Our Choices Determine Health of Future Generations

Posted by on Feb 20, 2019

Our Choices Determine Health of Future Generations

Our decisions over the next 10 to 12 years will dictate whether we and future generations are healthier or sicker. If we stick to our current way of life, scientists predict climate change will bring more infectious disease, heat-related illness, fire- and flood-induced injuries and respiratory ailments as well as increased chronic disease and premature death. But if we take steps promptly to slow global warming, we can still avoid the worst damage and enjoy a longer, healthier and more vibrant life on a healthier world filled with abundant and diverse plants and animals.

It’s our choice. We will make our choice with intention or unwittingly, but once it’s made there will be no turning back. Two reports published in late 2018 on climate change—one from the U.S. federal government1 and the other from the United Nations2 —agree it’s getting much hotter. Earth’s temperature is rising far faster than at any time in the past 65 million years.3 Icecaps are melting, seas are rising, and an increase in extreme weather patterns has brought more frequent droughts, fires and floods.

No time to waste

Earth’s average surface temperature has already risen 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Human production of greenhouse gases—especially carbon dioxide, the main regulator of earth’s temperature—is fueling global warming. Numerous lines of evidence such as carbon isotope data definitively show we’re the culprit, not mother nature.2 Top ways we convert the earth’s carbon stores into carbon dioxide are burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, and not feeding our soils.4

The UN report says letting temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius would cause long-lasting, if not irreversible, damage to our planet and all life on it. That includes ourselves. As it is, scientists say we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction ever to occur on earth, with countless animal and plant species endangered or already extinct.6

To limit earth’s rapid temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require unprecedented worldwide human action. Getting there will call for cutting emissions in half by 2030, and reaching net zero emissions by 2050.2 At current rates we’re releasing 36 gigatons of carbon dioxide yearly. To visualize one gigaton, or one billion metric tons, imagine the volume of carbon dioxide held at standard conditions needed to fill 400,000 Olympic-sized pools. If you multiply by 36 to get our current release rate, you now have 14.4 million such pools filled with carbon dioxide and dumped into our atmosphere every year.4

Combating climate change

In conversations about climate change, I often hear “There’s nothing I can do about it.” The truth is we can do everything about it if we make it a priority. Here are some simple but effective steps you can take to slow—and maybe eventually reverse—climate change. The more people who take steps the better.

(The estimated global CO2 reduction by 2050 for each step taken is listed in parenthesis.4 Compare this number with the projected additional 1,200+ gigatons we will release globally by 2050 if we continue our current path.)

Food and land use

  • Eat a plant-rich diet with more vegetables and less meat. Raising livestock releases 15 percent of greenhouse gases.4 (66 gigatons of CO2 reduction)
  • Buy fresh, local, organic food when possible. About 25 percent of all greenhouse gases come from the production, processing and transportation of food.8 Most fertilizers and pesticides are synthesized from CO2-releasing fossil fuels.7 While organic farming greatly increases the soil’s ability to store carbon as organic matter, industrial agriculture does the opposite; the soils become depleted and the carbon ends up in the atmosphere.4 (23 gigatons of CO2 reduction from organic farming and regenerative agriculture)
  • Reduce food waste. Purchase only what you will use, store food carefully, eat or freeze leftovers, and donate surplus food to food banks. Why? Food production, packaging and transport create a lot of carbon dioxide. Wasted food also emits methane greenhouse gases in landfills. One-third of all food is wasted, generating 8 percent of human-caused greenhouse gases.9 (71 gigatons of CO2 reduction)
  • Buy palm oil that is certified sustainable. Palm oil is used in half of all consumer products, including food, cosmetics, cleaners, lubricants and biodiesel. To clear the land for palm plantations, ever- expanding swaths of rainforest and peat bogs are burned in Southeast Asia. The fires release massive amounts of greenhouse gases and destroy the crucial ability of forests and peatlands to take up atmospheric carbon dioxide and store it in organic-rich soils.4 Check palm oil purchases for certified sustainable labels such as Palm Done Right or RSPO.10 And support the protection and restoration of damaged peatlands around the world. (22 gigatons of CO2 reduction and 1,200 gigatons of CO2 protected by decreasing worldwide peatland degradation)
  • Plant and grow trees and plants wherever possible. Plants take in large amounts of carbon dioxide and give off oxygen—just what we need to reverse climate change. Tropical rainforest destruction continues at a rapid rate—much of it burned to clear land for agriculture or buildings–producing 18 percent of global greenhouse gases. Most temperate forests have been degraded as well.4 To help restore plants destroyed by humans, grow plants in your house, yard and community and help replant forests, meadows and wetlands. (84 gigatons of CO2 reduction from replanting worldwide forests alone)
  • Energy and transport

  • Support renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal. Ask if your electric utility sells renewable energy credits (RECs), which you can buy to help fund the purchase of renewable energy; the RECs help offset the subsidies fossil fuels receive.11 Growing numbers of people are installing solar panels on rooftops, roads and farms and contributing surplus power to the grid. Solar photovoltaic cells are non-polluting, durable and low maintenance with up to 24 percent efficiency in current models (up to 40 percent in experimental models).12 In comparison, gasoline moves cars at 20 percent efficiency; coal has 30 to 40 percent efficiency but exhausts large amounts of carbon dioxide and soot. (164 gigatons of CO2 reduction from solar, wind and geothermal)
  • Dispose of refrigerators and air conditioners properly. Hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants in use today are potent greenhouse gases, and for that reason, are starting to be phased out. To avoid release into the atmosphere, have professionals fix leaks and dispose of refrigerants. Ask for natural refrigerants without climate effects when available.4 (90 gigatons of CO2 reduction)
  • Buy cars that are electric, hybrid electric or, at the very least, fuel-efficient. Make sure the electricity they’re using comes from renewable energy sources like solar or wind. Vehicle emissions account for 23 percent of CO2 emissions.4 (15 gigatons of CO2 reduction)
  • Share rides or use mass transit. When possible, walk, bike, carpool or take public transportation. (8 gigatons of CO2 reduction)
  • Insulate your home and office and install LEDs. Well-insulated buildings consume less energy to heat and cool. LED light bulbs use half the energy of compact fluorescent and 90 percent less than incandescent bulbs.4 (8 gigatons of CO2 reduction from insulation and 8 more from LEDs)
  • But to do the most good we must act without delay. We need to take real steps over the next 10 to 12 years to slow climate change if we are to preserve the health of humans and all life on the planet.

    For even more steps you can take, go to: www.drawdown.org

    This post is written by Elizabeth S. Smoots, MD. Dr. Smoots’ blog is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Before adhering to any recommendations in this blog consult your healthcare provider. ©2019 Elizabeth S. Smoots, MD, LLC. Please read our Social Media Policy before leaving your comments.

    References:

    1. Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States. United States Federal Government: United States Global Change Research Program, 11/23/18. Accessed 2/19 at https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/
    2. Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 10/2018. (The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.) Accessed 2/19 at www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
    3. Anne Mulkern. Today’s Climate Change Proves Much Faster Than Changes in Past 65 Million Years. Scientific American, reprinted from ClimateWire, 8/2/2013. Accessed 2/19 at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/todays-climate-change-proves-much-faster-than-changes-in-past-65-million-years/
    4. Paul Hawken, Editor. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, 2017. Penguin Books, New York.
    5. The Extinction Crisis. Center for Biological Diversity. Accessed 2/19 at https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/
    6. David Biello. Fact or Fiction? The Sixth Mass Extinction Can Be Stopped. Scientific American, 7/25/2014. Accessed 2/19 at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-the-sixth-mass-extinction-can-be-stopped/
    7. Georgina Gustin. Industrial Agriculture, an Extraction Industry Like Fossil Fuels, a Growing Driver of Climate Change. Inside Climate News, 1/25/2019. Accessed 2/19 at https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25012019/climate-change-agriculture-farming-consolidation-corn-soybeans-meat-crop-subsidies
    8. Paris to Pittsburg. National Geographic documentary film, 12/18.
    9. Food wastage footprint: Full-cost accounting. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014. Accessed 2/19 at http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3991e.pdf
    10. Palm Oil 101. Palm Done Right. Accessed 2/19 at https://www.palmdoneright.com/en/palm-101/
    11. How Does Buying Renewable Energy Credits Help Expand the Renewable Energy Market? Seattle City Light, 2019. Accessed 2/19 at https://energysolutions.seattle.gov/renewable-energy/green-up/green-up-faqs/
    12. Is Solar Power Worth the Investment? Empire Renewable Energy, 2019. Accessed 2/19 at http://solarbyempire.com/why-solar/solar-panel-efficiency

    10 Comments

    1. Climate change is real. We can see evidence from the recent extreme weather we’ve been having. Elizabeth, I agree that anyone can make an impact on reducing or even reversing climate change. If it’s recycling plastic bottles, or eating less meat, it’s a small start. But, if all of us globally start to keep in mind that we, as individuals, can make a difference, then we have a movement. The movement needs to be sustained. Thank you Elizabeth for continuing to bring this movement to the forefront with your scientific research, and give us all reminders of what we can do to have an impact on reducing climate change.

      • As you noted, every individual who helps out can make a difference. Like a small snowball gathering snow as it rolls down a hill, the action of one individual can influence other individuals, then small groups, then large groups, then states, then nations, then civilizations around the world. Lowering carbon dioxide levels will happen slowly at first and then pick up momentum as more people realize that it is necessary to take care of our planet if we want to be healthy ourselves.

    2. Thank you for adding your voice. Birds of prey were once going extinct because of DDT. If it wasn’t for a few brave ecologists who stood up and screamed bloody murder, we might not have them around today. We can do this!

      • You refer to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring , published in 1962, which warned of the adverse effects of widespread pesticide spraying on birds and animals. Thanks to the efforts of Carson and other scientists, DDT was eventually banned from the U.S. Getting lead out of gasoline after it was found to cause lead toxicity in humans and animals also took the combined efforts of many scientists over many years. Today the biggest health threat of our time is climate change. The main waste product of our civilization is carbon dioxide gas, which, at the current high level in our atmosphere, is making the world’s climate increasingly inhospitable to life. We will need to turn this around if we want to have healthy lives for ourselves and future generations.

    3. Thank you for giving us specific ways we can be good stewards of our earth. It’s important!

      • Being good stewards of the earth just makes sense. If we keep our planet healthy, it will in turn help keep us healthy. The health of the planet and the health of humans are inextricably connected.

    4. VERY GOOD ARTICLE, ELIZABETH. THANK YOU! THERE IS A LOT WE CAN DO.

      • Thanks for your comment. You zeroed in on the core message: There is a lot we can do about climate change. Just about everything we are doing in our current way of life worsens climate change, but simple lifestyle modifications can greatly reduce our carbon dioxide output. The key is to be mindful of how our actions influence the planet and then to act accordingly.

    5. Thanks for sharing your research with us and giving us ideas of things we can do to decrease the damage.

      • There are so many things we can do to slow global warming and they are simple steps that everyone can do. As more people take these steps we will eventually be able to reverse climate change. Nothing new needs to be invented; we already have the technology and know-how to do so. The question is: Do we care enough about future generations to try?

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