Many people have effectively put the climate change crisis on the back burner because its effects seem to be far in the future, but scientists say that climate change is already here and are going to have a big effect on our daily lives if we don’t start making changes now.
Associate professor in the College of Social Work Lisa Reyes Mason stressed just how important it is to bring this issue to the front of people’s minds.
“This is one of the most pressing issues of our time,” Mason said. “It’s already happening really. It’s something that years ago we used to talk about, ‘Oh, in the future,’ and we can see what we can do to prevent climate change — but climate change is already here and happening.”
Climate change isn’t something that’s happening far away in other places to other people Mason said, but is in fact right here at home in the U.S. as well. This can be seen especially well when looking the numerous individuals protesting going on climate strikes across the nation.
For instance, in September 2019, over four million people participated in the Global Climate Strike Day across the globe to speak out against the growing climate change crisis. As for on the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s campus, students came together Friday, Sept. 20 to join SPEAK, Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville, as the organization participated in their own climate change protesting.
Also throughout the year, individuals young and old joined together to bring awareness to the growing issue of climate change, an issue which has been on the minds of many since the first Earth Day protests on April 22, 1970. That day, 20 million Americans gathered in the streets and thus launched the modern environmental movement.
Before the first Earth Day, in the decades leading up to it, Americans were consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels and polluting the air without concern according to the Earth Day website. But in 1962, public awareness and concern for the links between pollution and public health rose after the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring." In an effort to bring people together, the first Earth Day was organized, achieving "a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders."
From then, each Earth Day has been about educating the public about the environment, forming policies to combat the effects of global warming and bringing people together in an environmental movement.
While there may be debates on just how much humans have impacted global warming, there is no doubt that some of the effects of global warming are taking place today.
Professor in the Department of Anthropology David Anderson co-authored a study on sea-level rise which was referred to in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which assesses climate change and its impacts across the U.S. in the present and throughout the past century.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s happening. And it always happens, but we’re going through a period of dramatic global change right now,” Anderson said. “And it’s important to be aware of that and pay attention to it.”
According to NASA, climate change occurs in cycles with both glacial and interglacial periods. In the last 650,000 years, there have been seven cycles with the last ice age ending abruptly approximately 11,700 years ago.
According to scientists, the world is experiencing an interglacial period of warmer temperatures with glaciers retreating and sea levels rising. But, this period of warming has been impacted by human activity, such as the release of carbon dioxide and other emissions from deforestation, fossil fuels, volcanic eruptions and respiration which then trap heat being reflected off the Earth’s surface.
This has increased the average surface temperatures by 0.9 degrees Celsius, since the late 19th Century, with 19 of the 20 warmest years on record occurring since 2001.
If the earth continues to heat up and average surface temperature were to rise by 2 degrees Celsius, scientists have warned that the world will experience more extreme heat waves with an increase in heat-related illnesses and deaths, especially in cities which warm up faster than rural areas. There would be more droughts and risks to water availability, which could cause crop shortages and economic damages. Scientists have also warned that virtually all coral reefs would die out, the Arctic Ocean would be without ice twice per decade and more.
Other evidence of climate change can be found on NASA’s website and includes the fact that oceans have become more acidic, there has been an increase in the number of extreme weather events such as the wildfires in Australia this past year, and glacial retreat which could have downstream effects of reducing water supply during droughts impacting generations down the line.
The effects of increased temperatures has already begun to melt polar ice-caps, raising sea levels. Anderson, whose primary research area encompasses archeological and historical sites that are based near waterfronts in the Southeastern region of the U.S., explained that some sites are already under threat of being destroyed by natural disasters.
Using the Digital Index of North American Archaeology, Anderson looked at 130,000 sites above five meters of current sea level and given projected rise in sea level, tried to see how many of the sites would be lost.
“And the numbers were sobering, just for the Southeast alone, was where our study was located. Tens of thousands of sites would be lost and many of these have been deemed significant enough for inclusion on the national register of historic places,” Anderson said. “These are very famous, many of them are very famous sites, like Jamestown for example.”
Such sites, if lost, would take with them many artifacts of American history. And with those rising sea levels, coastal cities could become submerged, forcing the population to condense as they move further inland. Other consequences of rising sea levels would include more dangerous hurricanes and typhoons, as well as more flooding in certain areas.
Beyond just sea level rising, changes in weather extremes will also affect individuals everywhere, with increased rainfall, drought, heat waves and natural disasters. These weather conditions could change everything from food security, health, water supply, transportation, energy and ecosystems.
“To me, climate change, and again this is coming from me as a social worker, it's not just about the environmental part of it, it’s also about the human part of it,” Mason said. “In terms of also the human impact, the human cause of the problem, but then as a social worker seeing it very much as a social justice issue — who’s going to be most affected and most harmed really by these changes.”
Mason explained that those physically more vulnerable like the elderly, young children and those with underlying health conditions are the ones most susceptible to the extreme weather variants.
“One thing that we see with climate change with changing temperatures is that part of what happens in the natural environment, temperatures at night don’t drop down as much and so people don’t have as much chance to kind of recover in the evening with cooler temperatures, so their body can’t recover,” Mason said. “So you think about certain groups of people who might be physically more vulnerable to dealing with heat.”
In addition, those living in poverty are also highly impacted by climate change, as economic recessions and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have highlighted. Those who lose their jobs don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to make rent payments are exposed the most to the elements of climate change.
So while the impact of climate change is currently taking place and could get worse, action is needed now to prevent future catastrophe either through mitigation or adaptation.
Adaptation efforts are focused on preparing and adjusting to the changing climate conditions while mitigation focuses on efforts to reduce the amount of climate change and how fast it occurs.
Efforts like reducing emissions, reforestation, using sustainable energy sources, reducing the amount of consumption, reducing the amount of wastes and pollutants, and more are just a few ways to begin the efforts to slow down climate change.
One example of mitigation efforts by countries globally was the 2015 Paris Agreement which aimed its efforts of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
When it comes to mitigation, one of the biggest challenge would be focused on continuing to move industries towards sustainable energy.
“The greatest challenge is that we’ve got a global economy that’s based on fossil fuels and it’s very difficult to change that,” Anderson said. “I mean it’s one thing to say, ‘Yeah, we can go to sustainable resources overnight,’ but it’s impossible to do that. I mean it would take a really sustained effort to bring that about and that’s where it gets into policy and politics and that debate is playing out all around us. It will for the next months, years, decades and you’ll get to see how it plays out.”
On a more personal level, Mason said people can focus on their own behaviors to help reduce climate change by consuming less and eating less meat like beef, as cows are one of largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Some way that scientists and activists have suggested helping slow climate change on a personal level include to use energy wisely or switch to renewable energy sources like solar power panels. People can also find different modes of transportation such as bicycling to school or work, or if the commute is longer find someone to carpool with. Individuals can also plant their own gardens or a tree which will then remove some of the carbon dioxide in the air. Some other sustainability acts are also listed on the Daily Beacon’s website.
Mason also said that something people can do to enact change with climate change is educating themselves about climate change and also talking with others.
“If you’re a young person, a college student at University of Tennessee reading this special issue and you have a concern about climate change and how it’s going to affect you in your lifetime, talk about it with people. ... especially with people who maybe don’t agree with you, but you’re part of their circle and so you can have that conversation with them,” Mason said.
“Plant that seed with them that this is indeed happening, that this is something to be concerned about, that we all have a stake in it,” Mason added. “That that has a potential to ripple out into greater change.”