by: Celina Harris
“Leave it better than you found it”
That was the phrase my parents constantly repeated during my adolescence.
Staying at a friend’s house? Leave it better than you found it. Going on a hike? Leave it better than you found it. Visiting the beach? Leave it better than you found it. House sitting for family friends? Well, you get the gist. The theme was always the same. Don’t make a mess. Clean up after yourself, and then go a bit beyond that. Be courteous of shared spaces and always strive to leave them better than they were when you first got there.
As I got older, this philosophy started to stretch more into my day-to-day life. Sharing an apartment with a roommate? Leave it better than you found it. Working in a lab space with my peers? Leave it better than you found it. Existing on our planet?
Truthfully, that last one is the biggest and a bit more abstract than the others. But it is also one that I think about a lot and struggle with the most. I love the idea of leaving the Earth in a better shape for future generations. I know I’m not alone in that; the idea of leaving behind a legacy for the future to enjoy is a big motivator for a lot of people in cultivating parks and green spaces and you can tell when you see dedicated benches or bricks to people who helped found those spaces. But it’s not just green spaces that I want to leave better than I found it. What if I want to leave the whole planet better than I found it?
That question, and the motivation it implies, is the concept behind a carbon footprint. If you’re unfamiliar, a carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide or methane, which our individual actions generate. Ideally, we’d want this footprint to be as small as possible. This would indicate that we’re leaving a minimal impact on the environment around us. In a way, you can think of it as the metric for how well you’re leaving the planet. Can you leave it better than you found it though? Not really, because on an individual level, all of our activities have some form of emission.
Let me explain with an example like: “Where will I shop for clothes?”. I prefer not to buy new clothes – I grew up in hand-me-downs from older cousins and siblings so secondhand clothing is always my go-to. It’s cheaper, which is nice for a student budget, and it tends to already have that “worn-in” comfort. Plus, I don’t mind pulling out my sewing kit from time to time to fix up a seam or patch a worn knee. While I’m not generating any emission from buying new clothes, there was still some emission from the initial production and it’s now spread over multiple people’s footprints in smaller amounts. Additionally, depending on what kind of fabric I’m wearing, there will be some emissions as it gets worn down and releases fibers, synthetic plastic based or otherwise, into the environment.
Now say I do need to shop, when I do, I try to find affordable companies that are transparent about their material sourcing and manufacturing processes: are the fabric sources sustainable or recycled? Are employees paid fair wages to produce the garments? Are the supply chains carbon conscious? Finding answers to those questions from most retailers is not easy. Add in the need to find them from affordable retailers, because I am on a graduate student budget, and it can become next to impossible. How do I know what my carbon footprint looks like when if I need to buy a new pair of jeans for work? And while this may seem like a trivial question, fashion as an industry makes up 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater, which means it’s up there with flying in terms of things that make a large negative environmental impact. Suddenly my desire to buy those jeans becomes contrary to my desire to minimize my environmental impact.
As a consumer, it can feel like a Sisyphean task to try and care about your carbon footprint. Knowing that you can’t break even is one thing, but it’s also hard to just find the necessary information to know if you’re even being minimal. It becomes overwhelming. As students, how are we supposed to have time for our degrees if we also need to make time to research the companies where we want to shop? And this example is just for clothing. Add in other retailers like restaurants, grocery stores, bookstore, pet food stores, cosmetics, prescriptions and I’m sure you can understand how it can spiral. Suddenly, it goes from wanting to help the Earth to struggling with misplaced consumer guilt. This, coupled with the fact that most of the global emissions are coming from corporations and not individuals has lead to a decent bit of push back against the idea of a carbon footprint all together.
So what do we do? In short, the simplest answer is try our best. I may not be able to always source my jeans from the best retailer with my budget constrictions or time restraints, but I can make small efforts like minimizing meat consumption and using public transportation. These things are nontrivial for having a positive overall impact on the environment. At the end of the day, we as individuals can’t realistically achieve a net-zero carbon footprint, but we can do our best. Backing our attitudes to do our best when shopping is necessary to help companies cut their emissions too. Leaving the world better than we found it, can never be a one person task even though our individual efforts do make an impact. It’s ultimately more of an “everybody do your share” approach.
Luckily, a lot of countries want to do their share. A lot of countries are pledging to go net-zero on their carbon emissions by 2050. Coupling our desires to lower emissions at home with consumer action and pushes to policymakers at the local, national, and international levels are really what’s needed to see a massive improvement in climate change predictions over the next couple years. While 2050 may seem like a very near deadline, it may be too late by more recent predictions of overall climate warming.
Leaving things better than we found them can’t wait until the ends of our lifetimes. The Earth isn’t a party that we have to clean up before we leave. It’s everyday effort to minimize our impact and regular efforts to push companies and policymakers to make the larger strides that we as individuals can’t make. At the end of the day, it’s not an either/or choice, but a both. Leave it better than you found it isn’t a one person job, it’s a community effort and we’re all part of that community.
Zero-Carbon on the High Seas: The International Shipping Debate at COP26 Will Be Worth Close Attention
By Amar Bhardwaj
When world governments meet in Glasgow this November for the United Nations’ COP26, a lengthy lineup of agenda items will be on the docket. One of these items in particular has potentially far-reaching consequences but has received relatively little attention: international shipping. At COP26, nations will discuss whether the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN agency that regulates the shipping industry, has made sufficient progress in decarbonizing the sector. The decision they make could have outsized implications for shipping sector regulation and global decarbonization.
The State of Play for International Shipping and COP26
In a globalized world interconnected by international trade, shipping is a mammoth industry. Approximately 80% of all goods are carried by sea, amounting to billions of tons of cargo per year. The sheer scale of the industry has important climate effects as well—shipping alone accounts for roughly 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the industry uses highly carbon-intensive fuels such as bunker fuels to power its ships. And finding a cleaner alternative is not as simple as switching the engine out for a battery, as in the case of electric vehicles. A transoceanic voyage requires large amounts of energy, and a battery of such a size would be too heavy for a vessel to stay afloat. The ships’ reliance on energy-dense fuels makes shipping one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonize.
A further roadblock to cleaner shipping is that the industry is difficult to regulate. Given shipping’s international nature and overlapping jurisdictions between a vessel’s country of registration, owner, and crew, individual nations tend not to regulate shipping. For similar reasons, shipping was not included in the emissions targets of the Paris Agreement established at COP21. The responsibility for overseeing the decarbonization of the industry instead fell to the IMO. The IMO, however, has been heavily influenced by industry interests who have watered down the body’s climate policy to protect industry profits, as documented in a recent New York Times investigation. As a result, the IMO has passed rules that could potentially allow shipping emissions to rise in the coming decades, as opposed to the global target of net zero emissions by midcentury that is supported by the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One strategy used by the regulator to avoid stringent emissions rules is to set targets for the carbon intensity of shipping, without limiting the total emissions of the industry. A carbon intensity target approved by the IMO in 2020 is expected to reduce shipping emissions by just 1% by 2050.
Against the backdrop of a reluctant regulator, the discussions to be had at COP26 on shipping will be particularly important for the future decarbonization of the industry. COP26 negotiators have the latitude to decide that IMO is not taking sufficient action and push the regulator to pursue certain emissions reduction policies. This debate at COP26 will revolve around a few key groups of nations. Middle-income countries that receive large revenues from the shipping industry, particularly China, Brazil, and India, argue that rash decarbonization policies could cause economic damage to the industry, and will support the IMO’s moderate approach to regulation. Nations that are more vulnerable to climate change, such as the low-lying Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands, will advocate for more urgent action, including a proposal for a carbon tax to shipping that the countries have been promoting. The European Union may similarly propose to add shipping to the EU carbon market, applying a cost to carbon emissions. Still other nations, including the US, Denmark, and Norway, agree that the IMO must raise its ambition, but will prefer to fund the research and development of zero-carbon technologies for shipping. When the countries come to the negotiating table with these various proposals at COP26, the outcome will have a major influence on a highly emitting global sector.
The Broader Impacts of Shipping Decarbonization
In fact, it’s not just shipping at play. the COP26 negotiations on the IMO may even have more widespread ramifications for the decarbonization of other sectors. Any resolution to ramp up IMO regulations—be it a carbon tax, emissions targets, or zero-carbon technologies—will likely require zero-carbon shipping fuels to decarbonize the industry. Since ships cannot easily be electrified, these zero-carbon fuels are the most viable avenue to reduce emissions. Zero-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen or ammonia, do not contain carbon and can be used in ships without CO2 emissions. In order to ensure the carbon neutrality of these fuels, they must be produced through clean chemical pathways such as water electrolysis powered by renewable energy. These clean pathways are currently costly and at an intermediate stage of technological development. If the technology is improved and becomes more cost-effective, however, zero-carbon fuels could be a linchpin of decarbonization across numerous contexts that are currently difficult to clean up. The fuels could be used for high temperature heat in heavy industry, for aviation and other transportation, as a feedstock for the chemical sector, or as energy storage in the electricity sector. If the shipping industry were to adopt zero-carbon fuels, it would create a large source of demand to incentivize technological innovation of zero-carbon fuels production and provide a robust market in which the fuels can achieve scale and bring down costs. The industry could then serve as a springboard for the newly cheap zero-carbon fuels to grow into the many other sectors where they are needed.
