The news these days is dire, and it comes at us in all directions. We shouldn’t drive our cars, drink our water or dry our clothes. It’s all bad for the environment, we’re told, but many of us aren’t sure how.
If you are unfamiliar with the various environmental issues and concerns, it can be an overwhelming task to educate yourself. What is global warming? Why are landfills bad? What difference does water consumption make?
In this chapter, we hope to give you a very basic education about environmental issues. The issues are complex and always changing, but here we can at least provide you with enough basic information so that you can speak intelligently about the issues and when you choose to take a shorter shower, you’ll understand why you have made that choice.
Keep in mind that while the issues might seem complicated, at their core they really are not. It all comes down to the basic issue of considering Mother Earth and what’s best for her. Sometimes when you synthesize things down to their most basic, we see their core issues.
When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves.
A brief History
Though these issues are getting a lot of press these days and the crisis has escalated to what many are referring to as of immediate concern and import, the issues have long been brewing. Those interested in environmental concerns have been arguing for many years that our time here on Earth is limited if certain measures – global-wide measures – are not taken.
In fact, in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia residents urged the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop dumping waste and to close tanneries. In the 1800s, the concept of being close to nature became popular thanks to the efforts of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.
Though the concepts weren’t yet clearly defined, in 1949, “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold was published; it has often been called the greatest worldwide influence on conservation.
The 1962 book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, an American biologist, was one of the first intellectual examinations of our air quality. She examined the use of DDT spraying in the United States and questioned whether such indiscriminate spraying was appropriate without knowing the environmental consequences.
The resulting public concern arising out of Carson’s claims led to the development of the Environmental Protection Agency. Within years, other “Earth friendly” groups were formed worldwide, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.
All along, many scientists have been backing up this idea that the Earth’s resources are being depleted, that we are not taking necessary measures to ensure that the Earth is habitable for future generations. Those “future generations” did refer to those in hundreds, or thousands, of years, but now refer to our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
Throughout the world, there have been environmental groups and efforts, including the Chipko movement in India (where the term “tree huggers” came from) and the efforts in London for hundreds of years to reduce smog.
The end result, however, is that we have now reached the stages where all these ideas – fewer pesticides, fewer vehicles, saving trees, returning to nature – must somehow be brought together into a cohesive, “let’s save the Earth” philosophy.
Global warming is essentially the release of gasses into the atmosphere that are slowly raising the Earth’s temperature. That temperature shift, then, results in the hastened melting of the Earth’s glaciers and ice peaks, leading to a rise in the sea level and the erosion of our shores.
Global warming is a very complicated topic, but one that has gotten a lot of press lately. No matter your knowledge or ignorance of the various environmental issues, you likely have heard this term, seen the news and begun to understand somewhat about the significance of it.
According to scientists, this shift in the Earth’s core temperature has been coming for some time, but in recent years has significantly sped up.
Experts say that global warming has come about due to the significant increases in greenhouse gasses in recent years. But the “Greenhouse Effect” is not a new term.
In 1824 Joseph Fourier first discovered this concept of greenhouse gasses and it was further, scientifically, examined by Svante Arrhenius in 1896.
The “Greenhouse Effect” is believed to be the cause of global warming, so let’s look further at it.
To truly understand the Greenhouse Effect, you must first be willing to wade through some scientific concepts.
The sun provides energy to the earth, though 30 percent of the sun’s energy is reflected back out from Earth. The remaining 70% is absorbed by the Earth, warming the lands, oceans and atmosphere.
That 30% reflected back out is trapped in what’s called “greenhouse gasses”. These are necessary and when we talk about the “Greenhouse Effect” we are really talking about an enhanced greenhouse gas problem. That is, we are emitting more gasses into the atmosphere via fossil fuels, clear cutting of lands, and the like.
The greenhouse gasses that occur naturally are actually beneficial but are created perfectly in balance in nature. As we, humans, add more gasses into the atmosphere, those gases are also trapped, and add more heat to the natural heat put off by the greenhouse gases.
In fact, experts say, that without the natural greenhouse gasses, the basic temperature of the Earth would plunge to about minus 18 degrees Celsius, or 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The Earth’s temperature instead is naturally set at about 16 degrees Celsius, or 60 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to the beneficial warming from the sun.
There are several causes of the enhanced Greenhouse Effect we are now experiencing, with the major causes likely water vapor (accounting for 36-70% of the Greenhouse Effect). Carbon Dioxide emissions are the cause of another 9-26% (mostly coming from fossil fuel burning for coal and oil for cars, and deforestation).
Methane is also a contributor, at a rate of about 4-9% as is ozone, which is responsible for 3-7%.
The concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere have increased significantly since 1750, before the age of industry. It is reported that carbon dioxide levels have increased 31%, while methane levels have increased 149%.
As we drive bigger cars and keep our large homes warmer, we send more and more of these gasses into the atmosphere to join the naturally occurring Greenhouse gasses, which in turn heat up the planet further. Hence, we begin to understand the efforts to encourage people to change their habits.
Currently, however, it’s been slow going for environmentalists, who warn that Global Warming is an ever present and ever dangerous condition. But yet much of the world remains unconvinced.
What’s the Effect?
Scientists have reported that during the last 100 years, the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has risen in small measure, but since the 1970s the Earth’s surface temperature has risen by 1 degree Fahrenheit.
This change is reflected in our weather, with minimum and maximum temperatures both adjusting upward. Experts say that our minimum temperatures have risen the fastest and average temperatures in the Arctic over the past 100 years have risen at a rate twice as fast as other global locations.
These warmer temperatures have led to rising sea levels, because the warmer weather leads ice caps and glaciers to melt at a swifter pace than they would if the natural Greenhouse gasses were left as they naturally occur.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the world’s sea levels have increased an average of 4.8 to 8.8 inches (12-22 centimeters). This, then, is causing us to lose precious land to the rising ocean tides.
Also, according to the EPA:
Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Thailand are experiencing above-average increases in sea levels, while
Northwest Australia is reporting below-average rises in sea levels, something also reported in other areas in the ocean between Western Australia and East Africa.
Many of the areas outside of Europe, Japan and the United States have too few tide gauges for scientists to determine the overall and lasting effect of sea levels in other locations.
As our seas rise, our lands are depleted, and that, experts say, is the problem. What state are we leaving the planet in for our children, their children, their children’s children? This no longer a problem for some far off generation, but today’s generation and the generation we are raising.
The Kyoto Protocol is an international effort to reduce greenhouse gasses by encouraging countries around the world to sign the protocol and pledge to control its emissions.
Created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the protocol requires participating nations to reduce their emission of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gasses. If their levels maintain or are increased, they must engage in emissions trading.
The UNFCCC held a conference in Bali the first two weeks of December, 2007 at which 187 countries agreed to progressive and aggressive measures to reach an international climate change deal.
Issues to be negotiated until 2009 include ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and methods for adapting international efforts and response to the effects of negative climate change, such as floods and droughts.
The discussions will be continued to 2009 so that new measures can be in effect by 2013, when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires.
By November 2007, 137 developing countries (including China, Brazil and India) had signed the protocol indicating they will monitor and report emissions.
The Bali agreement is a major step forward in the international effort to encourage countries to address the mounting climate change issues and experts hope it’s just one step toward many more, since as the world’s population increases, the various climate issues will also exponentially increase.
A recent study of China and India, in particular, indicate that if both countries as they develop further don’t effectively control their global footprint, it could have devastating consequences.
The Kyoto Protocol is designed to create global education among countries about the depletion of the Earth’s resources and the role each world resident and each country can have on mitigating the devastation. That significant Bali decision is just one step forward and we can hope there will be many more.
What about us?
There are many other environmental issues you can be aware of and concerned about – from our landfills filling up at an alarming rate, to deforestation.
These are all things we’ll talk about in future chapters – how you can impact the problems in a positive way with the many daily choices you make. But many of these concerns also play into global warming, because when you give away instead of throw away your clothes, you give people an opportunity to buy your clothes instead of increase the demand for new clothes. When you put a filter on your faucet and drink tap water instead of bottled water, you help to keep the plastic bottles from the landfill and help to reduce the gasses those landfills emit into the air.
But you might still get a sense that your efforts on a local level might not make an impact. But they do.
Let’s look at water. On a local level, it’s important to conserve water because your municipality’s reserves might be drying up, but globally, what difference does it make?
It takes a good deal of electricity to clean water to make it potable for showers, drinking, preparing food, etc.
Most energy generation systems burn fossil fuels to run. Fossil fuels are believed to be one of the main contributors to global warming.
On the other end of things, many energy generation systems are operated through the use of water. As water resources dry up and droughts become a major concern, this could create a problem as our demand for energy increases each year. Reducing your energy usage, then, is also good for the environment.
What difference does your car make, really? You’re just one vehicle, after all, and your one car surely can’t make a difference. So you’ll stick with your big SUV, thank you very much.
Let’s look at the facts. Let’s say hypothetically you drive a 2005 Chevy Tahoe. This is a large vehicle that gets about 13 miles per gallon in the city and 17 on the highway. Although this vehicle creates more pollution in the air and costs more money to fuel, it is still one of the most popular vehicles in the United States today.
According to the EPA, if you drive the average 12,000 miles per year, you are emitting 16,337 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air each year. By switching to even just a hybrid Tahoe (available first in 2008), you could reduce that emission by more than 5,000 pounds a year. Better yet, switch to a smaller car and take that emission reduction even further.
You can make a difference.
One of the primary goals of environmentalists these days is to not only convince people that they can make a difference, but to educate people. If you aren’t well versed on the issues, it’s hard to understand how you can take that knowledge and turn it into action.
That’s what we’re here for. Keep reading; this course is full of useful, hands-on actions you take on a daily basis in your life to make a difference.