to be recognized that we did it with a lot of unintended consequences. Green chemistry is simply saying we can do better. Design your products and your processes so that they reduce or eliminate hazards to human health and the environment.

How can green chemistry address climate change?

Alternative energies that are non-fossil based would be the key way that green chemistry is addressing them. Right here at Yale we have the Yale [Climate and] Energy Institute, and some of the work there, and even in my own lab, is looking at how you can split water to produce hydrogen as an energy source, and in the process generate water back as a byproduct.

Do you think that the science community could have done better to convince policymakers and the public of the significant threat climate change poses to civilization sooner? And how?

Communication is a tremendous challenge. The ability to communicate, the ability to make compelling cases in languages that people can understand, is a tremendous responsibility of the scientific community. You need to speak the language of the tribe you are talking to.

This question comes from Mark Johnson, who Tweeted it: “Should we change policy to [emphasize] disaster mediation [rather than] fossil fuel substitutes?”

Most folks realize that we are no longer talking about avoiding the effects of climate change. Climate change is here. I think John Holdren, who is the President’s science adviser, said it best: “We have to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.”  So, it's absolutely true that we need to be thinking about adaptation. But we still need to take every action available to us.

By Facebook David Kim asks about the role in climate change of energy consumption.

I am probably a little bit of a heretic in these discussions, because we are really not discussing whether or not we want to minimize energy use. We're surrounded by energy. We are swimming in energy. All that we have in this world and this universe is energy and matter. What we're talking about is not minimizing energy. That is really an impossibility. We're talking about the nature of the energy. Is it going to be renewable or is it going to be depleting? Is it going to be mined or is it going to be harvested? I am all for using potentially even more energy, as long as the nature of that energy is inherently more sustainable.

You are the director and founder of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale — give us a quick overview of the center and some of the projects that you are most interested in right now.

The center is focused on not just simply measuring, monitoring, reviewing or assessing environmental problems; it is saying, “What is the and therefore?” We have all of these challenges and therefore what do we do about it? It is not simply about doing basic research; it is about having those discoveries, having that awareness and translating it into products and processes so that those will either be new companies [or] new technologies.

What is it going to take for green chemistry not to be an alternative chemistry but the only acceptable chemistry?

I always say that we will know when green chemistry was successful when the term green chemistry goes away because when that is simply the way that we always do chemistry. The good news is that there are networks of green chemistry research and industry in somewhere around 35 countries around the world. The better news is all of that activity and all of that research, science, industry, represents perhaps 1% of the power and the potential of green chemistry.

Elizabeth Grossman asks: “Is a policy that does not include any requirement for inherently safer technology going to adequately prevent incidents such as the Freedom industry spill in West Virginia?”

The spill in West Virginia is an absolute tragedy and it is an ongoing tragedy. It is a shame that it makes a few headlines and then goes away when so many people can't drink the water. We've had, let's call it 40, between 40 and 50 years of environmental policies that tried to control exposure, set standards about, quite frankly, how bad you can be [without] breaking the law. That is an important step, to set a floor of how egregious you can be, but [it] is half a strategy. The other strategy has to be creating a race to the top. Can we pursue inherently safer technology? Well, that is what green chemistry has been showing over the past 20 years: You don't have to compromise on performance. You can have exceptional performance and still make sure that it is inherently safer.

Do you believe that our society here in the United States is, as a society, taking climate change seriously yet?

The short answer is not seriously enough. The short answer is no. When we look at the status quo, whether it is with climate change — where we are conducting an uncontrolled experiment on the only atmosphere that we have — whether we're talking about chemicals where we are allowing our products of daily use for individuals, for children, to be contaminated with things that are going to potentially cause cancer, cause reproductive and developmental effects, and somehow that is accepted, these are absurdities, historical absurdities that I believe we will look back on and say, “How could we have possibly accepted these things and taken these things in stride?”

I believe the status quo was somewhere between an absurdity and an obscenity that we allow these things to happen: contamination of our environment, changing and jeopardizing our children's health. I am a sworn enemy of the status quo, which is why I think innovation and sustainable innovation is the only path forward. So if we look at climate change, it is always viewed as something off in the future even though we're seeing it happening all around us now. When we look at many of these toxic effects, we think of them as happening to someone else. We need to change the status quo and we need to do it rapidly.

If there is one thing that you would like to leave the viewers with today, what is it?

That green chemistry, green engineering, sustainable design, it is all about innovation. It is all about the promise that creativity brings to us. We think that all that we have in this world is energy and matter. The truth of the matter is that is not all we have: We have creativity. We have spirit. We have innovation. We have commitment. And the power and potential of green chemistry, green engineering, [and] sustainable design is to get us off our current trajectory and do it in a way that is going to result in just a far better world.