To understand how shipping could jumpstart a broader zero-carbon fuels market in this way, it is helpful to take a look at the analogous history of the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry. By 1960, the silicon solar cell existed more or less in the form it does today, but it was prohibitively expensive. Though the cost was unsuitable for the wider electricity sector, solar PV found early demand in particular markets that were crucial to the technology’s rise. Niche markets such as solar-powered consumer electronics and the space industry were willing to pay a premium for the convenience and simplicity of solar power on a relatively small scale. In addition, feed-in tariffs in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and others provided a guaranteed higher purchase price for solar electricity, bolstering solar in these economies. This demand provided a starting place where the technology could enjoy economies of scale and learning-by-doing, by which manufacturing processes became more efficient and cheaper by virtue of industry growth. The cost of solar began to drop as the fledgling industry grew into its limited starting markets, until the cost was low enough for the technology to enter the broad electricity market competitively.
A shipping industry committed to using zero-carbon fuels would create an incubating starting place for the nascent fuels to grow, just as niche markets did for solar PV. The reliable demand for zero-carbon fuels from shipping would encourage zero-carbon fuels suppliers to invest in developing and improving their production processes. In turn, mechanisms such as learning-by-doing and economies of scale would help drive down the costs of producing zero-carbon fuels. This would facilitate the expansion of the zero-carbon fuels industry into the wide range of sectors where they could be useful, enabling previously intractable emissions reductions across these sectors. Considering these pivotal impacts on the shipping industry and the wider energy system, the oft-underreported discussions on international shipping at COP26 will certainly be worth following closely.
By: Spencer Smith
Travel is a sustainability topic frequently discussed. Throughout not just the U.S. but also the world, transportation is a large producer of Carbon Emissions. Cars designed to cut carbon emissions are nothing new. Toyota has had hybrids on the markets for over a decade, and BMW has been working with Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars for years. In this article, I’d like to put those other ventures aside in favor of discussing Electric Vehicles more in-depth. Electric Vehicles have become the new car fad. Companies like Tesla are making huge strides in mass adoption of passenger cars, and Ford is introducing one of the first All-Electric trucks with the F-150 Lightning. So, now that electric vehicles are more accessible to the average consumer, will they truly benefit the environment? This post will examine emissions and end-of-life issues, leaving performance to the car aficionados.
The best place to start would be the creation of the two cars. While an electric car weighs much less (which would make them more efficient) and use fewer materials than a traditional gas car, the creation of Lithium Batteries comes with a large carbon cost. The Swedish Environmental Institute found that production of a smaller battery (30 kWh) released 1-5 tonnes of and a larger battery (100 kWh) released 6-17.5 tonnes of . For reference, most cars produce 10 tonnes of to make the other components of the vehicle. This may seem high, especially when compared to Lead-Acid Batteries. For a traditional Lead Acid battery, the EPA estimates that up to 80% of the battery can be recycled. We will discuss the important issue of battery recycling in a future blog post. But the battery is only half of the story with a vehicle.
The largest benefit of an electric car is the fact that the car itself produces no emissions, as it runs off a battery. This is where an Electric Vehicle becomes more sustainable, as long as the creation of that electricity doesn’t create more carbon emissions than burning gasoline. Every year our electric grid improves. According to UCSUSA “sustained lower natural gas prices have led to a declining share of coal-fired power and a rising share of electricity generated from natural gas,” (UCSUSA 9). This means that even though most electric cars are charged via the grid, they still produce much less than traditional gas vehicles. This varies based on the state you reside in. If you want to see the viability of an electric vehicle in your state, use the US Department of Energy’s Car Emission tracker. The link to this website is linked in the footer of this post. And, if the cars are recharged from solar power on the owners’ houses, the situation improves even further.
So, what is the conclusion? Although it may be dissatisfying, our best solution out of the climate crisis is moderation. There is simply no way we can consume our way out of the climate crisis, rather we must focus on reducing our usage. If you do decide to purchase an electric vehicle, make sure to buy a car based on your needs. Most drivers have short commutes and could live with a smaller battery in their car. This would make your car even greener. If you do have a gas car, take shorter trips, or plan out your routes to travel a shorter distance. A great way to find out more about your current car is by reading its Moroni sticker.
By reading this post you are helping yourself be more informed, keep it up! There is much more to the conversation of electric vehicles, and I would encourage you to continue learning. Everyone can help the planet, Sustainability is Universal!
Department of Energy Link: Alternative Fuels Data Center: Emissions from Hybrid and Plug-In Electric Vehicles (energy.gov)
By: Yasmin Ajirniar
At COP21, 196 parties signed the Paris Agreement. Considering it is the first legally binding act against climate change, the international treaty is monumental. It sets a goal: keep global warming temperature change below 2 degrees Celsius. In order to do so, countries must commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Individual plans to cut back GHGs are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). However, collaboration is encouraged to help countries meet their goals.
This is where carbon accounting, a process to quantify carbon dioxide equivalents of emissions, plays a role. The effectiveness of climate action relies on effective carbon accounting measures, especially to avoid double counting (when two countries report the same emissions reductions). Understanding these acronym helps understand how the numbers are crunched and how they stack up:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) is a United Nations body. Although it doesn't perform its own research, it complies and revises reports (e.g. Special Reports, Method Reports). Based on these reports, it objectively determines the current state of climate change. For its most recent report, check out its sixth assessment, AR6.
Internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMOs) are a form of trading that is allowed under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Since cooperation between nation states is allowed, it is important to avoid double-counting emissions reductions.
The global warming potential (GWP) is a metric to calculate emission. It does so by using the amount of heat absorbed by greenhouse gases to quantify emissions. While gases each absorb heat differently and have different atmospheric lifetimes, the effects of different gas on global warming can be compared using the GWP. For these calculations, carbon dioxide is a reference with a value of one; other values are then calculated (and tabulated in the EPA’s Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks).
Since its adoption in 1997, modifications have afforded more accurate standards (e.g. GWP* and GTP). Although similar, the differences between carbon accounting methods demonstrates the importance of data science. Combatting the climate crisis demands collaboration between policy makers, scientists, and researchers.
By: Tiffany Sill
An original photo by Jasmine Monroe.
Hot Topic: The Scientific Evidence of Global Climate Change
Global climate change is already occurring. The NOAA National Climatic Data Center has records showing the average surface temperature of the Earth has risen by 1°C (2°F) since the 1951-1980 mean.
The acidity of the ocean surface (the top 100 meters) has increased roughly 30% and warmed about .33°C (.6°F) because it absorbs carbon dioxide from emissions. The Antarctic ice sheet is shrinking at a rate of about 148 billion tons per year. Glaciers are retreating in the Alps, Alaska, the Andies, the Rockies, and the Himalayas.
Land-ice is melting causing sea-levels to rise by approximately 3.3 millimeters (.13in) per year, in addition by another 1 millimeter (.04in) per decade. Greenland alone is losing approximately 281 gigatons of ice per year. These changes are responsible for severe weather events such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, and tropical storms, which continue to occur more frequently as conditions intensify.
What’s worse is these events affect millions of lives and disproportionately take place in tropic and high latitude areas.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Dominica causing damages equaling over 220% of their GDP, and that doesn’t even touch on the loss of life associated with these phenomena. Over the past 30 years, global climate change has caused disasters with a monetary loss at a rate of approximately 2-3% of GDP per year for affected areas.
The scientific community is in consensus that these phenomena are detrimental to all life on the planet, and if allowed to continue, surface temperatures will quickly become unable to sustain life.
Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands causing over $102 billion in monetary damages.
Paying the Piper to Move Forward: The Cost of Carbon
Carbon-based fuels need to be phased out, emissions need to be dramatically reduced, renewable energy sources need to be made more efficient and more widely available, and land use and agricultural practices need to be re-evaluated and modified to increase sustainability. Policymakers have proposed a carbon tax to raise funds for research and development and infrastructure updates.
A deep caveat for a climate-driven policy is the need for “stress tests,” which will model accuracy, depth, and stability of unprecedented policies which pose huge multifaceted risks for society. Prior to implementing a push toward low-carbon renewable energy sources, the efficacy of producing enough energy will need to be tested.
The quick enactment of policies would yield a detrimental effect on businesses and society. Boone County West Virginia, in example, showed the coal tax yielding a large financial strain on the entire community.
This illustrates that climate-driven policies need to be carefully planned and executed to mitigate social disruption yet still reach the goal to make sure there is a planet for all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Hope for the Future
To reach global emissions targets, policy will need to account for the people who will be disproportionately affected by climate-based legislation. It will be necessary to build a framework to transition current carbon-industry workers into similar positions in the renewable energy sector. This creates the need for training programs to be implemented at the start of a decommissioning event.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development outlines an employee retraining program which will facilitate a skill transfer for engineering, technical, mechanical, business, and other types of positions from carbon-based industry into the renewable sector. There are a few decent examples of companies where this has been effective such as Anglo American a UK based mining company, and Siemens a German-based engineering company.
