The Earth is changing. The beginning of 2020 marked the end of the hottest decade so far; 2019 being the second hottest year ever recorded. What do we make of this? By now, we are all familiar with climate change. Yet, some claim it a hoax and deny actual changes happening to our planet. With all the changes that are happening rapidly to our environment and the very recent fires in Australia and floods in Asia, the so-called deception turned into reality. Albeit some very powerful figures encourage denial, we have to stop ignoring the damage caused by greenhouse gases and start acting towards stopping climate change.
By Maruša Romih
Atmosphere Filled with Greenhouse Gases
Those who claim climate change is a hoax will probably also tell you that all the greenhouse gases are produced by Earth naturally and overheating was inevitable, regardless of human activity. But was it? Nowadays, scientists can differentiate between the natural change in CO2 levels and the change caused by humans. It is the human share of carbon dioxide which is changing and damaging the environment. The natural factors are not steady, but they are not altering enough to cause such radical environmental changes. To simplify, greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere because of human inventions, needs, and desires are the cause of climate change, as the enormous amount of them traps heat and prevents it from leaving the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is the most obvious threat as it represents approximately three-quarters of all emissions. CO2 comes from burning gas, oil, coal, and solid waste. Then, there are also methane, nitrous oxide, and other industrial gasses, about which we seldom hear. Methane and nitrous oxide do not persist in the atmosphere as long as CO2. However, they are much more powerful in the span of 20 years. Methane is a component of natural gas. Hence, most of it comes from natural gas industries and agriculture. Agriculture is also the source of nitrous oxide due to burning its residues. Nitrous oxide comes from fertilizers, manure, and livestock as well.
The whole planet feels the impact of greenhouse gases: weather, plants, animals, people. Climate change affects weather patterns and creates new, preternatural ones, which have already lead to inextinguishable fires and devastating floods. Natural disasters are predicted to become more frequent and have a more severe impact. We can now witness both harsh winters with record precipitations in one part of the world and mild, spring-like winter months in the other at the same time. Summers have changed as well. The rapid transition between relatively low and extremely high temperatures happening almost overnight has been reported in many places. The atmosphere is getting warmer which contributes to the melting of glaciers and icebergs. With waters rising, there is less land. Living conditions are changing all over the globe.
People can always make their living environment more hospitable, but plants and animals do not have this choice. With their habitats changing or disappearing, species are shrinking. Some are on the verge of extinction. Blooming patterns of plants are changing. Some alpine flowers have died out in lower altitudes because the environment became too warm for them. In February 2019, The National Geographic published a piece on Bramble Cay melomys, the first mammal species extinct due to climate change. Many species will be forced to relocate to different areas which will result in entire ecosystems changing. Other species will adapt in different ways, as these new selection pressures encourage changes in their form that will allow them to survive. Various insects, pests, and germs find warmer temperatures favorable, which will affect farmers and food production. The change of climate will influence agriculture and the growth of crops. Food-supply chains will be interrupted or even broken. With the climate of certain countries drastically changing, they will not be able to sustain their food industries. Pesticides will have to become stronger and that furtherly coincides with the vicious circle of emissions.
We may be able to improve our living conditions, but escaping from polluted air is virtually impossible. This pollution is caused by coal and oil, cars running on gas, or the of burning waste, all of which result in tiny harmful particles being released into the air. We, in turn, inhale these particles. Just living and breathing in an urban area can lead to the damage of internal organs, dementia, diabetes, fertility issues, … the list goes on. Air pollution and smog, of which the worst example so far we probably witnessed last year in New Delhi, are major causes of respiratory diseases. Given the advantage of a warmer environment, many viruses and bacteria causing different illnesses will spread, develop, and mutate easier and quicker.
Denial and Obstacles
We cannot say that climate change is nonexistent, or at least we should not. We cannot say that we do not know anything about it, nor can we say that we did not. For about 200 years, humankind has been familiar with the fact that the atmosphere keeps the planet warm. These were Fourier’s calculations. Much later on, at the end of the 20th century, speculations about greenhouse gases staying in the atmosphere and preventing the exit of extra heat were corroborated by J. E. Hansen, an American scientist, who stated that the “greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.”
