Global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreat, sea level rise, ocean acidification— a few minutes on NASA’s climate change evidence page is enough to leave one more than worried for the future. The Earth’s average surface temperature has risen just over 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, and it only continues to rise.
This steady rise is caused by the industrial release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which trap heat from escaping, and threatens to drastically affect life on Earth. This, we have known for a while.
While an expanse has begun into renewable energy sources, environmentally-friendly practices and an increase in the efficiency of manufacturing and production, not enough is being done. We are far from curbing climate change, especially as developing countries begin to industrialize and climate change deniers permeate the population.
Despite being a global problem, Climate Change is often overlooked, or undervalued. It has historically been an issue of the future, rather than the present. Now, its effects are beginning to be felt.
In 2020, wildfires have razed over 4% of California, derechos have devastated the Midwest and hurricanes have been felt along the coast of the US, all during a global pandemic.
The reality of Climate Change is that it’s happening. The Earth is heating up, natural disasters are ramping up in frequency and scale, irreversible damage is being caused, and we aren’t doing enough to stop it. However, a complete meltdown is preventable. The 1.1 degree Celsius increase is not the end of the world, in fact, it’s more than manageable. The goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, an accord between almost two hundred countries, aims to prevent global temperature rise from getting above 1.5 degrees Celsius. This 1.5 degree goal is more than achievable, but it will require global cooperation and sacrifice.
Try to picture the total amount of energy you’ve spent in your lifetime. Visualize every time you’ve turned on the lights, every time you’ve plugged your phone or laptop into an outlet, or even every time you’ve opened the refrigerator. Now imagine all of that energy fitting inside something as minuscule as a soda can. While this may seem like some far-fetched fantasy, it is actually a reality that can be achieved through the utilization of nuclear energy.
“Some atoms are slightly unstable in such a way that if you hit them with a neutron, they’ll absorb [it] and [release] a whole bunch of energy,” said Kathryn Huff, an assistant professor in the nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
This process is called nuclear fission, which occurs in a highly regulated nuclear plant. The first step involves making tall, skinny rods out of uranium, about the diameter of a pinky finger. These will then be placed in water inside the reactor. Then, an external source of neutrons is shot through the plant, where it will come into contact with the uranium rods and start up the reaction.
“Each fission [reaction] produces more than one neutron. [Fission reactions] can [actually] produce up to 10 neutrons. In induced fission of uranium-235, you will most likely get two to three, 2.41, on average, but you in principle can have up to 10. So, these new neutrons that are produced, they will on their turn induce fission. And then the fission reaction will become what we refer to as a chain reaction, and they’ll be able to sustain this [process] through the reactor,” said Angela Di Fulvio, also from UIUC.
After the fission reaction occurs in the uranium rods, the energy and heat is then transferred to the water around them.
“You pump that water around in a circle and outside the reactor, it passes through a heat exchanger and the heat is removed from the water and sent as steam. You let that water become steam, but you keep the water that’s in the reactor. [It’s] kind of running in a closed loop: it enters the reactor and then it leaves the reactor hot, and you keep that pump going,” explained Huff. “[The steam] goes through a secondary pipe towards the turbine, [which] is basically just like a big fan. It pushes the blades of that fan around just like the wind pushes a wind turbine. The turbine is attached to a magnet, the magnet is inside a coil of wires, and when a magnet spins inside wires, electrons move through those wires, and electrons moving through wires is how we turn the lights on.”
Nuclear energy is also incredibly dependable. Currently, about 20% of the power used in the US is supplied by nuclear energy.
“I think one of the things that we have taken for granted in the United States is the reliability of the electricity on our grid. When you walk into your house and you turn on the lights, they turn on no matter what’s happening outside or anything like that. But as we introduce more and more renewable energy into our grid, we don’t necessarily combine it with as much storage technology as we need to back it up in the case that the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, or in case the coal trains don’t make it to the coal plants,” said Huff. “Nuclear is very reliable because you only have to refuel the plant once every year and a half. And you can keep a batch of fuel or a couple batches of fuel onsite without taking up a lot of space. You could run a nuclear plant for years. They’re not really affected by external forces.”
