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:

Breaking Up With Dawn

Last updated on November 28, 2021.

Dawn soap
Dawn dishwashing liquid soap

I’ve used Dawn dishwashing detergent my entire adult life. It seemed to work better than every other brand I  tried. The concentrated version seemed to go a lot further than other brands, therefore giving me my money’s worth. Even after I started reducing the number of products in plastic packaging that I buy, I kept buying Dawn. I used it not only to wash dishes but also used it in my Easy DIY all-purpose cleaner.

And, I was supporting clean-up efforts and saving wildlife after oil spills, right?

I believed that Dawn products were helping clean and save wildlife after oil spills. And I think they do in some cases, as well as raise money to donate toward rescue efforts. According to a 2010 article in the Washington Post after the major BP Deepwater Horizon spill, Dawn is legitimately used by the International Bird Rescue. “After a 1971 oil spill, the California-based nonprofit group began experimenting with products including paint thinner and nail polish remover to find the least traumatizing method for cleaning oiled animals.”1 So in 1978, the International Bird Rescue started a relationship with Procter and Gamble, the makers of Dawn. “Through trial, error, and our tenacity to find a solution, we discovered that Procter and Gamble’s Dawn dish soap, was the golden ticket! It was inexpensive, effective, readily available, and Procter and Gamble was excited to learn about this somewhat unusual use of their product.”2

Procter & Gamble heavily markets Dawn’s Saving Wildlife campaign toward conscientious consumers. Their advertisements pull at our heartstrings. One moved me to tears, which I originally shared in this post. The URL for that specific video changes frequently, so I decided to just let you search “dawn oil spill commercial” on YouTube where you’ll find many of these commercials. But the footage was not of wildlife actually affected by an oil spill. The commercials are a “simulated demonstration” and some have a caption indicating “no oil used.” I’ve read they coat the animals with a mixture of tempera paint and corn syrup so they can simulate cleaning the animals on camera. I find this to be a questionable practice.

Oil covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.
Oil-covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.

But Dawn is petroleum-based – so does that mean they’re part of the problem? 

NPR did a segment on this very issue after the BP oil spill disaster in 2010, looking at the story in detail and interviewing people from both sides. The overall conclusion was that yes, Dawn does help remove crude oil from the animals. But this is because the grease-cutting part of the solution is made from petroleum, according to Procter & Gamble, who was interviewed for the segment. There are alternatives to using petroleum products but that needs testing. Meanwhile, rescuers and veterinarians are sticking with what works, because, in the end, they are trying to save the animals’ lives.3

Yet others find the product to be hypocritical because Dawn is a petroleum-based soap.4 A writer for Treehugger.com wrote:

“The sad irony of the whole thing is that Dawn is petroleum-based. Every bottle of Dawn used to clean a bird actually adds to our nation’s demand for oil. Not only are we using an oil-based product to clean oiled birds, but we’re increasing the incentives for companies to drill for more oil, making it more likely that there will be another spill. Which, incidentally, will be great for Dawn’s marketing. It’s one big beautifully incestuous circle.”5

oil rig, Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

What about animal testing?

Procter & Gamble, owner of the Dawn brand, does do animal testing. They have committed to the #BeCrueltyFree Campaign in recent years but have not yet achieved that status. If you want non-animal-tested and cruelty-free products, avoid Procter & Gamble brands and products.

An oiled gannet getting cleaned at a rehabiliation center after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
An oiled gannet getting cleaned after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, June 17, 2010. Image by Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

What about the ingredients in Dawn?

I decided to check into the ingredients of Dawn through the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Dawn Ultra Concentrated Dishwashing Liquid (Original), the very product I used to regularly buy, received a D rating (on A-D, F grading scale). One of the main concerns was the lack of ingredient disclosure. There are not many laws in the United States regarding chemicals in household ingredients and products. Procter & Gamble is not required to tell us what is exactly in their product. Many companies like to keep their ingredients and formula a secret, to prevent others from copying. EWG’s Top Scoring Factors for this Dawn product were “Poor disclosure; May contain ingredients with potential for acute aquatic toxicity; general systemic/organ effects; bioaccumulation.”6

Procter & Gamble claims to be using biodegradable surfactants in Dawn and claims to be trying to improve and reduce packaging. But this giant corporation has made only a few changes over the last decade – it’s too little, too slow.

Before (left) and After (right) oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center.
Before and After oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center, May 14, 2010. Photo courtesy of the International Bird Rescue Research Center on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Plastic-free dishwashing?

Dawn dishwashing soap has been one of my hold-overs from going plastic-free that I haven’t been able to kick yet. Then one weekend, I ran out. I used to buy economy-size bottles, tricking myself into believing that buying a larger plastic bottle was better than lots of little bottles. But I was unable to find that size again at my regular grocery store. And short of running around to Target or Walmart or searching online, I decided maybe this was a good opportunity to try something different. Here were my options:

Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by me.
Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by me.

Ugh! My only choices were plastic, plastic, and more plastic. However, this store also carries Seventh Generation brand dish soap. If you’re not familiar with this brand, they use ingredients they believe to be safe and healthy as well as using post-consumer recycled packaging. The bottle that I purchased is a plastic bottle marked “100% recycled plastic.” They also list all of their ingredients on the back of the package. Last, Seventh Generation does not test on animals.

Unfortunately, before using this product at home, I checked the EWG’s site to see if they’d tested it. Sadly, it only received a C rating, meaning “some potential for hazards to health or the environment. At least some ingredient disclosure.” While they found their ingredient disclosure good, they found that this dish soap has ingredients that have some concerns, mostly aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, and skin irritations. Seventh Generation does follow the regulations for the EPA Safer Choice certification, but EWG still found concerns. But it has much safer ingredients than most of the brands on the shelves of most stores.

washing a fork, Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash
Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash

What am I going to do next?

Dawn and most other major brands of dishwashing soap are going to have the same issues with plastic packaging, animal testing, and unsafe ingredients. With all of those things combined, I am going to try going plastic-free on dish soap after I use this bottle of Seventh Generation. Because even that 100% recycled bottle has an afterlife. And there is no guarantee that that plastic bottle won’t end up floating in the ocean someday.

I am experimenting with using bar dish soap and baking soda. I’ll update this post once I’ve experimented and have some good results to share. What about you? Can you try a new solution for washing dishes plastic-free, toxic-free, and animal-friendly? Join me in the adventure and be the change. Please share and subscribe, and thanks for reading!

Update, March 15, 2019: We have been using plastic-free bar soap for a couple of months now to wash dishes. And it’s working good! We just rub the scrub brush and Skoy cloth against the soap and then wash our dishes and pots. I’ve been trying different brands.

I’m also now using baking soda for cleaning pots, especially those that have stains or black areas. I learned this advice from Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com, and it does work – look how clean I got this pot!

Footnotes: