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Rethinking Life - Adapting in an Era of Climate Change

Humanity’s Challenge

Evidence of permanent climate change is mounting worldwide. Mountain ice, a vital source of drinking water in China, India and Africa, is disappearing. Snow cover in northern climes is diminishing. Glaciers in the Arctic Ocean and across the world are melting.Recognized as a sensitive indicator of climate change, glaciers play a key role in regulating ocean currents that determine long-term weather patterns.

Thus, sea levels have risen 4-8 inches in the past century. Worldwide precipitation over land has increased one percent from higher evaporation. Meanwhile regional floods, droughts and unpredictable rain patterns are disrupting crop yields. Extreme rainfall events are more frequent across much of the United States. Increasing numbers of severe hurricanes have sounded a warning bell.

Global warming is stressing animal species and altering breeding and survival patterns. On one hand, insects like pine beetles, historically controlled by cold snaps, are proliferating and decimating forests. And tropical pests are migrating to new territories carrying disease.

On the other hand, “Our analyses suggest that well over a million species could be threatened with extinction by 2050,” says Chris Thomas, Ph.D. of the University of Leeds, U.K., in a 21st century report published in the journal Nature. Conclusions show that greenhouse gases are significantly contributing to loss of climatically suitable habitat for 15 to 37 percent of plant, animal and insect species in the six world regions studied. So taking action now to cut emissions “could save a substantial percentage of terrestrial species.”

“In the American West temperatures have risen twice as fast as in the rest of the United States, putting 12 of our most famous national parks at risk,” says Theo Spencer of Natural Resources Defense Council. reports record high temperatures in California, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. 

Average global temperature has risen 0.5-1.0º Fahrenheit over the past century. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, last year was the warmest since reliable thermometers became widely available. The three warmest years on record globally have all occurred since 1998. The 10 warmest years of the 20th century all occurred in its last 15 years.

Now studies of thermal inertia in the oceans suggest more warming to come. Scientists expect another 2-6º rise through the next hundred years. To put this in context, at the peak of the last ice age 18,000 years ago when glaciers covered much of North America, earth’s temperature was only 7-8º colder than today.

Overwhelming consensus holds that most of the present warming trend is due to soaring carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from human burning of nature’s vast stores of coal, oil and natural gas over the last 50 years. Since the industrial revolution began some 300 years ago, concentrations of CO2 in earth’s atmosphere have increased nearly 30 percent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also reports that methane levels have more than doubled and nitrous oxide is up 15 percent. All are primary culprits of the “greenhouse effect,” by which polluted cloud cover traps heat close to the planet. All come from burning fossil fuels.

Before now, naturally occurring CO2 from plant respiration and decomposition of organic matter–estimated to be some 10 times more than that released by pre-industrial human activities—was in balance, absorbed by terrestrial vegetation and the oceans. EPA assigns responsibility for today’s rampant imbalance to the fossil fuels we burn to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses and power factories. In the United States, this accounts for 98 percent of the country’s CO2 emissions plus a chunk of methane and nitrous oxide. Automobiles account for a third of this CO2. Other significant sources include agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production and mining.

We need to take remedial action before another 130 planned coal-fired power plants begin construction around the country. Such plants are “the largest single U.S. source of CO2, emitting 2.5 billion tons a year, fully a billion more than the next largest source of conventional cars and trucks,” reports journalist Andrew Korthage.

World SWAT Force

The landmark 1997 Kyoto Pact, which took effect in early 2005, seven years after its ratification by 140 nations, is a bellwether of a big shift in how the world thinks about energy. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says we have no time to lose, that “If this challenge is not addressed, sustainable development will be out of reach.”

Japan was among the first to step forward in leading countries to pledge to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 6 to 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Russia was the last to join. Countries responsible for 55 percent of the world’s emissions were required to ratify. Australia and the United States remain the only two developed countries to decline, citing economic reasons. Yet Environment Minister Ian Campbell says Australia is on track to cut emissions by 30 percent. Meanwhile the United States continues to belch one-fifth of total global greenhouse gases, a quarter of new CO2. That’s more than 27 tons of warming gases per person each year, 20 tons of it CO2.

In the absence of U.S. federal mandates, 30 states are setting an example of environmental stewardship. California just passed this country’s first carbon credit trading bill defining market-based incentives and enforced limits that cap and cut the state’s greenhouse emissions by 25 percent by 2020.   California’s earlier precedent-setting legislation requiring emissions to drop 25 percent for cars and light trucks, 18 percent for sport utility vehicles and large trucks must be met by 2016. Ten other states have followed suit, all thanks to Assemblymember Fran Pavley, a California teacher alarmed by the number of schoolchildren suffering from asthma.   Emission reduction incentives “do work when they’re well-designed,” says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. He cites past success in curbing the sulfur dioxide pollution behind acid rain.   Today 42 states have green energy programs. Green power is energy generated from renewable sources like wind, sun, water, biomass and geothermal resources.   Wind farms currently stand as the fastest growing and cheapest source of renewable energy. Passive solar thermal designs that absorb the sun’s heat yield the greatest return on investment. But other technologies also have their place: photovoltaic energy that converts sunlight into stored electricity, hydroelectric power from movement of tides, rivers and streams, and biomass or organic matter programs that convert sunlight stored in chemical bonds in plant oils and manure into biofuels and landfill methane. We need them all.

Today about 75 million U.S. electricity customers in 42 states can opt to buy green power through their utility, or purchase “green tag” credits to fund alternative power suppliers according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Many premiums are less than $10 a month. Contributions may even be tax deductible. A directory of participating utilities is available online at   Seemingly small energy savings can add up to major dividends when multiplied by millions of residences and businesses statewide. And it makes economic sense. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger expects his state’s latest environmental initiative will create tens of thousands of clean technology jobs over the next 15 years.   Corporations too are getting into the act. Sectors profoundly affected by climate change range from agriculture, fisheries and forestry to health care, insurance, water utilities, real estate and tourism. Green commitments vary. But some leading names include General Electric, Google, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, PHH Arval (vehicle fleet management to Fortune 500 companies), ChevronTexaco and Marathon Oil.   Grassroots organizations like Earth Day Network (EDN) are tackling climate change education and coordinating on-the-ground initiatives by civic officials, communities, corporations, museums and schools. EDN alone reaches more than 12,000 organizations in 174 countries. Their 2006 Earth Day TV broadcast was seen in 16,000 U.S. classrooms.   Commercial media are finally getting with the program, including TV specials. This year’s movie release of “An Inconvenient Truth” accelerated awareness. A national ad campaign by Environmental Defense generated 300 media stories.   Celebrities are jumping on the green band wagon. Names range from Carmen Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson and Laurie David to The Dave Matthews Band, Joan Jett, Jon Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam, Sting and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Greenpeace research director Kert Davies says he’s noticed “a calvalcade” of musicians making an effort to compensate for energy use associated with concert tours and appearances.   A recent Environmental Defense online petition site sent 150,000 wake-up calls to elected leaders in Washington. As U.S. energy officials coped with an abrupt drop in oil supplies caused by BP’s Prudhoe Bay corroded pipeline shutdown this summer, they were forced to question the integrity of the entire Trans-Alaska corridor, now past its 25-year design life. Added into the mix of world affairs, officials now view regular disruption of oil supplies as a certainty, putting upward pressure on gasoline prices.   Finally President Bush stepped in to help by proposing a new national standard for more efficient utility pole transformers. Upgrading these dangling gray boxes could save $9 million in electricity costs and eliminate the need to build 11 new power plants over a 28-year period. Energy and environment advocates say an even tougher standard could cut 16 plants and mean 75 million fewer tons of CO2 a year.

Why Every Step Counts

It’s amazing how little changes add up to big energy savings. And our actions extend well beyond how well we green-up our personal habits. We have the opportunity to set an example in our businesses, schools, places of worship and community organizations. In a nutshell, Environmental Defense suggests we all cut energy use at home and on the road, and neutralize the rest.

Since U.S. households produce one-fifth of the country’s global warming pollution, every step we take enhances the health of our planet. Judicious green building choices are needed. To start, we must stop building monster McMansions.   In our present home, everyone needs to tackle the points of biggest energy consumption–heaters and air conditioners, water heaters and other appliances. The return can be a 30 percent savings on electric bills. We can:

• Conduct a do-it-yourself home energy savings audit and monitor progress at • Buy Energy Star-labeled appliances and electronics. • Program thermostats to kick on only when the house is occupied. Set temperatures 2º lower in winter, 2º higher in summer and add ceiling fans. • Plant shade trees. One large tree can reduce heating and cooling costs up to 40 percent. Rooftop gardens help too. • Weatherize the house and switch to double-pane windows. Caulking leaks can shave 25 percent off an electric bill. • Wrap water heaters in an insulating blanket, install low-flow showerheads and take shorter showers. Or go solar to save 40-60 percent in water heater energy costs. • Replace furnace and air conditioner filters monthly. • Experiment with setting the refrigerator temperature at 37º to 40º and the freezer at 5º. • Wash clothes in cold water. Air-dry clothing. • Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs and install motion-sensors to turn off lights in unoccupied rooms. To order starter bulbs visit • Unplug entertainment systems that pull energy even in off mode. • Shut down home computers at night and employ power-management software.

We can teach our children the effect good daily habits have on the health of ourselves and our environment. Then involve them in steps they can take on their own. Like making sure lights are off before leaving the house, carrying recyclables to the curb and scraping food scraps into the compost pile. We can buy minimally packaged goods, bring cloth bags to the market, and recycle as much as possible.   We can eat less meat. Co-op America notes that more than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels in the Unites States is used in animal production. Vegetarians are ahead of the game. The rest of us might try taking meat off the menu every other day to save 500 pounds of CO2 a year.   Eating locally grown fresh organic foods avoids manufactured chemicals and “food miles” incurred in distribution. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture estimates that the average food-mile count for local products set on Iowans’ dinner tables is 56 miles versus 1,500 miles for out-of-state foods.   We can buy a hybrid or other fuel-efficient car. First check for recommended models. But if that’s not immediately possible, we can take other steps now to cut our personal emissions. We can:

• Reduce driving miles by combining errands, carpooling, walking and biking. • Keep car engines tuned up, filters clean, oil fresh, and tires properly inflated. • Periodically confirm emissions controls are working right. • Avoid jackrabbit starts, aggressive driving, exceeding speed limits and unnecessary idling. • Use cruise control. • Travel light and pack smart. Remove excess cargo and wind resistant roof racks. • Forego topping off the tank, which defeats the vapor lock and releases emissions. • Telecommute one day a week or more.

Momentous Vision

Scientists predict we are in for a dangerous tipping point in as little as 10 years. Though hard to predict, researchers say it’s possible that without advanced emissions control policies, world CO2 concentrations could be 30 to 150 percent higher than today. The U.S. EPA expects average surface temperatures to rise 1º-4.5º in the next 50 years and 2.2º-10º in 100 years, depriving soils of needed moisture. And sea levels could rise two feet along most of the U.S. coast, inundating ecologies with saltwater.

But with everyone pitching in to do their part, it’s still possible that rapid lifestyle adaptations assisted by technology can save the day in this period of accelerating climate change. Co-op America reports that the tools we need to assure sufficient supplies of clean, affordable, reliable energy even in remote areas are at hand.

Together we must catalyze a massive shift in energy use within the next decade to stabilize our climate while meeting the world’s growing power needs. Many believe that even with all other renewable energy sources maxed out, without solar we cannot have a sustainable future. Only the solar lynchpin can bridge the anticipated 30-70 percent gap between energy demand and the combined potential of other renewable energy supplies.

Just about everything we do burns energy. We use energy when we watch TV, listen to a stereo, play a video game, use air conditioning, turn on a light, plug in a hair dryer, wash or dry clothes, turn on a dish washer, microwave food, shop for anything that’s not recycled, or ride in an airplane or car.

Still, with solar power, our country can become energy independent at reasonable cost. The Solar Catalyst Group estimates that solar energy could provide up to 9 percent of U.S. energy needs by 2025. Already the cost of solar in Japan has dropped 70 percent, making it cost competitive and creating new industries. Germany’s not far behind. Could China be next?

Conversion can happen as quickly as the proliferation of cell phone technology, when more than 55 percent of U.S. residents had mobile phones in hand within 10 years of mass-market introduction. Now whole countries are leapfrogging from no wired telephones to decentralized state-of-the-art communications.

Finally, it’s past time that we each go “climate neutral.” We can live more lightly on the earth and offset the CO2 we generate. Environmental Defense provides a short list of “green tag” providers along with a handy carbon impact calculator at They figure that today’s typical American household can go climate neutral for just $100-200 a year, or less than $1 a day. 

Together we can relegate fossil fuels to the dinosaur age, switch to renewable energies good for any age and green the earth. Together we can find ways to live that work.

Primary Sources: BBC News; Christian Science Monitor; Co-op America; Earth Day Network; Environmental Defense; North Carolina Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources; Solar High-Impact National Energy Project;; U.S. Environmental

Source: By Alison S. Chabonais

Additional Information:

Date: 2006/09/27 08:45:00 GMT-7

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