Every person alive today is living in a time of enormous stakes and controversy around climate change facts. It may not always seem that way when we go about our daily lives. Occasionally we’ll check in with the news and hear about the reality of our world. The insignificant gossip, heartfelt stories, tragic accidents, and nefarious crimes all have our attention. However, arguably above all of that is climate change. Despite this, we can’t seem to have any unified action.
WHAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE?
The alleged new buzzword of the younger generations and trigger for controversy, climate change has been getting attention. While it isn’t a new phenomenon at all, much of the world’s population is now being mobilized to think about it. The newest generation of students are growing up in a world that is aware of climate change and have been educated about it in school. Understandably, this makes it much easier for them to accept climate change than the older generations that make the laws of their world.
So what is climate change and why are we fighting over who’s right about it? Climate change is a word used almost synonymously with global warming but does differ somewhat. Global warming means the rise in global temperatures as a result of human activities. However, climate change encompasses this and is used to describe both global warming and the effects that result from it. These effects include changes in precipitation patterns, loss of sea ice, accelerated sea-level rise, and intense heat waves.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
The thing that immediately comes to mind when one hears about global warming is greenhouse gases. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which are the greatest human cause of global warming. These gases do as their name suggests and trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This had led to surface temperature rises, which are especially noticeable in the Arctic and result in melting glacier and sea ice. Hotter temperatures additionally increase rain and snowfall as well as causing droughts and wildfires. Humankind can expect to see crop scarcity, rising sea levels and the loss of sensitive ecosystems, like coral reefs, due to climate change.
The scary reality of global warming is that these effects will outlive us. Even if we take action immediately, the components of this global emergency will stick around for millennia. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouses will persist while the glaciers will take their time to return. Our actions have consequences, and as usual, they aren’t always easy to fix.
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IS IT REALLY OUR PROBLEM?
What is the controversy surrounding climate change and why has it been so hard to come to a consensus on it? For decades, the legitimacy of climate change has been argued. One side has always argued for the need for urgent action to combat irreversible damage due to global warming. The opposing side has maintained that the extensive and arduous changes that would need to be implemented would be for naught. In the case that climate change isn’t as baneful as scientists say it is, the economic and developmental adjustments made would be regressive.
However, the science is hard to ignore. Scientists have backed up climate change facts with data for decades now. NASA reports that 97% of scientists are in consensus that global warming trends seen in the past 100 years are caused by humans. The majority of the major scientific organizations around the world have also issued public statements supporting these climate change facts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that there is a 95% chance that global warming is due to human activity. They further attested that this trend has been occurring since the mid-20th century and is happening at a rate that is unprecedented.
WHAT ARE WE DOING?
Our everyday actions have broad resounding ripple effects on the world we live in. Today more than ever, humans are demanding more from our planet than it is able to provide. The advent of the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the technological revolution have given humans more resources than ever. We consume good at an absurdly unsustainable level and have adapted to lifestyles that promote this.
A major perpetrator of this convenience culture is plastic. The convenient, cheap, and lightweight material that quite literally hold our lives together has been disastrous for the environment. Made from fossil fuels, plastics release greenhouse gases throughout their lifetimes. For starters, the extraction process of their fossil fuel ingredients itself releases tons of carbon. About 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of CO2 are emitted per year while extracting and transporting natural gas in the United States alone. This process then continues as more greenhouse gases are released during transportation, refinement, manufacturing, and waste management. That isn’t where their effect ends either. It has been found that microplastics found in the environment hindered the growth of algae and their photosynthesis. This limits the natural process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
OUR FOOD AND CLIMATE CHANGE
While the majority of the world’s greenhouse emissions come from fossil fuels, there is also an unexpected source in agriculture. According to the EPA, agriculture is responsible for 9% of emissions in the United States. Out of that, livestock accounts for about 4%.
