On the local news this morning I saw a report about the increasing incidence of mosquitoes found to be carrying the EEE virus in Massachusetts. EEE (Eastern equine encephalitis) is a virus that infects the body first and may infect the brain. It has many symptoms and is fatal to approximately one third of people who have the infection progress to the brain. Those that recover could have permanent neurological damage. Scary stuff. Read more about it on the CDC website. Not all mosquitoes carry the virus, but since it’s hard for anyone but an entomologist to distinguish between mosquitoes, you should try to avoid all of them.
Avoiding mosquitoes is getting harder. This is thanks to, you guessed it, climate change. Tropical and subtropical mosquitoes are expanding their ranges north and south as conditions improve for them in temperate areas. Here in New England for example, our summers are getting longer (not astrologically of course, but the warm period is expanded) and our winters are erratic, temperature-wise. We have also been getting more intense precipitation and that trend will likely continue into the future (IPCC 5th Assessment, National Climate Assessment). Longer summers means that mosquito populations can reproduce more often, there is greater hatching success, and higher biting rates (Scientific American). Populations can migrate over those extra generations to new areas. Data shows that the Asian tiger mosquito, known to carry over 30 viruses including EEE, yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika, are expanding into the Northeast. This tropical mosquito is likely to make it all the way up into Maine by the last quarter of the century.
So, what to do? We can’t stop them from coming. That ship has sailed thanks to our fossil-fueled selfish behavior and refusal to change. Here are some things you have probably heard a million times: avoid being outside during mosquito-laden hours such as those between dusk and dawn, wear long-sleeves and pants (very comfortable in the summer), and make sure there is no standing water for eggs to be laid in. Often the response of local governments is to spray pesticides and encourage the personal use of bug spray products that contain deet. While the EPA deems deet safe to use, I am wary of anything that comes with all these warnings:
Let’s talk about pesticides for a bit. Many pesticides kill helpful insects such as pollinators and mosquito predators. In terms of human health, many pesticides are endocrine disrupters. They cause problems for reproductive systems. Pesticides also tend to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chains, particularly aquatic food chains. This could lead to reduced predator populations and increased exposure to pesticides by humans who eat fish. For more on this, see my previous post about microplastics (7/2/19). So needless to say, I’m not a fan of blanket-spraying of pesticides, which is what many towns do when something like West Nile or EEE is detected in local mosquitoes.
Chemical-free alternatives to keeping your environs mosquito-free include putting up bat houses in your yard (if they are still around where you live, bats have some problems of their own...too much of a digression for this post) and saturating your outdoor seating areas with citronella candles and plants that repel mosquitoes like. Plus there are lots of “natural” alternative bug sprays. I’ve tried a lot of the “natural” sprays and lotions and I like Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent the best. It works well and smells good.
But of course we have to circle back to the Big Picture. We have to deal with more and more mosquitoes and other insect disease vectors because of global warming. Healthcare costs are going to increase, more pesticides will be put into the environment, we might even see the reemergence of malaria in this country. It’s time for drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For that we need to have a sea change in the political leadership of our country and a sea change in the behavior of individuals. On the politics front, of course we need an administration in the White House next time around that cares about the environment and the future of humanity, that goes without saying, but there are also a lot of old-guard politicians across both parties in the House and Senate that are beholden to fossil fuel companies and other big industries that lobby against climate change action. Those legislators need to be replaced with a new generation of future-thinking ones. People who care more about the future of humanity and the rest of the natural world and less about enriching themselves with money and power. (Side note: the current White House gang has managed to do a lot of damage to the environment on the DL. Fortunately Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is tracking these setbacks. Click here for some depressing shit.)
On the individual level, you all know what you need to do. (If not, see my previous posts for suggestions!) Spread the word. We need more people talking about making change and also showing change through their actions. Change catches on. Think about how many places carry vegan foods now. When I ask if something is vegan in a restaurant now, people know what that means. That was not the case even a decade or less ago. When I was in high school, I was the only vegetarian, let alone vegan, and I got made fun of a few times by some ignorant peers. Now, typically a handful of my students are vegan and a dozen or so, at least, are vegetarian every year, and many more talk about eating fewer animal products for the sake of the environment; keep in mind I only see a small fraction of the school’s population. Change happens. Not nearly fast enough so far, but any progress is still progress, so I have to keep a bit of optimism alive.
I talk about microplastics a lot with my students. This is mostly in the context of marine food chains, including fishes that are eaten by people. Microplastics themselves are toxic but they also act as tiny magnets for other toxins such as PCBs (a known carcinogen), mercury and other heavy metals (neurotoxins), BPA, phthalates, and pesticides like DDT (a carcinogen that also interferes with reproductive systems; banned here, but not in other countries). These toxins are all fat soluble. That means that once they are in your body, they hunker down in your fat cells instead of being flushed out of your body with your water-based liquid wastes. The greater the concentration, the greater the effects. The higher up in the food chain you are, the more of these toxins you have stored up in you. Science teacher moment: on an individual level this is called bioaccumulation (building up in a lifetime) on a food chain level it’s called biomagnification, with the top levels having higher (magnified) amounts built up in them because they eat a lot more.
A study published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology compiled data on microplastics in bottled water, seafood, sugar, honey, alcohol, and air and analyzed that data in the context of average consumption rates of Americans and activity levels (summary here; note that this summary does not report on inhalation of microplastics, only consumption). While the analysis makes a number of assumptions and was not able to include major dietary factors such as grains, meats, and dairy, the results are alarming and, even more alarming, are likely a gross underestimate of the amount of microplastics that enter the human body annually. The average American adult male may ingest nearly 60,000 and adult female nearly 54,000 microplastic particles annually, most of that through bottled water and seafood. Bottled water averages 94 particles per liter, while tap water averages 4 particles per liter. Another very compelling reason to ditch the bottled water habit (see some other reasons in my April 12 post, “#banthebottle”). Of course some towns and cities have to do some work to ensure safe tap water for their citizens, but that’s a whole other story. In terms of seafood, of course, the more you eat, the more microplastics enter your body (bioaccumulation!). What you eat also makes a difference. Big predatory fishes such as tuna and swordfish will likely have more plastics in them than planktivorous fishes such as anchovies (biomagnification!). Consumption is not the only route for microplastics to enter your body. Males may inhale an additional 60,000-120,000 (females 48,000 to 100,000) microplastic particles per year. Many plastics are volatile, meaning that they spontaneously emit particles to the atmosphere or to the liquids they are immersed in. You know that new car smell? Airborne plastic particles. Just one example of thousands.
So, what is the solution? We are stuck with all the plastics that have ever been made (over 8,300,000,000 metric tons of it) so they will remain a problem forever. We need to move away from producing new plastics. I don’t see this happening any time soon, since global production in 2015 was 380 metric tons and the annual production growth rate is high (8.4%; Geyer et al. 2017). We have become a “throw away” society and a society in which both convenience and consumer demand for cheap products are driving product manufacturing and development. Think about the packaging that is on nearly everything now. I’m hard-pressed to find items in my grocery store that do not have some sort of plastic wrapping or container. I’ve been buying a few things in bulk lately to cut back on the plastics that I have to throw away at home, but that is really just a drop in the bucket. We need a whole new system.
Consumers need to start demanding a return to glass bottles and start eating whole, unprocessed foods. Random small example: I stopped buying a particular brand of salad dressing years ago when they went from glass bottles to plastic ones. When I e-mailed the company to complain, I got the response that the plastic bottles were recyclable. Of course, I wrote back about how plastics can only be down-cycled and glass can be recycled forever and then expressed my intent never to buy their products again. I did not get a second response from them. Now I buy salad dressing from Trader Joe’s (all glass bottles!...but many other items in plastic, you can’t ever really win) or mix up some olive oil and vinegar. There are plant-based, compostable alternatives to plastic but those of course are more expensive now because of low demand. Of course, packaging is not the only place plastics are used. Many vehicles today have bumpers made of plastic and interiors composed mostly of plastic. There is plastic furniture. I’m looking across my room at a plastic fan. It’s kind of crazy how many things we use are composed of plastic.
Back to the question of what do we do? For a start (shooting for the stars here) I would like to see federal legislation requiring manufacturers to replace fossil fuel plastic packaging with compostable, plant-based products and I would like to see federal legislation requiring all take out containers, single-use straws and utensils and shopping bags to be compostable. These things exist. They just need to be cheaper for stores, companies, restaurants, and consumers to purchase than fossil fuel plastics. That means we need to create a greater demand for those plant-based products in tandem with taking away the fossil fuel industry subsidies. If plastics were more expensive at the source, the market would naturally shift to alternatives. It’s back to my common theme: money drives everything. You can start by taking small steps like I have to try and cut back on plastic packaging. What you put out in the environment will come back to you in your food, water, or air (karma!). You can also support plastic banning legislation in your town, city, or state and let your federal legislators know that you’d like them to take some action too. Write e-mails, make phone calls, go to town meetings. Collective consumer action is a critical piece.
We reached a new high in May (new high numerically, new low for humanity): 414.8 ppm of CO2 was recorded as the average for May at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in May. This is the highest level of CO2 in the atmosphere in human history and for sure over the last 800,000 years or so, according to Antarctic ice sheet data. Despite dire warnings from climate scientists for decades now, we are still keeping on track for the “worst case scenario.” What will be the turning point? When will the majority of people start taking this seriously?
Students often lament that even if they change something in their lives to reduce carbon emissions, it’s nothing compared to all the other people on the planet, all the companies, and all the energy producers. I chastise them for this, noting that if all 7.5 billion humans made efforts to reduce emissions we could make a huge difference and that all the little things you do add up over time. This is true of course, but in a way they are right. What I do is a drop in the bucket. Mostly it makes me feel less guilty about living in the most wasteful country in the world.
We need a cultural shift in personal behavior (like diet, reducing food waste, driving fuel efficient vehicles or not driving at all) and we need a cultural shift in industry. A glimmer of hope on that front: the CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) just published a report that many businesses are realizing the threat of climate change to business-as-usual, with some expecting to see effects on their profits within the next five years. It’s the concern for their bottom lines that may finally instigate real change and progress in the fight to lower carbon emissions. Extreme weather disrupting supply chains, crop shortages, and future regulation on greenhouse gas emissions amongst other climate-related issues all could total to trillions of dollars in losses. As I’ve said before, money is a big motivator. I wish we still lived in an era in which a consumer boycott could convince companies to change their practices, tuna boycott of the 1980s. Of course that can’t happen because a few companies own almost everything. Boycotting one company would mean boycotting hundreds of products. Probably unrealistic as a consumer movement. We need something big. Maybe the threat to profits will instigate change on a corporate level. There is only so much cost they can pass on to the consumer, right?
I just learned of four bills in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee that each in some way address the issues of ocean acidification. Of course I immediately wrote to my representative, Katherine Clark to encourage her to co-sponsor these bills and then vote for them when they reach the full House floor. Below is what I sent to her:
“I am writing to ask you to co-sponsor House bills recently approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee: H.R. 1237 (“COAST Research Act of 2019), H.R. 1716 (“Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act of 2019), H.R. 1921, (“Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2019”), and H.R. 988 (“NEAR Act of 2019”).
These bills all address the critical issue of ocean acidification. As I’m sure you are aware, ocean acidification is the “other carbon problem,” the first being global warming. The atmosphere and ocean interact with each other over approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface. This interaction leads to the absorption of millions of tons of carbon dioxide by the ocean every year. This is lowering the pH of the ocean and, due to a series of chemical reactions, reduces the availability of carbonate in the ocean. Carbonate is a critical ingredient for most shells and skeletons of marine life, including corals, plankton, shellfish, and crustaceans. Lack of carbonate is making it difficult for many larval organisms to develop and many adult organisms to grow. Extra energy has to be devoted to maintaining their structural components. This energy is diverted from energy that would otherwise be used for reproduction. This is leading to smaller population sizes of many planktonic organisms that start the food chains in the ocean. Reduced plankton populations translates into reduced populations of almost all other organisms in the ocean, including commercial fish and shellfish species and marine mammals. As a New Englander, I’m sure your recognize the importance of commercial shellfish and fish industries and whale watching tourism industries to our Massachusetts economy.
Please support the passing of these important bills by cosponsoring them and then voting for them when they make it to the full House floor for a vote.”
I encourage readers to contact their representatives as well. It’s important that our elected leaders know that we care about these issues. One state legislator once told me that a handful of constituents speaking up for something can sometimes be enough to motivate an elected officials to support the cause, because she or he assumes that for each person that cares enough to speak up there are probably many others who feel the same. If you want use my letter, go for it. Get your voice (or mine) out there.
