In what has now become a film classic, the world was introduced to the fascinating lives of emperor penguins. Who doesn't love watching penguins waddle along, heads bobbing side to side with the effort? I love that they look like the longest receiving line at a black tie event, that image being shattered by the ones that get tired of marching and slide along on their bellies for awhile. Then, as if the feat of marching 60-100 miles on what might be some of the shortest legs per body size was not enough, the females turn around after passing an egg off to the males, marching back 60-100 miles while the males endure the burnt of an Antarctic winter by walking around in a massive group huddle for months all while holding their egg on top of their feet. Emperor penguin parents might be the most dedicated in the world.
Now emperor penguins appear to be marching towards extinction. A recent study by a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute predicts that if climate change continues on the current track, these magnificent birds (which have persisted as a species for approximately 60 million years, p.s. way longer than modern humans have been around, 300 times longer to be exact-ish) could disappear forever by the end of this century. Most people will not be impacted by the loss of penguins. They'll be sad for a bit because penguins are so cute and Happy Feet etc., but they have other more pressing concerns. Of course, penguins don't impact our daily lives, but I believe strongly we have to question the morality of allowing what will likely be a mass extinction event this century, because, newsflash, emperor penguins are not the only species at high risk due to climate change (see my post from 5/14/19 "Biodiversity crisis"). For all those out there who champion the preservation of life, don't you think that should include all life, not just human life?
The good news of course is that the United States is fully committed to the Paris Agreement, making great strides at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging the development of renewable energy technologies...oh wait, that was a dream I had. In real life, the democracy-undermining, science-denying White House inhabitants started the process of removing our country from the Paris Agreement this week. Of course this is just a formality, they have been wrecking the environment in every way possible since day one of this administration (remember this deregulation tracker?). Now is the time for drastic actions, not "business as usual", and certainly not the time for rolling back the little progress that had been made. I reiterate that every person should do as much as she or he can on a personal level, plus everyone should be encouraging (or even nagging) their elected officials to do everything they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Skim through these blog entries for ideas of personal actions you can take. You need to get fired up, because our planet is on fire.
Since composting is going so well for me at home, I decided to carry that over into school. The cafeteria at school already has composting, but I do my best to avoid the cafeteria at lunchtime. It’s a madhouse. So I put a small bin in the refrigerator in the Science Department’s lunch/printing & copying center/makeshift office space (space is at a premium, so we use rooms for many purposes) for food scraps and a separate bin next to the fridge for paper towels and tissues. So far some people are using the bins, but we’re not near 100% yet. I may have to start weekly reminder e-mails. One of my colleagues has started a worm composting bin in his classroom, so we’re competing for food scraps. Not a bad problem to have!
I also put a bin in my classroom for tissues and paper towels. Right next to the tissue box and hand sanitizer. I think it’s really important to model sustainable behaviors for students. Eventually my hope is that these behaviors become routine for them.
Today I did my weekly grocery run and as usual brought a bunch of reusable produce bags. Two of them I filled with brown rice and pistachios from the bulk bins. I wrote in my 7/2 entry that I've started to buy some things in bulk, but didn't elaborate. I've been happy to find that two local groceries (I'm not going to name drop here because I don't necessarily want to advertise for anyone) carry all the grains I like in bulk (and organic!) plus lots of nuts, some raw, some roasted, and nutritional yeast (which I use a lot in "cheese" sauces and on salads for the B vitamins). As a vegan, I eat a fair amount of whole grains, probably at least a serving a day, so that packaging was adding up. Buying in bulk has been easy and I've been reusing glass jars to store the grains etc. in. So it feels like a double win. I also found some glass food storage jars at my local thrift shop, so there has been no need to go and buy new stuff. I'm feeling good about this. It's definitely an ingrained practice at this point (no pun intended).
