Indiana State University Newsroom

Center for the Environment director speaks about the importance of Earth Day

April 30, 2009

Energy, carbon chain and bio-diversity challenges can't be solved separately because they're inter-related, according to a scientist who spoke at Indiana State University to help students celebrate Earth Day's 40th anniversary.

John Bickham, director of the Center for the Environment and professor for the department of forestry and natural resources at Purdue University, believes these are the three grand environmental challenges that scientists need to work on at global scale.

"We can do things on a regional and local basis but we also have to do things on a global scale," he said.

The first challenge scientists are studying is energy obtained from fossil fuels, such as oil, natural gas and coal. Scientists must determine the impact they have on the environment, Bickham said.

Energy from oil and natural gas isn't a sustainable process, he said, because the resource is limited and the impact it has on the environment and climate change.

"In a time of declining fossil fuels and concern about climate change, we have to do more than double our energy output," Bickham said.

Coal, a fossil fuel, could be used in the future since the United States has huge reserves in the ground.

"If we can capture carbon dioxide instead of releasing it into the air, it makes sense to use coal," Bickham said.

Scientists are also studying the carbon chain challenge, which is carbon dioxide's impact on climate change.

Bickham believes that in order to address the climate change issue, scientists need to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and stop greenhouse gas emissions.

"It is easier said then done," Bickham said.

The third challenge facing scientists is bio-diversity loss of animal species.

Bio-diversity loss becomes a complicated issue with no specific answer, but its causes are many. Loss comes from deforestation, over fishing, pollution, climate change, paving over habitat and humans.

"It is all about habitat loss and the thing that is driving it is deforestation," Bickham said. "In the tropics, forests are being cut down faster then anywhere else on the planet."

Scientists believe bio-diversity loss is an issue because extinction rates are a thousand times what they would be if humans were not driving the process.

"This is an environmental grand challenge which is almost invisible," Bickham said.

Bickham said scientists aren't sure how many species of living things there are and most organisms are going to go extinct before ever being known to science.

Scientists estimate there are anywhere between 6 million and 100 million species in the world.

At the current rate of extinction, up to two-thirds of the species of plants, animals and other organisms will go extinct by the end of this century, according to Bickham.

"It's hard to preserve something if you don't know it exists," he said.

Bickham explained that biodiversity, the range of organisms present in a particular community, isn't evenly distributed around the world.

"Biodiversity loss is an environmental grand challenge that is almost invisible," Bickham said. "Scientists believe there is a connection between bio-fuels and biodiversity loss because if the price of corn goes up, people are going to plant more corn."

Wood lots that were once wildlife habitats will be used to plant corn, according to Bickham.

"These sorts of activities will have a profound affect on wildlife habitat," Bickham said. "We try to solve the energy crisis by bio-fuels and that impacts the biodiversity crisis."

Bickham believes bio-energy, which is energy obtained from plants, will have an impact on bio-diversity loss.

Bio-energy will be an important component of the United States alternative energy economy because it will be a transition source, according to Bickham.

Liquid fuel will always have a market since trucks and airplanes will always need them, but cars can use alternative fuels.

"You have to determine if alternative fuels are environmentally sound," Bickham said.


Contact: Rusty Gonser, Indiana State University, assistant professor, at 812- 237-2395 or 

Writer: Marcie Brock, Indiana State University, media relations intern, at 812-237-3773.