Over 40,000 delegates from 195 countries meet in Paris this week to legally commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius. Although the prevention of 2 degree warming may not be possible, such emissions reduction agreements are a crucial step to stop global warming above 3-5 degrees that could lead to massive displacement of coastal populations, droughts, and severe natural disasters. In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, this meeting is both a “test” and a “great opportunity” for all nations to work together towards a globally unifying goal.
In honor of these talks, I hope to emphasize a few stories about how climate change impacts lives around the world and how each of us can contribute to the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From global leaders to individual citizens of the world, we all play a role.
1) The Drowning Nations
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an archipelago of skinny islands is home to a nation fighting valiantly against the effects of global warming. Workers regularly repair walls made of construction scraps that have been erected in shallow waters to push back the tides now flooding coastal homes. Citizens are already thinking of emigration as the final solution.
This is the Marshall Islands, a nation perched only six feet above sea level. Recent changes in trade winds (which scientists are now studying to connect to climate change) have increased flooding, and predicted sea level rises due to climate change will drown most of the land in the coming decades. It should not be surprising, then, that the nation has sent a delegate to the Paris talks to seek reparations for the loss and damage caused by fossil fuel emissions from richer countries. The final agreement could require industrialized countries to give aid to smaller island nations that are especially vulnerable.
And it is not just the Marshall Islands. Over 15 percent of land in Bangladesh could be submerged by 2050. And unlike the Marshall Islands, which holds military ties with the US that allows its citizens to emigrate and escape the encroaching waters, Bangladeshis do not have an easy route of retreat. Kiribati, another island nation in the Pacific, is the home of 100,000 people who will also seek refuge soon from rising waters.
For many of us, global warming is still a dream of what may come, but the Paris conference gives us a chance to recognize all those nations that face a climate crisis now. How will the world decide to help them?
2) The Eating Habits of Citizens
With so many world leaders meeting in Paris, it’s easy to see global warming as a problem solved between nations. But many individual actions can transform into a large collective movement. In particular, our consumer power can change how companies sustainably produce products, offer fair wages to workers, or be transparent regarding business practices.
In this regard, changing what we choose to eat may be one of the most powerful forces to stop global warming. Professor Michelle Holdsworth from the University of Sheffield has joined the Paris conference to discuss this issue, highlighting her research1,2 about the connection between a sustainable, plant-based diet and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. As she writes, livestock production is carbon-intensive, with significant emissions arising from the required feed, transportation and meat storage, and even flatulence. Research has consistently shown that plant-based diets reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which gives every person on the planet a way to help the cause.
Here are some of Holdsworth’s tips to reduce your diet’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions:
- eat lots of fruit and vegetables
- limit red meat and eat more beans and nuts for protein
- limit energy-dense processed foods like sweetened drinks
- eat sustainably sourced fish
- eat locally and seasonally
- avoid food waste
- drink tap water
3) The Women and the Mangroves
Along the coasts of Cambodia and Vietnam, representatives from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have taught local women how to plant mangrove trees in shallow waters and sustainably harvest crabs and shrimp from the surrounding area. The success of this program will not only help local communities but also have a large impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Why are mangrove trees so important to to combat global warming?
Straddling the boundary between water and land, mangrove trees have traditionally protected inland areas from flooding while also providing habitat for crabs, shrimp, and other wildlife. Coastal communities in many Asian countries rely on mangrove forests to support fishing industries. But these same forests are also an important soldier in the battle against global warming. Soil near mangrove roots store 3-5 times as much carbon as the same soil in tropical forests, making them a perfect natural trap to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Rampant economic development threatens this vital role as carbon sink. Entire forests have been cut down to develop golf courses or other infrastructure in the name of increasing the gross domestic product, removing as much as half of the world’s mangroves over the past 50 years. And as more mangroves are destroyed, more carbon escapes into the atmosphere.
To combat these trends, international development groups like USAID have sought the help of women from local communities, who traditionally manage the fishing among the forests. With the help of aid groups, they have been replanting mangroves, learning sustainable fishing practices, aiding scientists in studying forest health, and becoming advocates for both their own economic longevity and the planet.
4) The Imprisoned Advocate
Six years ago, the leader of Maldives donned a scuba mask and descended into the water with a pen in his hand. Five meters below the surface, he and his cabinet signed an agreement to fight for the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions during an upcoming UN climate summit in Copenhagen.
This is just one example of the theatrics used by the former Maldives president, Mohamed Nasheed, to draw international attention to the fate of the island nation just off the coast of India. Similar to the Marshall Islands, the islands making up Maldives rest only several meters above sea level, and Nasheed had fought relentlessly for global recognition of the nation’s inevitable fate due to sea level rises from global warming. During his tenure, he installed solar panels on government buildings and vowed to make Maldives carbon-neutral.
Unfortunately, Nasheed could not hold his presidential office long enough to continue this vision. In 2012, a military coup removed him from office and replaced him with a dictator now catering to bids for oil drilling among the nation’s many shores.
Such a story shows that even in a nation like Maldives, which sees the proximal threat of global warming so clearly, human avarice can conquer the need for long-term economic and social change. But it is also a story of courage in the face of opposition. Nasheed continues to advocate for massive greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy from prison, a beacon of resilient hope that humans can overcome their own greed.
5) The Interconnected Planet
It is easy to focus only on the effects of climate change on human civilization. But the future of the entire planet is at stake, this unquantifiably complex network of animals and plants, soil and trees, wind and ice, which James Lovelock first described as the superorganism Gaia. What direction will Gaia take as temperatures rise?
A recent study3 of the waters in the North Atlantic Ocean gives just one example of the unexpected results that arise when global warming perturbs such a complex system. As carbon dioxide loads the atmosphere and seeps into the ocean, the water is expected to acidify and make it more difficult for creatures like mollusks, corals, and plankton to create their calcium carbonate shells. But scientists have now discovered that coccolithophores, a type of calcifying plankton, have blossomed in the Atlantic over the last fifty years. After assessing more than 20 environmental factors that could affect this population boom, the researchers determined that increased CO2 levels and temperature have both contributed to this growth, contradicting traditional thinking that acidification effects would lower growth.
Scientists are still exploring why acidification is not the dominant factor, but it appears that the plankton are more resilient to waters dense with carbon dioxide than previously thought, and that the increases in temperature could boost population growth enough to counteract any detrimental acidification effects.
This is but one recent example of how global warming can have unexpected trends, leading to phytoplankton blooms that can be seen from miles above the surface (see image above). We can do our best to prepare for the future we expect from current trends – moderate temperature increases, more severe natural disasters, and the like – but such unpredictability in the Gaia organism should make us that much more motivated to prevent further emissions as quickly as possible. In most other areas, policy is developed to prepare for the worst-case scenario; too many politicians do not hold to the same standard when it comes to climate change.
These stories highlight the complexity of the global warming crisis, creating problems as permanent as the drowning of entire islands and global changes as large as massive phytoplankton blooms. The solutions are equally diverse, from eating less meat to protecting mangrove forests in Asia. Political complexities hinder progress, as advocates for change are imprisoned in some cases and ridiculed in others. But delegates in Paris can set a precedent of global cooperation between nation leaders, citizens, and scientists around the world that will meet the challenge of solving this complex geopolitical reality. Global warming has arrived – now let us see how our civilization can respond.
- Holdsworth M and Bricas N. “Impact of climate change on food consumption and nutrition.” Climate Change and Agriculture Worldwide, 227-238, 2015.
- Clonan A and Holdsworth M. “The challenges of eating a healthy and sustainable diet.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(3), 459-460, 2012.
- Rivero-Calle S et al. “Multidecadal increase in North Atlantic coccolithophores and the potential role of rising CO2.” Science, published online Nov 26, 2015.
Rivero-Calle, S., Gnanadesikan, A., Del Castillo, C., Balch, W., & Guikema, S. (2015). Multidecadal increase in North Atlantic coccolithophores and the potential role of rising CO2 Science DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa8026