Many techniques promise to mitigate global warming — planting forests, nuclear power, bioethanol, and cars with better gas mileage, to name a few. The problem is so enormous and the potential adverse effects so disturbing that we may have to simultaneously implement all available solutions to make the slightest dent in rising carbon dioxide levels.
Unfortunately, we are often slaves to preconceived notions such as “complex problems require complex solutions.” Take the surprising trade-offs between even the most technologically advanced solar panel and plain white paint. Which product would make you a better environmental citizen?
To arrive at an answer, consider the following:
Our sun illuminates the earth with a steady 1,350 watts per square meter. Some of this energy is absorbed by the atmosphere, some is reflected back into space, and some makes it to the earth’s surface, where it might be absorbed or reflected as well. A black earth, like a black leather car interior, would be very hot indeed. Fortunately, white clouds, polar ice caps, and even deserts keep the earth’s average reflectivity [“albedo” to planetary scientists] at around 30% — giving our planet more of a beige leather interior, so to speak.