A 9-Minute Lesson in Environmental Literacy
Seven Tidbits To Put Things in Perspective
In my 20 years, Environmental Science is the most complexly fascinating, interdisciplinary issue I have come across to date. Using data from biology, chemistry and the Earth Sciences, we draw conclusions to write policy that will shape economies, have ethical implications, and influence food, water, human health, and lifestyle choices for all of humanity for all of the foreseeable future. Because of its breadth, the subject merits pop-science explanations, especially to emphasize the dire straits in which we find ourselves and the urgency of taking strong, deliberate action. The following — a collection of tidbits learned from my semester at UVa — is an attempt to do just that.
1. By 2030, half of the world’s population will live in areas of high water stress.
California is in the driest 20 years of the past 1,200.
In 2030, 1.8 billion people will live in areas of absolute water scarcity, and water demand will exceed supply by 40 percent.
Although the world’s freshwater is declining, the population is vastly growing, and humans will need more water to survive on a hotter, drier planet. Limited water can threaten access to cleaning and sanitation services, reduce crop yields, create food insecurity, and have disastrous human health impacts.
Up to 80% of illnesses in developing countries stem from poor sanitation conditions. Globally, about 1 in 8 people lack access to clean water. With variable precipitation and drier arid regions, climate change will diminish crop yields, particularly in the low-latitudes.
Africa is arguably the continent least responsible for climate change, but most vulnerable to its effects — already afflicted by droughts, extreme heat events, and declining agricultural yields.
The mechanism: When greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, they warm the air, increasing the amount of water the atmosphere can hold. This can lead to heavier bouts of rainfall once the air cools. Heavier rainfall expedites the movement of water from the atmosphere to the (saltwater) ocean, reducing our capacity to use it. A warmer planet also means more evaporation, which means drier, even desertified land (a particularly dismal consequence for agriculture).
With climate change, precipitation is more likely to come in the form of isolated, extreme weather events, often followed by long dry periods. This means stronger storms — causing flooding — sandwiched between seasons of drought and water scarcity. Industrial pollution, run-off from chemical fertilizer, and over-extraction of groundwater can also deplete freshwater resources.
2. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the U.S. and China.
Roughly one third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption is lost or wasted (mostly fruits and vegetables). We use 10 percent of the Earth’s habitable surface to produce food that’s never eaten.
With current trends in population growth, consumption, and food waste, we’d need to convert 1 billion more acres to farmland to feed the population in 2050. Annually, consumers in developed countries waste as much food as all of sub-saharan Africa produces.
Implementing composting worldwide could save us 2.3 billion tons in emissions in the next 30 years.
The mechanism: Food’s hefty greenhouse gas footprint is two-fold: CO2 associated its production and methane released from its decay. Most wasted food decomposes in landfills, where the zero–oxygen environment turns organic matter into methane, a gas that traps 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
Solutions like composting or anaerobic digesters can help. Wasted food that is composted can be used to fertilize cropland, improving soil health. Anaerobic digesters convert methane produced through decomposition into electricity, helping to shift away from fossil fuel-based energy.
In developed countries, most wasted food comes from markets and consumers. In the developing world, food is rarely wasted by households, but, rather , in the post-harvest and processing stages, usually because of poor infrastructure and storage technology.
3. In the last 18 years, we’ve had 16 of the hottest years in human history.
2016 was the hottest year since we started 1880, when humans started taking temperature records.
Earth hasn’t been this warm since before human civilization began. By 2050, in Charlottesville, there will be an estimated 40 days of deadly heat per year (in a 3–4 degree-Celsius warmer world).
The mechanism: Accumulating greenhouse gases (like CO2) trap heat (long-wave radiation emitted by the Earth) in the atmosphere. Throughout Earth’s history, temperature has directly fluctuated with atmospheric CO2 levels. Our current atmospheric CO2 is the highest it has been in more than 3 million years.
The rate of increase since the Industrial Revolution is unprecedented. (Pre-industrial concentrations fluctuated between around 200 parts per million during ice ages and 280 during warm periods; today we are at 410.)
4. In 1978, residents of Love Canal, New York learned they were living on top of 21,000 pounds of toxic waste.
In the preceding years, residents noticed a host of strange occurrences. Dogs went bald. Kids playing baseball got strange, chemical burn-like rashes when sliding across the grass. The cause? Toxic chemicals from a landfill buried decades earlier had seeped into the ground and into the basements of homes.
