As a volunteer at Reeves-Reed Arboretum this fall (my local Arboretum, of which I’m also a member!), I was asked to write a blog post about how climate change impacts the great Garden State. Read below!
Climate change, the rise of global temperatures on Earth, can be attributed to the increase of humans using fossil fuels. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can rise from many sources, including pollution from coal plants for electricity generation and the transportation industry in the form of car exhaust. And as the world warms from these emissions, we can see impacts all around us.
Climate change, the rise of global temperatures on Earth, can be attributed to the increase of humans using fossil fuels. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can rise from many sources, including pollution from coal plants for electricity generation and the transportation industry in the form of car exhaust. And as the world warms from these emissions, we can see impacts all around us
Here are the top three ways climate change impacts us here in New Jersey.
More Extreme Weather and Heavy Downpours
An increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere means more available water, which means an increase in heavy precipitation events — or heavy downpours. We can see this trend prominently in the Northeast, including in New Jersey, which you may have noticed this spring and summer. With heavy rain comes flash floods, which can lead to property damage, which you may have even seen at your own home.
Billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, are increasing, too. Four out of 11 billion-dollar disasters so far this year were in the Northeast — the Northeast winter storms of January and March and the severe weather we experienced from May 1-5 and 13-15 made the list of some of the the costliest disasters in the whole country this year so far.
Sea Level Rise
Climate change is also increasing the frequency of coastal flooding and storm surge at properties down the shore. From Climate Central: “The combination of water expansion as the ocean has warmed and the melting of land ice into the oceans has driven sea level up about seven inches since 1900, and the rise is accelerating.”
You may have noticed the weather this year changed the timing of our fall foliage here in New Jersey — even here at the Arboretum! The timing of fall foliage is impacted by temperature, sunlight, and rainfall, so you can blame this year’s delay on climate change. Falls have been warming since the 1970’s, which can delay the peak fall foliage we come to know and love in the Garden State!
Summer is also lasting longer, which can “take a toll on health and air quality,” according to Climate Central. Longer summers can lead to shorter winters, which means pests like ticks and mosquitoes stick along longer, too. Yikes!
But what you probably haven’t seen is a sea turtle munching down on its lunch.
Myrtle the Sea Turtle
Last month I visited the New England Aquarium for the first time. After climbing the spiral ramp to the top, I was greeted by Myrtle the sea turtle — a majestic (about) 90-year-old female turtle who had been collected from the wild and transferred from an aquarium in Rhode Island.
Aptly dubbed Queen of the Ocean Tank, the friendly 550 pound turtle peeped in and out of the dozens of viewing holes around the Aquarium’s spiral tank, so that everyone can see her. Luckily, I was there for feeding time.
I watched as the volunteers started throwing lettuce into the top of the tank, and Myrtle swam right toward it, not even stopping to think what she was putting in her mouth.
And then this horrible thought occurred to me — the lettuce looks exactly like a plastic bag, and it’s no wonder so many marine animals mistake plastic for food.
Watch as she goes straight for this lettuce:
Sure, she’s in captivity and she knows it’s her food (and that it’s feeding time). But think about starving marine animals who don’t know the difference between plastic and food in the wild! It’s no wonder so many animals end up with plastic in their stomachs.
While she eats a plethora of things (from veggies like brussels sprouts to marine animals like squid), I couldn’t get the image of a sea turtle chomping down on lettuce out of my head.
No Plastic Here
The New England Aquarium is a plastic free facility, and this gives me hope for many more museums, zoos, and facilities like it.
They don’t sell plastic water bottles — instead, they provide water in aluminum cans (completely recyclable!) called Open Water, and have refillable bottle stations throughout the aquarium. They also only provide straws and lids on request which is a practice more businesses should take into consideration — less plastic waste going into the waste stream!
A Climate Change Education Mecca
The information boards across the countless exhibits at the New England Aquarium also provided amazing information about HOW people can help fight climate change personally, which was an amazing contrast to the usual rhetoric of “we can’t do anything unless it’s enormous change across the entire planet.”
“If we can’t save this ecosystem, are we gonna have the courage to save the next one down the line?”
Imagine going to your favorite place in the world, only to find it was completely devastated.
That’s what producers, divers, and everyone involved in Chasing Coral found.
The film Chasing Coral follows the same structure as its predecessor Chasing Ice: a documentary produced to highlight something we’re going to lose (or have already lost) because of climate change.
After watching Chasing Ice, I felt hope. But after watching Chasing Coral, I feel despair.
In 2012, Chasing Ice made me feel urgency — I knew climate change was real, and this film was made (in my eyes) to show people the effects of this global issue. I felt equipped (with tons of icy ammo) to shout about climate change from the rooftops!
But now, in 2017, Chasing Coral almost made me cry. Because humans have dumped carbon into the atmosphere for so long, and have delayed on climate action, we’re finally losing something we cannot replace — the world’s coral. And the documentary film crew spent months documenting the damage.
Coral bleaching all starts with the rise in global temperatures, and where that heat is stored. The ocean takes up 93 percent of the world’s heat, and without it, we’d already be fried on land.
Bleaching is a side effect of the ocean’s heat. When the ocean is too hot, corals get stressed out, and the algae living on the coral depart (or are ejected), causing the symbiotic relationship between algae and coral tissue to waste. When the algae is gone, coral loses their source of food, and bleaches. Not all bleached coral is dead, but once coral is bleached, it’s less likely for the coral to return to a healthy state.
The impacts continue on. This week, scientists announced the second coral bleaching event in a row in the Great Barrier Reef. Corals around the globe have been subject to bleaching in recent decades, too, not just in Australia. More heat continues to pile up in the ocean, even turning the Arctic into the Atlantic.
“The ocean controls everything. Without a healthy ocean, we do not have a healthy planet.”
Scientists in the film are concerned that continual bleaching events will wreck coral and their habitats for good — if they always bleach, they will never have enough food, and will just die off. This would lead to an ecosystem collapse, where entire classes of organisms could go extinct.
Ocean scientists are sounding the alarm. And what’s their solution? Stop using fossil fuels now.
Is losing the Great Barrier Reef going to wake up the world?
But Leonardo DiCaprio wants to bring solutions to this scary problem. And through “Before the Flood,” the UN Messenger of Peace does just that. These are the 5 most important solutions he made cases for in his documentary (which you can watch on YouTube).
1. Palm oil is really bad for the climate. But you can help.
Palm oil is really terrible for the climate because it fuels deforestation. Deforestation prevents trees from doing their job (acting as a carbon sink), especially when “peatlands hold up to 28 times as much carbon as rainforests,” Ensia reports. Burning forests for deforestation also release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of smoke.
Back to palm oil, though. It’s used in pretty much everything, from lipstick to chocolate to detergent. It can be grown almost anywhere, and is really cheap to produce, making large corporations a lot of money.
That’s where you come in. If enough people worldwide boycott (or cut back on) consumption of products containing palm oil, these companies wouldn’t have to clear-cut as many forests to harvest it, which would allow trees to remain in place and do their jobs as carbon sinks.
2. Methane is also terrible (but again, you can help).
Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change (like carbon dioxide does) but is about 34 times more potent than CO2 over a 100 year period (cutting the science jargon — it’s worse than CO2). New studies have pointed to cattle, landfills and agriculture as huge sources of methane in the U.S.
So how can we help? In short – eat less beef. In “Before the Flood,” DiCaprio (along with Dr. Gidon Eshel) explains that the largest reason for tropical deforestation is beef farming. This, like palm oil production, removes trees (and in turn, carbon sinks are disrupted).
In a short segment, Eshel explains that in the U.S., 47% of land is used for food production, and of that, 70% is used to grow feed for cattle.
That feed goes to fuel cows, who produce methane through burping while eating (no, really). And as mentioned, methane is way worse for the climate. “Every molecule of methane (CH4) is equivalent to 23 molecules of CO2. And of the methane in the atmosphere, nearly all of it is due to livestock.”
So the seemingly simple solution is cutting down on beef in our diets, switching to another alternative like chicken or just having meat-free days. “Let’s face it — it’s fairly easy to switch your diet from one choice to another,” Eshel explains.
3. 100 gigafactories can serve the entire world renewable energy.
In case you haven’t heard, Elon Musk is building a gigafactory to build his Tesla batteries. When completed, the building will have the largest footprint of any in the world.
Elon Musk chatted with Leonardo DiCaprio about the future of the energy industry and how solar and batteries completely punt the need for energy plants in developing nations
“Batteries are critical to the sustainable energy future,” Musk says in this NatGeo clip..
… in which he also explains how 100 gigafactories could power the ENTIRE WORLD on renewable energy. The whole world. 100 gigafactories. The catch is that Tesla can’t build 100 of them — in order to move to this clean energy/battery future, other corporations will have to follow suit. “If the big industrial countries in China and the U.S. and Europe, the big car companies, if they also do this, then collectively, we can accelerate the transition to renewable energy,” he says. “Unless there’s a price put on carbon, we’re never going to be able to make the transition we need to in time.”
4. A carbon tax should really be considered.
A carbon tax would be a tax on any activity that puts carbon into the atmosphere — everything in the transportation sector (flying, shipping, driving, etc) and energy development (oil, coal, etc). It’s based on the principle that if you tax it, people will consume less (because it’s costing them money).
Gregory Mankiw, econ professor at Harvard, calls a carbon tax the “silver bullet” for climate change — which will cost taxpayers $44 trillion by 2060. So why don’t we have a carbon tax already if it’s such a good idea?
“Politicians don’t always do what professors want them to do,” Mankiw says. “If we want to change the President’s view on a carbon tax, we need to change the public’s view on a carbon tax.”
Side note: You can go on this website and calculate how much you contribute to climate change (hint: if you travel a lot, get ready for a heavy blow…). It also allows you to pay monthly to offset your carbon use.
5. Renewables really are the future.
Elon Musk hits the nail on the head when he says “If government sets the rules to favor sustainable energy, we can get there really quickly.”
“Before the Flood” really focused on renewables as the future of energy, and everyone else in the world agrees. The Paris Agreement has called for investments in renewable energy. Some countries are going carbon neutral (and using LOADS of renewable energy) just because they can (Costa Rica is well on its way, and so is Sweden, and Iceland, and…).