The Effects of Human Activity on Climate Change
Around 2.6 million years ago, Earth experienced The Pleistocene Epoch, more commonly known as the most recent Ice Age. Earth's climate was cold, dry, and received little to no precipitation/rainfall throughout this time period. The majority of the planet was covered in sheets of ice and glaciers, including Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. "There have been at least five documented major ice ages during the 4.6 billion years since the Earth was formed - and most likely many more before humans came on the scene about 2.3 million years ago." (Zimmermann, paragraph 2). Climate change, more specifically global warming, has been a controversial and argumentative topic of discussion for decades. Many people do not believe in its existence due to the fact that climate change has been around since long before the human race. While this may be true, climate change has been most intense throughout this relatively short era. Many of the factors that contribute to the recent changes in climate change and environmental degradation are contracted from human activity; therefore, only humans have the ability to counteract these consequences.
Due to population growth and increased demand for natural resources/energy, human activity has undoubtedly impacted Earth's ecosystems. The exploitation of natural resources has resulted in an increase in waste generation, essentially forcing Earth to reach its carrying capacity. "According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 1998 had the highest recorded temperatures since weather records have been kept, and, according to the National Climatic Data Center, the 1990s have been the hottest decade in 600 years." (Gist, paragraph 1). Since then, temperatures have continued to rise at abnormal rates, positively correlated to human activity such as urban sprawl, industrialization, and economic developments. In order to keep up with exponential growth in population and consumerism, society has turned a blind eye to environmental degradation while increasing its expansion in manufacturing, construction, and mining. Funding these developments requires a certain amount of energy, which is mostly retained from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gases. "The energy sector is responsible for about 3/4 of the carbon dioxide emissions, 1/5 of the methane emissions, and a large quantity of nitrous oxide." (Dr. Khan, section 3.2). The exploitation of these gas sectors has caused a disturbance in what is known as the greenhouse effect, which is when the Earth's surface allows specific amounts of radiation from the sun to pass through our atmosphere and warm our planet. Seeing as how CO2 has become a staple in environmental pollution, these emissions have significantly impacted the atmosphere's chemical cycles that produce or destroy greenhouse gases.
There is no denying that these advances in the human race have improved our lives' efficiency, but at what cost? The leading effects of this increase in waste production and gas emissions include air, water, solid waste (trash), and toxic pollution. "Environmental pollution refers to the degradation of quality and quantity of natural resources...Pollution introduces contaminants into the environment that can maim or even kill plant and animal species." (Tyagi, paragraph 1). Those same contaminants result in poisoned soil, un-filterable water, lower oxygen levels, and an increase in temperature. Tyagi also mentions that increased poverty, overcrowding, famine, weather extremes, species loss, and medical illnesses are also consequences of an increasingly unstable global situation. Examples of health effects include skin cancers and cataracts, which are directly related to the depletion of the ozone layer. The contaminant of resources could also affect Earth's energy balance and precipitation patterns. "[One example] of altered precipitation [can be seen] in the U.S. Midwest, where transpiration from corn crops has been found to fuel storm systems." (Gist, paragraph 4). This enforces the fact that a decrease in environmental health and personal health are serious side effects of climate change. If gone untreated, disasters such as droughts, earthquakes, acid rain, and even volcanic eruptions will present themselves in the not too distant future. It could also lead to political issues like rural-urban migration. "Rural-urban migration, energy consumption per capita, economic growth, population, and intensive industrialization spur emissions." (Sarkodie, section 3). Therefore, this reaction to climate change puts strenuous pressure on specific regions to keep up with rising population levels and plays a huge role in climate change mitigation. It is anti-productive toward the process of reversing the effects of climate change and needs to be rectified, yet is rarely talked about when the discussion of environmental degradation is brought up. As a species, we have already witnessed waves of mass migration that have resulted in damage to both rural and urban communities. When a population abandons a fragile habitat, it lowers the chances of revival for the region and continues to weaken the environment they are relocating to.
A loss in biodiversity is yet another side effect of climate change. Too many people have a fixed mindset in which they believe if they can't see it, then it's not happening. In reality, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation play a role on an individual, population, species, community, ecosystem, and biome level. Let's use a singular plastic bag as an example. Say an individual goes to the grocery store and buys a carton of eggs. When they get home, they unload the product into their refrigerator and dispose of the plastic bag used to transport the purchase. Where does that plastic bag go? Just because it is no longer in the consumer's possession does not mean that it has magically disappeared. On average, it takes a typical grocery back 5-10 years to decompose. Within this time frame, it may end up in landfill or aquatic habitats where it serves no purpose other than harming wildlife species and destroying the ecosystem's overall integrity. Not only does human activity affect each of these categories, but they all affect each other. "The various effects on populations are likely to modify the 'web of interactions'...A study of 9650 interspecific systems, including pollinators and parasites, suggested that around 6300 species could disappear following the extinction of their associated species." (Bellard, paragraph 3). Essentially, even if an individual is not directly influenced by the effects of climate change, through a chain reaction of extinction and deterioration on biodiversity (similarly to the grocery bag), every life form will experience an alteration in one form or another. For example, if mangroves hypothetically went extinct, then the fruit fly would lose a vital source of nutrients, and their overall population would start to diminish. As a result, dragonflies would lose a source of food, then frogs, then snakes, eventually affecting eagle populations. This process applies to all living organisms, including humans, birds, reptiles, aquatic wildlife, plants, fungi. Not even bacteria is exempt from these influences.
Thankfully, a few policy options can be enforced to help counteract and prevent said consequences, but there is no time to spare. In order to resolve this issue, we must work both personally and as a team. An experiment conducted by Jörg Gross, a Professor at Leiden University, known for using simulations, laboratory experiments, and neuroscientific methods, believes that climate change could be solved if people were willing to coordinate and cooperate. However, he also states that "In the presence of individual solutions to shared problems, groups struggle to balance self-reliance and collective efficiency, leading to a 'modern tragedy of the commons.'" An example of this can be seen on a smaller scale when looking at your average school setting. Say that a teacher hands out a lengthy assignment and gives their students the option to work on it as a group or separately. It is logical to assume that evenly distributing the work amongst other teammates would be the most efficient route towards success. Yet, there typically tend to be members who rise to the task to complete the assignment and members that hardly contribute. Although joining forces with a group would lessen the overall amount of work each person has to do, their energy is likely to be exploited by certain members taking advantage of their cooperation. On the flip-side, working on the project as an individual would eliminate the fear of "free-riders" abusing others' resources, but would also require one to exhaust more time and energy into the project. Now, let's apply this same concept in terms of human population and climate change. Although actions need to be enforced on both an individual and collective level, success truly relies on coordination and cooperation. The human brain is naturally wired to air on the side of self-sufficiency, but this isn't realistic when it comes to our planet's fate. It is essential to evaluate personal actions and the actions of society as a whole to minimize pollution and reprimand the damage.
Although there are hundreds of pollution sources, the most relevant include motor vehicles, oil refineries, factories, power plants, and agricultural areas. All of these activities are powered by non-renewable resources that are damaging the planet. An article by Smith JB and Lenhart SS addresses general and specific measures that can be taken to preserve water resources, forests, coastal resources, ecosystems, and agriculture. Some of their options were developed in anticipation of climate change; that would be ineffective if implemented as a reaction to climate change. For example, the expansion of renewable energy resources, fossil fuel-switching, and modern technologies like carbon capture will decline emission concentrations. As of now, generating power from solar panels and windmills are the most efficient renewable energy sources, but they are prohibitively more expensive for communities. Although this may be true, an investment in these energy sources is also an investment in our future. Replacing the usage of substances such as coal and oil with the four elements will allow us to decrease greenhouse emissions, improve the health of our environment and the health of the general public. Additionally, Smith JB and Lenhart SS listed policies that can be enforced to aid the current state of the environment. From a young age, individuals are taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle. One can also carpool, minimize water usage, and eat less livestock, which are all critical steps but not solely sufficient. Other, more intensive policies include enhancing forest seedbanks, preserving and protecting biodiversity, increasing irrigation efficiency, and reducing habitat fragmentation. Liberalizing agricultural trade would also provide net-benefits that are independent of climate change. By lowering trade barriers, we can increase overall agriculture production without increasing pollution rates while making it easier to exchange information on global market conditions. If anything, this is proof that we still have a chance. If humans take action now and work together as a community, we could slowly but surely bring the planet the relief it deserves.
Interestingly, there are also mental roadblocks that are preventing us from saving the planet. Researchers like Paul Van Lange believe that phycological science can offer evidence-based insights and solutions to environmental degradation. In theory, there are three axes in which the human mind must cross to properly aid in reversing climate change: thought, time, and space. According to Mr. Lange, "[The} borders of thought could be crossed by using persuasion that is concrete and tailored to local circumstances and by highlighting information about people's efforts as evidence against the myth of self-interest." Basically, recognizing that the damage can and will result in personal conflicts, and by promoting awareness that individual actions can help or worsen the issue, we can break the barrier between "individualists" and "collectivists" to improve the situation. Next, Mr. Lange states, "[The] borders of time could be crossed by using kinship cues, which can help make the future less distant, and relatively uninvolved advisors, who may help make the future salient." This is essentially saying that by turning the focus from yourself to young children and recognizing that your actions are affecting their future, we can look past the axes time and start making a difference now. It is also saying that accepting advice from outside experts when making decisions that affect your region's sustainability will make it easier to prioritize the community and focus on practical matters. Lastly, Mr. Lange states, "[The] borders of space could be crossed by showing group representatives how they might benefit from a frame of altruistic competition-focusing on the benefits of being seen as moral and global in orientation." To clarify, group representative (much like individuals) are known for being competitive and for harboring rivalries. This presents us with the theory of "altruistic competition" in which group leaders across the globe compete with one another to obtain a prosocial identity. By exploiting the need to outperform one another, the world would benefit from increased environmental security. This can also be applied on a smaller scale by hosting/participating in a neighborhood recycling contest or by racing family members to see who can take the shortest shower.
Overall, climate change has been around since the dawn of time but, an increase in human activity has led to an uptick in environmental degradation and health risks. Activities such as industrialization, urban sprawl, and economic developments have caused ecological pollution levels to rise at uncontainable rates. This expansion has resulted in an increase in heat production as well as a shift in Earth's energy balance and precipitation patterns. It has also inflicted upon the overall health of the environment and all living creatures. Some may argue that natural selection will allow both the world and various species to adapt, but with these negative changes occurring at an alarming rate, we don't have the time required to evolve in preparation for the situation we created. Instead, we have to follow through with other aspects that will aid in reversing climate change. These options involve analyzing individual and communal actions to minimize waste and pollution generation. It is also necessary to identify short-term and long-term solutions, from both a physical and mental perspective, to propel the Earth through its detox journey. "The role of rural-urban migration, intensive energy utilization, and increasing levels of income cannot be ignored in this 21st century of climate change mitigation." (Sarkodie, section 3). By working as a team, we could offer support to rural regions and provide them with the resources required to achieve sustainability, including social justice. By engaging in at least a percentage of the strategies listed above, we could help stabilize biodiversity amongst humans, wildlife, and the environment while decreasing pollution admissions. If not, we will be risking the very fate of our lives. Needless to say, the Earth is our home, and there are no second chances if we fail to maintain its health. By recognizing the causes, effects, and solutions that influence climate change, it becomes easier to identify the opportunities to make a difference.
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Gross, Jörg. "Individual Solutions to Shared Problems Create a Modern Tragedy of the Commons." Science Advances, 1 Apr. 2019
Khan, Dr. Zulfequar Ahmad. "Climate Change: Cause and Effect." Journal of Environment and Earth Science, vol. 2, no. 4, 2012, pp. 48-53
Sarkodie, Samuel Asumadu, et al. "Global Effect of Urban Sprawl, Industrialization, Trade and Economic Development on Carbon Dioxide Emissions." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 15, no. 3, 2020, pp. 1-9
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Tyagi, Swati, et al. "Environmental Degradation: Causes and Consequences." European Researcher, vol. 81, no. 8-2, 2014, pp. 1491-98
Van Lange, Paul A. M., et al. "Climate Change: What Psychology Can Offer in Terms of Insights and Solutions." Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 27, no. 4, 2018, pp. 269-74
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