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.
I’m not a big fan of nuclear waste. I feel I should say that up front so I don’t get a bunch of comments from those who are staunchly opposed to nuclear energy.
There is mixed news on the energy front. Today is the 40th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant’s partial meltdown. This event caused a major backlash of public support for nuclear energy in this country. This decline in popularity was reinforced by the Chernobyl complete meltdown in 1986 which rendered the surrounding area unsafe essentially forever and caused a plague of cancers and birth defects still seen today. NPR ran a story this morning about the eminent closure of the Three Mile Island plant. The partial meltdown released small amounts of radiation to the atmosphere, double a person’s normal dose of radiation for a day (yes, we are bombarded by radiation all the time! From space, from the ground, from things of our own making like cell phones…). That release of radiation was nowhere close to the scale of Chernobyl and research has not found any adverse health correlations. On the plus side, the partial meltdown on March 28, 1979 led to stringent safety measures and system of checks for nuclear energy plants.
To reiterate, I’m not a big fan of nuclear waste (I don’t think we have the capacity as a species to keep it safe forever, but that’s a whole other post...some day, maybe). I am also not a fan of nuclear meltdowns. I am, however, a fan of energy production that does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we start to shut down all of our nuclear energy plants the likely successor for electricity production is natural gas. In my opinion, we should not shut down nuclear plants until we have wind and solar in place to fill those energy needs. Closing existing nuclear plants and replacing them with fossil fuel burning plants will be a major leap backward in the fight to slow the warming of our planet. My two cents.
That being said, I was happy to see a report released last week with the news that the US has doubled renewable energy electricity generation over the past decade. More good news: CNN reported that the cost of wind and solar is dropping so rapidly that coal will likely be outcompeted in many markets in the next decade. I think this is really the key point. Once it becomes cheaper to produce and buy wind and solar, fossil fuels should (according to the rules of capitalism and the free market) get phased out by the market. Unfortunately we can’t rely on (most) people to just do the right thing. They have to be motivated and it has to benefit them. It all comes down to money in the end.
On a related note, last week I e-mailed all my town Selectmen/people to encourage them to increase require our town electricity provider to increase the renewable energy content to 10% from 5%. I was pleased to get a response from one of the Selectwomen who thanked me for offering specific suggestions (I recommended increasing to 10% and then each year increasing that by 1-2%, following the model set by the Massachusetts legislature with their Renewable and Alternative Energy Standard programs.). It was nice to get a "real" response. This is so different from the canned or nonexistent responses from senators and representatives, both state and federal level. Little digression story here. A few weeks ago I e-mailed a senator to vote for some legislation and I received a three page e-mail that detailed policy on something completely unrelated. Obviously a copy/paste/send job by an intern. Anyways, the personal response from my town selectwomen really made the motto "think global, act local" hit home. So I encourage you to get involved locally. You could make a difference in policy, especially if you encourage your neighbors to speak up too.
Maybe people are not too worried about climate change yet because a warmer world sounds great in the midst of a New England or Midwest winter. I recently came across a study by the Pew Institute that found most people prefer living in a place with a warmer climate. Hence all those retired snow birds who migrate down to Florida for the winter from the northern ranges of our country.
Save one winter I spent in England (the original) I’ve suffered through New England winters every year of my 40+ years, relishing the random 50°F days here and there but mostly complaining about the cold, and the snow, and, this year especially, the freezing rain. I hate winter but I will grudgingly admit that it makes summer all that sweeter. Plus winter provides tourism jobs year-round in rural areas with ski resorts and winter provides just the right conditions for maple syrup. What would pancakes be without maple syrup? You think about that.
I think many of us can agree that the majority of people in this country spend little time thinking about climate change let alone taking actions to reduce their greenhouse gas contributions. So my question is, when Southern Florida is gone because of sea level rise, where will everyone retire to? Will Massachusetts be the new Florida? My father jokes about having beachfront property on Cape Cod in a few decades (they live more than a few miles uphill from the beach). He might be off by a century or so, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
A warmer world has lots of consequences. I’d prefer my winters to stay freezing if it means that our economy will not collapse, millions of people will not be displaced by sea level rise, and maple syrup can still be made in New England. Trade-offs.
Oh, if maple syrup is something you can live without, contemplate a world without chocolate, coffee, or avocados. Are you worried now? Here is a place to start for ways to reduce your personal greenhouse gas contributions.
Yikes! I calculated my carbon footprint as an exercise with one of my environmental science classes and realized that despite my driving a hybrid vehicle, my car-based footprint is really big. Driving to the fitness studio five minutes from my house a few days a week really adds up and piles on to my 22-mile round trip commute to work. Home energy use was my second biggest carbon contributor. Having made the move a couple of years ago from a small condo to a single family home increased my energy use quite a bit.
On the plus side, my 25+ year vegan diet has a much lower carbon footprint than that of an omnivore or heavy meat eater, and it’s even significantly lower than that of a vegetarian. What I have learned during my nearly decade of teaching about climate change and other environmental issues is that a vegan diet is the best thing you can do to reduce not only your carbon footprint, but your overall impact on a wide range of environmental issues (habitat loss, eutrophication, water pollution….the list goes on) not to mention the potential to solve food shortage issues. The Guardian has a great summary article, but there are lots of peer-reviewed scientific reports that provide data to support this.
I asked my students (and myself) to come up with at least one action (daily, weekly, yearly…) that they could reasonably take to reduce the amount of carbon that each sector of their lifestyle contributes to the atmosphere. As a group we examined diet, home energy use, transportation, and apparel. Some of them took it more seriously than others of course, but I took the opportunity to survey my own lifestyle.
First, to make myself feel better, I made a list of things that I do on a regular basis that reduce my carbon emissions:
Then I made a list of things I think I can start to do or do more of:
So far I’ve turned the water heater down. I actually I think I can turn it down even more. I’m going to experiment with it. And just yesterday I bought a second clothes drying rack, so I’m on track for laundry air drying. The refrigerator is on a list of things to do for the house (it’s never ending!) and will probably happen during a kitchen makeover.
I recently learned about the Scientific Integrity Act that has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. If you are reading this blog, you have probably been as outraged as I am that fossil fuel and other industry executives have been appointed to government agencies regulating environmental issues instead of scientists. As a result there have been leaps and bounds backwards for environmental issues in this country. (If you haven't been keeping track, good (?) news, Columbia School of Law's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has: http://columbiaclimatelaw.com/resources/climate-deregulation-tracker/)
This morning I sent e-mails to my two state senators and representative to encourage them to support the bill. Here's what I wrote to them:
"The Scientific Integrity Act was introduced to the House and Senate on March 13. As your constituent I urge you to co-sponsor this important bill which gives government-employed scientists the right to share their research with the public, ensures that government communication of science is accurate, and importantly, prohibits any government employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings. We are at a critical point in our fight to reduce the future impacts of climate change. The current administration is taking leaps and bounds backwards across the board in issues related to the environment. This country and the world needs the U.S. government to start taking the advice of scientists instead of fossil fuel executives."
If you also feel strongly that the government should not be able to censure scientists but instead listen to them, please contact your own legislators.
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist