Opening the Conversation on Climate Change
Story by Nikole Chumley | Illustrations by Matthew Conrardy
The sun is shining, your bags are packed and you have the perfect road trip playlist. You and your friends are finally making that beach trip you have been planning for weeks. You get there, lay out your towels and look to the horizon. You see it: the 600,000-square mile Pacific Garbage Patch.
Each person in America produces an average of seven pounds of material trash per day, according to US PIRG, the Public Interest Research Group. Climate change is happening right now. There are several ways the individual can combat this imminent threat, but corporations are also responsible for this rapid degradation of the only home we will ever know.
PULSE spoke with professionals, professors and Environmental Club members to understand why climate change is a big deal and how students can become more aware of our contributions.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
In the past, Earth’s climate has shifted dramatically, according to Dr. Susan Kaspari, associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at CWU. Kaspari goes on to say, “The huge difference today is the rate at which the climate is warming.”
Earth, in the past, was able to undergo dramatic changes in climate because the changes were happening at a rate that could be sustainable by the life that inhabited it. Today, that simply isn’t the case. “Burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases is the largest cause of global warming,” says Kaspari, who elaborates, “these include deforestation, agriculture, raising livestock and landfill” as the most often talked about emission sites. All of these are essential in our society, which may be why it is so hard to find good solutions for restricting the damaging effects of climate change.
There are three types of carbon that contribute to global warming and, overall, climate change. “Carbon dioxide,” says Kaspari, “is the largest cause of the warming that is occurring.” Kaspari spends her time studying another form of carbon—black carbon—which she says is the second-largest contributor to global warming.
She explains black carbon as being “soot” that arises when biofuels and fossil fuels have not completely combusted. The reason that black carbon is so dangerous is that it absorbs the sun’s energy, which then causes the earth to warm. This black carbon is carried to glacier surfaces by the wind and leads to darkening of the snow and ice, increasing its absorption of the sun’s energy.
The other carbon emission that is harmful to the environment is methane, according to Kaspari, which is what is most prevalent in the meat farming industry.
Though it may seem like there’s a big divide between people who believe in climate change and those who don’t, Kaspari mentions that most students agree that the climate is changing and the earth is warming. The tension is caused by misunderstandings about what those changes will bring about.
“The United States is quite unique in that climate change is a politicized issue,” Kaspari says. Despite this, she makes a point that even with that tension, “common ground can still be found.” She also says that wanting clean air and access to water are things that many people agree are necessary.
In our region, a changing climate will greatly impact water and wildfires, which go hand-in-hand a lot of the time, according to Kaspari, who says that less rainfall leads to more intense and frequent wildfires. This cycle also disrupts our much-needed snow during the winter because it will instead precipitate as rain, which is not beneficial to us in the summer months. Kaspari points out that these changes can already be seen in the precipitation records in our area. According to her, these changes are not in the future—they are now.
DAILY FOOD CHOICES
According to Katie Cantrell, founder and executive director of the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, the single-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is the food industry. “The top five meat producers emit more carbon than Exxon, Shell or BP,” says Cantrell.
But it’s not all hopeless. Cantrell says that there are many ways that students can help but the best way is to simply stop buying meat. While that is quite extreme and can be unsafe for people who are unable to go vegetarian or vegan, Cantrell says that even cutting back on our meat intake will have a significant impact on our planet. “
If we cut out carbon emissions from every other sector, the meat farming industry alone will use our entire carbon budget by 2050,” Cantrell says, urging us to understand just how much of an impact our food makes. Additionally, meat packaging and production requires immense use of plastic and Styrofoam and buying less will also cut back on total plastic use. Another point that Cantrell makes is that by buying less meat, we are also reducing the chance of having to throw out the meat we didn’t get the chance of eating, which has a twofold positive effect: it means an animal didn’t die for nothing and it reduces the methane emissions that come from rotting meat.
We, as humans, love the gratification of achieving our goals. Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger.com, gave a TED Talk in 2010 about how he knows it is odd that someone as environmentally responsible as him is not a vegetarian. According to Hill, his “common sense and good intentions conflict with my taste buds.” So, he found the solution: be a “weekday vegetarian.” A weekday vegetarian is someone who stays away from “anything with a face” during the week and chooses what to eat on the weekends.
Sariah Jones, a senior here at Central, says that this worked for her for a year and it made her feel really good about her eating habits. Hill goes on to say, “cutting meat out five days a week cuts our meat intake down by 70 percent.”
At the student level, there are several things that can be done. Malena Niece, vice president of CWU’s Environmental Club, says that student involvement and awareness campaigns are their number-one priority. Throughout the year, they host events that help students learn more about sustainable living. In fact, this year the club has the goal of making the SURC’s dishware more sustainable.
Niece gives examples of simple changes that she makes daily, including riding her bike places rather than using her car to get around town. Reducing unnecessary vehicle travel, according to both Kaspari and Niece, is a decision that can have huge positive impacts on the environment.
Niece also outlined a project on campus to get a compost machine, which is set to open in the spring. She explains, “We had to jump through a lot of hoops but the planned place is over by the community garden on Alder. … The set date is for the spring but if not, hopefully it will be open by fall of next year.”
Cantrell, Kaspari and Niece all agree that the individual can make a difference, and it is all linked to the choices we make every day. For example, forgoing chicken in our Thai food in favor of tofu or vegetables is a cheaper, healthier option and it also is environmentally helpful. Jones opted to buy a set of reusable straws instead of getting single-use straws every time. Another easy change is not letting the water run when brushing your teeth, washing your face and doing the dishes. Some students use reusable containers when buying bulk items at grocery food store and going to the store’s butcher section for meat rather than buying plastic covered products.
Kaspari also gives some resources for students that can help us determine our individual carbon impact, which can be found at The Nature Conservancy’s website. She also wants students to know about the Environmental Studies program here that offers a lot of courses for students to learn more about their impact on the environment and that also fulfill general education requirements. Some of the classes that Kaspari teaches discuss natural variations in climate, which gives students the opportunity to learn about the aforementioned past climate shifts and why and how this one is significantly different.
As for how to hold corporations accountable, Cantrell brings up the power of the consumer. “Students are the customers,” she says, adding that “[students] have a lot of power.” Cantrell points out that we can make meaningful impacts if we ask for more plant-based options on campus, not just asking to get rid of meat options. She also advocates that students find organizations that are environmentally conscious to help with their goal of holding corporations accountable because it is much easier to feel the positive impact when you’re working with others.
Kaspari talks about how important the leadership in companies are in bringing about change. She also says that it really does help to “make buildings more energy efficient” and “support mass transit.” These can be done at the local and state level by voting with your dollar and ballot.
A changing climate will change our lives in drastic ways. We, as individuals and students, can make seemingly insignificant changes that add up over time. We also have power in holding large corporations and even our own university accountable for their environmental impacts. It doesn’t take a lot of action to heal our environment but it does take inaction to damage it.