Al Gore, Amazon Rainforest, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Sequestration, Climate Change, David Attenborough, Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, Glacier Melt, Global Warming, Green Party, Greenhouse Gasses, Greenpeace, Greta Thunberg, Ice Melt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ozone Layer
Recently, I’ve been thinking about global warming, climate change, and how it affects me and I’ve come to the conclusion that although everybody is talking about it virtually nothing of any significance is happening and I wonder why. Here are my thoughts. First, here’s a summary of climate change.
In a Nutshell…
What is climate change?
Climate change is a significant change to weather patterns in a particular region such as a change in monsoon timing and intensity in the Earth’s tropical monsoon regions, or a change in month-by-month average temperatures or rain downfall in temperate climates, or an increase in average temperatures that cause ice melt in the polar regions or glacier melt in high mountain ranges, and so on.
What causes climate change?
Natural events such as earthquakes, lightning strikes or volcano eruptions, changes in the sun’s activity, or man-made caused by the increase in so-called greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere causing a rise in the Earth’s ground-level (tropospheric) temperatures.
What is a greenhouse gas?
Any gas that absorbs and emits heat in the form of infrared light. The main greenhouse gases are ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapour and carbon dioxide.
The Earth has a natural layer of greenhouse gases that, until recently, has maintained reasonably stable atmospheric temperatures around the planet – coldest in areas furthest away from the sun (the North and South Poles), warmest around the areas closest to the sun (the Equatorial lands and sea masses).
Where do these gases come from?
Ozone occurs naturally in the stratosphere (a layer between 30 km and 50 km above sea level) and was created when life on Earth evolved billions of years ago. The gas is a mutated form of oxygen created when stratospheric oxygen absorbs harmful ultraviolet rays emitted from the sun. Our main concern is that the naturally protective ‘ozone layer’ has been damaged by other gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) causing holes in the protective layer which allow the harmful UV rays through.
Both methane and nitrous oxide are produced largely through waste animal gas (eructation and flatulence, more commonly known as burps and farts) and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers.
Water vapour is constantly present in the atmosphere forming greenhouse clouds and, ultimately, rain. An increase in atmospheric temperature is accompanied by an associated increase in atmospheric water vapour resulting in more clouds (and rain), resulting in an increase in atmospheric temperature, resulting in… It’s a vicious circle.
Carbon dioxide is created by the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and oil. The more we convert these fuels into energy to power the needs of industrialisation such as manufacturing, transportation, and home energy requirements, the more carbon dioxide we produce, most of which is pumped into the atmosphere.
Since the early-to-mid-18th-century Industrial Revolution, the increased industrialisation of human activities such as mass-production farming, energy production and use, and deforestation has had two major climate-change effects. The first is a substantial increase in the generation of greenhouse gases that has altered the amount of these gases in the stratosphere. The second is that natural ways of absorbing greenhouse gases have reduced. These two effects have resulted in an overall increase in the Earth’s natural temperature (global warming).
Why is this a bad thing?
As the Earth’s atmosphere warms up so changes take place in just about everything: sea temperatures increase with the potential to damage marine life and ecosystems, large masses of ice at the poles melt causing sea levels to rise thus increasing the risk of coastal flooding, animals and plants do not have enough time to evolve naturally and adjust to changes in their natural environment and so begin to die out, vegetated areas dry out thereby increasing the risk of bush fires, similarly an increased number of lightning strikes (and humans) cause more wild fires, and so on.
How are carbon gases reduced?
By trees and other natural vegetation. All vegetation absorbs carbon from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and turns it into tissue to form fruit, leaves, stems, trunks, branches, flower heads, and so on. This process is a part of a general process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide and is called carbon sequestration. The Amazon rainforest, sometimes called the lungs of the Earth, has a major part to play in global carbon sequestration and this is why the current Brazilian government’s endorsement of deforestation is causing considerable alarm among global environmentalists.
What are the long-term effects of global warming?
If you google this question, you will lose the will to live! The Web is awash with ominous predictions of the long-term effects of global warming such as loss of animal and plant species; extensive flooding and other damage caused by sea-level rises and other extreme weather events such as higher-intensity hurricanes; major changes to animal behaviour such as migration patterns; similar major changes to plant behaviour such as spring budding time; an increase in carbon dioxide absorption in sea water creating carbonic acid which has an adverse effect on marine life; a loss of fertility on arable farming land with a knock-on effect to our ability to grow life-sustaining nutritious food crops; and so on.
Can I believe these predictions?
Yes. Despite President Trump’s assertion that climate change caused by global warming is a hoax, there is now a vast amount of data to support the rises in global temperatures, the ice and glacier melts, the increase in sea levels and the decline in certain species of animals caused by major changes to their natural habitats. And there’s more, much more and way too much to be dismissed as a hoax or a scientific conspiracy. What would be the point of all the world’s environmental scientists banding together to build a huge fabrication based on falsified data?
So, yes, you’d better believe it and if you have children or grandchildren, you owe it to them to do what you can now to ensure they have a future. Don’t force them to look up the meaning of dystopia.
What can I personally do about Climate Change?
This is the $64,000 question.
Save the planet campaigners such as Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough, and movements such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Extinction Rebellion, and a host of other concerned scientists and politicians have bombarded us with earnest pleas to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ but what can we as individuals do about it?
Recycle, recycle, recycle
I examined my own life style and asked myself what have I done since I became aware of the long-term implications of climate change? I earnestly save and recycle unwanted plastic and glass containers but I ask myself what percentage of my empty wine bottles are truly recycled and at what cost to the environment (transport, cleaning, crushing and heating, reshaping, reuse in a new product)? Similarly, plastic containers. Plastics are made from fossil fuels and, by the nature of their long polymeric molecules, are extremely robust and resistant to biodegradation. Even a small every-day item such as a plastic straw can take anywhere from 50 to 500 years to decompose. So, what happens to the plastic bottles I recycle? It depends on what type of plastic they are made of. Certain plastics such as Polyethylene Teraphthalate (PET) and High-Density Polyethlene (HDPE), lend themselves to recycling. PET and HDPE containers can be shredded, washed, melted, pelletised and reused to make new products. Fair enough, but what happens to plastics that are not amenable to recycling? Are they incinerated (causing atmospheric pollution), dumped on a waste site or, even worse, dumped in the sea? Apparently, the answer is ‘all of the above’.
What about the recycling of metal containers, tin or aluminium? My local council does not provide me the means to recycle empty tins of food or drink in a bin outside my house. My choices are either to throw empty metal containers in the kitchen waste bin, or store them and then take them to a local household waste recycling centre. If I throw them away, the metal cans will end up as landfill, truly a waste of natural resource. If I stash, where do I store the empty items before visiting the recycling centre, and how much carbon will I generate when I make the trip?
While on the topic of recycling, what about all the other household items that occasionally become redundant – items such as laptops, washing machines, smartphones, out-of-date or don’t-fit-anymore clothing, batteries, unsolicited mail, garden waste, unwanted building materials, no-longer-wanted children’s toys, unwanted furniture, and so on? If you are a house owner, your life can become dominated by a constant flow of unwanted household items. Some you can sell; some you can give away; but most goes up the dump.
We live in a material consumerist world. We are encouraged to continuously replace an older item with a newer version. Indeed, in some cases, such as a laptop or tablet, modern products are designed with built-in obsolescence. If I want to continue writing books, editing photographs, and maintaining a website, I am pretty much forced to update my laptop every four to five years else face the fact that the apps I use on the laptop are no longer supported by the operating system or the developer.
It’s the same with white goods and large electronic products such as televisions and music centres (known as e-waste). What happens to these goods when discarded? Are they refurbished or stripped down for salvage of precious metals? Or are they just crushed and sent to landfill?
What else can I do?
I googled, ‘What can I do to save the planet?’ Various websites contained lists. Here’s a summary of their main suggestions:
- Eat less red meat to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animal farming and from associated land clearance, fertiliser and feed production, and nurture (as in factory farming).
- Reduce energy consumption in the home caused by heating, cooking, refrigeration, washing, spin drying, entertainment centres, and charging your electronic gadgets.
- Reduce pollution associated with your use of a car by walking, cycling or using eco-friendly forms of public transport.
- Stop the constant replacement of old clothes with new. The production of cheap throwaway clothes has a tangible effect on the environment: use of pesticides on the cotton plants, effect of chemical runoff during the garment manufacturing and cleaning processes, transportation costs, even child labour.
- Grow your own vegetables.
These are all very laudable actions but there is no encouragement to practice any of the suggestions. My wife and I eat very little red meat, preferring chicken or fish for health reasons, but I see no diminishing of the availability of beef or lamb on the supermarket shelves or in the window of my local butcher.
Even if we had smart meters fitted to our gas and electricity supply, I know I wouldn’t monitor our energy consumption. If it’s cold, we put on warmer clothes and, if necessary, turn the central heating on or up. As the internal temperature goes up, the thermostat monitors the rise and when the target temperature is achieved, switches the central heating off automatically; it requires no action from me.
Similarly, my wife waits until she has a laundry basket full of dirty clothing before using the washing machine and spin dryer. Could we wear our clothes longer before changing? Probably. They are not dirty as such, just slightly grubby, but again, where’s the incentive to do so? Modern washing machines and spin dryers are energy efficient (compared to thirty or forty years ago, say) and washing powder is not expensive. The only reason to lengthen the wear period is to reduce the number of times the clothes need ironing. I don’t do ironing but I can see that it’s a chore to iron a bundle of clothes.
What else? Oh yes, don’t use the car so much. At 6,300 miles per year, average, we are already 20% below the national average of around 7,900 miles per year. Could we do less? Probably, but we do walk to the village occasionally, and elsewhere, for health reasons, and we do use bus and train transport when convenient and available so, right now, I see no reason to modify our use of the car.
Stop buying new clothes. Ah, now that’s an interesting one. I rarely buy new clothes and I will use what I’ve got until they fall off my back or, more usually, my wife throws them away. But I don’t do this for environmental reasons. I’m just not a slave to fashion and as long as the clothes fit, are comfortable, protective where necessary, and fit for purpose, I will continue to wear them.
My wife has a different approach however. I need to be careful what I say here but let it be known she has two wardrobes full of clothes (I have just one, partially empty) and she enjoys the therapy of shopping for clothes not only for herself but also for each of our four granddaughters, and she has been known to place bags of perfectly serviceable clothes in recycling bins to make room for new replacements. The, ‘Do you need it or just want it?’ question has often been asked in our household. Enough said.
Finally, what about growing my own vegetables? Assuming I have the space available in my garden (I do), should I grow my own? Just after my wife and I got married back in the 1960s, and particularly when the children came along, I had an allotment and spent many happy hours growing a variety of vegetables. But we didn’t rely on what I could grow. We supplemented with shop-bought veggies and, looking back, I would conclude that I grew the vegetables for the fun of so doing rather than because I needed to. Today, in my late-70s, I see no need to grow my own vegetables. I can buy a wide variety of fresh vegetables in my local supermarket or farm shop for a modest amount of money.
But where are the incentives?
So, what this all comes down to is incentive. If my supermarket began making substantial increases to the price of vegetables, and if red meat became very scarce because farmers are no longer encouraged to look after herds of cows and flocks of sheep for meat consumption, and if cheap clothing ceased to be available, and if energy prices, including petrol for my car, sky-rocketed, and if, if, if… then I would be forced to take up the suggestions made by these how-to-save-the-planet websites. But it’s not happening. The only change I have seen recently is a switch from single-use plastic supermarket shopping bags to reusable supermarket shopping bags that clutter up the boot of my car and, over time, become stained and soiled and so need washing or replacement. I’ve seen little else. I still see in Waitrose, for example, two perfectly-ripe avocados nestling comfortably in what appears to be a moulded polystyrene base and covered by a rigid see-through plastic cover. I’m convinced the packaging costs more than the product! Recently my wife bought a pack of Parma ham from Sainsbury’s. Between each slice of ham was a thin rigid sheet of plastic to allow easy slice separation. It works, but is it really necessary to do this? We sometimes buy Parma ham on the Sunday market in the French town of Divonne-les-Bains where two of my granddaughters live. The ham is carved off the bone straight onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, wrapped and handed over. That also works fine. Arden & Amici Almond Cantuccini come in a box that’s twice the height of the airtight package inside containing the biscotti. Why? My best guess is to give the illusion of more biscotti than is actually in the box. There is no other reason I can think of.
It’s crazy but my main point is that although everyone is banging one about the need to rein in on carbon emissions, nothing is happening at the grass root level. If you look at the manifestos and policy statements of the main parties vying for power in the upcoming general election, most of the net zero carbon emission targets are woefully vague in how the target will be achieved. They are, as I said recently in another blog, only tick-the-box statements of intent. The exception is the Green Party’s manifesto which is more specific: within ten years, replace petrol and diesel vehicles with, for example, electric vehicles; switch gas-fired domestic heating boilers to hydrogen-powered boilers; insulate all homes; remove fossil fuels from the economy; plant millions of trees; ensure all new-build homes are zero-carbon; improve the energy efficiency of existing homes; ban all single-uses of plastic; spend millions on cycle paths. These are terrific policies if you are an ardent supporter of save the planet but look at the figures. At the moment, there is one Green Party MP in the House of Commons (out of 650 seats), two in the House of Lords (out of 800 entitled to take part in the House of Lords), and seven in the European Parliament (out of 751 seats). These figures speak for themselves. Although everybody appears to support the need for radical changes to the reckless destruction of our planet, virtually nobody cares enough to vote for the one party whose manifesto lays out the detail of what needs to be done.
This might change after December 12th but, to be honest, I doubt it. Despite the recent heavily-publicised disruptions of Extinction Rebellion in London and elsewhere, I suspect most people see the disruptions as just that – disruptions. I’ve not heard any of the current main-party leaders talk about climate change in any detail and the Green Party has been given very little air time to present their policies and respond to questions about viability.
So, there you have it. When someone like David Attenborough, a highly respected natural historian and broadcaster, tells us bluntly that the changes to our climate caused by global warming means that we face ‘irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies,’ we’d best sit up and take notice. If we don’t, there’ll be nobody around in 50 years’ time to say, ‘I told you so!’
Regular readers will note that there are no images, humorous cartoons or hyperlinks in this blog. I decided images would not be appropriate for an article on this subject, and it’s certainly not a laughing matter. Also, I was all over Wikipedia and many other websites gathering and checking facts, so much so, that had I inserted hyperlink references, the article would have looked like a heavily-underlined essay marked and returned by a zealous schoolteacher. If you want to pursue further, try entering the questions posed in my sub-headings into a search engine and follow the leads.
Jean Beard said:
Hi Ben, have enjoyed reading this blog and I do despair at the amount of plastic still being produced. I do recycle everything I can but there’s still so much plastic that goes in the general rubbish. Really do not know what the answer is!!
Keep blogging. Jean