We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend climate change is some far-off fantasy.
It is no longer out of sight out of mind; it is something that we, the current generation, will see in full effect in our lifetime unless we act.
Significant changes are happening right outside your doorstep, and these changes are occurring at an alarming rate.
Climate action is an important part of our generation’s responsibility towards the planet, but it can feel like the significant changes we make in our lives make little difference to the overall outcome.
What can you do as an individual that would affect the greater picture?
Furthermore, why is climate change happening, and how can we have a conversation about it with others?
In this article, HerbSpeak author D.K. Hall addresses the importance of climate action, several recent and significant climate events, why you should care about it, and why it is happening at such a rapid pace.
Beyond that, we will also discuss whether it is worth “doing your part”, what that looks like, and if it makes any significant difference in the outcome of our future.
Why Should You Care About Climate Change?
The ecosystem we live in is in a fragile balancing act. In any given region, there are millions – even billions – of tiny lifeforms that are sensitive to small changes in the ambient temperature and pollution.
From micro-organisms like bacteria that help make up healthy soil to bugs and worms that break down waste and provide a meal for larger reptiles and mammals; to krill and algae living in the ocean which feeds massive aquatic lifeforms bigger than most of us can imagine.
Each part of this ecosystem is essential.
These organisms have all evolved over millennia to fluctuate and keep each other in perfect balance. Yet, we are undergoing the sixth largest mass extinction in the history of the planet. (1) This extinction event is shaking the foundation of this fragile ecosystem.
“The ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization because it is irreversible. Thousands of populations of critically endangered vertebrate animal species have been lost in a century, indicating that the sixth mass extinction is human-caused and accelerating.”
Without soil bacteria, we would have no soil nutrients. Without soil nutrients, we do not have plants. Without plants, we do not have animals. Without plants, animals, and bacteria, there are no people.
Let us not forget that when one species goes extinct, it often takes with it any species that heavily depends on it. For example, if the honeybee were to go extinct, all plants that are exclusively or primarily pollinated by honeybees would become critically endangered, if not go extinct.
To use another example, a decrease in insects has greatly affected the wild bird population. Without birds, many plants would go unpollinated. Roughly 75% of all crops rely on birds to help disperse their seeds. Without these crops, the global food supply for humans would suffer significantly.
Worse yet, evidence points to humans as the cause of this sixth mass extinction, coined the Anthropocene. This global change is because of decisions we have made as a species. This is the impact our rapid population and technological growth have had on the planet.
Climate Change VS. Global Warming
In an ideal world, nomenclature should not make a difference. Instead, we live in a world where people will argue technicalities without looking at the facts of the matter. We live in a world where the intonation or connotation of words we say greatly affects how people perceive a situation.
Making the distinction of “climate change” over other terms like “global warming” is essential to being able to have a conversation about the environment. This is particularly true in regions where the topic is hotly debated or contested.
Having a conversation and spreading awareness about climate change and the impact it is having on the planet is one of the best things that you can do to directly help fight mass extinctions. Keeping the topic in the minds of those who are willing to understand will affect change on a greater scale than the individual.
The nomenclature is important because it helps direct the conversation. You will come across people who argue from a place of misinformed authority; “look, the planet isn’t getting hotter, global warming isn’t real, look at these record levels of snow.”
“Well, of course – just like overcorrecting the steering wheel when driving, weather patterns are having to adjust for abnormalities across the board while the overall climate gets hotter.”
“Climate change” sets the tone: this is an abnormal change in our climate, versus “global warming” which has the wrong connotation of a purely hot climate without cold.
On an individual conversational level, remember to always remain factual whenever possible, as arguments from an emotional standpoint can and often will be dismissed and argued against.
For some, they are simply misinformed or lack information, while others will stubbornly hold onto their opinions. In either case, providing factual information and avoiding arguments from emotions or opinions will help steer the conversation in the right direction.
A Mountain of Evidence
There is enough evidence that climate change is real, and it is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Many of us just want something done about it, and we’re not satisfied with the empty promises and blame games that go on – if you ignore the issue enough, it doesn’t go away, it just gets worse.
The events below are some recent highlights of outrageous, abnormal events that should not be happening at such a fast pace:
Alaska Broke Multiple Heat Records in 2019
Not only did Alaska setting an all-time record high temperature of 32.3 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) but these temperatures also persisted for 12 whole days in July, which is strikingly longer than the previous record of three days above 80 F. (2) Warmer temperatures in Alaska are expected to persist in following years.
Let's check in on Anchorage, AK and see how they've been doing during this extraordinary stretch— Eric Fisher (@ericfisher) July 8, 2019
Hottest temp on record, 90F ✅
Hottest week on record ✅
Longest 80F+ streak on record (6, doubles previous mark) ✅
Most 80F+ days for a year (8, doubles previous mark) ✅
Antarctica Sets Record High Temperature in 2020 – Five Years After Previous Record
An Argentine research base in Antarctica recorded temperature highs in March 2015 of 17.5 degrees Celsius (63.5 F). (3) Only five years later in February of 2020, that record was beaten with a temperature of 18.3 C (64.9 F).
“The reading is impressive as it’s only five years since the previous record was set and this is almost one-degree centigrade higher. It’s a sign of the warming that has been happening there that’s much faster than the global average.
“To have a new record set that quickly is surprising but who knows how long that will last? Possibly not that long at all.”
Siberian Arctic Reaches Record High Temperatures in 2020
The Siberian town Verkhoyansk hit a record high temperature of 38 C (100.4 F) in June 2020. (4) The small town is situated along the Arctic Circle, where wildfires struck and permafrost melted later that year.
Temperature anomalies in May 2020, expressed as standard deviations from the average 1981-2010 in the @CopernicusECMWF #ERA5 reanalysis. Note the 5σ deviation in northwestern Siberia, would be a 1 in 100000 year event for a normal distribution of anomalies without climate change. pic.twitter.com/29u87uJ88o— Martin Stendel (@MartinStendel) June 9, 2020
In 2020, the Amazon Kept Burning – Surpassing Fires in the Previous Year
The Amazon fires in 2019 caught worldwide attention, however, the fires in 2020 surpassed the damage with almost no media attention. (5, 6) Though this is likely due to the coronavirus taking up the bulk of media coverage, the ecological damage is still incredible, putting native species at significant risk of extinction near-term.
The Amazon plays a critical role in the global ecosystem, regulating climate patterns, control disease outbreaks, and keep the carbon cycle intact. Beyond that, over 10% of the world’s biodiversity resides in the Amazon.
“In both the Amazonia and the Andes, modern fire pattern is strongly allied to human activity. On the flank of the Andes, forests that have never burned are being eroded by fire spreading downslope from grasslands. Species of these same forests are being forced to migrate upslope due to warming and will encounter a firm artificial fire boundary of human activity.”
Australian Wildfires Out of Control in 2019 and 2020
In late 2019 and early 2020, Australian wildfires made worldwide news with an unprecedented spread of fire through temperate forests and grassland that severely threatened Australia’s biodiversity. (7, 8, 9)
It is estimated that over a billion animals perished in these fires, with many more endangered, potentially extinct, and left without a habitat to return to.
Australia is, much like the Amazon, one of the world’s hotspots for biodiversity with 80% of its fauna and flora population found nowhere else in the world.
“Four climate models for which FWI could be calculated show that the probability of a Fire Weather Index this high has increased by at least 30% since 1900 as a result of anthropogenic climate change. […] Similarly, a heatwave of this intensity is about 10 times more likely now than it would have been around 1900.”
COVID Lockdowns Provided Insight into Action Necessary for Achieving Climate Goals
Though a rise in temperature of 1.5 C is still catastrophic to much of our planet’s biodiversity, it is much better than the almost-certain 3 C projected if we continue on the same destructive path we are on now. (10, 11) COVID lockdowns caused the largest decline on record of greenhouse gas emissions, with the United States’ carbon emissions dropping by 12%.
“If Covid-19 leads to a drop in emissions of around 5% in 2020, then that is the sort of reduction we need every year until net-zero emissions are reached around 2050, […] Such emissions reductions will not happen via lockdowns and restrictions, but by climate policies that lead to the deployment of clean technologies and reductions in demand for energy.”
Plant Hardiness Zones Shifting Quicker Than Before
Plant hardiness zones, known to many as “gardening zones” are zones that help gardeners and farmers determine when they should plant what crops in their region. This is calculated by the average minimum winter temperature. (12, 13) The baseline temperature for 95% of these zones has increased in temperature, moving north, between 1989 and 2018. This is alarming, especially for plant species that are not able to adapt quickly, such as trees.
“As the planet warms, the Arctic is feeling it the most: Temperatures in northern regions are rising at about twice the global average. That’s having a huge impact on the region’s permafrost”
It’s Snowing in Mexico! Record Southern Snowstorm in February 2021
A shocking snowstorm has pushed its way further south than normal, with places like Abilene, Texas reporting 14.8 inches (37.6cm) of snowfall. (14, 15) The average wintertime low for this city is 36 F (2.2 C)
In Jaurez, Mexico, it’s common for some snowflakes to stick as the city is situated in the mountains, but residents were surprised with an overnight low of 14 degrees F (-10 C) and over an inch of snow, breaking a record previously set two centuries ago.
An Unfortunate Truth
It’s time to stop burying our heads in the sand. None of the progress we make in society matters if there is no society left to change.
Unfortunately, politics is along for the ride.
Politics is about power, and money is a popular path to power.
In a society centric to our current model of consumerism, however, there is no money to be made with eco-conscious choices.
Worse, eco-friendly options are often barricaded behind high price tags.
In our world of industrial manufacturing, it is difficult for organic farmers and producers of eco-friendly products to sell their products while still keeping their businesses afloat.
Rich people don’t want you to think that they are destroying the environment to give you the latest cell phone or overpriced table made of endangered wood. They indirectly profit from the media calling climate change a hoax, and people are inclined to continue believing this.
Still, there is no denying that we have gotten ourselves into this mess through the habits of our society and the decisions we have made.
Deforestation makes way for unsustainable food sources, plastic and smog pollution poison the air and water supplies, and habitats are destroyed to build inefficient city designs. (16)
“considering both dispersal and niche shifts, we project that only 16–30% of these 538 [plant and animal] species may go extinct by 2070. […] Under some climate-change scenarios, more than half of these species might be lost (55%), even after accounting for both dispersal and niche shifts. However, our results also suggest that successful implementation of the Paris Agreement targets could help reduce extinctions considerably, possibly to 16% or less by 2070.”
Most of the population is kept overworked and underpaid for a multitude of reasons, and it has the added effect of keeping us focused on the wrong things.
Will we be able to look back and talk about the progress we’ve made as a society? There has to be a society left standing for that to happen.
Humans are a part of an ecosystem, yet we act like we are top of the hierarchy. The decisions made under this assumption are affecting not just our own species but causing the endangerment and extinction of most other lifeforms on Earth.
The generation that is beginning to take climate change seriously are the ones who will be actively affected by global biodiversity loss, starvation, and frequent catastrophic events.
And your neighbor.
And your sons and daughters.
This is not something that is going to happen in 1,000 years, or the next 500. These rates of extinction and biodiversity loss are happening every year, every day. These are things that our generation will have to overcome in the next 15 to 30 years.
Or we won’t overcome it at all.
It’s as simple as that.
Our species isn’t special.
We have opposable thumbs and folds in our brains, but that alone won’t stop us from mass starvation, heatstroke, or hypothermia, not when our population ranges in the billions.
Our Generation’s Mass Extinction
There is a natural, baseline rate of extinction that is expected due to evolution. Though it is sad, this happens at such a gradual rate that the ecosystem can repair itself and replace the role of the species that fade out.
What is happening now is not a sustainable rate of baseline extinction; the damage is happening at such a rapid pace that it is affecting the whole planet. (17)
“When the loss of species rapidly outpaces the formation of new species, this balance can be tipped enough to elicit what are known as “mass extinction” events.
A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.
[…] Even considering a conservative background rate of two extinctions per million species-years, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have otherwise taken between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear if they were merely succumbing to the expected extinctions that happen at random.”
This isn’t about one species or another.
This isn’t about the polar bears, or the honeybees, or the people.
This is about the overall global breakdown in our ecosystem – and the complete lack of responsibility for those decisions. The decisions that are causing a mass extinction we are witnessing with each new day.
But we have to forget about instant gratification to change things around.
It will not be easy, but it will save literally billions of lifeforms on our planet.
What Is Causing Climate Change?
Despite the growing awareness of climate change, many people are stubbornly refusing to believe the crisis we are in or refuse to believe that the activities and habits of man are causing this change to progress at a significantly more rapid pace than before.
Even the oil giant ExxonMobil is working to reduce emissions and provide alternative sustainable sources of fuel to combat climate change. (18) If our species wanted to demonstrate how a Bond villain could harness the Earth’s power for their own evil machinations, we’ve done a great job at providing a real-life example of exactly that since the 1700s. Keep reading – this will be explained later in this section.
“Human activity releases carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most important greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere in several ways. The primary mechanism that releases carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels, such as gasoline, coal, and natural gas.
[…] Deforestation, cement manufacture, animal agriculture, the clearing of land, and the burning of forests are other human activities that release carbon dioxide. Methane (CH4) is produced when bacteria break down organic matter under anaerobic conditions. Anaerobic conditions can happen when organic matter is trapped underwater (such as in rice paddies) or in the intestines of herbivores of industrially-farmed cattle. Another source of methane is the melting of clathrates, frozen chunks of ice and methane found at the bottom of the ocean and released as ocean waters warm.”
Climate change is what we call our planetary greenhouse effect, which is the warming that occurs when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from the Earth and continues warming the surface of the planet.
Gasses that contribute to this greenhouse effect are, in order of prevalence in the atmosphere:
- Water Vapors
You didn’t think you’d see this one here, did you? While water vapor is not harmful directly, it does contribute to the feedback loop of the greenhouse effect. As the atmosphere warms, more water vapor collects, creating clouds of precipitation which increase the feedback. This would stabilize with a cooler atmosphere.
- Carbon Dioxide (also known as Co2)
Though this is a part of natural functions such as volcanic eruptions and respiration, it is also released through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.
This gas is released through some natural sources like digestion in livestock and anaerobic conditions used in rice patties, but it is also associated with the decomposition of waste in landfills.
- Nitrous oxide
A gas produced by soil cultivation, fertilizers, biomass burning, and fuel combustion.
- Chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs)
An entirely industrially-created gas. These are highly regulated now under the Montreal Protocol as they contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer. The use of CFCs has been outlawed in 197 countries.
Is the Sun to Blame?
The sun is not to blame. NASA has been monitoring the sun’s energy output since 1978, and the amount of energy the sun has put off has dipped very slightly, resulting in less energy that would result in heat.
Sunspot records have also been measured – which is a proxy indicator much like how we can determine historical weather based on tree rings – yet no more than 10% of the global temperature difference could reasonably be attributed to the sun’s energy.
Likewise, the sun’s activity is not to blame, as warming is not present in all layers of the atmosphere, only at the lower parts of the atmosphere. The upper atmosphere has experienced slight cooling, which is another symptom of the greenhouse effect. (21)
Are People Causing It?
Admittedly, this was a new one on me when I first heard this in a conversation about climate change: “I’m not a climate change denier, I just don’t think people are to blame.”
Let’s explore this for a moment; are people to blame?
Eventually, in several thousand years or more, a mass extinction was going to happen. There have been five before our species, so there is a strong likelihood there will be more.
Have people had an overall astonishing effect on climate change, speeding up the effects?
Beyond a doubt.
Let’s pretend the latest James Bond villain had a How To guide to climate change.
This James Bond villain wants nothing more than to see the world burn – in a figurative, but also very literal sense – so how would he do it?
Well, first he would discover which gasses would warm the planet when trapped in the atmosphere. He would source those gasses – in this case, through oil, trees, and large-scale livestock farming – and release it into the atmosphere.
What is the fastest way of releasing this gas into the atmosphere? (22) Well, what better way than to burn it?
“When forests are cleared or burnt, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide. Averaged over 2015—2017, global loss of tropical forests contributed about 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (or about 8-10% of annual human emissions of carbon dioxide).
Whilst forests are important carbon sinks, meaning they draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the carbon stored in these sinks is part of an active, relatively quick carbon cycle. As living things (including trees) die and decay, the carbon that they once stored is released back into the atmosphere.
By contrast, carbon stored underground in the form of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, is much more stable, and is part of a much slower carbon cycle. Without the influence of humans burning these fossil fuels for energy, this carbon would be unlikely to reach the atmosphere.”
Cue maniacal laughter. (23) As a collective species, we have been accomplishing this quite efficiently. The atmospheric concentrations of Co2 have risen by over 50% since the Industrial Revolution, and more than 20% in less than 40 years.
Now, remove the original, obviously malicious intent of that James Bond villain.
Now, remove anyone willing to take responsibility for the unintended consequences.
You can see this happen with real-world data from NASA in the following video:
What Can You Do?
Climate action is often placed in the hands of the consumer. The everyday person. You and I.
That is exhausting.
In a way, however, it is also empowering.
You and I have the ability to change the way things are done from the bottom up, and while it will be difficult and tiring, it can be done.
Below is a list of several ways you can make a difference. Decide which ones are manageable for your to start with, and commit to those changes:
- Help facilitate awareness of climate change.
Facilitating awareness can be as simple as reminding your social media friends about important climate events that are happening. When you participate in activities that have a positive impact, don’t be shy about sharing the details!
- Boycott unsustainable practices and eat consciously.
Boycotting and conscious eating might have you thinking about a vegan fair-trade diet, and if you can afford to eat that way, that’s great, but not practical for the mass majority of people.
Don’t forget that palm oil, coffee, and soy (24) are also leading the way in unsustainable agricultural practices that contribute to a large carbon footprint and deforestation. Learning about how your food is produced is an important part of learning what to boycott.
For the rest of us, simply cutting out animal protein – namely beef – and seeking alternative sources of protein such as lentils and peas can have an astounding impact. (25) Animal agriculture is one of the main causes of deforestation.
Above all, learning about the companies you purchase from and how your food is produced can help you make a significant, positive change to your diet. Though it doesn’t mean giving up food groups entirely, it does mean that it’s time to research where your food comes from and who has better sustainability.
It’s more important than ever to find sustainably sourced foods, and as a bonus, you’ll feel lighter and healthier, too.
- Reduce energy use and invest in efficiency where possible.
If you own a home, you’d be surprised about all the little things that help improve energy efficiency and promote less energy use. Likewise, did you know that maintaining the air pressure in your car’s tires reduces how much gasoline you use on a regular basis?
Switching to a “green” or “energy-efficient” lifestyle doesn’t have to be limited to products marketed for the cause. Recycle your aluminum cans, turn off unused lights, time your showers, unplug devices when not in use. There are plenty of ways to reduce energy use in everyday life.
- Become active in what you care about.
Is your local public transportation ill-designed for commuters, making it impractical for you to switch from traveling in a personal vehicle? Do you wish that your favorite brands would stop using so much plastic packaging?
Start a petition. Get the word out. Brainstorm how you can provide a solution. Talk to your local representatives.
These are all actions that we can take for small details with big impacts – and remember, it’s not set and forget. Chances are, the solution will take some work, and it needs your active participation to make it work.
- Invest in local conservation efforts.
Chances are, there are places where you can support and invest in local conservation efforts no matter where you live. This might be a wildlife rehabilitation center, a zoo, botanical garden, arboretum, seed banks, or community gardens for native plants.
These institutions can always use a helping hand or additional funding. If you can’t afford either to spend your time or money, spreading awareness of the organization or about their cause is incredibly helpful.