Coal-based markets are already on the decline. There has been a 40% decrease in coal-fired power generation and the loss of 100,000 coal-based jobs since the 1980s. While renewable energy is on the uptick and becoming more and more cost effective every year.
by Yasmin Ajirniar
Meet Alok Sharma. Once a chartered accountant for Deloitte and a banker, Alok Sharma began a career in the U.K. Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party. There he has served as in several governmental departments. In 2017, he worked as Minister of State for Housing and Planning before working as minister of State for Employment, Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, and Secretary of State of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.
On January 8th, 2021, he left his last position when he was appointed President of COP26. His appointment follows the dismissal of Claire O’Neilll—former Minister for Energy and Clean Growth--who was initially given the role in January 2020. According to the Guardian, negative comments about the conference and poor performance triggered her dismissal. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the actual motivation since reporting on the change in leadership is limited.
Since assuming the role as COP26 President, he has had meetings in over 30 countries; most recently, he visited Bolivia and Brazil. Considering these countries have been red-listed by the U.K. government, some members of parliament have criticized his extensive travel. While President Sharma defends the importance of his international travel, others point to his evasion of quarantine.
As President, he issued a formal letter on July 15th, 2021 in anticipation of the July Ministerial and the annual UNFCCC conference. He outlines four goals for COP26:
With respect to the first goal, President Sharma outlines several discussion questions for the Ministerial. Scaling up adaptation, evaluating the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) and addressing loss and damage all play a significant role in his agenda and the upcoming events. A key component of the Paris Agreement, the GGA requires its signatories to communicate and to work together towards a common goal: strength resilience, improve adaptive capacity, and reduce vulnerability. One of the questions President Sharma poses is “can we ensure an effective assessment of collective progress towards the GGA...”. It is also worth noting the emphasis on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and on inclusive climate action.
by Yasmin Ajirniar
The connection between women’s rights and climate action has been recognized and is well understood. Achieving greater women’s rights and women’s equality will mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. And, vice versa, mitigating the deleterious effect of climate change will improve the state of affairs for women. (see Paul Hawken’s Drawdown for an excellent explanation of this relationship).
The effect of climate change serves to aggravate existing inequalities and, therefore, affects women differently than their male counterparts. So, it is all the more important to have representative climate leadership-here are five inspiring contemporary female climate activists.
By sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Greta Thunberg reinforced her stance as a proponent for climate action. Her intention and accomplishment grasped the attention of international news and propelled her into a public role. However, up to that point, she had been vocal against the negligence and complacency of industry and government to take climate action. She has organized youth-led protests at schools, protested at the Swedish government, and delivered speeches at the World Economic Forum, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24 and COP25), and the UN Climate Action Summit.
Through the judiciary system, Tessa Khan has taken a stand against governments to advocate for strong climate action policies. She has worked for the Urgenda Foundation and cofounded the Climate Litigation Network, two non-profit organizations that seek to uphold international environmental agreements and support environmental court cases which has had global impact. Notably, the Urgenda Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Netherland government. The ruling, the government was acting responsibly in response to climate change, triggered multibillion dollar spending to reduce emissions and significant cut-backs in fossil fuels in the country. In Ireland, a similar case and ruling was issued, known as the Friends of the Irish Environment, v Government of Ireland. In addition to her work for climate action and sustainability, she seeks to improve the human condition by providing counsel to government and intergovernmental organizations on human rights.
As a landscape architect, Kotchakorn Voraakhom designs public spaces that are appropriate for the region, geography, and climate. As the climate crisis accelerates, natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods, extreme heat, and droughts will occur more frequently. Considering Thailand is already prone to flooding, it is increasingly more important to create infrastructure that is resilient. Here is where Kotchakorn Voraakhom excels: for example, the parks which she has designed can capture runoff water and redirect the excess water to wetlands.
Dr. Inez Fung’s impressive background is undeniable: she received her B.S. and PhD from MIT. Currently as a professor of atmospheric science at University of California, Berkeley, she studies climate change, the carbon cycle, and hydrologic cycle. With her expertise, she has authored high impact climate reports and research publications and delivered talks at GoogleTechTalk and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
Rhiana Gunn Wright
Rhiana Gunn-Wright’s deep understanding of the climate crisis stems not only from her formal education but also her personal experience. The effects of pollution on public health became immediately evident to her at a young age since she suffered from severe asthma. She went on to complete her undergraduate degree at Yale University and later studied at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. She has been credited for her major contribution to the Green New Deal and has been recognized by TIME Magazine for her fight against climate change.
By: Lucas Frye
Barack Obama has been lauded for his efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during his tenure as President. Under his administration, regulatory requirements for the largest industrial emitters were strengthened and executive action was used to incentivize decarbonization of the American economy. Despite these successes, President Obama’s climate legacy is today in tatters and we are hurtling more rapidly toward global humanitarian disaster. Nearly every concrete policy implemented during his eight years in office has been systematically dismantled in the last four. A simple change in the ruling party was sufficient to allow these reversals, which occurred through the same mechanisms by which the original rules were implemented. Some backsliding should not have been unexpected; the Presidency changes party nearly every time there is no incumbent to seek reelection. Yet, we do not observe reversals in every policy after every transfer of power. What makes other actions resilient to the political whims of the day? In crafting the next generation of climate policy, we should look at the failed attempts of the Obama administration, and think critically about the features that might have allowed them to stick around. I argue that a truly resilient policy has two key characteristics: enactment through concrete legislation, and content popular enough to make repeal politically infeasible.
The major reason it took so little time to put a bullet in each of Obama’s signature proposals is simple: it was easy. They were produced almost exclusively through unilateral executive action, meaning that his successor is able to modify or destroy them with the same ease and lack of oversight. This was the route of choice, because Democrats only held a majority in both houses of Congress between 2009 and 2011, and even then, they failed to pass significant climate action legislation. We could have implemented an emissions trading scheme, with the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, but it failed under total Democratic control. It never even came to a vote in the Senate, because the Democratic leadership didn’t want to risk the majority by threatening competitive seats. We could be a whole decade further along in cutting our emissions, but now we continue to accelerate toward catastrophe because of perceived electoral risk.
The irony is that these appeals to the center are not a safe bet and do not prevent alienation of one’s constituents. I can imagine very few voters are calling up their representative and asking for less action on the issues that are supposedly so important. In fact, this sort of dancing around the problems in order to avoid taking a real stand is one of the reasons these seats are so weak in the first place; Republican strategists and marketing experts are keen to seize upon the narrative of the weak, spineless, dishonest Democrat who seeks only to keep their power. Yet, the “moderates” craft weak, meaningless policy and then act surprised when Republicans not only successfully capitalize on these façades, but take their seats and start producing real legislation that works in the opposite direction. It’s as if incumbent Democrats hardly seem to consider or care how their work is going to be treated after they leave office—barring some conspiracy unbeknownst to me, they surely can’t believe they’ll have the majority forever. For the party of supposedly progressive values, this is blatantly reactionary behavior.
If these politicians actually spent their energy on ambitious policy with sweeping changes to the way we do business, they might just find that voters like a candidate with a little bit of vision for the future. If we really want to make it difficult for policy to be repealed, we must make laws that become quickly and broadly popular. This would increase the political risk for the opposition to take visible action against them. The major hindrance in the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act was its sharp rise in popularity once people became accustomed to the new structure of our healthcare system. To allow the public to undergo this adjustment, the changes made cannot occur on thirty-year timelines or require long-winded policy papers to explain; they must be understandable, tangible, and fast-acting enough that the law can actually be associated with its effects. Few people really care about the concept of global average surface temperature, but few can ignore changes to their work and livelihoods. Climate change legislation that is well-written and ambitious in timeframe should generate recognizable improvements that will significantly reduce the political capital to be gained from the acts’ removal. Opposing climate action would already be political suicide if the effects didn’t seem so far away from our day-to-day experience.
Take a package of legislation like the Green New Deal proposal advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT): it proposes radical transformation in a number of sectors to kickstart our emissions reductions on an unprecedented scale. The individual components focus not just on areas of traditional climate policy scope (regulating emissions from power plants, etc.), but combine these efforts with systems for improving the social safety net, reducing cost for consumers, and ensuring justice for communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis. As envisioned, fossil fuel workers would be assisted in transitioning to new high-paying careers in the fast-growing sectors of green energy, infrastructural improvement, sustainable agriculture, and others. The plan would provide for home efficiency improvements, public transportation expansion, and universal high-speed internet to reduce utilities and fuel costs for millions of households. It would provide a fund to assist communities in adapting to imminent climate impacts and recovery for the loss and damage already incurred. If you think this sounds politically risky, you’re not alone, but if politicians are committed to making resilient climate policy, they can leverage their political energy into getting these things done. If it works, the positive impacts will be felt quickly and dramatically, and then every conservative (or liberal) who voted against it will be remembered as voting against job creation, cheap energy, and the support of the climate refugees soon to be found within our own borders.
