Climate Change and Jobs

June 30, 2008

If you’re at all thinking of a career in the chemical industry, or if you already have a job as an industrial chemist (or if you’re a policy wonk like me), then I recommend you download a free copy of a new report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the World Resources Institute (http://pdf.wri.org/leveling_the_carbon_playing_field.pdf). Titled, “Leveling The Carbon Playing Field: International Competition and U.S. Climate Policy Design,” the report examines the possibles effect of various proposed legislation on energy intensive industries such as the chemical, refining, and paper industries, all major employers of chemists and chemical engineers.

One of the first things that struck me about this report is that the five most carbon-intensive industries other than petroleum refining, which includes cement, steel, aluminum, paper, and chemicals, account for only 5.6 percent of direct U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Yet these five industries would be hit disproportionately by either a carbon tax of $10/ton (the most common figure bandied about) or a mandatory cap-and-trade system. More importantly as far as employment goes, each of these industries would be put at a competitive disadvantage on the world market unless and until a global carbon reduction mechanism was put in place.

Fortunately, policymakers are aware of the potential impact of U.S. climate policy on these industries. The various pieces of legislation making their way through subcommittee hearings all include options for addressing the competitive impact of either a carbon tax or carbon trading scheme. These options include:

· Reducing the cost of compliance for U.S. industries that will be hardest hit;

· Imposing border taxes or other adjustments that would impose equalizing costs on competitive importers; and

· Encouraging other countries to impose similar costs on their industries

Unfortunately, what works for one industry may not work for others, say the authors of this report. And neither of the first two options is likely to work over the long haul unless the nations of the world can agree upon and enact an international framework for controlling emissions.

Back in March, leaders of the U.S. chemical industry testified before Congress that energy and raw material costs will skyrocket if mandatory limits are placed on greenhouse gas emissions. But that doesn’t mean that the industry is stonewalling efforts to craft such limits. Indeed, companies such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, BP America, and ConocoPhillips are members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition that has accepted the fact that regulation will occur.

What concerns the chemical industry the most is that legislation not prompt a wholesale switch to natural gas by the nation’s electric utility companies, which the industry believes – as do most economists – would send natural gas prices soaring even higher than they are today. And given that natural gas is a major feedstock for the chemical industry, any dramatic increase in natural gas prices would pummel the U.S. chemical industry.

While there are too many instances of industries crying wolf when it comes to climate regulations, I have to agree with the chemical industry on this one. Why? Natural gas prices have tripled since the late 1990s and according to estimates from the American Chemistry Council, more than 100,000 industry workers have lost jobs as their employers relocated to countries with cheaper natural gas.

The playing field has to be level. The future of jobs in the U.S. chemical industry depends on it.

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.

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BE A PART: ACS Careers Job Fair

Are you interested in speaking with employers to discuss employment opportunities? Perhaps you would like to brush up on your interviewing skills, find out how to write a winning resume, or get valuable information on various career management and development topics. The ACS Career Fair can provide all of these things and more!

The ACS Career Fair at the 236th National Meeting in Philadelphia will offer employment services in Hall D of the Convention Center, Sunday, August 17 through Tuesday, August 19 from 8 AM to 5:30 PM, and on Wednesday, August 20 from 8 AM to 12 PM. Job seekers and employers will be provided a venue to meet and discuss job opportunities.

The ACS Career Fair is open to ACS members and national and student affiliates. All job seekers must sign up online to participate from June 23-August 20, 2008 at http://www.acs.org/careers/jobseekers.

If you are not an ACS Member we strongly encourage you to join.

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Cancer Research Needs Chemists

June 9, 2008

Earlier this year, I attended an unusual meeting in Washington, DC, convened by John Niederhuber, a nationally renowned surgeon, cancer researchers, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Niederhuber, acting on advice from Anna Barker, the NCI Deputy Director who heads the Institutes many new technology initiatives, was interested in finding out if the physical sciences – physics, engineering, mathematics, and particularly chemistry – could contribute to the ongoing War on Cancer.

After two-and-a-half days of discussion, the question was no longer one of “if,” but one of “why,” as in why has the cancer research enterprise waited this long to actively engage chemists and their physical sciences sisters and brothers.

Of course, chemists have long been involved in cancer research, but mainly in a service role synthesizing thousands upon thousands of organic and inorganic molecules for testing as anticancer agents. Then they’ve gotten involved again when it comes time to mass-produce the occassional compound that shows promise and enters human clinical trials.

What the NCI is proposing is a radical change in how chemists and other physical scientists participate in cancer research. Instead of serving the needs of cancer biologists, Drs. Niederhuber and Barker want chemists, physicists, and the like to become drivers of cancer research, to lend a new perspective – an out-of-the-box perspective – to cancer research. Let me put it bluntly – the NCI wants YOU.

Talking with Dr. Barker during the meeting, I was struck with her success in driving home this point to NCI’s leadership. Though an immunologist by training, she has long succeeded as both a scientist and an entrepreneur by looking at a problem and bringing to bear whatever tools and talents were needed to find a solution, and this is another example of an open-mindedness that, should it pervade more of biomedical research would bode well for the future of medicine.

These days, I hear biomedical scientists give lip service to multi-disciplinary science, but for the most part, those same scientists then go back to their academic silos and keep plugging away in their disciplines, attacking what are increasingly difficult research problems using the same approach that they’ve always followed. In the cancer world, this has led to slow, incremental improvements in diagnostics and therapeutics, but face it, that pace isn’t good enough anymore.

Cancer is largely a disease of older age, and the population of the developed world is aging. Without a radical improvement in the way we diagnose and treat cancer, this collection of diseases will eclipse heart disease as the leading killer, with huge economic costs.

The National Cancer Institute knows this, and that realization is driving world’s largest funder of cancer research to seek revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances. It is that sense of urgency that prompted the NCI to lead the way in funding a huge initiative in biomedical nanotechnology, an effort that has already begun drawing chemists into the cancer research fold.

Kudos to the NCI for doing more than just talking about multidisciplinary research. The NCI is calling – will the chemistry community answer that call?

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.