- Share your footprint where possible.
Sharing your carbon footprint with others is a great way to reduce the impact everyday activities make. Book group flights, carpool, and living in multi-occupancy housing are all great examples.
The idea behind it is, if more people are grouped together for the same activity – rather than taking their own individual cars or living in single family homes – then the amount of space and carbon emissions is reduced per-person.
- Dream, then act, because we don’t get yesterday back.
Remember the dreams you had as a child? The career you always wanted for the cause you care about deeply?
Well, now is the time to act on it, because you aren’t getting yesterday back. Stop focusing on the short-term everyday tasks and start looking at the bigger, long-term picture.
Yes, I know you’re exhausted at the end of the day; I am too. (Yet here we are 5,000 words into something that doesn’t put money into my pocket, but I deeply care about it.)
Instead of watching television or browsing the internet, what is something you can do today, in one week, in one month, and in one year?
Set goals for yourself and aim to achieve them.
Now, this is a great practice for life in general, but how can it relate to climate change?
The timeline doesn’t just apply to careers. It might be about making a difference in your local community or coming up with a solution to local waste. It might be about making a speech, reaching out to a notable figure, or proposing a new solution to a problem you’ve identified.
- Buy less, waste less, and re-use more.
Buying less not only reduces everyday clutter, but it also helps you control where and how you spend your money.
Aim to waste less so overall demand is lowered and less product goes to the garbage. Recycling still takes precious resources. Have a lot of free things to get rid of? There are plenty of sites like Freecycle where you can offer your goods to others in need and they’ll come pick it up for free.
Want to reduce waste by reusing what you have? Upcycle your furniture and re-use what you can. Stop throwing out plastic bags that only had a cheese wrapper in it – better yet, replace the single-use plastic with washable fabric.
Bringing re-usable bags to your grocer is a great example of how you can reduce plastic waste and re-use materials you already have.
- Advocate, advocate, advocate.
The best thing that you can do for the environment is become an advocate for change in the area that you are most passionate about. Want to get involved with wildlife? Find yourself with a passion for plants? Does geography and geology get your blood pumping?
Get vocal. Do your research. Make informed decisions.
- Consider your lifestyle’s impact.
With humans having such a strong impact on the environment, how does your overall lifestyle fit into the picture?
Are you planning on having a family, or going kid-free? Can you make it work in multi-family homes? Can you request to work remotely for your employer?
No matter what lifestyle you have – or want to have – there are always eco-conscious options and alternatives. It’s up to you to find where the balance is, minimizing the impact of that lifestyle and celebrating where the positive change is.
Do Individual Actions Make a Difference?
Yes, individual actions do make a difference.
It may not feel like it does. After all, you’re one person, and what can one person do really do?
Well, one person can inspire thousands of others to act. Sometimes, those thousands of people start with your neighbor, or a family member, or a friend.
You may not get to directly see the effect you have on climate change, and that makes it difficult. Our brains are wired to enjoy the gratification we get from seeing the positive effect we have.
But you’re not alone in feeling helpless, anxious, and distraught over climate events. It’s called climate grief.
It’s time we take that grief and wear it like armor instead of feeling helpless. Use it to motivate your actions and fuel your drive.
For climate action to work, we need every person to make informed, individual changes – and we needed it yesterday.
The best time to make that change is today.
If enough people make small, manageable changes in their daily habits, such as moving from buying new (because it’s so easy now with online shopping!) and instead look for used, recycled, and refurbished (psst…that is also online!) we can move the needle and make real progress.
We have the unique ability to “vote” with our money, so it is important to give this financial resource to companies who want to do good where possible.
We, the consumer, can make destroying the environment unprofitable.
Be the change we need today. Start having conversations about the environment and make the climate a priority in your life.
Take responsibility and show others that they can, too. Make small, manageable changes in your daily routine to help the climate, gradually working your way towards a cleaner life. Educate others in what they can do and provide a welcoming space for asking questions and learning. Every step gets us closer to the finish line.
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