While nuclear energy may not produce any carbon emissions, it produces something that could be even deadlier: nuclear waste. When the nuclei of uranium atoms split apart, they will form smaller nuclei, and thus, new elements called fission products. The new fission products are unstable, and will release energy, making them very radioactive. To contain these dangerous products, they are first kept in the reactor for a few years, then transferred to a cooling pool and kept underwater for another few years. When this process is finished, they will still be in the form of solid rods. These rods will be taken out of the reactor and either be disposed of at a disposal facility or recycled, like they do in France.
“During the reactor process, you only split a small percentage of the [uranium] atoms. But if you chop it up and you get just the uranium atoms that haven’t been split yet, then you could make a new fuel rod and put it back in the reactor,” explained Huff.
Outside of just energy production, nuclear energy has played another important role in influencing not just other fields of energy, but many other vital aspects of science.
“A field that benefits from nuclear energy is medicine, because the nuclear reactors can also be used to create isotopes that can be then used for nuclear medicine patients, for cancer diagnostics and treatment,” said Di Fulvio. She also mentions robots used in nuclear power plants, which also have applications in many other fields.
It’s a good thing that nuclear power is heavily regulated, and other industries should take a hint”
— Kathryn Huff
“It’s a good thing that nuclear power is heavily regulated, and other industries should take a hint,” said Huff. “People fall off roofs installing photovoltaic cells. There are wind turbines that catch on fire and have killed engineers installing them… We don’t have a very good safety record.”
Another option for alternative energy are biofuels, or plant-based sources of energy. An example of a biofuel is lignin.
Lignin is a compound found in the cell walls of many plants, making them woody and tough. As of now, lignin is most commonly seen being removed from trees when making paper. However, it has excellent potential for replacing petroleum, a substance used for fuels and creating plastics which has contributed largely to global warming.
“Right now, [the paper industry] produces about 60 million tons of lignin as a byproduct [every year],” said Marcus Foston, an associate professor of engineering at Washington University. He is part of a team of engineers working on a project to develop a process to break down lignin with low-temperature plasmas in order for it to replace harmful petroleums. “A lot of times it’s just burned in various processing plants. The idea is that if you burn it, you can get some heat out of it. Whatever we get out of lignin, it needs to be more valuable than the electricity that we replace it with.”
Due to how common it is, lignin is an incredibly abundant and accessible resource that can be utilized. However, it has proven extremely difficult to break down. “Lignin is a really complex material. The sequence of building blocks that makes it up is very variable. It can change from tissue to tissue, or plant to plant or species to species,” said Foston. “This means that the ways in which we may want to extract it or use it becomes very difficult to understand on a first principle or basic level.”
Once lignin is able to be broken down, the next step is to figure out how it can actually be used. “About 70% of a barrel of oil goes to production of fuel. 3.4% of that barrel of oil goes towards petrochemicals, which produce the commodity products and chemicals that we use all the time. [Fuels and petrochemicals] are inevitably linked,” said Foston. “When we think about lignin, we think about it the same way. [We ask ourselves], ‘Can we burn it to make electricity? Can we compress it to make it into a more usable, more dense solid, that’s more easily transported?”
The convenience of a substance is incredibly important to keep in mind if it is to be used by the public. When it comes to manipulating the physical state of lignin to get it ready for use, there are a lot of different options. Examples include turning it into a liquid through pyrolysis or converting it to a gas with gasification.
The principles behind the use of biofuels has applications to many other environmental issues. “A huge amount of plastic recycling actually doesn’t go into recycling. And that’s because there’s no economic motivation [behind it],” said Foston. “[Right now,] we’re breaking down biomass into smaller fragments that will be used for fuels and chemicals. We can think about how we can do the same thing to plastics.”
Renewable energy sources are drastically better for both the environment and people living in it. It’s predicted that with our current usage rate of fossil fuels and natural gas, we will run out of these resources by 2060. However, with solar energy, individuals utilize an inexhaustible source of energy: the sun. Many homeowners have been purchasing rooftop solar panels to produce their own electricity.
“People come to solar for a variety of reasons. For some it’s the environmental savings, the environmental security and [for others it’s the] financial savings,” explained Eric Schneider, director of business development at StraightUp Solar, a St. Louis based company that operates in Missouri and Illinois. “What other appliance in your house pays itself back?”
StraightUp Solar is a certified B Corporation, which means that the company strives to help communities and enact positive environmental change as well as make a profit. The company participates in the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Grow Solar program, which offers neighborhood communities opportunities to pool money and share the benefits of solar at a cheaper rate.
There are many financial and economic incentives to purchasing solar energy, which generally garner bipartisan support. “At least a couple years ago, solar installer jobs [were] the fastest growing job in Missouri, and it’s typically one of the fastest growing jobs around the country,” said Grace Tedder from EFS Energy, a St. Louis based solar company. “Solar is [also] becoming cheaper as an energy source, especially for utility scale solar, which is where you just have massive amounts of land with tons of solar panels on it. It is cheaper than operating these old coal plants, [which] need to be shut down.”
There is also a 30 percent federal investment tax credit for solar energy, but this credit has not been renewed by the Trump administration, and it has decreased by 4% since 2019 and will expire at the end of 2021 if not renewed earlier.
While solar energy is incredibly advantageous as an energy source, Tedder believes there is still a need for improvement. “A lot of times, the raw materials [used in solar panels] are extracted in really harmful ways from a lot of developing countries, and there’s a lot of human rights issues that go along with that,” said Tedder. “That’s not necessarily a reason to [think that] solar is bad and we have to use coal, because coal and fracking for natural gas is actively worse. But it doesn’t mean that [solar energy] is perfect. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there to still improve on that.”
Although people on both sides of the political spectrum support renewable energy incentives, electric utilities with legal monopolies use immense lobbying power and funding to resist change at the state level.
Most utilities are heavily backed by donors from the fossil fuel industry, and lobbying is very prevalent at the state level. In 2019, over 118 million dollars was spent by electric utilities while over 125 million dollars were spent by the oil and gas industry, while less than a million dollars were spent by renewable energy groups.
Because of their political influence, lobbying groups have much control over state legislature and regulations on their own monopolies. Often, these corporations use confusing policy wording to influence voter decisions on proposed amendments.
Utilities in many states implement a paying system for consumers with solar called net metering. When a consumer’s solar system overproduces during the day, excess energy is returned to the grid if it is not stored in a battery. At night when the system is not producing, the utility credits the homeowner with the amount of energy they initially overproduced.
If homeowners produce more electricity than they consume for the entire day, utilities have varying responses. In Illinois, consumers are paid back the full retail value of the electricity they produced. In St. Louis, however, Ameren pays back consumers the wholesale price, which is far less than the retail price.
“[Illinois has] had several incentives to where if you’re going to put solar on your home or your business, you can get some money back on that to help subsidize the cost of it… They’ve had some good incentives to help make it easier for home and business owners to put in solar. I was actually there visiting a job site, and all around me I could just stand there and count houses that had solar on it,” said Tedder. “[In] Missouri, [there are] some incentives, but not as much as Illinois, so it’s not as financially easy to get solar. There’s [a lot less solar] and it was crazy to see the implications of the policy that visibly represented.”
Some monopolies have done work as stated on its website.
These initiatives are necessary to move forward in the fight against global warming, but there are many unanswered questions. For example, why won’t Ameren Missouri pay consumers full retail value for excess electricity they produce?
And although 2050 is the net zero carbon neutrality date agreed upon by the European Climate Foundation, some people are skeptical of the time frame. “Achieving that type of neutrality by 2050 in many ways from a scientific standpoint… it’s not soon enough” explained Bob Pashos, solar support specialist at StraightUp Solar, who is also an active member of the B Corp committee.
“To me it’s an example of how different utilities are still dragging their feet to some extent, in terms of cooperating with that transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, there’s no way to get around it.”
The simple truth: solar is a competitor, which by definition, monopolies can’t allow.
Whether you’re in high school or college or none of the above, [you can work] with groups that are climate focused or get involved with advocacy for clean energy and solar policy in Missouri”
— Grace Tedder
Ultimately, even the small efforts count in the battle against global warming. “Whether you’re in high school or college or none of the above, [you can work] with groups that are climate focused or get involved with advocacy for clean energy and solar policy in Missouri. There’s lots of different opportunities for that,” said Tedder.
“I do have a lot of concerns myself about the climate emergency… [It’s] a real global emergency that really does require very strong, powerful action in order to make the kind of difference that we need to make,” Pashos said. “[But] there’s other things I do too… giving presentations, taking part in rallies, writing my congressmen… Although I have some concerns about the time frame, I believe in doing everything we can.”
“I remember thinking, yeah, this is the Midwest, it will pass in 15 minutes and it’ll be fine,” said Katie Bell. Little did she know, that in August of 2020 Midwest a derecho would leave her without power for four straight days.
Derechos are severe weather storms which are categorized by fast-moving and highly intense windstorms. On August 10th and 11th of 2020, the derecho took over the Midwest, specifically in Iowa but also impacting areas in South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.
The storm lasted approximately 14 hours with the peak wind gust measuring 126 miles per hour and approximated gusts reaching 140 miles per hour. Because of the raging winds, 21 tornadoes were confirmed in rural areas and there were four fatalities due to the storm. The estimated damage cost left by the storm is 7.5 billion dollars, that includes damages to residential and commercial property, agriculture, public utility infrastructure and more.
Bell was in her Pure Barre workout studio in West Des Moines, Iowa, when all of her clients began to cancel. She recalled looking out the front window of the studio and seeing the sky grow dark very quickly. After it was safe, Bell left to return home, only to find streets riddled with tree limbs and powerlines knocked out by the winds.
It’s led to a lot of continued consequences for people.”
— Katie Bell
“It’s led to a lot of continued consequences for people. We were just finally able to get our fence repaired [around the beginning of November]. Roofing companies, fencing companies, companies like that have been extremely backlogged,” said Bell. “My husband is a general surgeon and he and his partners have had to fix a lot of hernias for people that were caused by them trying to move tree limbs.”
While many people think about the consequences of major storms, 2020 brings its own set. Due to the coronavirus, many families had stocked up on food and supplies. With the lack of power, and therefore the lack of refrigeration and freezing, food spoiled quickly, causing an even greater amount of loss.
The intensity and frequency of storms have increased over the past fifty years. According to the National Climate Assessment, there has been 71% more heavy rain since the 1950s. Many scientists attribute this to global warming. As the average temperature rises, more water evaporates from the oceans and heads into the atmosphere. In turn, this causes more atmospheric moisture for storms to use as rainfall and higher intensity storms.
Bell, living in the Midwest her whole life, said “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Storms such as derechos will continue to rise in strength and intensity if there are not stronger efforts put in place to prevent global warming.
$16.47 billion. That is the price of around 72,619 average United States homes. That is also the estimated amount of damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Hurricane Matthew hit the Southeastern United States in early October, 2016. Matthew made its fourth and final landfall in South Carolina as a category one hurricane.
Hurricane Matthew was classified as a category five Atlantic hurricane as a total of its impact around the world as it also hit areas near the Atlantic such as Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba and many more.
Donna Stubbs has lived in a small community about 50 miles inland from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for most of her life and has experienced a variety of hurricane storms. But Matthew was different.
“We were isolated. I’ve lived in this community for 70 years and this is the first time I’ve ever felt that way. All the roads were flooded around us and we could not get out for three days,” said Stubbs, “Just knowing for three days that I could not get out– that I couldn’t get out of a five mile radius– well that’s a scary feeling.”
Stubbs recalled that her and her husband, three weeks after Matthew, decided to head down the road to another small town called Fairbluff. When they got to a bridge that was over the river near their town, they saw a truck. Water was up to its windows… three weeks later.
The damage caused many people’s homes to be damaged. Stubbs said, “The people just left. They moved away, they moved in with neighbors. A lot of jobs were lost because of the flooding from Matthew.” Even four years later Stubbs will be walking around and “think ‘woah, there’s another house that they fixed!’”
Hurricanes, such as Matthew, tend to cause lots of flooding and wind damage. Similar to a derecho, hurricanes have been greatly impacted by global warming. The warming of the planet, causing the evaporation of water and therefore more rainwater, increases the intensity and frequency of hurricanes.
“We’ve had hurricanes all my life, until Matthew, I think 1954 Hurricane Hazel was the worst. I was 5-years-old and I can remember it. But, you had one maybe every five or six years back then. Since 1990, it seems like they just come more frequently and seem to be more severe,” said Stubbs.
Especially for Stubbs, her hurricane experience is unique. While most hurricanes impact areas near the coast lines, Stubbs lives 50 miles inland… meaning the ocean is not where they get the majority of their flooding from.
“The people on the coast expect to deal with hurricanes because of their location. As they rebuild, they are rebuilding to a different standard. 50 miles inland, not so much,” said Stubbs.
“I remember waking up on the first day, here, in Boulder, where I could smell wildfire and I thought ‘Ugh, not again,’’’ said Rosalind Cuneo. Cuneo, after finishing her masters thesis on motivated reasoning in a climate affected population, moved from Seward, Alaska, to Boulder, Colorado in May of 2020.
In Alaska, Cuneo remembered seeing the sun turn orange and a grey overcast took over the skies for days. Her car smelled like a campfire for weeks during the Swan Lake Fire, so when she arrived in Boulder and the Cameron Peak Fire spread across the area, she was forced to face the infernal nightmare again.
Wildfires have destroyed more than 3.2 millions acres of peaceful landscapes and homes in 2020, causing apocalyptic skies in the western United States, driving out tens of thousands of people and animals, and causing billions of dollars in damages. One season of such destruction may be manageable, but what happens when natural disasters of this magnitude become a yearly occurrence?
While wildfires have impacted people’s lives in a variety of ways, including health complications.
“I got headaches and you feel like you have a cold and kind of sick. This year with covid, there’s an extra layer of; am I sick because of a virus or am I sick because there is smoke in the air?” said Cuneo.
The small particles from ash and wildfire smoke can cause burning eyes and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases… but it can also mimic symptoms of covid-19 including runny nose, scratchy or sore throat, headaches and other illness. Pregnant women, children, and those with asthma or heart disease are especially susceptible to the risks of inhaling wildfire smoke. In 2020, wildfires have added an additional anxiety because of the coronavirus. If a person were to get truly sick due to the smoke or ash, would it be worth it to risk going to a hospital?
In 2020 alone, more than 4.2 million acres of land have burned, resulting in at least 31 deaths and the damage and destruction of 10,488 structures. While the size of the economic dent the wildfires have caused is yet to be determined, experts estimate that the figure currently stands at $10 billion.
People and animals all over the country have been hurting from the pure destruction of the wildfires.
“… One thing the majority of people don’t hear about or see is the loss of livestock, horses and wildlife,” Shadow Creek Ranch near Silverthorn, Colorado’s General Manager, Buck McNichols said.
The victims of wildfires come in all forms, a large amount of which are deer, coyotes, elk, foxes, rabbits, cows, and horses. Thousands of cattle die each year from adverse weather, and while it is possible for animals to run away and seek shelter or be moved away by farmers, wildfires spread quickly and can easily trap both people and animals.
In recent years the increasing size and frequency of wildfires have sparked debates over the most efficient and effective ways to handle the consequences and implement prevention techniques, particularly in states like California and Colorado, where wildfires are more common.
Our federal and state governments have neglected to properly manage the forests for decades and now are spending billions of dollars to combat these disasters from damaging life and property”
— Buck McNichols
McNichols said, “… our federal and state governments have neglected to properly manage the forests for decades and now are spending billions of dollars to combat these disasters from damaging life and property.”
McNichols hopes that if the government manages the forests, which entails clearing dead branches and leaves reducing the amount of flammable objects, it will limit such intense fires.
“We knew immediately that it was an issue for the ranch as it was incredibly dry and we hadn’t had moisture (rain or snow) in a long time,” said Shadow Creek Ranch Office Manager, Barb Kollar.
A variety of factors have contributed to the rise of wildfires in recent years, including increasing temperatures and changing rain and snow patterns. Dry soil, dead or dry vegetation, and a warmer climate increase the chances of a fire starting and spreading quickly as a result of lighting.
At a campaign rally in August of 2020, President Donald Trump said, “They’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests.” The ‘you’ referring to state and local governments.
Of the 33 million acres of forest in CA, about 57% is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the federal Bureau of Land Management… meaning it is managed by the federal government. In comparison the local and state governments control only 3% of the forest. The same applies to a lot of the nation. Forests can be owned by the federal government, meaning the responsibility of preventing the fires does not only fall on the state governments as President Trump implied.
California resident Luigi Corbo also believes that taking more preventative action would be beneficial, saying, “We need to work towards managing (the fires/disasters) a little bit better. In California there needs to be more forest management. We know that we are going to have these fires come up, and maybe [we should be] clearing the forests, getting all the dead shrubs and dead trees out. We need to do that on a more frequent basis.”
While trimming dead brush and trees could offer a temporary solution, it is not effective in preventing or halting the spread of such fires. This method can even lead to unintended consequences such as exposing fire fuel such as dead leaves and pine needles to greater sun drying and wind penetration.
Making greater strides towards renewable energy will help reduce the risk of fires by lowering the stress on electrical transmission lines and reducing carbon-intensive energy sources. The energy that can be generated from solar panels, wind turbines, and small-scale hydro power plants does not produce greenhouse gases from fossil fuels which become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
Oregon resident Richelle Corbo believes that it would be in the best interest of the United States to be leaders in the development of renewable energy sources. She also makes the point that it is important to consider the lives of miners and other workers in the fossil fuel industry.
“Our federal should not be supporting the fossil fuel industries, but supporting the innovation of new industries because it will create good jobs in this country for the future,” said Corbo. She believes it is understandable for people not to want to lose their jobs, and that these workers, as well as many others, could make the transition to high-paying jobs in the growing renewable energy industry.
Making strides toward renewable energy and even some shorter term solutions can help limit the impact, spread, and intensity of wildfires across the United States, but if we do not invest in long term solutions, the risks will only be exacerbated.
“As the weather warms, the conditions that lead to wildfires become more common and make wildfires more likely,” said Cuneo.
Steam rises from cooling towers of the Boxberg coal-fired power plant next to reconstituted land of the plant’s adjacent open-pit lignite coal mine on July 9, 2019 near Weisswasser, Germany. Legislation to phase the country off coal passed both houses of parliament Friday, July 3, 2020.
For now or for the future?
Stronger hurricanes, bigger floods, hotter droughts, rising sea levels, and thousands of deaths; these are only a fraction of all of the side effects of climate change. What if this could have been prevented by companies changing their sources for materials, and by the government mandating mandatory switches to cleaner sources of power?
For decades, there has been controversy over whether the government and big corporations should change their methods on how they get their energy, fuel their products and services, and make their goods. Though some companies and the government have taken some steps to make resources more eco-friendly, they are hesitant to fully commit to environmentally friendly options for power and materials.
Many companies and politicians are concerned that changing sources of energy and materials would lead to massive amounts of lost money, and by result, a crashing economy.
While people arguing for companies to pay for cleaner energy take the opposite approach to the subject: why would an economy matter if there is no habitable planet for people to spend money on?
The biggest concern for making this leap towards sustainability is money, of course. Millions and billions of dollars would need to be invested into cleaner sources for power and products, and with the huge price tag of being climate friendly, it is not a small undertaking to pave way for the future of their company to be green.
The connection between switching to renewable energy and more environmentally friendly materials and climate change is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effect of climate change and the economy, though switching to cleaner resources is a way to stop climate change from getting worse. Agriculture, real estate, infrastructure, and human health are all threatened by climate change too; and disturbance to these areas of the economy will cause massive hardships in the United States and around the world.
Changing energy sources for big companies is a priority to make sure carbon levels are reduced. Switching to renewable energy like solar power, wind energy, or electricity would provide our planet with clean energy that would not pollute the earth is a necessary step that we need to take in order to reduce carbon emissions. The cost of making the United States run 100% percent on renewable energy would cost an estimated $4.5 trillion dollars. Although this is quite a hefty price tag, the cost and benefits of switching to renewable energy is more efficient and cost-effective in the future. In terms of repairing, wind and solar power are very cheap to repair compared to other forms of energy production methods. Not to mention that there is an unlimited amount of wind and solar power. At the rate that we are currently using fossil fuels, it is estimated that all of our fossil fuels will be depleted by 2060 and if we keep on using fossil fuels until there is no more, almost all of the ice in Antarctica will have melted, which will raise sea levels by 200 feet. Companies can also switch to eco-friendly materials to make their goods. In 2018, 292.4 million tons of waste was generated in the U.S., and every year 14 billion pounds of trash is dumped into the ocean. The effect of mass amounts of waste on the planet is dangerous as well. Garbage can chemically cause harm to soil, water, and air. Trash emits methane, a harmful gas that is 28x more potent than carbon dioxide and hurts air and the atmosphere. This is especially a problem when it comes to uncontrolled and unmonitored litter. Although buying disposable products is cheaper than buying sustainable quality products, there is a bigger benefit to producing and buying sustainably.
Companies can benefit from producing and selling sustainably because eco-friendly businesses are increasingly becoming more popular compared to companies that produce generally single-use goods. Companies can also assure the quality of their products more efficiently if they are multi-use products, as multi-use products tend to be a higher quality than single-use items. This can result in a happier consumer. Consumers can benefit from buying multi-use products because they can stop buying mass amounts of products, which saves time, money, and the environment.
The agriculture and food business in the U.S made up 5.2% in 2019. Considering that the effects of climate change range from droughts to flooding to dust storms, the agriculture and food business could be badly hurt by climate change. Due to extreme weather like droughts and floods, millions of cattle could die, resulting in millions of dollars lost. Researchers also project that by 2050 the Midwest could lose up to 25% of its current soybean and corn crop because of extreme heat.
The National Academy of Sciences reports that there will be a 5% – 15% decrease in crop production for every degree Celsius the global temperature rises. The decrease in crops will no doubt affect the economy. By limiting the supply of any given crop the price will increase, making wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, oats, and other crops less accessible to consumers. Grocery stores and other companies in the food industry will suffer because of the decrease in supply of crops.
New York City, Miami, New Orleans, and almost every coastal city is at risk of being damaged by rising sea levels due to melting icebergs. The threat of rising sea levels will devastate the real estate market and leave the economy in shambles due to stronger hurricanes and bigger floods. In cities like New Orleans and New York City, damage due to flooding can be detrimental to the housing market and to the residents of the city.
In 2016, economists predicted that coastal property damage as a result of climate change “could surpass that of the bursting dot-com and real estate bubbles of 2000 and 2008.”
The weather caused by climate change could potentially scare people enough to move away from the shorelines in massive groups, leading for housing prices to plummet. Damage to roads, cables, and docks are only a handful of infrastructures that are at risk because of climate change. Damage due to climate change is estimated to cost billions of dollars. Houses, airports, roads, and underground cables for internet and communication will all be damaged by rising sea levels. Though some of these structures are water resistant, they are not fully waterproof, and will therefore need maintenance which will cost billions of dollars.
The damage caused by natural disasters will end up costing the government and companies of all sizes substantial resources, and will have a negative economic impact.
Due to rising temperatures, more people will suffer and die from heat-related illnesses. Not only will this devastate families around the world, it will also limit the productivity of companies due to the loss of workers.
Heat-related illnesses will affect people of all health conditions and ages at an increasing amount per year.
An estimated 9,300 additional people living in American cities are expected to die from extreme heat if temperatures increase by 4.5’C by 2090.
Looking at this tragedy from an economic standpoint, annual losses just from heat-related deaths are expected to be $140 million by 2090.
Another human health crisis that climate change affects is pandemics.
Through the loss of their habitat, animals will start to go to human-populated areas and potentially make the spreading of their own viruses to humans more common than they already are.
Another way that climate change causes pandemics is through melting icebergs. Ancient bacteria and diseases trapped for thousands to tens of thousands of years under layers of thick ice are starting to surface due to icebergs melting. RNA fragments of the Spanish Flu (the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic) have been discovered in Alaska’s tundra through frozen corpses buried in mass graves.
It is also likely that samples of Smallpox and the Bubonic Plague (known as the Black Death which wiped out one-third of Europe’s population in the 1300’s) are located in Siberia. Compared to the death rates of the Spanish Flu (>2.5%), and that of the Bubonic Plague (around 50%), COVID-19 can be considered a less-deadly virus. Although the result of one of these viruses reappearing are unknown, an outbreak of any of these ancient viruses in our modern society would cause havoc that would result in our economy suffering with the many shutdowns, job losses, and deaths that another epidemic or pandemic would result in.
The U.S.’s and the world’s economy is strongly connected to climate change; whether it be through the result of not environmentally-friendly materials and resources used to make good and provide services on the Earth, natural disasters causing agriculture to become damaged, people becoming injured and or killed, infrastructures and houses being destroyed, or even shutdowns due to new epidemics and pandemics.
Climate change is expensive, and combating it is a process. If renewable energy was as widely available and efficient as fossil fuels, everyone would use them. Unfortunately, it isn’t, and large corporations (100 of which, according to the Climate Accountability Institute, are responsible for over 70% of carbon emissions) are more than hesitant to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. If regulations are not passed and enforced to limit carbon emissions on a corporate level, the efforts of the individual are futile.
Therefore, it’s up to the world’s governments to keep the world from burning up.
However, the government’s only able to do what its voters tell it to. 65% percent of American adults believe that the federal government is doing too little to combat the effects of climate change, according to a study conducted by Pew Research. 63% say that global climate change is in at least some way affecting their local community. Over 70% agree with taxing corporations based on carbon emissions, 80% are for tougher restrictions on power plant carbon emissions, and 90% favor planting one trillion trees to absorb carbon emissions.
Yet while the issue of climate change remains a growing concern on a national level, it can fall behind when compared to other policy decisions in the political scene.
It’s tricky to figure out exactly how willing the general public is to see action taken on the part of lawmakers.”
— William Gochberg
“Often people, when asked, will say that climate change is really important to them,” explained Dr. William Gochberg, a postdoctoral research associate in the political science department at Washington University. “But then when you ask them to rank it alongside other issues, sometimes it’s seven, eight, or ten items down the list. It’s tricky to figure out exactly how willing the general public is to see action taken on the part of lawmakers.”
Climate change lacks the immediate sense of danger provided by war, disease or poverty. Aside from those who experience climate change-related natural disasters; its gradual effects are only visible when viewed over longer periods of time, often minimizing its sense of urgency.
In addition, the matter has become increasingly partisan since it entered the realm of politics and activism in the mid 1900s. According to Pew Research, 79% of liberal democrats consider that the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, compared to 63% of moderate democrats, 34% of moderate republicans, and 15% of conservative republicans as of the election in 2016.
Much dispute about climate change is due to the multi-million dollar plans from companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute to create an “uncertainty” around climate change and provide alternative views and science.
Environmental policy also suffers due to its widespread impact compared to its concentrated burden.
“If you think about clean energy, it’s what’s called a public good in political science and economics, where everyone would benefit– having cleaner air,” explained Dr. Gochberg. “But, certain industries would really lose out from that kind of policy. So, they being a smaller group that would face certain losses have a lot of incentive to organize against that kind of policy.”
In the 2020 election, the environment was a heated topic of debate to which the candidates held polarizing beliefs. The Biden campaign put great emphasis on the environment and climate reform, contrary to Trump’s laissez-faire approach to the fossil fuel industry and climate change.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, loosened regulations on air pollution, and greenlit seismic airgun blasts for oil and gas drilling– moves which have favored the US economy over potentially harmful environmental repercussions.
Biden ran a contrary campaign in 2020: he pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office and laid out a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. He put emphasis on limiting the fossil fuel industry, expanding into renewable energy sources, putting money into public transportation, and upgrading old buildings to be more energy-efficient.
With Biden’s victory in November, the future of climate policy looks vastly different than it has been under the Trump administration. The president-elect has already chosen to appoint former Obama administration secretary of state John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate, marking the first official dedicated to climate change on the National Security Council.
Kerry, who spoke on November 24 at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, explained that “no country alone can solve this challenge. Even the United States, for all of our industrial strength, is responsible for only 13% of global emissions. To end this crisis, the whole world must come together.”
Kerry’s remarks tie in one of the largest barriers to combating climate change: it’s a global issue. The fight against global warming requires action from every nation and cooperation on issues regarding energy and pollution.
In addition, it becomes difficult to determine how much “blame” each country should receive and how much action each country needs to take based on their current and past emissions.
It would be unfair to hold a developing country beginning to industrialize to the same level of responsibility as a wealthy, industrialized country such as the United States. Doing so would severely disadvantage their economic growth when compared to the lack of restriction the same wealthy nations felt as they industrialized and grew economically.
“There is the issue of historical emissions, which have by far come from the richer, industrialized nations,” explained Dr. Gochberg. “It’s hard to pressure Nigeria or Bangladesh, etc., to reduce emissions without offering some path towards economic development that other countries have pursued while emitting lots of greenhouse gases.”
Accordingly, it is important that the United States assumes its position as a leader, helping combat climate change on a global scale alongside a domestic effort to reach carbon neutrality. Providing aid to developing countries is necessary, spreading renewable and climate-friendly practices.
The politics of climate change are expensive, both domestic and international, and heavily debated. Unfortunately, the Climate can’t wait for the world’s leaders to come around to carbon neutrality and renewable energy— time is of the essence, and on a local, national, and global level, it is important that the United States leads in the fight against global warming.