Recently NPR released the results of a survey on teaching climate change in schools. Just over one thousand adults and five hundred teachers (presumably also adults, kind of strange wording) were surveyed. Of those surveyed, the majority of teachers, parents, and Democrats agreed that climate change and its impacts should be taught in schools. Just less than half of the Republicans surveyed (49%) thought the same. Interestingly, 12% overall thought that schools should teach students that climate change is happening but that they should not teach students about the impacts. I imagine this is because they deem the impacts “too scary” for impressionable youth. This hunch is backed up by the stat that 20% of teachers that were polled said their students were “too young” to learn about climate change. I personally think a bit (or more) of fear about climate change impacts is just what we need. I don’t sugar coat climate change when I teach my students (you should know that I teach high school students). I want them to be worried. I want them to make changes to how they live their daily lives so that they reduce their carbon footprints. I want them to demand change from their lawmakers and corporations they buy products from. People need to get scared. I asked my students about this today. They said it was important to learn about the impacts because it makes them want to do something. Some students have reported switching to a vegetarian diet. Others have reported unplugging electronics and chargers when not in use. Many have switched to reusable water bottles. They would not have been motivated to make those changes if they were not worried about the impacts of climate change.
The IPCC, at the request of the United Nations, published a report this past autumn on what effects we can expect to see if the average temperature of Earth increases by 1.5°C and 2°C. The Paris Agreement was focused on actions that would limit warming to this 1.5°C, acknowledging that greater increases would have widespread catastrophic impacts. We are going to hit the 1.5°C mark by 2030. It’s likely that we will see 3-4°C, or more, increases by the end of the century if we keep going with the current status quo. Often I don’t get much of a reaction from my students with the 1.5°, 2°, or even 3°C predictions. They, and most of the general public, don’t understand that 1.5° is an increase for the global average. The average of all temperatures on the planet. The poles are warming much faster than other places. For example, in 2016 parts of the Arctic were 6-12°C warmer than the average temperature between 1951 and 1980 (NOAA). Those differences in temperature have huge implications for the Arctic ecosystem. Warmer temperatures in the winter lead to less thick sea ice and faster melting of sea ice in the summer. Many Arctic organisms rely on the Arctic sea ice for breeding (seals) and feeding (polar bears, among many others). Additionally, increased exposed ocean surface area leads to higher rates of CO2 absorption. When CO2 dissolves in the ocean it makes an acid. The oceans are acidifying. One consequence of this is that the availability of carbonate decreases. Carbonate is a necessary ingredient for MANY organisms in the ocean to make their shells and skeletons. As carbonate decreases, so do the populations of plankton, corals, and shellfish. Many of these organisms form the base of the food chain. Reductions in plankton populations in the Arctic have reverberating consequences for most species in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Ok, I spent more time on the Arctic than planned. That was a bit of a tangent, but all stuff people should know. If you’re reading this blog you probably don’t need convincing that climate change is real and is having impacts already and likely will have devastating impacts in the future. But there are many people out there in the world that don’t “believe in” climate change (ie people that don’t accept or understand the science). Education is so important, for students and for teachers. Part of the problem is that many teachers don’t have the science background or feel they know enough about climate change to teach about it. If you look at the graph below, 17% of the 505 teachers surveyed confirm that this lack of knowledge keeps them from teaching climate change, so we need to teach the teachers.
The main reason that the teachers surveyed don’t teach climate change is because “it’s not related to the subject(s)” that they teach. I think this is kind of a lame excuse. Climate change impacts everything: economics, migration of people, health, tourism, aesthetics. Historic climate change had major impacts on Medieval Europe and Latin American civilizations, presumably we should be learning about the future by studying our history. There is a growing genre of climate change novels that could be incorporated into English classes. There is a wealth of data to be analyzed in math and statistics classes. I think that climate change could be worked into almost any course. For example, I teach Biology and Environmental Science. Environmental Science is an elective for seniors and is the only science class in the school that teaches about climate change, so only a small cohort of students gets that learning experience, so I work in climate change into my Biology course curriculum too. I’m lucky to teach in a school in which my fellow Biology teachers agree that all students should learn about climate change, so we all incorporated climate change into our unit on photosynthesis and cellular respiration. We talk about the natural carbon cycle with those two processes and then connect to how humans are interfering with that natural cycle. This, of course, meant we had to cut back elsewhere in the curriculum to have time to fit it in and climate change perhaps intuitively makes more sense to talk about in a Biology class than an English class, but again, climate change impacts everything, so I believe we should be talking about it everywhere.
As a teacher I understand that we make choices about what we have time to teach based on the state learning standards, and usually there is not enough time. And some teachers don’t have a lot of choice in terms of what they can spend time on. So there really needs to be a push on higher levels in the education hierarchy to make climate change education a priority. That change will only come if teachers and parents advocate for it. If you think this is important, contact your school committee members, your legislators and your state’s department of education. Get a discussion going. If you have kids, at “Open House” or “Back to School” nights or parent-teacher conferences, ask their teachers to teach about climate change. If you’re a teacher, try to work climate change into at least one curriculum unit or at least one day of the school year. We need a public that understands climate change and its consequences. “Knowing is half the battle” (children of the ‘80s will get that reference).
A week ago, a report was released by the United Nations’ IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) group that garnered a lot of attention by the media, even making it onto late night talk shows. This report stated that one million species are on the verge of extinction due to human activities and climate change. That’s 1,000,000 different organisms. Think about that. We are in the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. The major difference this time is that a species (us) is causing the extinctions to happen (as opposed to a major asteroid impact, for example, when we lost the dinosaurs).
Jimmy Kimmel had some “fun” with this news, asking people on the street if we should save the Homo sapiens. I’m sure the interviews were cherry-picked for optimal entertainment, but sadly none of the people in the interviews he showed knew that Homo sapiens are humans. You should watch the video before reading on. Warning: there are some cringe-worthy moments.
People in this video bring up some commonly held opinions/ideas. One is that if someone hasn’t heard of a species then we can obviously live without it. Why save the Homo sapiens if we haven’t noticed them before this? The answer is simple. Biodiversity provides us with ecosystem services.
Ecosystem services include things like making oxygen that we need to breathe, filtering water, sequestering carbon, making soil so we can grow food, decomposing waste, and so on and so on. Imagine if we didn’t have bacteria or fungi. Our planet would look like the Earth portrayed in the Pixar movie Wall-E. There’s a great review article in PNAS journal that details many of these services. It was published in 1995, so it’s old now by science standards, but still relevant. There was also a movement in the 1990s to place value on these ecosystem services, a nod to the sad fact that, at the end of the day, it all boils down to money. A paper published in 1997 estimated that biodiversity provided us with $33 trillion worth of ecosystem services. In other words, if we had to do all the work that nature just does normally, we’d have to spend an awful lot of money. An update was published in 2014 estimating the value of ecosystem services at $145 trillion dollars. When we lose biodiversity, we lose money. That should have been the title of the UN report. Then maybe people would be more worried.
So, what can the average person do about this crisis? Buy less stuff. To make stuff, natural resources are mined or harvested. These practices destroy habitats and decimate populations. Eat less meat. The number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon forest is animal agriculture. Land to graze animals and land to grow monocultures to feed animals. Nearly 70% of the food that is grown in the U.S. is used to feed animals, not humans. Imagine if we grew crops to feed humans directly? We’d be able to let land go wild again. I’d love to see a day when natural habitats are expanding, not being destroyed. Also, try to avoid palm oil. Palm oil plantations are the biggest driver of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Africa. Palm oil is in MANY things. This shift came after the uproar over trans fats (unsaturated fats that have saturated). To assuage public panic about the unhealthiness of trans fats, companies replaced them with palm oil, which is naturally saturated. So, really the same thing. But it’s cheap and “natural”. And it keeps fats solid at room temperature. The World WIldlife Fund has an informative page listing some palm-oil containing products and a list of sneaky names that palm oil hides behind. It’s super hard to avoid palm oil. I just found a vegan butter to replace the palm-oil containing margarine that I use on occasion. Now I have to work on everything else. I recommend learning more about palm oil and deforestation and then write letters to companies urging them to find alternatives. Recently a student found a lab based in Somerville that is working on developing a synthetic palm oil in the lab using microbial fermentation. Demand change as a consumer. Remember the tuna boycott of the 1980s? That proved that consumer demand can make a big difference. Eventually these companies will come around. Hopefully before the rainforests are all gone.
Today is World Penguin Day! I’m celebrating by showing this video of Adelie penguins to my classes. You should watch the video before you continue reading.
Now imagine living in a world in which that cuteness was unable to go on. There are only two full-time resident penguin species in Antarctica, the Adelie and the Emperor (of the famed March of the Penguins). Both are threatened by the changing climate.
Since Adelie penguins are my favorites, I’m going to focus on them.
Here’s some alarming data. Between 1975 and 2002 the number of breeding pairs of Adelie penguins decreased by 73% (Smith et al. 2003). During this period, krill density fluctuated up and down but with a general trend towards a decrease. In fact, krill density in the Southern Ocean in 2003 was only 10% of the average density recorded between 1982 and 2003 (Atkinson et al. 2004). The krill decline was in turn correlated with loss of sea ice around Antarctica. In 2001 there sea ice extent around Antarctica was just over 28% less than the average extent between 1980 and 2001 (Palmer LTER archive data). Krill eat algae and algae can only grow on the underside of sea ice during the winter. Adelie penguins eat krill and fish that eat krill. Less results in fewer penguin chicks. Food is not the only problem for Adelie penguins. Warmer water around Antarctica leads to more snow in the winter. This snow melts during the nesting season, inundating chicks with water leading to high death rates due to hypothermia, as they are sitting in frigid water in their nests (Fraser and Patterson 1997).
You may be asking yourself, why does it matter if we lose Antarctic penguins? Well, obviously we’d lose a lot of cuteness from the world. But on a more serious note, a loss of penguins would be a harbinger of much bigger disaster. If penguins disappear, that most likely means that their food has disappeared. Krill, a penguin dietary mainstay, is THE food source for the Antarctic. If organisms don’t eat krill, they eat something else that eats krill. Whales, fishes, seabirds, and seals all ultimately rely on a stable krill population. Krill are also sought after by commercial fisheries for the omega-3 fatty acid industry. So if penguins are gone, krill is probably gone along with many other species.
So...help a penguin out! You can make at least one change in your life to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, here are some easy changes (see also my list in my “Footprints” entry, 3/21):
use less electricity: unplug chargers and appliances you are not using, open up shades
and curtains and just use sunlight (lights are off in my classroom today!),
run dishwasher & laundry when full only
eat fewer animals: it’s easy to plan plant-based meals, try to cut out animal products two
days a week
drive less: plan your errands for the week so that you can get the most done with the least driving
Today I’ve been brainstorming other ways (besides what I listed in my 3/21 “Footprints” entry) that I can reduce my emissions. One thing that I think I can reliably enter into my repertoire is buying grains in bulk. Earlier this month I wrote a lot about reducing my trash output (see 4/3 entry “Composting”). What I’ve noticed lately is that my remaining trash is mostly packaging. As a reminder, it’s important to reduce the amount of material going to landfills because landfills are a big source of methane. Also, plastics are made of oil and take a lot of energy (typically fossil fuels) to make. All grains seem to come in plastic packaging that is not recyclable. Buying grains in bulk will help cut back our trash output even more. I can bring my own bags to put the bulk grains in, and reuse them every time. One more small step in the journey to living as sustainably as I can.
It’s that time of year again. The morning weather report includes a pollen forecast (today we’ll have moderate pollen levels from poplars, junipers, and alders in the Boston area) and I have started a daily regimen of antihistamines with breakfast.
I’m thinking of buying stock in over-the-counter allergy medications as the growing season is ever increasing and pollen counts have been rising, increasing by 32% from 1900 to 2000. By 2060 we are predicted to see 62% higher pollen concentrations than we had in 2000 (https://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/more-co2-more-pollen, see graph below)!
I believe that a lot of the inertia we see in the public for taking personal actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is due to the fact that most people view climate change as something that will affect the future or affect far away places. They don’t understand that climate change is happening now and it’s changing the course of nature everywhere. And nature affects all of us which is very evident during growing season months when a majority of the public has itchy eyes and runny noses. I go through many more tissue boxes in the spring in my classroom than I do through the winter.
The media focuses (rightly) on the “big” stuff around climate change (hurricane intensity, drought, fires, sea level rise) but misses on the less obvious stuff like increasing pollen counts. The message needs to get out there that everyday life is affected by climate change. Then I think people will start to shift from apathy to action.
A couple of days ago one of my students walked into class proudly brandishing his new metal water bottle. Last week we had focused on waste production, harping a bit on single use plastics. Until this week that student had been bringing a single use plastic water bottle to school every day, maybe even more than one. I told him that is a great step, that every little bit counts. And it really does.
On average, the production of a single use plastic water bottle emits 2.19 pounds of carbon dioxide (extrapolated using Gleick and Cooley 2009 and www.carbonfund.org). Imagine that my student has used one single-use bottle every day he has been in high school so far. That’s roughly 674 school days. His choice of using a single use plastic water bottle for all of those days would have resulted in 1,476 pounds of carbon dioxide to have been released into the atmosphere. And that would be for school days only, and during his high school years only. Imagine the lifetime numbers!
Now think about this: roughly 1,000,000 single use plastic bottles are purchased every minute all over the world (The Guardian). That’s 2,190,000 pounds of carbon dioxide just for the bottles purchased in one minute. Humans have developed a terrible addiction to plastic and the climate implications are staggering.
Pile on top of that the fact that most plastics are not recycled. They end up in landfills and the ocean. I could write for DAYS on the effects of plastic on marine ecosystems and human health, so stay tuned for that.
Having your own reusable (preferably ceramic or metal, I like stainless steel) does make a difference and it’s so easy! If you don’t care about environment (which I’m sure is not true if you are taking the time to read this blog) at least think about your health. Harmful compounds leach from plastic into the liquids or foods that they are holding. Even if a bottle says BPA-free, it’s still full of bad stuff. More to come on that later, too.
I’ve been talking about waste, recycling, and composting with my students this week. Every year when I cover this topic I am shocked at the numbers, this year is no different. According to the EPA we collectively generate over 260 million tons of waste every year in the United States. Food waste is 16% of that total and only 0.8% is composted.
Mini-science lesson: When food waste is composted properly it is turned over frequently to provide aeration to bacteria which need oxygen to use the food waste as their own food source. This process creates carbon dioxide (just like we do when we “burn” our food) and fertile soil. When food waste is sent to a landfill it decomposes in a very low oxygen environment (there’s no turning over of a garbage dump). The bacteria that function in a low oxygen environment produce methane instead of carbon dioxide. On a short time scale (20 years), methane traps approximately 85 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (EPA) and on a longer time scale (100 years) methane traps approximately 32 times more heat than carbon dioxide (EPA).
I moved into my house in the summer of 2017. For the previous decade I had just been throwing my food waste into the wooded area behind my condo building, usually early morning before my neighbors were up and able to complain about it (we had lots of wildlife that we were encourage not to feed, so I had to be covert). Without food waste and with recycling lots of things, we ended up throwing one small bag of garbage out every month instead of a bag every week. It was great. When we moved to the house, I wanted to start composting but was a bit intimidated by the work to actually do it right (building a compost bin, turning it over frequently, getting the right balance of materials, etc) and I was already overwhelmed by the move itself, all the things that needed doing around the house, and yard upkeep. I definitely did not want to just throw food waste in a corner of my yard and I’m not a gardener, so compost is not something that I need in my life. Imagine how excited I was to find out that we had inherited participation in a curbside composting pick-up trial our town was running. I was thrilled to start “legit” composting with the town.
This fall the trial ended but service continued seamlessly with a private company. Now we have to pay to compost (but it works out to less than $2 per week) but they take more stuff, like pizza boxes, tissues, hair/pet fur, etc that you can’t recycle and would normally go in the trash. So now, between composting and recycling, we generate a small “kitchen” bag of waste every 3-ish months.
OK. Refer to the mini-science lesson above. Landfills create lots of methane, which traps way more heat than carbon dioxide. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of stuff you send to a landfill will help to reduce methane emissions. Composting is a huge part of that because it makes up a significant percent of waste in landfills. Project Drawdown has identified food waste reduction as one of the top 5 things to work on (along with plant-based diets!) to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This puts reducing food waste ahead of solar and other renewable energy sources as solutions.
Check out if your town/city has curbside composting or a town drop-off site. If you live in the Boston Metro area, check to see if Black Earth Compost picks up in your town, if it doesn’t, approach your town sustainability coordinator or waste management division and encourage them to check it out. Composting actually saves towns money. Sending things to a landfill is much more expensive than composting, which can actually make money because people will pay for compost for their gardens. Like I’ve said before, motivation is often linked to money, which I’m ok with if it encourages people to do the right thing for the environment.