Conservation Column: Let’s Put the Brakes on Climate Change!

The percentage of people who think global warming is happening is now five times greater than that of people who don’t, according to a recent survey conducted by Yale University. About half of those surveyed said they had personally experienced the effects of climate change, not surprising given the numbers of high-intensity storms, drought, wildfires, and the recent polar vortex. About 4 in 10 Americans noted that they, at least occasionally, discuss climate change with family and friends, an increase of 15 percentage points since March 2015. Rightly or wrongly, almost half of the respondents are “hopeful,” indicating that the time is ripe to focus on solutions. Awareness, activism, and research that helps elucidate solutions are burgeoning. Experts are exploring which solutions would have a significant impact. Some of these are listed below.

  • Phase out refrigerants used for air conditioning and refrigeration. Nations worldwide took action decades ago to reduce the old refrigerants, which were damaging the ozone layer. Unfortunately, we switched to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which we now know are destructive greenhouse gases. We can commit to changes again; better alternatives are available.
  • Relinquish fossil fuels. Invest in alternative energy generation and ways to store the energy. Invest in energy efficient infrastructure. Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. (Fossil fuel subsidies are six times greater than moneys spent to support renewable energy.)
  • Improve the power grid. This could help bring energy generated by solar farms and other alternative means to households. Make wider use of rooftop solar everywhere. Smart power grids, already established in several communities, can be the model. 
  • Eliminate methane leaks. Leaks of this powerful greenhouse gas come from oil and gas companies and must be better controlled. Support the Clean Power Plan, which imposes protective national standards on power plants. 
  • Establish more carbon markets. Carbon markets help reduce carbon emissions, incentivize more efficient factories and power plants, and help preserve forests.
  • Preserve wetlands, forest, grasslands, and riparian buffers to control carbon as well as reduce erosion and flooding.
  • Develop more efficient transportation modalities. “Smart Highways” reduce carbon emissions and power electric vehicles. Support bicycle and bus commuters.
  • Eat a more plant-based diet. The food production sector alone accounts for more than a quarter of total emissions, including power plants, transportation, cities, etc. The production of animal products generates up to 78 percent of those agricultural emissions. It’s more than 100 times more carbon expensive to grow beef as compared to legumes. Vast amounts of water and land are used in the production of livestock feed alone. The animals and their manure produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Farm more efficiently. We can have the greatest impact by focusing on the crops that feed the most people. Precision agriculture grows more crops with fewer chemicals and less land disturbance, and uses cover crops to reduce soil erosion. A few efficiency measures used when growing rice, the staple food of 3 billion people, significantly reduce environmental costs. For example, mid-season drainage of rice fields alone cuts methane emissions by 35 to 70 percent.
  • Buy shade-grown coffee and cacao. Agroforestry (shade-grown crops) has a positive impact by growing crops under trees. This reduces the carbon costs while supporting native diversity of birds and pollinators. 
  • Waste less food. A third of food produced does not make it to our plates. This squanders resources such as seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, money and labor, and produces greenhouse gases at every stage, including methane produced from decaying organic waste. Wasted food is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. This can be addressed from many angles: improving storage, processing, and transportation for better distribution of food; eliminating crop subsidies for large-scale agriculture; and through education. Excess food can also be used to produce other products; bioplastics can be made from potatoes and sugarcane. 
  • Improve education in general, but especially for girls. Educating girls means better family planning, less illness, better-nourished families, and more productive farm plots. It is the most powerful way to improve the standard of living for the most people with the least technological investment.

As individuals, we can update our habits and consumer choices to make a difference. From the Yale survey referenced above: “Fewer than half of Americans perceive a social norm in which their friends and family expect them to take action on global warming.” We can increase these numbers. People are influenced by those around them. Let’s be good models for them. And let’s have higher expectations for others, especially our industry leaders, politicians, and policy makers. Saving the world will require collective will and effort.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2018). Climate change in the American mind: December 2018. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.