The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 1

Interior of clothing store, wooden floor walkway flanked by mannequins, racks, and shelves of clothing.
Image by auntmasako from Pixabay.

The fashion and clothing industries both contribute to climate change, environmental pollution, and human exploitation. Across the world, perpetuated by wealth, and rampant consumerism based on false urgency to keep up with ‘trends,’ the massive overproduction of clothing is killing us and our environment.

Companies have men, women, and even children, working in dangerous conditions with low or no labor standards. They are kept impoverished by low wages. Companies use toxic chemicals in clothing production, and those chemicals end up in the final products. The clothing industry uses unfathomable amounts of water in production, in a world where there isn’t enough water for everyone. Later, that water is discharged, often into the environment, polluting water and soil. Mass amounts of energy are used to produce both natural and synthetic fabrics. Transporting clothing from developing countries to the west uses astronomical amounts of fossil fuels. Worse, there is so much clothing in the world now that we can’t find uses for all of it.

All this so that we can buy $5 t-shirts that we don’t need. It’s called fast fashion, and it’s detrimental on many levels.

Interior of an Old Navy, a clothing store.
Image by DigestContent from Pixabay.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on quickly producing high volumes of trendy but cheaply-made clothing.1 The term was coined by The New York Times in the 1990s “to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.”2 By the 2000s, brands were taking ideas from the top fashion designers and reproducing them cheaply and quickly. Other big names in fast fashion include H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop.

At one time, there were four seasons of clothing. Today, there are 52 “micro-seasons” per year. Fast fashion was artificially created. The demand “was carefully cultivated by fashion brands to change consumer behavior and make people want more and more, and quickly.”3 

But this disregard for quality has led to clothing going to landfills. “Constantly changing trends have encouraged consumers to discard clothing that’s no longer ‘in style’ even if it’s still wearable.”4 This is not sustainable.

“[Fast fashion] plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.”5

Exterior of the Zara store in Tokyo, taken at night, lit up and brightly colored with a large digital advertising screen at top center.
Photo by Comunicacioninditex on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ultra-Fast Fashion

There is an even faster fashion now, referred to as ultra-fast fashion. Brands include SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. It is a recent phenomenon that is as bad as it sounds.6Ultra fast fashion turns fast fashion’s ‘weeks’ into days and ‘dozens of styles’ into hundreds and thousands. The numbers alone sound sinister. Brands like SHEIN and Boohoo are reportedly posting thousands of new styles to their websites on a daily basis. Sometimes, knockoffs of trending celebrity and pop culture styles will appear online in as little as 24 hours.” Social media, influencer culture, and online hauls certainly stoked the fire in the creation of ultra-fast fashion.7

“A generation now views ultra-fast fashion’s historically low price points and disposable culture as the norm, with many young people considering garments worn out after only a few washes. This overproduction and quick disposal has exacerbated fashion’s waste crisis.”8

H&M Store, Times Square in New York City, photo taken at night with store and billboards bright and lit up.
H&M Store, Times Square in New York City. Photo by Will Buckner on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Wasteful Overproduction

Companies produce more clothing than can be consumed. Some companies trash or burn the excess. “An estimated 2.2 billion pounds of overstock and unsold clothing are landfilled or incinerated around the world every year, according to a 2018 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation…Two billion pounds of clothes is the equivalent in weight of 5 billion T-shirts, enough leftover stock to dress the adult population of the planet. In 2018, H&M announced that the brand was stuck with 4.3 billion dollars worth of unsold goods.” It’s not just fast fashion companies, either. The same year, the luxury brand Burberry was caught destroying excess clothing and accessories worth around $24 million.9 

A woman reaching for a handbag. sourrounded by racks of clothing in a clothing or department store. The clothes appear to be organized by color.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Environmental Costs

The world produces around 100 billion articles of clothing annually, and “92 million tonnes end up in landfills.”10 Fast fashion causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals.11 The fashion industry produces 10% of all carbon emissions and it is the second-largest consumer of water.12 

Clothing production requires tons of water. For example, it takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. Worse, “the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.”13 Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water as the wastewater from it is often dumped into bodies of water.

“The way we manufacture new clothes is truly unsustainable, commanding a staggering level of resources, especially water, chemicals, and fossil fuels, that can’t continue. Each year, clothing production requires 24 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill 37 million Olympic-sized pools. And the fashion industry spews more globe-warming carbon dioxide annually than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.” -Elizabeth L. Cline14

Stacks of blue denim jeans on a table in a clothing store.
Image by Linda Lioe from Pixabay.

Poor Labor Standards and Pitiful Wages

“Only 2 percent of the 40 million garment workers around the world earn a living wage – it effectively amounts to modern-day slavery.”15

Across the world, workers experience unsafe working conditions and low wages that are far below the minimum wage. Companies require garment workers to work long hours through forced overtime, often apply impossible quotas to their daily production, and sometimes even inflict abuse. They also expose workers to many chemicals and pollutants, which jeopardize their health. Unionization attempts and campaigns for improvements in safety, conditions, wages, sick pay, and job security are often barred by the threat of job losses and sometimes violence.16

The garment, textile, and footwear workers around the world deserve better. “Fashion is a powerful industry, one that can and should lift people out of poverty rather than trap them in it. It is a multitrillion-dollar business, with plenty of wealth to go around. And yet, according to Oxfam, the top fashion CEOs earn in four days what the average garment worker will make in a lifetime.” Increasing wages would require only a 1 to 4 percent increase in retail prices.17

“The difference in what it would cost for people to not to have to make these kinds of choices between paying rent and putting food on the table is less than a dollar per garment. Why in the world would any company choose every day to prioritize their profits and paying the lowest price possible over ending that kind of human suffering? Especially when it’s not complicated or unaffordable to fix it.” -Sarah Adler-Milstein, co-author of Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops18

Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies Swedish company H&M. Shows women sitting at sewing machines in a large factory room with a conveyor belt running through the center.
Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies H&M. Photo by U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

World Exports

World map showing clothing exports with monetary amounts.
Map courtesy of HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website.

Each of the following countries exports billions of dollars of garment products annually:

China:

China is the largest clothing manufacturing country in the world, employing over 15 million people, mostly women. Companies in this country pay the highest wages but that still does not equate to a living wage for all.19

List of companies that source their clothing from China.
List of companies that source their clothing from China. Screenshot from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturing country, but they are among the lowest-paid in the world. This is where the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse happened, which killed 1,134 and injured another 2,500 people. While “the disaster brought international attention to the alarming labor conditions in overseas garment factories,” only some improvements in safety issues came from it.20 H&M and the VF Corporations (Vans, North Face, Timberland, etc.) are two of the many companies sourcing from Bangladesh.21

India:

India employs millions of people but often under conditions of forced overtime, less than half of a living wage, and even child labor.22 There have been some improvements but many workers, of which the majority are women, experience physical abuse and sexual harassment. Companies sourcing from India include American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and VF Corporation. 

Vietnam:

Vietnam has a communist government that forbids labor unions, and wages are 60 percent below a living wage. There are around 6,000 textile factories that employ about 3 million people. Nike employs 450,000 people there.23 “Many of us are familiar with the news about Nike sweatshops, but they’re just one of the many fast fashion brands violating human rights for the sake of fashion. The people who make our clothes are underpaid, underfed, and pushed to their limits because there are few other options.”24 Zara and H&M are two of the major brands that source from there.

Cambodia:

There are about 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia. Women experience a great deal of abuse, sexual harassment, and low wages, which are 50 percent below a living wage. Many companies, including H&M, Gap, Nike, and Puma, source from there.25

“Brands are interested in getting clothing as cheaply and quickly as they can. They have consciously chosen to locate production in countries that do not enforce their labor laws. A factory that scrupulously complied with the labor law, respected the right to organize, paid all required wages, didn’t force people to work overtime: That factory will not be able to meet brands’ price demands. You can’t survive as a supplier unless you operate a sweatshop, because the brands are only willing to pay sweatshop prices.” -Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium26

Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh.
Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh. Photo by Musamir Azad on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Fashion Production in the U.S.

The United States produces little clothing domestically today: Less than 3 percent, which is down from 50% in 1990. “And a Made in USA garment is no longer a guarantee of ethical working conditions.” The largest part of the garment business is in Los Angeles, where there are approximately 45,000 garment workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. “A 2016 US Labor Department investigation of LA’s factories found that 85 percent of inspected factories violated labor laws. Workers are being paid as little as 4 dollars an hour sewing clothes for well-known fashion brands, including Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J.Maxx.”27 Another investigation found that companies paid sewers as little as $2.77 an hour.28 Even sadder, US garment workers are some of the highest-paid in the world.

Department store clothing mannequins showing clothing.
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay.

The Role of Companies

Companies have the power to make real, humane, sustainable changes. “It’s time for more big brands to step up to the plate,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “Big companies are the ones with the huge economies of scale that could bring down the price of sustainable materials and fund the research and development of eco-friendly innovations, from textile recycling and nontoxic dyes to factories powered by clean energy. They can certainly afford to pay higher wages.”29 But we consumers need to hold these companies accountable.

Fast fashion companies sometimes use greenwashing to make consumers feel better about purchasing their items. Greenwashing refers to when companies deceive consumers by claiming that their products are environmentally friendly or “have a greater positive environmental impact than they really do.”30 “Fast-fashion companies tell their customers that it’s possible to buy their products and still have a clean conscience. H&M has ramped up its use of organic cotton and sustainably sourced materials; Boohoo sells 40 or so items partially made from recycled textiles.” Aja Barber, a fashion-sustainability consultant, called this greenwashing in an interview with The Atlantic: “It’s like, ‘Oh look, these five items that we made are sustainable, but the rest of the 2,000 items on our website are not .'”31

“The issues are systematic: responsibility must travel up the chain to be shouldered by both the brands themselves for their commitment to keeping the cost of their products so low and by the consumers who have got used to paying so little.”32

Man wearing coat with "Sale" tags all over it, as well as shopping bags. Depicts shopping for clothing at clothing or department stores.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Our Role

“Fast fashion makes us believe we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction.”33

We’ve all supported it at some point, probably mistakenly. We found a great deal on a cute cardigan or funny t-shirt and bought it. Buying new clothes, especially when they’re on sale, brings pleasure to our brains. “This means of instant gratification from the fast fashion complex is a recipe for disaster for our brains, our wallets, supply chains, and the planet.”34 But we have to stop supporting fast fashion now. 

Think about the human factor. Every time we purchase from a company that does not follow ethical labor standards or pays poor wages, we are supporting the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. “We are rarely asked to pay the true cost of fashion. The pollution, carbon emissions, waste, and poverty our clothes create aren’t tallied up and included in the prices we enjoy. It does cost a bit more to do things the right way, to operate safer, well-paying factories and farms and to use longer-lasting, sustainable materials and craft more durable products. Ethical and sustainable clothing doesn’t have to be unaffordable, though,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline.35

We can do better. Follow my upcoming series to learn more about clothing production and learn what you can do differently. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

Large well lit clothing store with racks of clothing and stacks of shoes.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Additional Resources:

Article, “10 Fast Fashion Brands We Avoid At All Costs,” by Christine Huynh, Good On You, April 30, 2021.

Website, The Magazine of the Sierra Club: Elizabeth L. Cline author page.

Blog, Elizabeth L. Cline Books.

Publication, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, November 28, 2017.

The True Cost cover artFilm, The True Cost (2015)

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

Climate Change is no joke

Climate Change: A Timeline funny chart/infographic
Permission to use granted by the author, Brendan Leonard/Semi-Rad(https://semi-rad.com/).

Climate change is no joke, though I have to admit, the above comic is pretty funny – but too true to reality. We spent decades arguing about whether it was a real issue, though the science was always there. Then we argued about whether or not humans were inducing or speeding up climate change, though the science was always there. Then came oops, when we realized that the science was correct and had always been there. Now we are at f***, though the science was always there.

As scientist F. Sherwood Rowland, who with Mario Molina first predicted ozone depletion, said in 1989, “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

We wasted decades arguing. Decades when we could’ve put sustainable changes into practice, when climate change was a future problem, long before there was a crisis.

“The ice we skate is getting pretty thin. The water’s getting warmer so we might as well swim.” -Smashmouth, All Star, 1999

A polar bear, face palming, in a desert on a tiny patch of ice.
Image by Peter Schmidt from Pixabay.

Climate deniers

Ninety-seven percent of the scientific community agrees that the planet is warming as a result of human action, specifically from fossil fuel emissions. “The fossil fuel industry and their proxies in denier groups like the Global Climate Coalition have used the imagined disagreement in the scientific community as a public relations talking point for years. ‘Emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions’ and ‘urge a balanced scientific approach,’ reads an internal memo from Exxon in 1988,” Kale Williams wrote.

“A climate scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar. The denier says, bartender, show me your strongest whiskey. The bartender says, this one here. It’s 95 percent alcohol. The denier slams down his fist and leaves the bar in a hurry. The scientist says, you know, that’s the problem with these guys. You show them the proof, and they still don’t buy it.”

But the Weather Is Changing

“Cold weather is proof that the climate isn’t warming, they argue, but extreme weather on the other end of the thermometer – heat waves and droughts – doesn’t prove anything. They point to the fact that the climate has always changed, which is true, but refuse to acknowledge the rate at which it’s currently changing, that temperatures are predicted to rise twenty times faster over the next hundred years than they did during previous periods of warming. They cherry-pick data, choosing specific statistics that support a contrarian opinion, when all the data taken together points to a different conclusion.”

“Many, many volumes published by thoughtful people have covered the ways in which man-made carbon emissions are changing the environment and the planet we live on. I have no interest in reciting what is settled science. And the truth is, you don’t need to study the science to see its effects. In nearly every place I travel in the United States, people come up to me and discuss how different the weather has become, even in the last decade.”5

“We haven’t found a solution for climate change yet, but… …we’re definitely getting warmer.” -Unknown author

Black and white image of two men talking in a room, with an elephant on a pedestal in the room, in the background.
Image by David Blackwell on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Elephant in the Room

Few people seem to want to confront the fact that the Earth is largely overpopulated. We are now at 8 billion people across the planet, and that stretches the planet’s resources. Resources that we already overexploit and pollute. As Andrew Knoll, Harvard Professor of Natural History, wrote, “The very innovations that have allowed us to feed and clothe more than seven billion people now grip the Earth in an increasingly tight vise…agriculture now takes up half of Earth’s habitable surface, displacing plants, animals, and microorganisms that once thrived on these lands. We also challenge natural ecosystems through pollution, affecting air and water, soil and the sea. Of course, pollution exacts a human toll, be it unbreathable air in Delhi or undrinkable water in Flint, Michigan.”

Protest sign, Who Let The Smog out? Who, who, who, who?, as a parody of the song Who Let the Dogs out
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

The Earth Will Go On

We don’t need to save the planet; we need to save ourselves. We need to protect humans. The Earth will remain without us. Why won’t we do what we need to do to protect ourselves? As filmmaker and environmentalist Rob Stewart wrote, “We are our own asteroid. Our consumption of fossil fuels has released – is releasing – a store of carbon into the atmosphere that has been accumulating for hundreds of millions of years. Corals, plankton, predators: everything in the ocean is screaming at us to stop. If we don’t listen and take action right now, we could be witnesses to the death of most life on earth. We will be the cause of that death. What will survive are the hangers-on, the muck dwellers. The ocean – dark, barren and unproductive – will remain much the same for them. Over time they will evolve and very gradually repopulate. In millions of years, new animals will once again develop the capacity to build reefs, the oceans will neutralize themselves and life will return to normal.”7 The Earth has already gone through five mass extinctions, and it will survive our own extinction.

It’s Up To Us

We are the only ones that can fix our problems. At this point, it is unlikely that we can reverse the effects of climate change. But we can try to slow the avalanche of coming problems in the forms of sea level rise, weather extremes, and fossil fuel consumption. We can do it. As Nancy Knowlton, former Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote, “Big scary problems without solutions lead to apathy, not action…small steps taken by many people in their backyards adds up.”8 We have the power and we need to come together as a globe to save ourselves.

In the meantime, enjoy some additional climate humor! Maybe if we can laugh together, we can also work together.

Climate change is no joke, but climate change denial can be almost comical. This Gus Speth quote says it best:

“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” —Gus Speth, Author and Top U.S. Advisor on Climate Change

Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Climate Change, Simply

Polar bear on meting ice, batting around a plastic object.
Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash.

This photo is the typical emotion-evoking imagery of a polar bear suffering from the effects of climate change. I love polar bears, and I of course would like to protect them and all wildlife. But the hard truth about climate change is that if we don’t act and make big changes now, the Earth will become uninhabitable for humans. For us.

Save the Humans with a whale logo, Peace Resource Project
From the Peace Resource Project (not an affiliate link).

There is also the common phrase, “Save The Earth!” But the Earth will survive us, as it has survived 5 major extinction-level events already. It’s not the Earth that we need to save. It’s ourselves. We need to save the humans.

We are experiencing a climate change crisis. But I’ve discovered that there are many people who don’t really understand what climate change is or what it means. Climate change is a complicated combination of physical science, meteorology, oceanography, physics, and chemistry. But that doesn’t mean it has to be incomprehensible. So I thought I’d write an article that explained it, simply.

It’s basically a series of events that combined, will spiral out of control.

Demonstrator in a costume holding a sign with the message "Wake up humans, you're endangered too" at a protest against climate change and destruction of nature.
Photo by Ivan Radic on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

What is Climate Change?

Climate is the pattern of weather conditions over a long period of time. Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. It is a natural and gradual process, allowing life on Earth time to adapt to the changes. But human activities are making climate change happen faster than life can adapt.

The greenhouse effect is the natural process that keeps our planet warm, liquid, and habitable. If all the water on the planet was frozen or gas, nothing would survive. The balance of gases in our air traps the warmth in our atmosphere, keeping the temperature just right. But human activities have thrown off the balance of gases in the air, which is making the Earth warmer. Typically, some of the heat from the sun enters the atmosphere of Earth and then bounces back into space. But CO2 traps and holds heat, causing the Earth to warm.

On top of that, humans are releasing other, more harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, throwing the balance off further. These include methane from animal agriculture, F-gases (fluorine) from air conditioning, and nitrous oxide from fertilizers. This imbalance has resulted in global warming, which is the long-term heating of the Earth’s surface.

The ozone layer is a thin part of the Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs almost all of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. Think of it as a protective layer. The ozone layer is thinning because of the changes in greenhouse gases. The thinner the ozone layer, the more radiation and UV enter and warm the Earth. (Conversely, when less radiation and UV from the sun reaches Earth, the colder the global temperatures. This can happen when volcanic eruptions create huge clouds of ash and block the sunlight.)

What are humans doing to cause this?

Oil pump in a desert landscape.
Image by John R Perry from Pixabay.