Women miscarried at 1.5 times the rate of the general population. Babies were born with birth defects. Chromosomal damage afflicted one third of the residents. The state health commissioner called for evacuation of all pregnant women and children under 2.
Cleanup took 21 years, and 950 families were displaced.
Since then, a number of toxic waste, air, and water pollution crises have yielded concerns over environmental justice and the right to human health.
In the U.S., toxic waste is disproportionately dumped in low-income areas with high minority (primarily African-American and Hispanic) populations.
In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order to attenuate the correlation between minority status, low income, and proximity to hazardous waste.
13 years later, a study found that race and income had become even stronger predictors of toxic waste site locations.
In 2018, race is the strongest indicator of both proximity to toxic waste and exposure to air pollution. Second — and also highly correlated — is low socioeconomic status.
Environmental injustice has even seeped into drinking water. After switching to a cheaper water source in 2014, Flint, Michigan — a poor, predominantly African American town — was subject to water with abnormally high lead levels.
Although no amount of lead in water is safe, the EPA mandates lead concentrations of 5 parts per billion as “cause for concern.” 90% of Flint homes had at least 27 parts per billion.
In one home, lead levels reached 13,000 parts per billion. High lead concentrations can result in cognitive impairment, kidney damage, and developmental disabilities. Flint residents experienced declines in fertility and spikes in fetal deaths. There was an outbreak of a rare, lethal kind of pneumonia.
The mechanism: Environmental injustice results from systemic inequality in power structures tasked with environmental decision-making. As political power — and monetary influence — are often in the hands of predominantly high-income, non-minority populations, “Not in My Backyard” decisions are made primarily with the interests of the caucasian upper-middle class in mind.
5. Bhutan — a Buddhist country in the Eastern Himalayas — is a carbon sink, sucking more carbon out of the atmosphere annually than it releases.
Due to extensive forest protection policy, 72% of the country has remained forested.
The country emits 1.5 million tons of carbon annually, while its forests absorb over 6 million.
Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world. It has achieved this by banning export logging and using hydroelectric power generated from its rivers instead of fossil fuels. By 2030, Bhutan hopes to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions, be zero waste, and produce 100 percent organic food. (For perspective, the U.S. emits more CO2 per capita than any other country; its carbon sinks take up only a tenth of that.)
The mechanism: Carbon sinks are natural systems that absorb more carbon than they release. About half of the CO2 we emit annually is taken up by the world’s largest carbon sinks: the ocean and vegetation on land (read: forests).
Plants take up carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. As trees grow, they allocate carbon to their trunks, limbs, roots, and leaves. When leaves or branches fall and decompose, carbon is released to the atmosphere or soil. Forests, especially older forests, are effective carbon sinks, pulling vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it at a large scale.
6. Earth Overshoot Day is the day each year when humanity’s resource consumption exceeds the planet’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year.
This year, it was August 1st. Essentially, in 2018, we are using the capacity of 1.7 Earths. When the Earth first went into “overshoot,” in 1970, it didn’t happen until December 29th.
The mechanism: By expanding agricultural land, over-harvesting forests, over-extracting, over-consuming, and emitting more CO2 to the atmosphere than ecosystems can absorb, humanity is depleting our finite ecological resources to an irrecoverable extent.
7. Although this may all paint a dismal picture, there are reasons to be optimistic.
This year, Ireland became the first country to divest public money from fossil fuels.
The Antarctic hole in the Ozone layer is healing — due to our reduced use of ozone-depleting substances — and should be back to 1980 levels in 2060.
September marked the beginning of the Ocean Cleanup, an effort seeking to clean up half of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the next five years.
The Biophilic City movement has taken off, seeking to reincorporate nature into urban spaces and re-establish the innate connection humans have with nature.
Last year, the world’s solar energy grew by 30 percent.
The ideological head of the Catholic Church has taken strong environmentalist stances.
“We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behavior. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence. We have no such right.”
— Pope Francis
A number of species — including the panda bear, the Southern white rhinoceros, the gray whale, and the snow leopard — are no longer on the Endangered List.
Scientists have managed to breed corals from the Great Barrier Reef and transplant them back into the wild.
Mitigating environmental destruction may be the most complex, pressing, multi-dimensional problem our planet faces, that will need cooperation, our greatest thinkers, a wide range of perspectives and disciplines, some sacrifice, some willpower, and a great deal of compassion — for each other, our planet, and for the generations that will inherit it. It’s also probably the most rewarding challenge we could ever take on. We’ve got our work cut out for us.