However, livestock mostly contributes to global warming through deforestation. Acres of forest land is converted into agricultural pasture land for growing feed crops and housing livestock. This island that would otherwise sustain trees that would be pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. An unexpected source of greenhouse gases in the production of methane from ruminant animals like cattle. Ruminants also produce more methane than other livestock animals do. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization stated that the livestock sector is responsible for about 37% of human-caused methane emissions, and about 65% of human nitrous oxide emissions. Beef farming is also particularly resource-intensive in terms of land and water.
WHAT DOES CLIMATE CHANGE MEAN FOR DEVELOPED COUNTRIES?
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you live in a city or other urban environment. You also leave a carbon footprint on whether or not you always realize it. After all, what draws most people to the city aside from opportunity are the avenues to eat, shop and, travel. However, this heavy consumerist lifestyle really adds up to produce a detrimental effect on the environment.
However, people living in more developed cities have access to more resources. This offers plenty of opportunities to cut down on emissions. City dwellers also have access to more lifestyle options that they can use to be more responsible citizens. For example, by simply changing their diets to include less meat and shopping less, city dwellers can significantly reduce their carbon footprint.
Not only is it possible for these citizens to take greater responsibility, but it is a must. According to the United Nations, cities are accountable for up to 70% of greenhouse emissions. Additionally, the wealthiest of the wealthy tend to live in big cities. These people usually consume more since their lavish lifestyle can afford it, but ultimately results in larger carbon footprints. In fact, consumption-related emissions will likely double as cities grow to be bigger and wealthier by 2050. Therefore, we can not ignore urban environments when trying to tackle climate change.
Unfortunately, ignorance is bliss for most city dwellers. The worst effects of climate change like drought and flooding affect populations that are the least responsible for it. Less developed countries often suffer from the actions of the more affluent nations whose citizens rarely see direct consequences. We live far away from the problems we create and thus lack the urgency to deal with the situation.
THE POLITICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The big question still remains about who’s responsibility it is to tackle climate change. While there is strength in numbers, the general public has not been successful in mobilizing behind a concerted effort. We dictate the demand for products and services but are usually too busy arguing amongst each other to address anything. This is when people make the case for governments being responsible for setting laws and regulations to drive climate change solutions. However, global warming means different things to governments than it does to individuals. They too have a harder time coming to a consensus, despite the greater power they have over the matter.
UNSG Climate Action Summit held this September was unfortunately not fruitful in producing cohesive climate change solutions. The world leaders that were present were too distracted by their own economic, social and security issues to be focused on climate change. Hurdles from events like Brexit or the US-China trade war served as reasons to not focus on possible climate change solutions. Unfortunately, world leaders may never lack distractions to combat climate change, that is, if they believe in it first. This is where the push from their citizens can change things. More and more protests, like Extinction Rebellion, for definite action, are being led by citizens. Furthermore, more leaders in finance, agriculture, tourism, and real estate have realized that their industries are vulnerable to climate change too.
It’s up to them and everyday people to demand action on climate change when meeting politicians. Lastly, reducing our own impact across the world can be the concerted effort we need to make a difference.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Naturally, the obvious way to combat global warming would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions directly. However, we as a society would need to go much further than that, as the answer is rarely that simple. For starters, countries would need to band together to work towards climate change mitigation under a common framework.
In the meantime, individuals can have great impacts on their actions as well. We need to re-evaluate our habits and what we really value when it comes to our environment. Which habits and goods are worth their carbon footprint and what can we adapt to live without? Manufacturers also need to focus on extending the lifespan of their products to limit what ends up in landfills. Better built electronics, higher-quality clothing, and sustainably sourced foods are all goods we can personally seek out. Every purchase we make as individuals is a vote for what we demand manufacturers produce. Therefore, the average person can drive change, slowly yet surely.
The reality of our future is uncertain. It may seem overwhelming and sometimes not worth the effort, but humanity deserves a chance at survival. We may always have our differences but it is pertinent that we are able to address what global warming means to our way of life. Climate change is something that will not be going away for quite some time. Failure to act now is simply failing our future. Accepting climate change facts and working toward solutions to better our habits may very well be our best shot.
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