It starts with carbon. Carbon is in all living things as well as in the air, rocks, and soil. Carbon dioxide, which is carbon and oxygen together, is the main cause of the greenhouse effect. The carbon cycle is simply the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to living things to Earth and the oceans and back to the atmosphere again. So when things die and we expend energy from dead animals and plants, such as burning fossil fuels, we release extra carbon.

Fossil fuels refer to coal, crude oil, and natural gas, which are made from the remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago. Coal comes from ancient tree trunks that were buried under many layers of rocks. Oil, or petroleum, was made from the remains of tiny sea creatures that formed a thick sludge on the seabed millions of years ago. That sludge also created chemicals that bubble out as “natural” gas. The burning of these creates energy that humans use to power machines and factories, as well as generate electricity. But when they are burned, they release carbon that was previously trapped and not part of the regular carbon cycle. This extra carbon is causing the greenhouse effect.

Eighty-one percent of the total energy used in the U.S. comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. “This is the energy that is used to heat and provide electricity to homes and businesses and to run cars and factories. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource and waiting millions of years for new coal, oil, and natural gas deposits to form is not a realistic solution. Fossil fuels are also responsible for almost three-fourths of the emissions from human activities in the last 20 years.”1

We are using up something that took millions of years to form in just under two hundred years. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Our careless use of fossil fuels has set us the greatest and most urgent challenge we have ever faced. If we do make the transition to renewables at the lightning speed required, humankind will forever look back on this generation with gratitude, for we are indeed the first to truly understand the problem and the last with the chance to do anything about it.” -Sir David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet

The Role of Forests

Forest trees with sunlight peeking through.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

Trees, forests, and rainforests absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. But we are cutting down thousands of trees and forest daily, a process referred to as deforestation. Deforestation not only depletes the oxygen released by the trees and plants previously there, but it also increases the amount of carbon dioxide released. When forests are cut down, the trees and plants release the carbon dioxide that was stored inside of them.

Forests maintain soil structure and moisture. Deforested areas become very dry and warm because there are no trees or plants to release water vapor into the air. This is called transpiration, which also helps keep the air cool and is sometimes called “nature’s air conditioner.” Trees also prevent erosion because their roots keep the structure of the ground stable. When trees are removed, that structure disappears and can allow landslides and floods to happen.

Also, forests of all kinds are home to thousands of plants and animals that lose their habitats during deforestation. Some animals will migrate, but many species die off as a result.

“From the 1950s to today, about one-fifth of earth’s forests have been cleared.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle2

The Role of the Ocean

Ocean with white clouds reflecting off of the blue surface.
Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, photo by me.

The oceans play a huge role in the climate and climate change. More than half of the Earth’s oxygen is produced by algae and phytoplankton that live on the ocean’s surface. The more we deplete the ocean of phytoplankton through global warming and pollution, the less oxygen is produced. The ocean also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about one-quarter of the CO2 that we create when we burn fossil fuels.

However, all that extra carbon is causing the ocean to become more acidic. This is called ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is contributing to the destruction of coral reefs. Additionally, warmer ocean temperatures are causing coral bleaching, which is essentially the death of the coral reef system. Coral reefs provide food to sustain about 25% of marine creatures; marine creatures that humans rely on for food and money. Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion and provide jobs for local communities through tourism.

“To date, the ocean contains 90 percent of the heat from human-induced global warming, and the year 2020 was the warmest ever measured for the global ocean.”- NASA3

The Role of Ice

Melting glacial landforms, ice falling into the water.
Melting glacial landforms, public domain photo from rawpixel.com, Creative Commons license (CC0 1.0).

Warmer ocean and air temperatures cause ice to melt. Melting permafrost (frozen ground) and melting glaciers releases greenhouse gases. Those gases that were previously trapped could further speed up global warming. Ice melt causes sea levels to rise.

