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 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…).
Day three in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read day one and day two here.
So many things indicate that this planet is changing — from rapidly acidifying oceans to extreme weather — but it all can be boiled down to the greenhouse gas emissions we humans have emitted into the atmosphere.
Here’s how we know the climate is changing, thanks to my very own WXshift and Climate Central‘s indicators of a warming climate:
Ocean acidification occurs when CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels reacts with salt water from the ocean and forms an acid.
Acidic oceans aren’t just bad for corals — at the bottom of the food chain, plankton have trouble adapting to warming and acidifying seas, which can cause an ecological collapse, which would severely alter the ocean’s food web and how we humans get our seafood.
Arctic sea ice is disappearing over time. A warming Arctic poses problems for polar bears hunting for food, as you may have heard, but it also has an important feedback role in global warming. Because sea ice is much more reflective than the dark ocean (because it’s white), it usually reflects sunlight away from the planet. When the ice melts, the sunlight is absorbed into the ocean, increasing warming. You can see Arctic ice melt in the video below.
Rising temperatures are causing global sea levels to rise through two primary mechanisms. Water expands as it warms and this thermal expansion causes water levels to rise. Hotter temperatures are also melting land ice, like glaciers and polar ice caps, which adds more water to the ocean.
El Niño is a stretch of unusually warm water that forms off the coast of Peru and stretches across the equatorial Pacific every 3-7 years. The opposite phase, La Niña, displays a similar pattern but with cooler-than-normal water. These oceanic shifts conspire with the atmosphere to alter global weather by increasing the odds of drought, heavy rain and cool or hot temperatures in different parts of the world.
El Niño also contributes to record heat, as seen in this graph below.
U.S. wildfires are burning longer (and more frequently). The main cause of the increase in large wildfires in the Western U.S. is because of snowpack decline — because there is less snow, the area is more dry, and therefore more susceptible to going up in flames.
An increase in wildfires also decreases air quality, a serious health consequence.
Land ice is melting. Arctic sea ice isn’t the only ice on the decline. Land ice, including glaciers and polar ice caps, is trending down across the globe, the melt of which contributes to sea level rise.
As with Arctic sea ice, land ice is reflective, so the more the better to reflect sunlight away from Earth.
Snow cover is decreasing. When white snow disappears because the global temperature has risen, less sunlight is reflected off the planet, similar to what is happening with Arctic sea ice. In the Northern Hemisphere, snowpack has plummeted, which is not only a bummer for skiers, but for people who drink water (i.e. EVERYONE). Snowpack, especially in western states, provides runoff water that fills water tables and aquifers.
In the atmosphere:
Carbon dioxide is on the rise. Carbon dioxide, the pollutant we emit into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels (and the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change), is on the rise. This chart says it all.
The global temperature is rising, too. The rise in CO2 (see above) sets off many other climate indicators — in fact, it contributes to all of them, including the global temperature. Because of increased CO2 in the atmosphere, heat gets trapped, driving up global temperatures.
“The lasting legacy of climate change will be heat. The land, the oceans, all of it. It’s the tie that binds and while the global average temperature is the defining metric, the increasing incidence of heat waves and longer lasting extreme heat is how the world will experience it.” – Climate Central
And there you have it! Ten indicators of a warming world. The takeaway from this is how everything is connected. A warming globe decreases snowpack, which increases the risk of wildfires. More CO2 in the atmosphere leads to more CO2 in the oceans, which melts sea ice and increases ocean acidity.
Everything in this world is connected, which is an important concept to learn when thinking about climate change impacts.
In case you haven’t heard, negotiators in Paris at COP21 have made a historic climate deal that hopes to limit global warming below 2°C.
Why 2°C? You may have heard the world is warming, and that warming has been attributed to manmade emissions. The United Nations has adopted 2°C as the highest threshold for warming with human-caused carbon emissions in order to drive nations to make a climate agreement (like the one in Paris) that would limit the most disastrous effects of climate change.