It is clear that we must shape strong and resilient climate policy if we are to have any chance of real action lasting beyond the reach of electoral wins. It is no longer sufficient to prioritize incremental change, when in the next election cycle, those improvements can be undone just as incrementally and even more rapidly. It is certainly not enough to create left-leaning majorities in our legislatures if those representatives are going to continue ignoring the imminent threat climate change poses. We know from our best scientific predictions that urgency and ambition are requirements if governments are to effectively respond to this global crisis. Despite this reality, politicians in competitive districts continue to labor under the assumption that bold action will surely lose them their seats, as if beating their opponents constitutes a platform in itself. This refusal to address the real problems is indeed a part of the reason their tenures are so fragile. Resilient legislation on climate change needs to be sweeping not only because of the dangers of inaction, but because a well-constructed policy can serve as its own spokesperson. Symbolic action or minor improvements to our systems will fail to address the root of the climate emergency, but also waste limited political capital on work that will fail to see the end of the next election cycle.
Everybody seems to know that the Earth is warming up. All across the news we see stories of Climate Marches, movements for climate policy, and conversations of 1 or 2 or 4 degrees Celsius increase. But what does that impact? Certainly, we could just turn down our air-conditioners a few degrees, or wear lighter clothing, and adapt to a few degrees temperature change just fine, right? The truth is, there are several impacts that climate change is having on our planet that are not solvable by clothes or air conditioners. Several of these effects are changing our ecosystems, which then impact us indirectly.
So what are some of the major effects that climate change is having on our Earth’s ecosystems beyond ‘turning up the heat’?
1) Ocean Acidification:
This phenomenon is a result of the main compound that impacts climate change: CO2 or Carbon Dioxide. The oceans and the atmosphere are always exchanging gasses, trying to reach equilibrium. This means that there is going to be the same proportion of gas, for example oxygen or carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere and in the ocean. When this Carbon Dioxide enters the ocean, it goes through a chemical reaction and turns into an acid.
All the animals that live in the ocean rely on the water’s chemistry to survive. Perhaps the most vulnerable species to this acidification are animals that make shells/skeletons of calcium carbonate. These are animals like Oysters or Corals! These animals are vital to creating habitat for our oceans, supporting fish populations, and in the case of oysters, even feeding humans directly!
Click here to see what NOAA's Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) is doing to monitor this!
2) Shifting/Shrinking Climate regions
The animals on the planet at this time are specifically adapted to living in the climates/habitats available right now. As the Earth warms, we are seeing changes in the temperature and rainfall patterns across the world. This changes the ecosystems that are available to animals, and also changes were certain ecosystems are found. For example, as the Earth is warming, deserts are increasing, pushing out grasslands and forests at their edges. Also, a warmer overall Earth drives many animals toward the North and South poles (the coldest parts of our planet) to stay in a comfortable temperature. This is seen in several marine species such as sharks. We are seeing animals venture into regions they are not traditionally found, impacting human use of these regions, as well as ecosystem interactions.
This shift is also causing a shrinking climate region for plants and animals living on a mountain. Plants that live on mountains can be very specifically adapted to their region, and their height on the mountain. As the Earth warms up, species are moving up these mountains (toward the colder mountain-top) to find the same temperatures they’re adapted to. This is a concern for animals and plants that take advantage of the mountain-top ecosystems, as they have nowhere to shift and are going to be exposed to increasing warmth. Read more about what the US Geological Survery has to say on this here!
3) Sea Level Rise
The sea levels are rising for two main reasons: Sea Ice Melt and Water Expansion. The sea ice melt is increasing the amount of water that is in the ocean, while water expansion is increasing the amount of space this water takes up.
Heat and Cold affect water volume kind of like how they affect the air in your tires. When the temperature outside drops suddenly, the air in your tires become very dense and take up less volume, causing your tire pressure warning lights to light up on your dashboard. The opposite is true as well, meaning that heat causes air (and water) to expand. The increasing temperature in the atmosphere is causing the ocean water to expand, meaning that sea level would rise even if no extra water was added.
Sea level is projected to increase by at least 1 foot by 2100 if we seriously limit our emissions rates and could rise as much as 8.5 feet if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at high levels. With 40% of the whole world’s population being within 60 miles of the ocean, it is important to begin making plans and adjustments to the land-loss we will likely experience. View an interactive map by NOAA here!
4) Global Loss of Species
The climate crisis we are currently facing is one of several reasons that Earth is experiencing a dramatically increased rate of extinction. The current rate of extinction is comparable to the past 5 mass extinctions the planet has seen (one of which was the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs!). There are several reasons this is occurring, including some of the reasons we’ve already mentioned. The loss of species is concerning because whether we realize it or not, we are very dependent on animals and plants for our own survival. Plants help to give us oxygen, and animals can provide ecosystem services like keeping pest populations under control (birds of prey and small mammals) and providing us with food (like fish or deer). We also can find many compounds in nature which help us cure diseases and solve human health problems. When we lose plant and animal species, we lose our chance to discover things about the world, and our chance to learn things that may help us be healthier.
Read more about this here!
5) Spread of Disease
Several diseases which cause harm to human population are what is known as ‘vector borne’ diseases. This means that these diseases spread by infecting a carrier. A great example of this is Zika in mosquitoes. As the world warms up, more of our Earth is experiencing things like long periods of heat, more rainfall, and fewer hard freezes. All of these allow mosquitoes to travel to and live in regions they never have before. As these insects travel far and wide, they bring with them diseases which have previously been uncommon or non-existent in these areas. This poses a threat to people in these regions who do have rarely been exposed to these diseases and have no immunity. Because of this, climate change can affect the infection rates around the world, making diseases like Zika, Malaria, and Dengue a threat to human health around the world. Read about what Stanford scientists have to say about that here!
So as you can see there are lots of impacts that climate change can have on the world besides just increasing the temperature. Helping to reduce all of these impacts could be costly and very challenging, but luckily the world is making moves toward a healthier future in lots of ways! Read blogs under our Technology Tab to learn about how advanced technology can reduce climate change effects, or head over to our Policy blogs to find out what some of the world leaders have to say about the future of climate policy. As always, stay tuned for blogs, podcasts, and social media interaction coming up!
By Lucas Frye
For decades, the issue of climate change has been framed as a crisis for the future, a problem that our children and grandchildren will need to solve. The messaging of the climate activists centered around long-term measures like global average temperature change and sea level rise, where changes on the order of degrees Celsius and inches have little meaning or significance to people without scientific backgrounds. Insufficient emphasis was placed on the human impacts that a changing climate is already having on hundreds of millions of people globally. This has allowed the political classes to delay climate action in the interest of short-term economic benefits and minimize the link between greenhouse gas emissions and the livelihoods of those they govern. The great threat to human life and dignity posed by the climate emergency is on our doorstep, and we need strong political will to reduce the damage.
Harms caused by anthropogenic climate change are referred to as “loss and damage” within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and include those resulting from both sudden-onset events, such as extreme weather, and slow-onset events, like sea level rise. Extreme weather events, like heat waves, droughts, cyclones, and storms are occurring more often and with greater intensity as the atmosphere warms. Higher temperatures cause increased evaporation of surface water, which results in drought in some places and extreme precipitation in others. In fact, regions that are generally dry are becoming drier and regions that are generally wet are becoming wetter. This combination of droughts and more intense rainfall are causing the loss of human life and damage to infrastructure in places like the Philippines, where Typhoon Phanfone has killed over 50 people. These changes in weather further promote food insecurity as crop yields decline and grazing land for livestock is lost.
Higher temperatures also cause thermal expansion of seawater and the melting of ice at the poles, resulting in sea level rise which can flood coastal areas and force people out of their homes. Increased flooding also poses threats to water security, as treatment facilities are disrupted and water quality declines. Lives are also being lost to the facilitated spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever, which thrive in extended breeding seasons promoted by rising temperatures.
Who is most at risk?
The climate emergency doesn’t affect all groups equally. The negative impacts are most severe for members of already disadvantaged communities. First, there is of course a regional dependence on exposure to climate hazards. Those who live in low-lying coastal communities will be the hardest hit by sea-level rise, as their homes will be subject to increased flooding and subsidence. There is also a strong economic tilt to this vulnerability: citizens of low-income countries suffer more than those in high-income countries, despite the latter being responsible for most of the emissions causing these problems. Food insecurity, water scarcity, and human dislocation pose the greatest threat to those without the wealth and mobility to adapt to climate change. Within countries, divisions of race and gender further place disproportionate suffering on the shoulders on those who are already least able to afford the high costs of rising emissions.
The climate emergency was foreseen well in advance, and yet today it takes a skyrocketing number of lives and irreversibly changes many more for the worse. As land shrinks beneath the sea and the land that remains becomes increasingly arid, the wealthy are paying to maintain their way of life, but the poor have little choice but to migrate, beg, and starve. These impacts are already unavoidable for millions in on the front lines of climate change, and it won’t be long before they are knocking on the door of industrialized nations as well. How much longer will it take the countries most responsible for the climate crisis to take an active role in solving it?