More than Straws: What the Planet Really Needs From Us

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In 1988 NASA scientist James Hansen stood before Congress to urge for action regarding the scientifically-proven warming of the planet. He began with a series of simple statements:

“The Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any other time in the history of instrumental measurements.”

“Global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.”

“The greenhouse effect is already large enough to begin the probability of extreme events.”

It wasn’t Hansen’s first time speaking to the White House but this testimony made headlines. The next day, The New York Times ran an article titled “Global Warming Has Begun” and President George H.W. Bush resolved to fight the greenhouse effect with the “White House effect.” The United States was seemingly on track to seriously tackle the issue.

Hansen encouraged the government to decrease carbon emissions by restricting the major perpetrator of global warming: the fossil fuel industry.

But the fossil fuel industry already knew about the greenhouse effect. They had known for nearly a decade. In fact, Exxon was already designing their oil rigs to compensate for the rising sea levels of the future. Oil companies began hiring executives from the tobacco industry who were skilled at convincing the public to ignore scientific research. They began buying out politicians.

This would mark the beginning of a 30+ year unfounded war on the validity of climate science.

In a recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, climate journalist Bill McKibben laments the fact that we don’t seem to live “in a rational world where, when scientists say, ‘The worst thing that can happen is happening now and here’s how to solve it,’ we listen.” He points out that the fossil fuel industry -- the richest industry in the world -- has spent “billions of dollars keeping our politicians locked in a phony debate” about whether or not global warming is real.

Today many politicians tell us they support the environment, but have yet to act on their claims. Many simultaneously accept money from some of the world’s biggest polluters.

Barack Obama (sorry!) received more than $1 million from oil and gas companies in 2008 alone. Hillary Clinton (also sorry!) has accepted money from Monsanto, a devastating polluter in agribusiness. Koch Industries, the $100 billion/year conglomerate comprised of oil and petroleum companies were able to fund climate denial at a federal level by lobbying for five conservative Supreme Court appointees who then allowed special interests like themselves to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics.

Globally, even members of the Paris Climate Agreement cannot be taken seriously: Britain continues to frack, Norway drills for oil in the Arctic, and Germany wants to tear down the Hambach forest to dig for coal.

The number of Americans “alarmed about global warming” has more than doubled in five years. Many of us are interested in sustainability and preserving humanity’s quality of life on this shared planet. As well-intentioned Earthlings, we may choose to buy second hand clothing, avoid single-use plastics, and pledge to eat a vegetarian diet -- all of which are respectable steps in the right direction. But these minuscule lifestyle changes are often distracting from the real climate solutions that need to be implemented immediately. More than minuscule steps, Earth needs drastic reform of our societal, political, and economic systems. This can only come from immediate political action.

Earth’s environmental crisis is complex, encompassing a wide variety of factors, many of which are interconnected. So, in order to understand the solutions, we need to understand the problem...

Basically, our Earth’s temperature is getting dangerously warm due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, most notably Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and Fluorinated Gases.

CO2 accounts for about ¾ of all greenhouse gas emissions, the main culprits being the United States, China, Russia, India, and Europe. This is largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels including oil, natural gas, and coal. We burn fossil fuels for electricity and heat (mostly industrial) to power manufacturing and industry, and for transportation of ourselves and goods. A study from the IPCC shows that 25 state and privately owned companies are responsible for about 50% of the carbon emissions in the world. (Meaning 25 companies are making an enormous profit from warming the planet without any restrictions.)

Methane, a major component of natural gas, is largely emitted from landfills, petroleum industries, agriculture, and polluting land use practices. Nitrous Oxide emissions are mostly caused by fertilizers, livestock manure, biomass, and fluorinated gases including emissions from refrigeration and air conditioning.

In addition to warming the Earth we’re polluting it, too. We’re regularly discarding tech products, plastic, packaging, clothing, and food waste into landfills. To make things worse, 91% of our worldwide plastic waste is not even recycled. We pump chemicals, detergents, and fertilizers into waterways. We pollute the air with greenhouse gases, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. This pollution contributes to premature deaths, massive floating garbage islands, the acidification of our oceans, the destruction of essential habitats, overflowing landfills, and plastic rain.

Unlike religion, business, or politics, Earth is something we all have in common. Sometimes we act as though humans own the planet... but we don’t. Rather, Earth owns us and will not hesitate to turn our own destructive habits onto ourselves should we let hubris and inaction get the best of us. We must be determined to adapt and innovate. The technology for clean energy is ready for us to use, to invest in, and to improve upon. The governmental tools needed to implement direct political action are available -- we just need to decide to act.

So how can we, non-politicians and non-scientists, even begin to address this impossible crisis?

1 | Push for a widespread decrease in carbon dioxide emissions --

Demand regulations on corporate polluters and the fossil fuel industry. The worldwide carbon tax is a popular solution you may want to support.

2 | Vote for the environment --

Actively support policies and candidates that will adapt clean energy strategies immediately, improve energy efficiency, and protect nature. The technology for solar, wind, and hydro power is ready to be put to use on a large scale and it’s up to us to collectively invest in this technology, pressuring our government into action. Depending on your hometown issues, you can involve yourself on a local level by standing against fracking or supporting the preservation of local wildlife. Press your officials to act beyond the banning of plastic straws.

3 | Don’t let yourself be distracted by misinformation in the media, politics, or consumerism --

Do your own research to fully understand the science behind Earth’s crisis. An excellent book covering the basics is Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction. National Geographic’s website is also an amazing resource for basic facts because they thoroughly cite their sources.

4 | Talk about the environment with your friends --

Ask yourself and those around you what aspects of the environmental crisis do you/they find most fascinating? What worries you? Are their solutions? Discussing climate change and pollution is an important step to improving the American climate conversation.

5 | Continue making small lifestyle changes --

Refuse single-waste plastic, limit your transportation to emission-free options whenever possible, eat mostly vegetarian, and consume consciously. While much larger action is needed on a global scale… little steps start with you.

Margot Czeropski is a French-American writer and filmmaker based in California. She is the founder of @Earthie.Space, an online media space that promotes sustainability literacy, launching this year.