Be a Climate Hero

Act Up, Act Now



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At any given moment, there are a thousand things going wrong in the world. If we were to list just major environmental problems alone we could go on for a long time, citing everything from toxic contaminants in our food to the scarcity of safe drinking water.

This past summer, we all stared in horror at the slowly blackening Gulf of Mexico as the Deepwater Horizon oil slick spread on and below the water’s surface. Making such a list is such a depressing exercise that the temptation is to just walk away from the task. We might feel like a surgeon at a wartime field hospital, forced to do major triage. Where do we turn first?

The half-good news is that our planet’s mounting environmental troubles aren’t isolated, individual casualties. If we can figure out what the keystone is, then we can collectively start to work to cure a bunch of the most pressing problems at once. By the same token, if we guess wrong, we can labor for years to correct a particular woe, only to have our hard work overwhelmed by the underlying infection.

Based on the scientific evidence, I think it’s pretty clear that the most crucial of all the complex issues we face today revolve around the cause-and-effect relationship of burning fossil fuels and the accelerating changes in Earth’s climate. In short: If we can’t deal with global warming, nothing else we do will really matter. To put it more positively: If we can remove the needle from our arm that feeds society’s addiction to petroleum products, many of our other troubles would begin to wane.

Signs of the Times

Let’s start with the hard stuff:  Global warming is the first crisis we’ve ever faced that has the potential to shake our civilization to its core. So far, human beings have burned enough coal, gas and oil to raise the temperature of the planet about one degree Fahrenheit. That’s already been enough to cause all manner of troubles:

  • The Arctic icecap is melting, and quickly. By summer’s end in 2007, a record-setting year, the northernmost continent, which moderates air and water temperatures for the whole planet, contained 25 percent less ice than the year before. As of this writing, the 2010 melt was outpacing that of 2007.

Scientists now routinely predict it won’t be long before we’ve seen the end of Arctic summer sea ice altogether—that is, the world as viewed from outer space would be without its familiar white top. Worse, it’s not only the Arctic; pretty much every other geographic area that’s frozen is melting as well, perhaps most dangerously in the high-altitude glaciers of the Andes and Himalaya mountains, historically relied upon to send water, respectively, to the South American and Asian continents below.

  • The Earth’s hydrological cycles are undergoing a dramatic shift. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the general atmosphere is about 5 percent moister than it was 40 years ago. This means more evaporation, hence more drought, in arid areas.

 But on the rest of a planet, where what goes up must come down—we’re witnessing extraordinary increases in flooding. This year, for example, we’ve seen record (and lethal) rainstorms in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas, just within the 1.5 percent of the planet’s surface comprised by the continental United States.

  • Overall, temperatures are rising to near unbearable levels as that single degree average increase on the thermometer reverberates in savage heat waves. This past spring, India experienced weeks of record temperatures that beat anything recorded since the British started measuring them in the early 1800s. Early this summer, seven nations smashed all-time temperature records. In Burma, the mercury set a new all-time record for Southeast Asia, at 118 degrees. In June, Pakistan went on to establish a new benchmark for the highest temperature ever recorded at any time, anywhere in Asia, of 129 degrees.

 All of this is due to a single degree of global temperature increase. The climatologists have warned us that if the United States, China and other countries don’t make a super-swift transition from the use of coal and oil, the world’s collective temperature will climb something like five degrees before the century is out. If one degree melts the Arctic icecap, we don’t want to see what five degrees looks like.

So, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.

Alternate Scenario

Let’s imagine we took the most significant step we could to speed the worldwide transition off of fossil fuel. Let’s imagine that the U.S. Congress and the United Nations managed to agree on a national and international scheme to set stiff pricing on coal and oil that accurately reflects the damage these fossil fuels are wreaking in the atmosphere. If that happened, then many other things would follow.

The most obvious is that we’d see lots more solar panels and wind turbines. Suddenly, anyone with a spreadsheet would be able to see that it no longer makes sense to invest in a coal-fired power plant. Anyone building a new apartment complex would immediately understand that it’s in his or her best interest to install solar hot water tubes on the roof. In China, the world leader in total energy use, yet also in renewable energies, 250 million people now get their hot water this way. But, such a simple and effective solution still has to fight against the force of economic gravity there, as elsewhere. As long as coal-fired electricity is absurdly cheap, renewable energy sources will stay marginal.

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