Climate change. Global warming. Whatever you want to call it. It is one of the biggest problems that humanity faces today. One of the worst parts about it is that we caused it. Through continued innovation, we have begun to alter the climate in ways that are irreversible. These innovations have led to many basic conveniences we have in life, like seemingly limitless travel with cars and planes to being able to buy frozen ground beef at your local supermarket, which have contributed to widespread greenhouse gas emissions.
Every time a combustion engine is used it releases carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere. For decades, this emission has been seen as the “smoking gun” for rising global temperatures, leading to the development of catalytic converters to reduce the amounts released from cars. The problem is that carbon dioxide and combustion engines are not solely at fault.
Commercial cattle farming is responsible for the release of methane and nitrous oxide, two of the four primary greenhouse gasses. These emissions can be up to 25 and 300 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, respectively, and yet the United States government continues to subsidize factory meat and dairy farming operations at approximately $38 billion every year. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions accounted for 18% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 while 79% was attributed to carbon dioxide.
For the case of this article, I will use carbon dioxide equivalencies (converting amounts of other gasses to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide with the same global warming potential) to report the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. The amount emitted is an alarming 5.98 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. For my combustion engine-loving friends out there, that’s the equivalent mass of 2.99 billion Ford F150 pickup trucks. That same amount of trucks parked end-to-end would wrap around the globe over a staggering 473 times. How’s that for America’s best-selling pickup?
Ithaca hosts some of the most beautiful winters I have ever witnessed. Frozen waterfalls, snow-covered trees and the gentle winds (alright, maybe they’re not that gentle) are some of the reasons why I love to call this place home.
Some have noticed abnormally warm days this fall and point at climate change as an explanation. It is important to remember that climate is defined by the long-term average precipitation and temperature of an area, in contrast to weather, which is the short-term conditions seen in an area.
This means that when someone points to a single 50° F day in the middle of January as an example of climate change, they are likely mistaken.
I’m just as happy as you are to have a break from the bitter cold of winter when these unusually warm days occur, but when looking at historic temperatures and realizing that they have rapidly increased over just a few decades, this joy goes away.
The average annual temperature in New York has warmed by 3° F since 1970 and is predicted to do the same by 2080. Though a 3° F increase may seem insignificant, this warming has been enough to alter the timing of tree and flower blooming, in turn impacting the availability of food resources for migrating and hibernating animals. This could result in behavioral changes in these animals, including a shift in feeding behaviors, causing ecosystem alteration.
Though we have begun to experience some effects of climate change, they are still mild when compared to other parts of the country. The Pacific Northwest, for example, has experienced extreme heat waves that are exacerbated by the effects of climate change. These heat waves have increased the occurrence and severity of wildfires in the region. Across the country, wildfires caused over $11 billion in damages in 2021 alone. Instead of rebuilding, some residents have decided to move to different regions in the country, making themselves some of the first climate migrants in the United States. The Pacific Northwest is not alone however, as many coastal regions in the U.S. are facing rising sea levels because of climate change, and some arid climates have begun to experience annual prolonged droughts.
Though many of the effects of climate change are often small and hard to notice, over time they will become impossible to ignore. To help combat the effects of climate change, everyone can make simple choices to alter their daily lives. Decisions like limiting energy use and long-distance travel, using public transportation, advocating for environmental policies and voting for climate-minded officials may seem small, but this problem is much too large for any one person to solve alone.