An Invitation to Change Everything

Climate change. Was your first thought a polar bear stranded in the Arctic? Or was it an afterthought, a problem so complex and distant that will never affect any of us? You’re not alone. Scientists have framed the issue as a scientific one, expressed through the latest groundbreaking data and sophisticated, technical figures.

However, the climate crisis is not simply a scientific issue or solely an environmental issue. It is much more complicated; rooted within global poverty, intertwined with systemic racism, and fueled by a society that embraces capitalism and values profits over people. Climate change is a matter of social justice.

The numbers speak for themselves. Preliminary reports show that 2016 was (yet again) the hottest year on record, the third straight year laying claim to such a record. Fifteen of the warmest seventeen years have come since 2000. The Earth is getting warmer, this is undeniable, and 97% percent of climate scientists believe it’s due to our actions.

Yet, numbers only tell half of the story. They convey danger, but fail to capture emotion. Lost in translation is the human impact from a changing climate. How can we expect citizens to get involved when we can’t even communicate and express what we’re facing in empathetic terms?

We need to reframe the issue of climate change. We need to talk about how an African-American child is three times more likely to go to an emergency room for an asthma attack than a white child, and is twice as likely to die from asthma attacks. We need to talk about how fossil fuel companies exclude indigenous communities from the decision-making process and instead exploit their sacred lands for gas extraction and development.

We need to broaden our focus and recognize that growing resource scarcity threatens our national and global security. We need to promote policies that address the root causes of climate change: global poverty and systemic racism. Increase access to family planning resources in developing nations, support finance for treatment among individuals with HIV/AIDS, and promote gender equality in global education. Incorporate communities of color and indigenous peoples in the decision-making process, so fossil fuel companies no longer disproportionately cite environmental hazards within these overburdened communities.

Climate change is broader than we think it to be; we cannot solve the climate crisis unless we also address the social and racial undertones. To change everything, it takes everyone.

So how can YOU make a difference? Speak up. Make it personal. Don’t focus on the scientific jargon, but rather express the human impact. Communicate the values you want to preserve to others. Tell stories. Convey that even the smallest changes in one’s lifestyle can collectively lead to transformation on the global scale. Empower others and be the change you wish to see in the world.

On April 29th, I will be joined by dozens of students from the University of Maryland at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. Among us will be student leaders, activists, scientists, and artists – people of all backgrounds collectively marching for justice. We will be marching for indigenous rights, for access to basic human rights, for clean energy jobs, for freedom of expression, and for a more sustainable, just world for generations to come.

 

This is a call to action.

We hope you can join us.

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The State of Climate Affairs On Our Campus

 

After two long weeks of negotiation and deliberation, leaders from 195 nations pushed aside their political differences, reaching an agreement to lower global greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the next century. The Paris Agreement, the first of its kind to impose greenhouse gas reductions to all signatory parties, was crafted under a “bottom-up” approach, having countries submit their individual reduction pledges in the form of INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. It is now up to countries, their governments, and their citizens to call for the appropriate action required to mitigate the most severe climate impacts from becoming a reality.

However, in order to address climate change on a global scale, we have to understand the impact of climate change on local and regional scales. Climate mitigation and adaptation techniques must be implemented on a community-by-community basis, as the impacts of climate change vary significantly between communities. Akin to the Paris Agreement’s bottom-up approach, climate action is most effective when it is developed by a driven community and addressed to a targeted audience.

With regards to climate action, the University of Maryland recently hosted the opening day of the Climate Action 2016 Forum, a three-day event focusing on the effective implementation of climate pledges set forth in Paris five months prior. In attendance were prominent heads of state, business representatives, and community leaders all working in conjunction to implement sustainable development goals. And yet, behind the closed doors of the high-level summit was a team of about two-dozen individuals, both undergraduate and graduate students from various backgrounds and fields of study, who all shared a strong passion and vision for a more sustainable future. These were the unsung heroes that met weekly; shaping a safe space that invited the entire public community to discuss the future of our climate.

This is the future of climate change that I envision. Not only acknowledging the existence of our changing climate, but creating open spaces for discussion and discourse among ourselves. This past semester, I have been fortunate to serve both the Residence Hall Association and Student Government Association, the two main governing bodies for all undergraduate students at the University of Maryland. Both of these organizations spearheaded dozens of sustainable projects, including a Green Room Certification Program for on-campus residence halls, as well as a promise from the University that they will have no future direct investments in the top two-hundred fossil fuel companies, two tremendous, grassroots successes.

The University of Maryland is moving forward, and it is up to all of us, to follow suit.

 

Why I Care About Our Climate

 

“What’s Your Story?”

These were the words spoken to me by Morgan Curtis, a passionate climate advocate who had just biked across parts of the U.S., Canada, and Europe, painstakingly gathering stories along her journey from individuals who had been impacted by climate change and pollution. She had brought these stories with her to the climate negotiations in Paris this past December. I was with a group of individuals who had gathered for Thanksgiving Dinner in a Parisian apartment, a few nights before the start of the UN Climate Negotiations. Many shared experiences clouded by government corruption and tarnished with disillusionment. However, they all shared a common cause: to represent a new generation dedicated to fighting for climate justice. And as they spoke, I realized my story was the same.

I had arrived in Paris out of curiosity, recognizing that climate change is one of the most talked about issues of our generation, and yet seemingly still controversial. With two years of an Atmospheric and Oceanic Science degree under my belt, I had developed a concrete scientific understanding of climate change, but lacked a call to action. It was in Paris where I heeded that call, realizing there is so much more to climate change than just those two simple words. There are thousands of untold stories, unfortunately drowned out by corporate greed and political charades.

The year 2015 was the hottest year on record, and was nearly a full degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, already halfway to the two-degree target set in the Paris Agreement. This is the global threshold that would mitigate the most severe climate impacts from becoming a reality. However, nations around the world are already facing climate impacts such as food shortages, as droughts become more intense and water resources evaporate at a faster rate in a warmer environment. The reality is, we have already altered our climate, and it is our responsibility to assist those dealing with the most dire impacts.

I recognize that there are thousands of individuals, who did not have the privilege to travel to Paris, or even the opportunity to voice their concerns to their local government or campus newspaper. I fight for a cleaner future on behalf of these individuals, those who do not get to choose their future. Small island states, like Barbados, that historically have had very low amounts of carbon emissions, yet are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. How can this be justified? How can our society bring these issues into the spotlight? And how can we fix them?

I firmly believe that the science is not enough. Although I am an Atmospheric and Oceanic Science major, I recognize that science is only half of the story; statistics and predictions fail to encapsulate the injustices suffered through a changing climate. Instead, they are the photographs, interviews, and livelihoods of those facing the negative consequences of climate change. They are the untold stories. Science is key, but communication is the lock. Without a story, there is no audience.

I am a scientist. But I am also a storyteller.

Fossil Fuels & The U.S: The Past, Present, and Future.

There is no question, fossil fuel combustion has powered and propelled the United States into one of the world’s most influential economic powers. The cheap cost, funded through government subsidies and private investments, has made fossil fuel combustion incredibly appealing to businesses and corporations. And at first glance, one might agree that the use of fossil fuels is the most economically-friendly solution.

But what about the price on the environment? The cost of global temperatures rising 2, 3, or 4 degrees celsius over the next 100 years? How can one ignore the price that thousands of those living on island nations will pay, being forced to leave their homes and becoming refugees of our changing climate. These are the hidden costs, the calculations ignored when deciding to support fossil fuel investments.

The Suspects Involved: A Brief History

Before the American industrial revolution in the mid-19th century, the primary source of energy for most families was from wood, a renewable source. Yet by the turn of the 20th century, most businesses had quickly transitioned to coal-fired energy production, accounting for over 70% of total energy consumption at the time. Over the next century, the use of petroleum and natural gas increased, whereas renewable energies accounted for less than 5% of total energy consumption. By 2000, renewable energy consumption (nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind) had begun increasing, and accounted for nearly 10% of total consumption in 2014. However, fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy sector, accounting for over 80% of the total energy consumption in the United States today.

graph of share of energy consumption in the United States, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Before we can discuss who is responsible for the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, we must understand the effect they have on our environment. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the major culprits behind the warming, as they absorb radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface, creating an effective blanket warming the Earth’s atmosphere. This is known as the greenhouse effect. And as corporations continually extract and burn their fossil fuel reserves, more and more of these gases are sent into our atmosphere, knowingly changing, and warming our climate.

Stacked area graph showing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for each year from 1990 to 2013, broken down by gas.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Now, who is responsible for the combustion of all of these fossil fuels? The answer is quite simple: all of us. Consumer demand for our current high quality of life in the United States has driven the supply and extraction of fossil fuels on behalf of large corporations such as Exxon Mobil, Shell, and British Petroleum. The economic growth associated with this everlasting need for supply and demand has generated enormous government subsidies in the fossil fuel industry, annually amounting to over $17 Billion in the U.S.

Where We Stand: And What The Future Holds

In anticipation of the historic talks in Paris, President Obama pledged to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28%, from 2005 levels, by 2025. A majority of these reductions will come from carbon related emissions, which account for over 80% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, CO2 emissions have fallen nearly 12% below 2005 levels, a result of recent increases in natural gas-fired energy production.

Line graph that shows the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for 1990 to 2013. The total greenhouse gas emissions steadily increased from just over 6,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 1990 to over 7,000 million around 2000. Between 2007 and 2009, the greenhouse gas emissions decline to about 6,600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, followed by a slight rebound in 2010 and 2011 to around 6,800 million metric tons and a slight decline in 2012 to around 6,500 million metric tons. In 2013, greenhouse gas emissions rose to just below 6,700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Source: EPA – Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions 1990-2013

Unfortunately, a simple transition from coal to gas-fired energy production will not solve our emissions problem. In 2015, President Obama released the Clean Power Plan, establishing national standards to limit carbon pollution for the first time in our nation’s history. Aligning with Obama’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 26-28% by 2025, the plan aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants by 90% from 2005 levels by 2030, along with other harmful air pollutants. However, most promisingly, the plan quantifies and promises climate and health benefits, of $20 and $14-34 Billion, respectively, while also substituting increased electricity generation from renewable energy sources for reduced generation from existing coal-fired power plants.

However, the government alone cannot solve all of our problems. Climate change is so deeply connected to all aspects of our society, and it requires tremendous support from the individual, local, and state level. This is where you step in.

How Can You Get Involved?

Simple. Do some research. Ask your local grocery mart for their energy budgets, and analyze their percentage of fossil fuel energy consumption. Write a petition within your community, to demand for the reduction of carbon emissions in your region over the next five years. Organize a rally and call for the divestment of fossil fuels at the state level. The opportunities are plenty. Know who is representing you on the local, state, and federal level. Remember that although decisions come from those within government positions, it is the citizens’ responsibility to elect those who represent the citizens’ ideals.

The path to a greener future is cloudy, but entirely feasible. The cost of renewable energies like solar and wind are cheaper than ever before, and with nations across the world converging on a universal agreement in Paris to keep warming below 2 degrees celsius, there is much hope for our future. The only question that remains is: Can we divest from fossil fuels before the repercussions are too great?

Source: United Nations – World leaders celebrate the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement.