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Ten Things You Should Know About Climate Change
10. Climate change encompasses the systematic changes that have been observed in the atmosphere, in the water cycle, and throughout natural ecosystems. We used to call it global warming—but it’s much bigger than that now. We’ve entered an era of extremes in terms of temperature, precipitation, and natural disasters. At a basic level, climate change is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere[i]. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. They act like a blanket over the surface of the Earth, preventing the sun’s heat from escaping. We couldn’t live without them, but recently levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen to the highest levels we’ve seen in over 800,000 years[ii]. Things are getting hot. Fast.
9. Electricity and heat production, at 25% of the total, contribute the single largest portion of globally emitted greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We burn coal and natural gas to heat our homes and to ensure the presence of the continuous electronic current flowing through the outlets in our homes. Whenever we burn anything, the process creates compounds called “products of incomplete combustion,” which include substances like carbon monoxide—another greenhouse gas[iii].
8. Agriculture contributes one of the largest amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere[iv]. When waste from livestock is decomposed, methane is emitted. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide emitted from your car’s tailpipe. Owners of feedlots, which are sometimes comprised of thousands of cattle, often need to build manure lagoons[v]. These man-made pools are filled with waste and function as hotbeds of greenhouse gas production. Additionally, fertilizers are applied to crops to provide them with the nitrogen they need to grow. In the process, nitrous oxide is emitted and destroys the ozone in the atmospheric layer above us. Ozone is the gas that protects us from the sun’s harmful, cancer-causing rays[vi].
7. Deforestation, or the clearing of trees for the purpose of using the land, is another heavy hitter when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases. Trees store carbon and when they are cut down, this carbon is released to the atmosphere. Indonesia has attracted a lot of attention recently for its ongoing deforestation of tropical areas rich in diverse animal species. Currently, one of the largest drivers of deforestation is palm oil production[vii]. Long-standing tropical forests are chopped down and replaced with oil palm trees, which will be harvested every 25 years. Palm oil, not unlike corn, can now be found in almost everything we eat.
6. Industry contributes 21% of global greenhouse gas emissions[viii]. Fossil fuels are burned to provide energy for the processes needed to produce goods and raw materials. Steel, for instance, is heated and forged into everything ranging from kitchen cutlery to trusses for bridges. Nearly every material good each of us owns was likely constructed in a factory and contributed to greenhouse gas emissions at one point or another in its production.
5. Transportation is the final major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Planes, trains, and automobiles emit a whole host of harmful compounds, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter[ix]. Sulfur dioxide is a major ingredient in acid rain production. Nitrogen oxides include nitrous oxide, which is the substance capable of depleting the ozone that we need to protect us from UVB rays. But nitrogen oxides also include compounds that react with sunlight to form ozone in the atmospheric layer closest to the Earth[x]. This is bad news. When ozone is produced too close to the surface of the Earth, it can cause serious human health problems. It exacerbates asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many other cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. Particulate matter poses similar human health hazards, but there is debate over whether it absorbs or reflects more sunlight and therefore contributes to climate change or lessens it.
4. NASA lists as evidence the major changes we are seeing here on Earth: sea level rise, global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining Arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme events, ocean acidification, and decreased snow cover[xi]. Each of these scenarios has deadly consequences for us, for animals, for ecosystems, and for the existence of a habitable planet. Sea level rise is predicted to destroy major coastal cities before the end of the century. Global temperature rise dries up rivers, and kills plants, animals, and humans. When oceans warm, the water contained within them expands and adds to sea level rise. Declining Arctic ice and glacial retreat continue to kill climate change’s multiple poster child species including the polar bear. Ocean acidification leads to species die-off, eliminates critical microbe communities, and exterminates our remaining coral reefs. Decreased snow cover causes such catastrophes as the serious freshwater shortage in California. Increasingly extreme weather events will cause devastating loss of life, habitat, and property. The Earth is enraged, and its fury is justified.
3. The Obama Administration’s current policy efforts include a bill known as the Clean Power Plan. If implemented, this plan will be the first piece of legislation to put a cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The Clean Air Act of 1970, which is currently the main law regulating emissions from energy producers, does not limit the carbon dioxide produced by power plants. It does, however, regulate particulate matter, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead[xii]. Monitoring these six pollutants was an important first step in improving air quality and reducing harmful environmental effects, but carbon dioxide emission regulations are now overdue. The Clean Power Plan is currently stayed in the Supreme Court pending the resolution of multiple lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The plan’s implementation is essentially halted until its constitutionality and authority are upheld. Twenty-nine states and state agencies, as well as more than 126 energy corporations, cooperatives, and working groups are adamantly fighting the provisions of the Clean Power Plan, citing “massive and irreparable harms upon the sovereign States, as well as irreversible changes in the energy markets[xiii].” The EPA has stated that they remain confident that the Clean Power Plan will be upheld in the courts, but this remains to be seen.
2. We can drive less, turn off the lights, use less water, consume less, and cut back in every possible way. We should and we must do all these things, but they will not be enough to pull us off of our current trajectory. Climate scientists and politicians have called for policies that essentially slam the brakes on our production. Taxing carbon as a means of disincentivizing energy consumption has long been proposed[xiv]. Measures like this would force us to make critical decisions about our priorities. They would make certain activities expensive and inconvenient, but they are crucial if we are going to prevent the untimely end of all that we know. Imagine how inconvenient it will be when major coastal cities are absorbed into the ocean before the end of the century[xv]? When we run out of land suitable for growing food? When mass migrations of humans away from flooded or newly desert landscapes lead to even more large-scale military conflicts[xvi]?
1. The effects of climate change are wide-reaching. It has been written that “the damaging effects of a changing climate do not discriminate[xvii].” While climate change disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic classes often due to their proximity to or employment in power plants, as well as their lack of access to quality healthcare, everyone does and will continue to suffer as a result of our deteriorating planet. Our situation is overwhelming and nearing irreversibility, but it’s not over just yet. Drastic changes are needed. In the face of our changing climate, we too must change. We need sweeping legislation, cooperation, and a deeper global sense of urgency. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington declared, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it[xviii].” He’s right. It’s also important that we realize that many of the solutions we have come up with to save our planet will also save so much more. In a 2011 speech to the United Nations’ 66th General Assembly, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth…these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security, and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all[xix].” The Earth has taken care of us for billions of years. Now it’s our turn to take of the Earth. It will take everyone and everything we have. In the face of the greatest challenge of our time, hopeful, conscious people across the world believe we can do this, and so should you.