Earth Day will be celebrated this year, as it is every year, on April 22nd. Now more than ever it is crucial that we pay attention to what our planet is telling us. Unfortunately, what it has to say is not pretty. The theme for Earth Day 2017 is Environmental & Climate Literacy. As such, Metro Community Health Center would like to help educate our community on the realities of the changes that our planet is experiencing, and provide ways to help promote sustainability to work towards restoring this beautiful planet that we call home.
Causes: The primary cause of our planet’s current severe warming pattern is the expansion of the “greenhouse effect”, which NASA defines as the warming that results when our atmosphere traps the heat (that humans are producing at an alarming rate) while it is trying to escape into space. There are four main gasses that cause this barrier that traps the heat; water vapor, which is the most abundant of the greenhouse gasses and increases as the earth warms; nitrous oxide, which is produced by soil cultivation (such as the use of commercial fertilizers), and fossil fuel and biomass burning; carbon dioxide, which is released through our own respiration, the deforestation of trees, and burning fossil fuels; and methane, which results from the decomposition of waste in landfills, rice cultivation, and the commercial livestock industry.
Effects: As the greenhouses gasses are produced, the planet warms due to being unable to expel the pent-up heat. This results in temperatures rising, changes in precipitation patterns, intense weather patterns, droughts, heat waves, and melting glaciers and ice caps resulting in raising sea levels. Historically these processes happened at a slow but steady rate during periods of global warming, but now they are occurring at rapidly high rates with no signs of slowing down. The global temperature has risen substantially over the last 35 years, with the global average reaching almost 34 degrees more than the average 100 years ago. The U.S. has experienced more extreme weather patterns (such as hurricanes) and intense rainfall events in the last 50 years than in the century before. The ocean has experienced a warming of 0.302 degrees in the top 700 meters in the last 50 years, and ice sheets are shrinking at an unprecedented rate, with 30-60 cubic miles melting per year just between 2002-2005, causing sea levels to rise across the globe. The results of these events are devastating to the global environment, and if we do not take steps to reduce our output of greenhouse gasses, our planet will not be able to sustain us.
Taking Action: There are many things that individuals can do in order to help slow the processes of climate change. Below are a few options that if done properly, can make a real difference in the fight to sustain our planet. The following list is ordered from the most expensive to consumers, to the least. There are options for people of all ages and in all socioeconomic classes. Do what you can to help preserve our planet, and remember that every little bit helps!
- Drive fuel-efficient vehicles: Driving a fuel-efficient vehicle can make a huge impact on the amount of carbon emissions being produced. Ove the last few years, fuel-efficient cars have become more accessible to the middle-class, with the average cost according to BankRate being $29,132, with vehicles averaging 32 city and 34 highway miles per gallon. Even Tesla, the leading producer of electric vehicles, has made their Model 3 accessible, priced at $35,000 and getting a whopping 215 miles per charge, with no gas emissions.
- Invest in renewable energy: Our future as a species really does depend on renewable energy. Whether it be purchasing solar panels for your home, or simply investing in energy efficient companies, we need to put renewable energy above “Big Oil” and fight for renewable energy sources to be more accessible in all forms. The average cost of solar panels is around $15,000-$29,000 according to Solar Power Now, and the average savings is about 10%-20% of annual utilities expenses. Aside from saving on your utilities bill, you are also drastically lowering your carbon footprint by switching from conventional power to solar.
- Weatherize your home: There are many cost effective (and some more expensive) ways to weatherize your home. Heat can leak out through improperly sealed windows and doors, as well as through your attic if your insulation is insufficient or not installed correctly. The Department of Energy estimates that an average of 20%-40% of energy bills are wasted due to heaters compensating for leakage. If your house is experiencing leakage, it means that your carbon output is unnecessarily high as well. Sealing windows and doors can be done without the help of a professional, and materials generally cost below $400 if you are doing your whole house. Having new insulation installed is a little more expensive, but The Department of Energy believes that leakage occurs most out of the attic. Many cities, including Pittsburgh, have a Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) that will provide weatherization services to low-income families at no cost to the homeowners. To find out if you are eligible, go to the benefits.gov website and search for the WAP program in your area.
- Purchase carbon off-sets: There are now companies that will help you reinvest into the planet by measuring your carbon footprint and calculating how much per year you would need in order to off-set your carbon output. TerraPass is one such company, and for a single-family home with two occupants and one vehicle, they calculate that you can offset your carbon footprint for only $180 a year. They allow you to calculate a deeper level if you would like, measuring how many miles a year you drive, how many flights you take, and how much energy your home is expelling. They then give you renewable energy credits and BEF water restoration certificates showing where your off-set is going and how it will make a difference in the fight for sustainability.
- Buy energy-efficient appliances: When looking to replace old appliances, try to choose an energy-efficient option. Purchasing Energy Star qualified appliances is a great way to ensure that you are getting the most out of your appliances. From refrigerators, to washers and dryers, to HVAC systems, you can make a difference by stocking your home with appliances that use the least amount of energy. There are many affordable options of Energy Star qualified appliances to choose from, and they can be found at most retailers. They are easy to spot as they will have the Energy Star logo.
- Take the train: Most people understand that car pollution is a huge contributor to the release of greenhouse gasses, but people forget that airplanes also contribute large amounts of pollution into the air. One way to cut down on your travel pollution is to take the train whenever possible. This means less cars on the road and planes in the air. Taking the train can also be more cost-effective, especially on shorter trips. A round-trip train ticket from Pittsburgh to New York City is about $120, while a round trip flight into New York, even if planned three months out, is around $250.
- Buy LED Lightbulbs: LED lights are great for saving on your energy output, as they use 80% less energy than run-of-the-mill incandescent bulbs. It is estimated that switching to LED’s will save up to $125 over the course of the bulb’s life. LED’s do cost a little more than a standard light bulb, but the savings will be worth it in the end, and it will also help reduce your carbon footprint.
- Keep up on car maintenance: Simple car maintenance can have a surprisingly big effect on greenhouse gas emissions. An easy fix like keeping tire pressure up will help save up to 1.2 billion gallons of gas each year, and that is just in the United States! You can put air in your tires for free at most gas stations, and a tire pressure gauge can be purchased for as low as $10. “Splurging” on that $20 air filter replacement that is offered when you get your oil changed can help save you an extra 10% on your miles per gallon, also lowering your output of greenhouse gasses.
- Eat what you buy, and buy less meat: The United States is one of the biggest contributors to food waste on the planet. An incredible amount of energy and water resources goes into the production of food in the United States, and an estimated 40% of that food ends up being thrown away rather than consumed. The food we throw away is sent to our landfills where it produces carbon dioxide as it rots. As of 2007, global food waste had produced an estimated 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide leaking into our atmosphere. One of the simplest ways for the average person to help with sustainability is by eating the food that they buy and reducing what is thrown into the garbage. The commercial livestock industry produces 7.1 tons of carbon dioxide per year, accounting for 14.5% of the total greenhouse gas emissions occurring. If consumers were to cut down on meat consumption, the industry would be forced to produce less products, in turn cutting down the carbon emissions associated with production. Try going meat-less a few days per week, and you will be making a difference!
- Spread the word: The easiest thing you can do to help in the fight for sustainability is talking about the realities of climate change and the ways to lower your carbon footprint with your friends, families, and colleagues. Education is one of the most important aspects of conservation, and if people are unaware of how to make a difference, no one will.
For information on climate change and what you can do to help, visit the National Resources Defense Council’s website at NRDC.org