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:

The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 1

Colorful plastic bottles, from products such as shampoo and household cleaners.
Image by ds_30 from Pixabay

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum.

I have found that most people don’t know that, or don’t care to know. Many plastics are full of potentially toxic chemical concoctions, and knowing what makes up plastics is key to understanding how dangerous those chemicals are. Once you know that, it’s hard to understand why would the FDA, EPA, and other government regulatory agencies allow them to be used in, well…everything.

The short answer is, they just don’t regulate that many chemicals.

But plastics are all around us in everyday life, and thus we are regularly exposed to these chemicals. This is one reason I’m anti-plastic, at least in the way we overuse and overconsume it in daily life.

How Plastic is Made

Colorful plastic nurdles close-up.
Plastic nurdles. Image by feiern1 from Pixabay

“Most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking.” -Jennie Romer, sustainability expert and attorney1

Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and natural gas. It is then processed at a refinery into ethane and propane. Next, they go to what are called cracker facilities that “crack” or break down these molecules. They turn ethane into ethylene, which is a building block of most common plastics. Propane becomes propylene. They are mixed with a catalyst, or chemical additive, that links the molecules together and forms polymers. Polymers are long, repeating chains of molecules that are chemically linked, or bonded, together. Harken back to chemistry class and this process is called polymerization.

But “polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain a multitude of chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility, toughness, color or resistance to UV light.”2 This process forms different resins, or types of plastics, and are generally categorized by Resin Codes (those little numbers on plastics with the recycling symbol around it).

Oil pump with bright blue sky and white clouds background
Image by John R Perry from Pixabay

Plastic is Toxic

These chemical additives are usually what is most harmful to our health and the environment, as they leach over time and under certain conditions such as heat or UV exposure. Additives include dyes, “fragrances” or phthalates, plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA), fillers, fluffers, hardeners, stabilizers, lubricants, fire retardants, blowing agents, antistatic chemicals, and even fungicides and antibacterial agents. “Imagine that, plastics eerily designed to repel insects and bacteria, just like genetically modified cotton or corn!” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, founders of Life Without Plastic.3

Many chemicals are not even regulated. For example, the FDA banned BPA from infant formula packaging, baby bottles, and sippy cups in 2013 because of its toxic leaching. But, there is a whole family of other bisphenols and most of those are still in active and legal use.

Plastic is often intended for single use only because the toxins leach out over time into your water, food, or product. As Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha noted: “We would wash and reuse single-use water bottles over and over, thinking we were being super eco-aware by preventing them from being recycled after a single use or heading straight into the trash and, ultimately, a landfill. We didn’t realize each use and wash was breaking down the cheap, unstable plastic more and more, and increasing the potential for chemicals and microscopic bits of plastic to leach into our drinks.”4 I used to reuse my plastic water bottles too – and I stored mine in the car, where the plastics were exposed to intense heat and sunlight, both factors that accelerate plastic chemical leaching.

Plastic Marketing

Plastic toy cash register, plastic coins and pretend bills
Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

Facing changing public opinion about the harmfulness of plastic in the 1980s, the plastics industry “launched a $50M-a-year ad campaign to improve plastic’s image. Part of the message was ‘recycling is the answer.’ Within the plastics industry, however, it was later revealed that even then there was serious doubt that widespread plastic recycling could ever be made economically viable.”5 They knew then, and they certainly know now, that we cannot recycle all of the plastic. Despite the pollution and toxicity, the plastics industry continues to push, market, and produce excessive plastic products and packaging.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of the Society of the Plastics Industry, now called the Plastics Industry Association6

There are many advocates for plastic production, including the chemical, trade, and petroleum organizations. The global plastics industry is worth between $500 and $800 billion dollars. The plastics industry is not going away while there is that much money at stake.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is one of the biggest supporters of plastics, and they spend millions each year contributing to political parties in order to fight legislation that would regulate plastic production. Other organizations protective of plastics include (but are not limited to) the Plastics Industry Association, the American Chemical Society, the Manufacturers Association for Plastic Processors, the International Association of Plastics Distribution, the Vinyl Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Society Of Plastics Engineers.

Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.
Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.

“We are not out to destroy the plastics industry, but we must embrace change.”7

The Overproduction of Plastic

Greenpeace scuba diver holding up a Coca-Cola bottle and sign: "Coca-Cola is this yours?" Found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A Greenpeace diver holds a banner reading “Coca-Cola is this yours?” and a
Coca-Cola bottle found adrift in the garbage patch. The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise voyage into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch document plastics and other marine debris. CREDIT: © Justin Hofman / Greenpeace, October 1, 2018. Image used with written permission from Greenpeace media.

“Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.”8

There are a few plastics that have an important place on our planet and in our lives, but most do not. Single-use disposable plastics are the major culprits of our plastic pollution problem. The companies we purchase products from are now producing it at such a high rate that we cannot recycle the problem away. Plastic production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, and it is expected to double by 2050.9 “Plastic is too microscopically dispersed around the world to try and clean it all up at this point…Prevention and avoidance should be engraved in our minds,” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha in Life Without Plastic.10 Companies and manufacturers must stop producing so much of it!

“Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.”11

Watch this short film about plastic from The Story of Stuff Project:

“We have polluted the planet with indestructible plastic to such a degree that plastic may serve as a fossil marker in our strata to indicate a new era – the way dinosaurs indicate the Mesozoic one – until Big Oil digs the last of those reptiles up to produce more Coke bottles.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of The Zero-Waste Chef12

What To Do

Whatever it takes to slow or stop the neverending barrage of chemical toxicity and plastic pollution being perpetrated on our planet by profit-driven entities, you can start at home and start small. You can avoid and refuse single-use plastic, changing your habits surrounding it one step at a time. I offer many ways to eliminate plastic on my site in my articles such as “11 Ways To Go Plastic-Free With Food,” and under Resources, where there are lists of books, films, and other websites that offer good information.

You have to eliminate plastics in your life in small manageable chunks, because there’s just so much of it. As the founders of Life Without Plastic wrote, “As excited as you may be to embark on this journey, be careful about fully embracing plastic-free living cold turkey, and trying to do it all at once. Once you start noticing the plastic around you, it could overwhelm and discourage you quickly…Take it one step at a time. This is all about changing habits, and that takes time, effort and patience.”13 This will protect you and your family from potentially toxic products entering your body and harming your health.

Contact companies whose products you consume and ask them to switch to responsible packaging. Switch the products you use with items that don’t have plastic. Support legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.14 Getting manufacturers and companies to stop the overproduction of plastics will be key, and to do so we will have to force them through purchase power and legislation.

“We are surrounded by the toxic polluting conundrum that versatile convenient plastic has become. But . . . there are lots of ways to avoid plastics in everyday life – wherever you are, whatever you do. All it takes is a little awareness and initiative. Educated actions, we like to call it.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, Life Without Plastic15

Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastics 101,” National Geographic, May 18, 2018.

Guide to My Packaging Industry Series.

Footnotes: