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We Can and We Must

A year ago I received political polling call and was asked which issue was most important to me of the ten the pollster listed. I realized in that moment that nothing on the list mattered if we don’t carefully protect the conditions for life on this planet; the environment is my top issue. A changing climate comes with rising sea levels, worse air quality, drought in some areas and flooding in others, more variable temperatures – at their most severe, each is incompatible with human life. The consequences of climate change also exacerbate seemingly unrelated issues we worry about such as national security, the economy, and health care. 

Some say humans do not have the power to impact the climate. That it is a force much bigger than us. We can easily observe the role that trees play in altering our climate. Shaded areas are cooler than treeless areas and where areas of rainforest are cut down, it becomes desert like rather than damp. These changes happen to deforested areas in decades, and are readily observable over a human lifetime. Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded areas. They also remove air pollutants and store and sequester carbon dioxide. Vegetation reduces runoff and improves water quality by absorbing and filtering rainwater.

We can easily observe the role trees play in our climate. Shaded areas are cooler than treeless areas and where areas of rainforest are cut down, it becomes desert like rather than damp. Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. They also remove air pollutants and store and sequester carbon dioxide. Vegetation reduces runoff and improves water quality by absorbing and filtering rainwater.

In 1939 Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote By the Shores of Silver Lake. Ma said she missed the trees in the big woods of Wisconsin and Pa said he likes the clear prairie for farming. However every homesteader receiving a plot of land was required by Uncle Sam to plant ten acres of trees on his claim. Ma said “There’s nothing more restful than shady groves in the summertime, and they’ll break the wind too.” Pa said, “…so don’t worry, Caroline; you’re going to see plenty of trees all over this country. Likely they’ll stop the wind and change the climate, too, just as you say.”

Carbon dioxide comes from natural sources such as decomposition, ocean release and respiration. Carbon is “sequestered”, or stored in trees and oceans and prior to the industrial revolution there was a balance between creation and storage and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere remained at a level that didn’t change the air temperature. You might wonder how the amount of carbon in the atmosphere affects air temperature. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas which means it traps heat in the atmosphere acting as a blanket around the Earth, much like the windows of a home on a sunny day. 

Human sources of carbon dioxide include activities such as the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, deforestation and cement production.  Oceans and trees can only absorb so much carbon dioxide and the excess goes into the atmosphere, warming our Earth. Before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, global average CO2 was about 280 ppm(parts per million). As of 2018 carbon dioxide was at 407 ppm, the highest it has been in the past 800,000 years, the time period in which scientists have been able to analyze thus far. During the last 800,000 years CO2 fluctuated between about 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during interglacial warm periods. The changes to atmospheric CO2 look nothing like the slow fluctuations that occurred before industrialization. Today’s rate of increase is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended. Those numbers are worth re-reading.

The sharp rise of carbon dioxide coincides with mankind’s burning of fossil fuels. Its growing concentration in the atmosphere is changing our climate. A challenge of this magnitude requires national leadership and international cooperation. We have successfully tackled environmental challenges in the past including reducing acid rain in the 1990’s.

Acid rain damages forests and kills many species of aquatic life. Upon learning that American coal-fired power plants were polluting the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, which led to acid rain in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Canada, President George H.W. Bush sought to cap the total quantity of sulfur dioxide that could be emitted, and further reduce that cap over time. The Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 thanks to a bipartisan effort, and sulfur dioxide emissions and acid rain were successfully reduced over time.

Human activity, our activities in this country, are affecting our climate in an unprecedented way and we must work together in a bipartisan way again to reduce emissions. How can we claim to be patriotic if we are polluting American soil, the air we breathe and water we drink and altering the conditions necessary for life on Earth?  At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 President Bush said, “We must leave this Earth in better condition than we found it, and today this old truth must be applied to new threats facing the resources which sustain us all, the atmosphere and the ocean, the stratosphere and the biosphere. Our village is truly global.”

The current president has stated that climate will not be on the agenda at the G7 summit in 2020. The United State of America should be leading on this issue but instead we’re moving backwards. We must not shirk our responsibilities; we have brilliant engineers, scientists and other thinkers who can meet vigorous emissions goals while creating good jobs for Americans. We can and must rise to the challenge. Please reach out to your elected officials and let them know you want to see cooperation and laws passed that reduce carbon emissions to help safeguard the future for all Americans.

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