The oceans are rising. The weather is changing. The world is ending. The sky is falling. Run away! Run away!
Is that how you feel when someone says, “climate change”? Is it all too much? Do you feel like there is nothing you can do? You are not alone, yet you do have the power to have an impact. Climate change may be changing the world, but acting locally can have a real impact on reducing the damage and long-term costs of changes to our region.
What is Climate Change?
Have you noticed that the summers have been getting warmer and the winters are getting wetter over the last few years? Is this climate change or just normal fluctuations in weather from year to year? Is this different from some years when an El Niño system brings warm and dry winters to the Pacific Northwest, and other times a La Niña system generates above average rainfall in the winter? Yes, weather does change from year to year, and while these variations are normal cycles, a long-term perspective shows a more startling trend that is affecting the entire planet. Extreme weather patterns have been developing in the mid-west and on the East Coast, resulting in an increased number of severe tornados in the summer and record cold periods in the winter.
The crucial aspect of climate change that needs to be understood is that these long-term trends are not simply the natural course of events on our blue planet. After all, we once were covered with ice during the last ice age and the planet does get warmer and colder over long periods of time. Our climate is changing because of human activity. “Most of the warming of the past half century has been caused by … burning fossil fuels for heat and energy, clearing forests, fertilizing crops, storing waste in landfills, raising livestock, and producing some kinds of industrial products,” says the EPA (www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/overview.html). These activities have released a tremendous amount of heat-trapping gases into our atmosphere. These greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases, and methane, capture the sun’s heat and warm the upper atmosphere, impacting jet stream patterns and polar ice fluctuations.
How can it affect us?
It is not simply “global warming” that results from an increase of greenhouse gases, a study by the Washington State Department of Ecology reports that this is “causing wide-ranging impacts, including rising sea levels; melting snow and ice; more extreme heat events, fires and drought; and more extreme storms, rainfall and floods. Scientists project that these trends will continue and in some cases accelerate, posing significant risks to human health, our forests, agriculture, freshwater supplies, coastlines, and other natural resources that are vital to Washington State’s economy, environment, and our quality of life. “
According to the Climate Impacts Group (CIG) from the University of Washington, records show that Pacific Northwest temperatures have increased 1.5°F since 1920. These temperature changes impact the Pacific Northwest in many ways. Warmer winters mean that instead of snow falling in our mountains, we will get more rain, resulting in less snow accumulation, earlier snow melt, and greater flooding downstream.
Warmer summers may initially seem like a good thing, but this also means more wildfires, especially east of the Cascades. Our already threatened salmon populations will also be impacted by higher summer temperatures as warmer streams create poor spawning grounds. CIG states that “one third of the current habitat for either the endangered or threatened Northwest salmon species will no longer be suitable for them by the end of this century.”
Ultimately, one of the greatest impacts of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the inevitable sea level rise. Many focus on the impact on the loss of living space in our coastal cities, but truly, the more devastating impact in the northwest may be on our coastal wetlands, which will become inundated by seawater, turning our freshwater wetlands brackish and eventually impacting our groundwater supplies.
What can we do?
All of this may be very daunting. It appears all so much bigger than you and me; this is world-wide and the result of over a hundred years of human industrial activity, but “there are little things you can do in your life that will help, such as conserving energy and taking mass transit,” encourages the Environmental Defense Fund on their website (www.edf.org/climate/climate-change-how-you-can-make-difference).
Driving a vehicle, the use of electricity to light and heat your house, and throwing away garbage all contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. You can act now to reduce your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by conserving the amount of energy you use at home: seal and insulate your home and purchase energy efficient appliances. Also, when you invest in clean energy sources, such as solar and wind power, you reduce the need for increased energy production. Reduce your waste and recycle to minimize the amount of garbage going into landfills and the amount of their methane emissions. Consider driving less or using mass transit to minimize your personal carbon footprint.
“Washington State is addressing this challenge and has adopted policies to reduce energy use, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and build a clean energy economy,” says the Washington State Department of Ecology on their web page addressing climate change (www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/whatis.htm). “By taking action now to respond and adapt to changing climate conditions, Washington can significantly limit the damage and reduce the long-term costs of the climate related impacts that are expected to grow in number and intensity in the decades to come.”
Your voice and participation in the democratic process to guide government policy is your greatest influence. “What is really needed is change at national and global levels,” says the Environmental Defense Fund. “Only by convincing leaders to create laws that improve our energy policy, and pushing companies to adopt sustainable business practices on a global level, can we see real change.” So speak out; talk with your friends, employers, and representatives; tell them to act now to change our future energy course away from burning dirty fossil fuels to a clean energy future by harnessing the sun, wind, and water. The power is yours.
By Sheldon W O’dahl
(Note: this article was originally published in the Sustainable Living Guide 2014, in Seattle Natural Awakenings, February 2014)