Our Environment

Where We've Been, Where We're Going

by grace villmow

The question on our minds the past month or so has been, “How badly can he mess this up?” But when it comes to the state of our planet, the question becomes, “How badly have we messed this up?” The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed on November 8th that the earth’s average temperature has risen 1 degree Celsius since we first started recording in 1880. With 2015 as the hottest year yet, 2016 set to top it, and 2011-2015 as the hottest 5-year period on record, the consequences of climate change take place in the form of extreme weather phenomena and a general trend of heat, which is why most people use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” synonymously. It should be noted that although the earth’s temperature is increasing on average, the term “climate change” more accurately describes the situation because it takes into account that the temperature in certain areas may stagnate or even decrease due to local weather patterns. The way climate change presents itself in our day-to-day lives is subtle or even nonexistent, but looking at weather trends over time, such as 2011-2015, allows us to better examine extreme events and how they relate to our planet’s increasing temperature.

Many people still have their doubts about whether or not climate change is caused by humans or not. This is a valid concern before critical analysis of the situation. After all, the earth has gone through different stages across millennia where temperature has risen and fallen, and these trends have had absolutely nothing to do with human existence. But around the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, humans started to affect the planet in a different way than any animal had ever managed to do before. Britain’s Industrial Revolution marked the shift from predominantly rural, agrarian societies to urban societies focused on manufacturing products. This dynamic is typically how we separate first world countries from third world countries today - whether or not they have industrialized. It was during this era that people started mass-producing not only goods, but also pollution. Greenhouse gasses, like CO2 and methane, absorb heat and act as a blanket around our planet. Without the greenhouse effect, our planet could not sustain life. Before the Industrial Revolution, the balance of gasses that kept Earth at an average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius remained within a 1-degree Celsius range for about 10,000 years. That number has since been nudged up to 16 degrees, as more countries industrialize and produce more greenhouse gasses.

It is the general scientific consensus that modern climate change, specifically this upward trend in temperature, is caused by humans. The pictured graph shows the average yearly temperatures that NASA has recorded since 1880 - the temperature increase is clear, and no, it’s not a coincidence. But climate change isn’t proven by graphs alone. Mathematically speaking, all those heat-trapping gasses that we produce can’t just disappear or stop trapping heat. The earth could warm up naturally like this, yes, but just because it has happened naturally in the past does not mean that humans aren’t involved now. This article is intended not to convince human-caused climate change deniers, but to analyze how the next four years will play out in the long run in terms of environmental policy and effect. That being said, I encourage any readers that have doubts about the plausibility of human-caused climate change to think critically before calling it a hoax made up by the Chinese.

So, our question: How badly have we messed this up? That depends on how you’d define “messed up”. A global temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius has not been the end of the world, but we have seen some of the damage it has done, especially in recent years. We’ve always had droughts, hurricanes, and severe weather occurrences, so no one is directly blaming California’s drought or last year’s El Niño on climate change. However, the comprehensive report published by the WMO on November 8th of 2016, The Global Climate 2016, analyzed whether or not human-caused climate change could be directly correlated to individual extreme weather events, and found that human-caused climate change increases the risks of these events, which include heatwaves, droughts, rainfall, and floods. Highlighting some of the most costly climate change-caused natural disasters of the last 5 years – the hottest 5-year period on record – The Global Climate 2016 is a clear reminder that this is not something for our children to worry about; this is something we are paying for right now. 2012’s Hurricane Sandy cost the United States over $67 billion in damages. 2015’s heatwaves of India and Pakistan took over 4000 lives. Oh, and to protect the rapidly-depleting Los Angeles Reservoir and combat California’s severe drought - which is still ongoing – the city of LA emptied 96 million “shade balls”, or black plastic spheres with a 4-inch diameter, into the water to the tune of $34.5 million (34 cents a ball). They work fantastically to prevent evaporation and algae growth, but if emptying millions of balls into our water supply isn’t a desperate cry for help, then I don’t know what is.

Our economy is already suffering from climate change, and this is only the beginning. 113 of 197 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, of which the “central aim is to strengthen global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. Why 2 degrees Celsius? Mostly because we regard the 2 degree Celsius mark as the point of catastrophe, but the truth is, we really have no idea. Some scientists see 2 degrees as an arbitrary goal set to unify nations, others foresee disaster from complete ice cap melts to mass extinctions. Most likely, we’ll at least see an increase in the severity and length of droughts and heatwaves to the extent that it may unsettle the global food supply. At the 2-degree mark, most scientists also agree that oceans will rise up to several feet, displacing millions of people that live in coastal areas. In fact, Justin Gillis, a science reporter for the New York Times, has already detailed how and where coastal flooding due to climate change is already occurring in his telling article Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun. The title says it all. And don’t forget, food supply disruptions and displacement of millions are only some of the effects climate change will have on humans. To discuss the integrity of our plant as a whole is too big a topic to span one article.

But how badly can Trump mess this up? The answer is “a lot” on a small scale and “not much” on a large scale. While we laud President Obama for his progressive environmental policies, he did not actually pass a single major environmental law throughout either of his two terms. Part of that is because Congress would not let him, but I think he also tended to focus more on other noble pursuits, like universal healthcare. Obama’s greatest environmental achievement actually hinged on a law passed by Nixon in 1970, the Clean Air Act, to increase regulations on a broad range of pollutants from mercury to soot. The Clean Air Act is useful because it’s meant to be flexible, so as time goes on, the EPA can keep returning to it and interpreting it more and more progressively. Of course, this has not been met without reservation. Many Republicans liken Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which goes before the Supreme Court in early 2017, to a “war on coal”. And conveniently enough, one of our President-Elect’s campaign promises was to revive the coal industry.

But before we talk about that, let me make a few things clear: Trump can lower regulations, but overturning the acts established in the 1970s by a Republican administration is not something he can easily do. And while he claimed that he will “cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale energy and clean coal”, he cannot stop investors from throwing money at green energy companies. And, no, he cannot bring the coal industry back – it would struggle to compete with cheaper, more efficient natural gas even without government regulation (also, clean coal doesn’t exist. CO2 is produced through burning coal regardless of how it us done, and the “clean” title only comes from the capture and storage of this CO2, usually underground).

This article is not intended as fear-mongering. The next four years are a step back. Maybe even several steps back; or come January 2017, we might even be running backwards. It is what it is. But looking realistically at what a Trump administration will do to the environment, it’s important to keep a few facts in our mind:

Please, please don’t get discouraged. Giving up is the worst possible thing to do at this point. Life precedes humans, and life will go on after humans. To my fellow students, the best way to combat these steps backward – and this does not just apply to environmentalism – is to keep doing what we are doing, and that’s getting an education. Educated people are the natural enemies to any administration that spits in the face of clear scientific evidence. Trump, while a major misstep during a crucial era, is not the end of environmentalism. So while you fight for your rights for the next four years - marriage, reproductive rights, healthcare - remember the ground under your feet and the food on your table. Millennials will be paying for most of the damage done to our environment so far, and it will be a far greater burden than any decreased regulations on carbon or coal will be able to alleviate. It is not fair, it is not right, but it is our duty to keep fighting for conservation, no matter how much conservatives themselves fight back. In the face of an already dire situation, I have confidence in our generation to help keep it from getting worse, even if the next four years are a massive blow. But a major change must be made: our earth must be prioritized over our economy. Until we find another habitable planet, Earth is the only one we have. Forget this whimsical idea that you can just go live on Mars once we terraform it - if we can’t even spare some jobs in coal country, what makes you think we’re suddenly going to invest in space travel?

What we need to do now is acknowledge that industries evolve, and jobs lost during this transition will be replaced in a new era of clean energy. No one is complaining that lightbulbs hurt the candle industry or that air travel hurts the boating industry, so there is no reason to complain about renewable energy companies and government subsidies towards them. We must acknowledge that environmentalism only hinders our economic progress if we keep fighting it, and even if it is expensive now, the preservation of life itself is more important than a few extra dollars in our pockets.

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