In the past century, the human race has achieved immense technological advancements as well as scientific and artistic accomplishments—a great feat in human history. Yet, along with these outstanding achievements, humankind has done unprecedented damage to the Earth’s environment, threatening the well-being of all living organisms on the planet, including themselves.
Effects of climate change, such as damage caused by extreme weather conditions, as seen by the recent Texas winter storm in February 2021, have become more prevalent. There is a common misconception on the meaning of two crucial terms: climate change and global warming. Climate change refers to the change in global weather conditions, including change in precipitation levels, average surface temperature, and increased unpredictability of weather patterns. As an important contributor to climate change, global warming’s definition is narrower, focusing on the rise in global temperatures. The root cause of global warming is not the greenhouse effect itself, but rather the enhanced greenhouse effect due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.
The term greenhouse effect, as suggested by its name, can be explained using an analogy relating to agricultural greenhouses. In a greenhouse, the glass serves as a special barrier, allowing sunlight in, but retaining some of the light through the principle of reflection. The trapped sunlight raises the temperature of the greenhouse slowly, and the glass prevents the warmer air from escaping into the sky.
This is exactly how the greenhouse effect works, except the glass is now the Earth’s atmosphere. On its own, the greenhouse effect is not a malevolent phenomenon that disrupts human activities. In fact, as one of the many intricate systems supporting life, the greenhouse effect serves to ensure the Earth’s temperature is high enough to sustain life. The culprit is the dramatic increase of polluting human activities that have disturbed the fine balance needed to sustain increasing global temperature. Increased vehicular emissions and industrial gas exhaust have released abundant amounts of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and many other “greenhouse gases,” which strengthen the greenhouse effect.
Rising temperatures have also contributed to numerous ecological disasters. The surge in ambient temperature has caused the melting of polar ice caps, which directly resulted in the endangerment of wildlife. Polar bears, the gargantuan white bears of the north, are one of the many endangered animals, suffering habitat loss as their icy homes break off and melt into the Arctic Ocean.
Warmer regions are not spared by the increased temperatures of oceans either. In both 2016 and 2017, widespread coral bleaching was observed in the Great Barrier Reef as record-breaking temperature highs in the Southern Hemisphere summer warmed the oceans. The phenomenon of coral bleaching occurs when the rising water temperature forces corals to expel algae that give the corals their colors. This exposes the white skeleton of the corals; hence they look “bleached.” While not immediately fatal to the coral, the algae and coral survive together in a symbiotic relationship—without the algae, the coral would starve. Even if the coral avoids starvation, it would be weakened from the warmer water, increasing its vulnerability to mortality. As mass starvation of corals occurs, the reefs, if not permanently destroyed, would take decades to recover from the damage. The marine life dependent on coral reefs for survival and protection are threatened, potentially lowering the biological diversity of the affected ocean. As this affects the livelihood of every member of the food chain, the implications of the destruction of coral reefs are dire.
Humans are not spared from this environmental catastrophe either. Naturally, melted ice has to go somewhere; it does not simply vanish into thin air. A direct consequence of melting ice caps is rising sea level, which puts shoreline human establishments at risk. The famous sinking city of Venice, Italy, may soon become a real-life Atlantis as it eventually becomes inundated by the rising waters. Last year, numerous islands off the Indonesian shores vanished under the tides—a rude awakening to all low-lying coastal regions.
Looking further into the future, the environmental situation for humankind looks even more dire. The equatorial regions may soon become uninhabitable due to extreme humidity in combination with skyrocketing temperatures. Extreme weather would trouble all living beings on Earth, causing destruction and death in its wake. The change in climate in various regions could lead to unpredictable complications.
Laws and policies are needed to halt climate change, but there is something every one of us can do to help save our planet. Humankind’s impact on the Earth is cumulative of every person’s action, such that one minor change in every person’s daily routine could add up to something significant.
Transportation is one of the many daily activities where changes in its use can help save the planet. Private vehicles may be the most convenient mode of transportation, but they are also the primal source of vehicular emission, producing greenhouse gases and particulates that lower air quality and can potentially cause respiratory health issues. Likewise, using ride-hailing services such as Uber is not necessarily environmentally friendly as, ultimately, the vehicles used are still private vehicles capable of only carrying a few people. In fact, scientists noted that such ride-hailing services increased pollution as their use is greater than that of public transit.
For short journeys, walking would be phenomenal, as it not only reduces emissions by replacing car trips but allows people to destress, slowing down their pace of life. Nowadays, people spend so much time in virtual realms that they seldom take a step back and notice the beauty of nature and human life. Equivalently, biking is an excellent alternative to vehicular transportation. No pollution is caused by cycling activities, and such activities promote a healthy lifestyle as they are a source of exercise, one that improves cardiovascular health while also lowering stress levels.
Should the distance be deemed too far for the aforementioned alternatives, people should be seeking nearby public transit options such as buses, trains, and trams or streetcars. It is worth noting that public transits’ efficiency in terms of greenhouse gases produced per passenger increases with the number of passengers using it, and it becomes progressively more efficient than cars as it nears maximum capacity. Naturally, the coverage of public transit is limited, but if people use those options when available, they would be replacing their polluting car trip with a less polluting public transit trip, reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. Each reduced trip counts as its effect add up to a sizeable and noticeable impact as time goes on.
Another action the average citizen can take is related to energy usage as the energy generation process also produces greenhouse gases. Only 19.3 per cent of Canada’s Electricity Generation uses fossil fuels. In fact, Ontario no longer has operational coal-fired power plants, which are the most polluting energy processes. Regardless of this remarkable achievement, it is reported that Canada ranks among the top for per capita electricity consumed, reaching fourth globally at 17653 kWh in 2019. On average, Canadians are using copious amounts of energy, which is, of course, partially related to winter heating needs. Nonetheless, people should be looking to reduce their individual electricity consumption. Changing fluorescent light bulbs to LEDs would reduce power usage and lower electricity bills simultaneously—a win-win situation.
Reducing air conditioning usage in the summer would also go a long way in slowing global warming. Not only would this reduce electricity consumption by a great margin, but the nature of air conditioners’ operation directly contributes to global warming. Air conditioners may reduce the temperature of your room, but the air the unit releases into the atmosphere is hot. As such, when air conditioners are powered on, the air temperature of the surrounding rises, exacerbating the effects of global warming. Lastly, people should remember to switch off electrical appliances when they are not used. While this elementary concept is taught as early as in preschool and kindergarten, it’s a crucial step that each person can take to reduce energy consumption.
A challenging action people can take to help slow climate change is shifting their diet to a plant-based one. Studies show that the production processes of meat, most notably livestock farming, produce large amounts of greenhouse gases—accounting for roughly 14.5 per cent of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. By reducing the amount of meat in one’s diet, people would be reducing the demand for the product, thus reducing the number of livestock farms. An added benefit is that by eliminating the prevalence of animal farms, the area originally used for grazing could be reforested, which in turn can reduce carbon dioxide levels and increase oxygen levels.While it may seem like individual contributions have no effect on global climate change, the effect becomes apparent as more individuals contribute. A single action, if taken by tens of thousands of people, becomes a collective action that drives change. If we all do our share of reducing greenhouse gas emissions together, we can slow the advance of global warming and, subsequently, climate change. Truly believe that your decision matters and that your action is significant, and we will be able to save the place that we call home. The climate clock has left us with six years and just over 285 days; perhaps a few simple steps could buy us some more time.