Seas rose in the 19th century by half an inch. The 20th century saw almost 7 inches in sea level rise. In the first two decades of the 21st century, we’ve reached a rate of 12 inches per century, and it continues to increase. It will continue to spiral. Scientists expect another rise of 10 to 12 inches in just 30 years, by 2050.

Further, the more ice that melts, the less white reflective surface there is, thus heating up the Earth’s surface even more. Between rising heat, sea level rise, drought, and floods, millions of people will be displaced and have to migrate. This will put a strain on already overpopulated areas and food sources.

Climate Change Causes Extreme Weather

Large tornado, very dark clouds, over farmland.
Photo by Niccolò Ubalducci on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Climate change also creates more extreme weather events. This includes stronger storms, hurricanes, and tornados; more rain at one time and then flooding; drought in other places; and wildfires (to which droughts directly contribute). Our natural disasters are getting worse and more extreme.

Dr. Reed Timmer, an extreme meteorologist and storm chaser, has personally witnessed the impacts of climate change. As he explained to News24.com, “The impact of global warming is obvious with the hurricanes because the frequency is increasing so dramatically, especially over the last 10 or 20 years. The hurricanes are thriving off of the warmer ocean temperatures and intensifying as they’re making landfall, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Usually there’s a little bit of a ribbon of cooler water, or a lot of times those hurricanes will wrap in dry air as they’re about to make landfall in the Gulf of Mexico, which will cause them to weaken a little bit. But these days, they’re intensifying and ramping up.”4

Stoplight sign partially under water on a flooded street.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Other Climate Change Problems

The spiral effects of climate change are exponential. Here are a few more examples, though this certainly is not an exhaustive list.

Warmer temperatures allow insects to survive and thrive. For example, mosquitos thrive in warm climates and spread diseases. The warmer it is, the more mosquitos, and the more disease they can spread. Viruses, too, spread more quickly in warm climates, so we could see more pandemics in the future.

Harmful algal blooms are when algae grow out of control. Some can produce toxins that are harmful to fish, mammals, and birds. But even non-toxic algae depletes oxygen as they decay, creating dead zones in waters. Life cannot survive in places depleted of oxygen. Algae can also clog fish gills, and smother corals and plants. While algal blooms do occur naturally, their increase in occurrence and intensity results from human activities, such as human-induced global warming.

Wildlife suffers from climate change, too. Not only do they lose habitats from deforestation, pollution, wildfires, and storm damage, but they also have to adapt to changing temperatures and access to food and water. If we lose biodiversity, the health of our own habitat will suffer too. This will lead to a decrease in food and clean water for us.

Drought and severe flooding threaten our access to freshwater sources. Additionally, pathogens and waterborne diseases from extreme rain or snow melt flow could threaten drinking water supplies.

“The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.” -Sir David Attenborough

We Must Change

Person in a polar bear costume with a white t-shirt that says "Save Humans Too" from Oxfam International.
Photo by Oxfam International on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Our population is increasing exponentially. This is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Our population will keep increasing, putting stress on the land, food, water, wildlife, and other natural resources. The garbage we create and put in landfills releases methane and carbon dioxide into the air. The more people, the more waste we create.

Our lifestyles, especially in the western world, are not sustainable. We have to change and consume less – of everything. As filmmaker and environmental activist Rob Stewart wrote, “Our species has been here on this earth for 200,000 years, and in the last thousand, we’ve grown from 100 million people, to more than seven billion. We’ve created enormous advances, and lifted our species higher than anyone dreamed possible. But in the next hundred years, we face a problem so large it threatens our species as well as every other.”5

The solution to saving ourselves is to come together, as a globe, and make great changes. We have to set aside politics, commit to change, and put policies and procedures in place as soon as possible. We cannot keep setting far-off dates for goals and new practices. Waiting until 2035 or 2050 to worry about the climate change crisis isn’t going to help. We just don’t have that kind of time before it spirals out of control.

We need to consume less of everything – all of us. Save the humans! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

The Supreme Court is Wrong

Photo by Matthias Heyde on Unsplash.

I have mostly stayed away from writing about political issues on my website since I feel that political disagreement takes away from trying to achieve the greater good. But I feel that I can no longer avoid certain issues, especially since pollution and climate change should not be political issues. These are human issues.

In more than one way recently, the Supreme Court has gotten it wrong.

The Case

The Supreme Court recently ruled in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have the authority to issue broad, aggressive regulations on climate-warming pollution from power plants that might force many of those plants to close or rebuild. It potentially restricts other agencies from passing regulations to protect both the environment and public health.1

“The case was unusual because it focused on a program that wasn’t even in force: the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era federal regulation adopted under the Clean Air Act of 1970, which sought to govern greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.” The Clean Power Plan would have required utilities to move away from coal and toward renewable energy.

After a series of lawsuits from Republican states and the coal industry, the Supreme Court blocked the program in 2016 and it never took effect. “The Biden administration tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that there were no E.P.A. regulations in place for the court to consider. That didn’t work and, in the end, the court favored the plaintiffs…who argued that only Congress should have the power to set rules that significantly affect the American economy.”2

“It was the product of a coordinated, multiyear strategy by Republican attorneys general, conservative legal activists and their funders to use the judicial system to rewrite environmental law, weakening the executive branch’s ability to tackle global warming.” -Manuela Andreoni, New York Times3

Smog from a plant, obscuring the sunlight.
Photo by Alexei Scutari on Unsplash.

Greenhouse gases

The greenhouse effect is what it sounds like, in that if you have a covered garden, you are purposely trapping the heat inside. The Earth’s atmosphere does the same thing, as natural greenhouse gases trap heat and keep our habitat warm. However, human activities are responsible for unnatural increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 170 years. This increases the temperature across the planet, hence causing what we call global warming. “The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.” Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas, accounting for nearly 80% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “The main human activity that emits CO2 is the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) for energy and transportation.”4

Power plant in distance at sunset, emitting smoke, in Poland.
Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The electricity sector is the second-largest source of greenhouse emissions in the United States (after transportation). This accounts for 25% of the U.S.’s emissions. “Approximately 60% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.”5

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading scientific authority on global warming, explains that exceeding a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase would cause climate change’s worst impacts. This means more intense droughts, extreme heat, massive flooding, and the worsening of food shortages, wildfires, and even poverty. It also means the decline of all species. That includes a mass die-off of the world’s coral reefs which actually help regulate the oceans and climate.

Because since the Industrial Revolution, the Earth has already heated 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).

“The failure of the United States — the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in history — to meet its climate targets would very likely mean the world will not be able to keep global warming at about 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels. Beyond that threshold, scientists say, the likelihood of catastrophic heat waves, drought, flooding and widespread extinctions increases significantly.”6

Woman with sign on her back: "time is running out!" with an Earth depicted as a bomb.
Photo by Tobias Rademacher on Unsplash.

Running Out of Time!

We are running out of time to stall massive problems. Once global warming reaches a certain point, it will create a spiral effect. Several articles mentioned how the Supreme Court’s decision will limit “Biden’s plan” or “Biden’s goal” to reduce carbon emissions. But these are not Biden’s goals, nor are they simply goals. Reducing carbon emissions is a requirement! It is a necessary move that the entire globe – every developed nation – must make in order to save the people. We will not survive massive global changes, and we know this. If we want to live and see our grandchildren survive, we must change our ways.

Because we needed to start making these changes 50 years ago.

Reducing carbon emissions should be everyone’s goal, whether they like it or not.

It is not a Republican or Democratic issue.

It’s a human issue.

But the Supreme Court has punted clean air regulations to Congress, and we know that governing body consistently cannot get anything done. Our bipartisan Congress argues and filibusters and achieves nothing.

We don’t have that kind of time.

 

Footnotes: