-Monika Petrova Yordanova
How many times have you heard people claim that the next generation is doomed because of us, or that we need to be more mindful of our environmental impact because… polar bears? I am not saying that having a globalist attitude to climate change is necessarily a bad thing, or that thinking about the future of the planet is problematic. It isn’t, but the problem we are facing is not one that we can expect to become an issue somewhere in the distant future. It is not a problem that is spatially separated by us either. This is not just Antarctica’s problem or a problem that is just affecting some third world country. Even if you don’t care about future generations or people starving in Sub Saharan Africa, due to ever-increasing occurrences of drought (in which case, WOW) you still should care about climate change.
We don’t have a big problem with climate denialism here in the UK. The majority of people are not oblivious to the facts, as should be expected from the country that brought forth the theory of evolution via natural selection and has always placed science at the forefront of its national identity. But how are we responding to what scientists are saying about climate change? Cognitive dissonance. “Yes, sure, it’s a problem, but it’s not really going to be in my backyard.” “It’s not really that bad, is it?” “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
However, climate change is happening here and now. In case you have any doubts about it, let’s look at CO2, a greenhouse gas which has such a tight relationship with temperature, that it has been referred to as Earth’s thermostat. One way in which this relationship has been demonstrated is through looking at ice cores in Antarctica and analysing the pockets of air deposited within them. This data shows that there can be short term fluctuations in CO2, however the overall trend demonstrated shows current levels to be the highest they have ever been since the Pleistocene epoch. This trend correlates strongly with temperature changes. By measuring the ratios of different water isotopes in polar ice cores, it is possible to determine how temperature in Antarctica and Greenland have changed in the past. The last 3 decades have been warmer than any other prior to the industrialised era indicating the current upward trend that we are facing. Moreover, different models have been generated to predict how changing our emissions now can have profound influences on the future of our planet, due to the changes in temperature that we are already starting to experience.
Temperature increases are leading to a net melt in ice caps, consequently increasing sea levels as can be seen within our lifetimes. Global sea levels are strongly linked to global temperatures, as reflected based on the rise in sea levels post glacial periods. This is resulting to large coastal areas becoming submerged, as the increase in water levels is predicted to be between 75-190cm between 1990 and 2100 and will likely lead to major economic losses and displacement of large groups of people.
Global warming functions as a positive feedback look, where warming leads to further warming. White surfaces, such as ice, have high albedos, therefore reflect solar radiation back into the atmosphere and produce and overall cooling effect. However, the rise in global average temperature due to human interference is causes ice caps to melt, as established, therefore contributing indirectly to an increase in temperature and consequently further decreases I the area covered by ice caps. Worryingly, many aspects of global warming exist within this type of feedback loop, meaning our climate is extremely sensitive and consequences can be catastrophic.
“Oh, wow that’s a shame” I hear you say hesitantly, while subconsciously thinking “Well, it’s not my fault” “That really sucks… for other people that it’s going to affect. It won’t affect me…”. Will it not? The Met Office summarises some of these predictions, by indicating that winters in the UK are predicted to get wetter, while summers dryer, with eastern regions of the country being particularly vulnerable to the latter. Additionally, they acknowledge that several studies demonstrate an increase in flooding risks both in the UK and throughout Europe. One study considering these effects predicts that by 2080, if no adaptations are made, the average annual number of people flooded in the UK could be around 986 300. Furthermore, as an island UK is particularly vulnerable to losing some of its coastal regions due to increases in water levels.
But there are also indirect ways in which brits can be impacted by climate change. Let’s look at our primary producers, plants. Plants shape our ecosystems and serve as templates for all wildlife. As climate extremes are predicted to increase in occurrence based on current models, plants are bound to face increased exposure to abiotic stresses, including exposure to heat shock, cold, drought, flooding and salinity. Impacts on wildlife diversity are predicted to have the biggest effects on islands as there has been a long established relationship between area and stability of ecosystems. This is because smaller areas are less likely to contain potential natural controls for invaders, including herbivores, predators or parasites, capable of adapting to the new niche. Furthermore, distance to larger landmasses represents a difficulty for colonizing species, leading to less niches likely to be filled, which also increases risk of invasions. Invasive plants are successful at what they do partially due to being more resilient in a wide variety of environmental conditions. By increasing occurrences of adverse environmental conditions, climate change is decreasing the ability of native plants to compete with invasive ones and re-shaping ecosystems to ones with much lower biodiversity.
However, it is not just wildlife that suffers because of this. Crop plants are particularly vulnerable to abiotic stress due to their high genetic homogeneity, which increases their susceptibility to pathogens as well as abiotic stresses. Wheat is vulnerable to abiotic stresses at every stage of its development and, as if this weren’t enough, aphids that feed on wheat are shown to thrive in environments of high levels of CO2 and other pollutants. Aphids carry a wide range of diseases such as barley yellow dwarf, to which plants are more susceptible under abiotic stress due to increases in their production of abscisic acid and reactive oxygen species, which decrease the plant’s defenses against other forms of stress. We are already noticing these drops in production globally and in our own backyards. In the past year, wheat, the UK’s most valuable crop has decreased by 5.1%, from a yield of 14.8 million tonnes in 2017 to 14.1 million tonnes in 2018. These losses in production are bound to hit your wallet along with everyone else’s as prices become driven up by scarcity of production. Crops are also bound to trickle down to other means of production as prices of meat from animals that are fed grain based diets increase along with potential increases in the prices of biofuels and clothing produced from wheat.
“No, not my wallet!” I hear you exclaim while mourning over the loss of precious carbohydrates. You’re right, what is happening is awful, but predicting doom and gloom is not enough. A great deal of us understand how unfortunate the situation is, yet are misled into a pattern of thinking which gives an odd sense of comfort. Even while understanding the basic science behind climate change most people still fall into the trap of thinking that this is an inevitable outcome, so let’s sit and watch the world’s wheat burn. But this is not an inevitable outcome. As dire as the situation is, there is still a chance to mitigate it. One way to do this is through taking political action and ensuring others are aware of the looming threat of losing our natural resources. Vote consciously with environmental concerns in mind and ensure that your voice is heard by policy makers going forward. The United Kingdom recently announced a climate emergency, pledging to reach a new target of net zero emissions before 2050. This is a momentum that must be maintained and politicians must be held accountable against this pledge.
It can be daunting and easy to feel small when facing a global problem, however adopting a more local mindset makes all the difference if individual accountability is considered by the many rather than a few. An underrepresented example from environmental organizations (far better represented in the scientific literature) of individual actions that you can change to decrease your environmental impact is your dietary choices. Consuming less animal products can have a huge impact on carbon emissions as animal agriculture has been estimated to account for approximately 18% of carbon emissions. Studies comparing different eco-friendly strategies have established that even a vegetarian diet lowers carbon emissions 4 times as much as commonly promoted strategies such as recycling and 8 times as much as changing your household lightbulbs, let alone a vegan one. Something as small as what we put on our plates each day can have a huge impact, yet overwhelmingly restaurants cater primarily to diets that are not plant-based, because this is what consumer demand is dictating. Other studies looking at kilograms of CO2 per day, conducted in the UK, established high meat-based diets have much higher greenhouse emissions, around 7.19kgCO2e/day, relative to vegan ones, 2.89kgCO2e/day. Furthermore, the environmental impact of meat consumption goes beyond CO2 emissions. Producing half a kilogram of beef requires 11 365liters of water, 5meters squared of rainforest and 7kilograms of grain to produce, on top of the 80kg of CO2 that their production is associated with. To put that into perspective, not eating that half a kilogram of beef will save the equivalent amount of water as not showering for 6 months.
It’s easy to say that your one small choice here and now on what to have for dinner doesn’t have an impact, but if climate change has taught us anything it is that here and now matters and that local shifts have momentous global consequences. The problem that we are facing now is a global one, provoked by a lack of understanding that humanity has faced in the past, therefore improving our collective knowledge is the first step to addressing it. After all, climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed here and now.