Some people still deny that greenhouse gases are culpable for climate change and global warming. They claim that climate change is a conspiracy of which the aim is to ruin the coal, oil, and gas industries. Unfortunately, many of those are powerful people who lead their lives far from the places that are now being affected. The rich will be the last ones to feel the consequences of climate change, as the price of commodities we now take for granted will rise. It will be easier for those with more money to afford them. So, while many sit in their offices looking at their revenues and pushing the facts about climate change aside, the world is collapsing behind their windows.
The way to a carbon-free future is long and full of obstacles. The roots of greenhouse emissions are deeper than it seems. Electric vehicles, for example, would reduce CO2 emissions, but the production of their batteries causes more emissions than the production of regular batteries. Then, there are raw materials, i.e. “conflict minerals”, necessary for the production of batteries for electric vehicles. This opens the question of unfair and child labor in conflict areas ravaged by violence and ruled by influential figures holding monopolies over areas rich with crucial minerals.
What Can We Do?
To reflect on recent events, climate change alone did not start the fires in Australia. However, the fires are being exacerbated by the conditions provided by the temperature change – warmer temperatures create drier grounds and drier vegetation which burns with more ease and much faster. It is in human nature to react when we are affected. When catastrophe struck in Australia, the world responded. The whole planet did not experience the effects directly, but so many people from all over the world tried to help. We have to do the same about greenhouse emissions. We have seen a lot of catastrophes, but what is yet to come? The world might be only whispering now, and we must not wait until it screams. We have to keep in mind that the sparks are seldom given as much attention as the fire, yet they are the ones which make the flames burn.
Some say we live on borrowed time, others that this is too drastic of a comparison. But is it? There will always be two sides to one story, but the fact is that there is not much more time, borrowed or otherwise, to make things better. The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Scientists are developing substitutes for fossil fuels and working on technologies that could contribute to decreasing the amount of emissions into the atmosphere. The importance of renewable energy is enhanced and preached on every corner, but many of it is still in the stages of development. It will take at least another three decades before we can completely rely on renewables. Except we do not have three decades.
Besides powerful people and corporations with great reach who can provide for a better world in a grant measure, there are measures that anyone can manage to follow.
The Importance of Awareness
It might take a climate scientist to comprehensively understand the overall effect of greenhouse gases, but it does not take one to notice the excessive levels of pollution we are generating and the environmental changes that are occurring. Nor does it take one to apprehend that these two things are connected, and we ourselves are to blame for these changes, as we have grown too comfortable with commodities available to us at the price of the greenhouse emissions of various sectors, from heavy industries to agriculture. There is also no need for a scientific background to understand that denial will not work and that inactiveness will surely exacerbate this already-grim situation with emissions.
We must start living consciously. We might not all care for the planet, the oceans, animals, and plants … but we do all care for ourselves. If we do not act towards saving the world, we will doom ourselves. Each individual has to start working towards reducing their carbon footprint. Carpooling. Choosing public transport over driving. Opting for walking or cycling. Conserving electrical power. Eating less meat. Not wasting food.
All of this might not seem much, but nothing does when one does it on their own. Sometimes, I think that there is no point in turning the light off when I walk out of the room or piling up vegetables in my hands to avoid taking one more plastic bag. But then I think that there must be millions of people out there who think the same and still do it. This is what should keep us going. Yes, we are small. The difference we make is small. Yet, if we decide to channel the individual resilience and determination into collective awareness, we can turn the course of climate change, get back on the green track, and do the world a favor. We have to start eagerly working towards actively cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This is the only way to restore the balance that can save our planet and ourselves. There is no alternative. We must conserve the environment, protect our food sources, endangered species, and the entire world population. Only no emissions can safeguard a sustainable future, and only a sustainable future can save the world.