This is my first time participating in Blog Action Day, a global campaign that harnesses the power of blogs to raise awareness about important issues. The topic this year is climate change, something most people are already aware of, but about which much still needs to be done.
Today I heard about the United States’ first “climate refugees,” an entire village that must move because the sea ice that protected their shoreline has melted and storm surges have eroded the shore right to their doorsteps. To make matters worse, the permafrost is also melting, so their homes are gradually sinking into the ground. In fact there are several villages in Alaska that are now in the same situation, and hundreds more that are threatened. Rather ironic for a state dominated by “drill, baby, drill” climate change deniers.
I think that most of us who live in the real world know what climate change is all about. Burning millions of years worth of stored carbon, in the form of fossil fuels, over a couple of centuries has increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere far beyond its natural levels. Carbon dioxide holds in heat from Earth that would otherwise radiate into space, and so the climate is warming, which is causing massive changes, mostly negative ones, in the Earth’s ecosystems.
It is the rate of change that is so devastating to natural systems. Most species can adapt to slow gradual changes, which happen naturally all the time due to the wobble in our planet’s rotation and changes in the intensity of the Sun. It is sudden changes that exceed nature’s capacity to adapt. The dinosaurs, who had survived 160 million years of natural climate variation, were likely wiped out by sudden climate change after a space rock hit the earth. The impact would have filled the sky with dust, shading the sun and slowing plant growth enough for the large herbivores, and their predators, to starve out.
Obviously what is happening now is warming rather than cooling, but the consequences may be no less serious. Tropical rainforests, which contain about 80% of all species, are at risk of drying out and being replaced by species-poor savannahs. This would comparable to the greatest mass extinctions in our planet’s history, with the unique distinction of being wholly caused by a single species.
So what can we do about it? This is a painful question because almost every aspect of our lives is now dependent on fossil fuels. Science and technology make our modern lives possible, but fossil fuels make them happen. If we want to cut back on fossil fuels we either have to cut back our consumption, or how many new consumers we produce, or both. Certainly much can be done by promoting efficiency, but as long as we keep producing more goods, and more kids, any efficiency gains will be swamped by growth just as surely as Arctic coastal villages will be swamped by the sea.
The touchiest subject here is population, but there are ways of dealing with it humanely. Decades of humanitarian work in the developing world has revealed a very simple equation: educating girls and women results in smaller families. It’s already happening, but more can be done by supporting NGOs that work specifically with girls and women in the developing world. I like the Global Fund for Women, but most development agencies have programs aimed at educating girls that you can earmark your donations for.
Westerners already have a low birth rate, but we consume so much more than the world’s poor that having one child here is the same as an Indian woman (theoretically) having over 30 children! Since we are all competing in the same globalized food market, and there are already a billion people malnourished or starving in the world, having children in the West has very real consequences for children elsewhere. Luckily we have the freedom to choose whether or not to have a family, and have many other options for finding fulfillment in our lives.
For us, reducing consumption is critical. The easiest way to do this is to simply buy less stuff. Everything we buy takes fossil fuels to make, transport, and sell, so the less we buy, the less fossil fuels we burn. Putting off purchases, making do, borrowing, or buying used are all ways to reduce our consumption. If you’re worried about the economy, spend your money on human-powered things like live theatre or a weekly massage. Reducing our direct use of fossil fuels is also good, and I think we all know how to do that by now: drive less, fly less, turn off the lights, turn down the heat, etc.
But if you really want to make a difference, and save even more money, become a vegetarian. It may be the single most impactful thing one can do to stop climate change. The production of meat in industrialized countries is not only cruel, it is extremely energy-intensive, consumes large amounts of grains that could be used to feed people, and used and pollutes vast quantities of water. Eating meat is also very unhealthy, and only necessary in places where there is no access to a variety of plant foods (e.g. the far North). So you can stop animal cruelty, save the environment, feed the hungry, stop global warming, live longer, and save money on groceries and health care all in one fell swoop. If you don’t believe me, just Google “vegetarianism and the environment.”
Speaking of Google, did you know that Google has committed to going carbon neutral? I was quite happy to discover that since this blog lives on their servers. Not long ago I asked my previous host, Typepad, if they were doing anything about their climate impact, and I was told that have no plans whatsoever to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Google has enacted a detailed program of increasing server efficiency, using more renewable energy, and buying carbon offsets. Yet another reason to be glad I moved my blog!
Just in case there is anyone still reading, I’d like to plug one organization that is geared specifically at offsetting the carbon footprint of our beloved books. The US alone uses about 30 million trees each year to make books, so it’s not a small issue. While trees are a renewable resource and are theoretically carbon neutral since they fix carbon, that is only true if they harvested sustainably and replanted. I know from working on forestry issues that this doesn’t always happen, even where it is required by law. Climate related drought, fire, and insect infestations make it even more doubtful that all the trees felled to make books will be replaced.
Enter EcoLibris, an American organization that works with partners in the developing world to plant trees that not only take CO2 out of the atmosphere but provide wildlife habitat, restore water flows, and do all the other wonderful things that trees do. The price is quite reasonable, just a dollar to plant a tree to offset one book, with volume discounts if you want to do your whole library at once. Planting trees is one of the best things that can be done for both people and the environment, so it’s hard to go wrong. Ideally, all of our books will be some day be printed on recycled or tree-free paper, but until then it’s nice to have a way to lessen the impact of our favourite pastime.
If you still haven’t had enough climate change talk, check out the Blog Action Day website to see some of the other
10,000 13,000 blogs from 153 155 countries that are blogging about climate change today. If you’ve blogged about it too, do leave me a link!