Side note: In a couple of those other reusable produce bags I put some locally grown organic kale and local peaches. The biggest peaches ever! See picture below in my palm for scale. I love the summer for MANY reasons, but the variety of fresh, local produce is right up there near the top. Eating a plant-based diet is best for the planet of course but buying local stuff is another piece of the solution so that transportation-related pollution is reduced.
“We believe in science. We believe in climate change.” These were statements that US Representative Katherine Clark opened with at a Green New Deal Town Hall last night in Framingham, MA. She and Senator Ed Markey spoke about the Green New Deal and took questions from the audience. Not all the questions were on topic, but it was clear from the standing-room only situation that people are anxious for a change of course in this country.
The theme of science was carried on by Markey. He made it clear that the Green New Deal is first and foremost rooted in science. Science published by our government agencies in the fall of 2018 (over Thanksgiving, with no fanfare from the White House of course) and by the IPCC around the same time, warning of catastrophic consequences (e.g. 10 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century) if we don’t take extreme action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Markey also made it clear that the Green New Deal was also heavily influenced by FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” (sometimes referred to as the “Economic Bill of Rights”) which speaks of economic equity for all. A goal of the Green New Deal is to provide jobs, opportunities to increase energy efficiency, and increase environmental quality for all. He provided concrete examples of how to get this work done, including paying for many of the programs by revoking the tax cuts for the super wealthy, which would bring in trillions of dollars. Of the tax cut he said “They didn’t need it. They didn’t deserve it.” So true. Our country has gone into a deficit again, in part due to these tax cuts. I don’t understand why people never remember this pattern: Republican presidents run up the deficit, Democratic presidents tend to end their terms with budget surpluses. But I digress.
One question from an audience member was “The House is passing lots of legislation (about climate change, etc) but that legislation doesn’t make it to the Senate floor for votes. What are you planning to do about this?” To which both Markey and Clark agreed that Mitch McConnell needs to be voted out of office in 2020. He has refused to bring any climate change (or gun control) legislation to a vote (and let’s not forget he refused to hold confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court at the end of Obama’s term...another digression). Markey had a long answer, including that the Democrats will “create a legislative graveyard to run against the Republicans in 2020.” Clark simply summed it up in this way “Ditch Mitch.” (If you want to help on that front, you could donate to the Democratic National Party or directly to McConnell’s opponent, a veteran fighter pilot, Amy McGrath.)
Another audience member noted that animal agriculture is a huge producer of greenhouse gases and one of the most environmentally destructive industries. (I was happy that she got a lot of applause; as you know, I feel that this issue needs much more attention.) She noted that if everyone went to a plant-based diet tomorrow, global warming would stop. Clark and Markey acknowledged the contribution but of course softened the message. Clark said just reducing your meat intake by 20% has a big impact and Markey mentioned the Impossible burger. I wish someone had referenced the recent IPCC report that indicated the benefits of a plant-based diet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and feeding the world (see the summary in a BBC report).
Another audience member brought up a piece of legislation called “We the People” that will create an amendment to the Constitution that will overturn the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court which says that corporations are people and thus can contribute to political campaigns. Markey stated that this was one of the worst rulings in the history of our country. He promised that he would introduce the legislation in the Senate (it’s already in Committee in the House, Clark is a cosponsor). I recommend writing to your legislators to encourage them to support this amendment. Corporations lobby against environmental regulations so that they can make more money. They should not be able to buy the votes of politicians with campaign donations.
Overall, I was glad I went. I learned a lot about my legislators and was heartened to see so many people turn out to support climate change legislation. Now I know a bit more about the Green New Deal so that I can answer student questions about it. I also met some members of “Renewable Natick” who are doing great work on the local scale. Plus, there were some great sound bites:
“There are no emergency rooms for sick planets.” (Clark, quoting Markey)
“Don’t underestimate the power of your vote to change course. We have to change course on this issue.” (Clark)
“If he (Trump) wins, it’s a death sentence for the planet.” (Markey)
“We know the NRA holds the Republican party in a vise-like grip.” (Markey...a few times he digressed a bit to gun control issues, the crowd didn’t mind.)
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.