2016 Was The Earth's Hottest Year Since Recordkeeping Began More Than 130 Years Ago.
We take notice of catastrophes as they are reported on the news or forwarded to our news feeds. We empathize with those who lose their lives or property from floods and tornados; gasp at the destruction as homes and acres of land are consumed by wildfires that rip through drought-stricken areas; are resigned to the health-endangering pollutants that permeate our air; and cheer when the temperature stays warmer than it’s traditionally supposed to, delaying colder temperatures and winter precipitation just a little bit longer.
Heat waves, heavy precipitation, droughts and wildfires are just some of the thousands of record-breaking weather events that have increased over the years due to global warming and climate change. A NASA study called “Global Climate Change” describes global warming as the long-term warming of the planet — the Earth is warming; that’s a fact. There has been a well documented rise of global temperatures since the early 20th century, most notably since the late 1970s. Climate change includes global warming, but refers specifically to the wide-ranging changes that are happening to the planet.
These include rising sea levels, shrinking mountain glaciers, accelerating ice melts and changes in the growing season. All are consequences of the warming, which is caused mainly by burning fossil fuels and putting heat-trapping gases into the air. The terms “global warming” and “climate change” are sometimes used interchangeably, but refer to slightly different things.
Scientists worldwide have studied global warming and climate change for years, and while skeptics remain, if people are honest with themselves they know something is going on — and humans are responsible.
While scientists began discussing climate change as early as the start of the 19th century, it was in the 1970s that people really started listening. This was when climate change was first suspected and the greenhouse effect first identified. BBC News states global warming didn’t become a widely publicized issue until 1975, when Wallace Broecker, a Columbia geology professor, coined the term in a paper about climate change.
By the start of the 20th century, scientists were arguing that emissions of greenhouse gases could change climate. By the 1990s most in the scientific community believed greenhouse gases were deeply involved in most climate changes and human-caused emissions were causing global warming.
Statistics gathered by various government agencies and other groups tell the tale of how human activity has caused the release of most greenhouse gases, which cause global warming by building in the atmosphere and trapping heat. To illustrate this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2013 that temperatures increased by about a degree and a half from 1880 to 2012.
Burning fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect, even though intensive livestock farming, deforestation, the use of synthetic fertilizers and industrial processes greatly contribute as well. The U.S. gets 84 percent of its total energy from fossil fuels. The Los Angeles Times provided this example.
About 253 million vehicles were driven on U.S. roads in 2014. For each gallon of gas used, about 24 gallons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases was released into the atmosphere.
The IPCC reported that the Northern Hemisphere had the warmest 30-year period from 1983 to 2012 of the last 1,400 years. And the EPA predicts temperatures will keep rising. Global temperatures are expected to increase 0.5 to 8.6 degrees by 2100, with the U.S. predicted to have increases of 3 to 12 degrees.
The EPA also reports that heat waves are expected to occur more often with rising temperatures. The U.S. is expected to see a record high increase in the number of days with temperatures above 90 degrees. And nights are also becoming warmer, meaning less cooling off between days.“There’s been a consistent and persistent rise in temperature,” said Cris Hochwender, professor of biology. “What comes with higher temperatures are higher, extreme hot days.”
In addition to the concerns about annual average temperatures, there is also the issue of annual average rainfall. Hochwender said rainfall is just as concerning. It affects soil moisture and water availability. Because there is more evaporation, there is less water for plants in the ecosystem.
PLASTIC POLLUTION People use tons and tons of plastic every year.
We don’t realize the impact it has but we do know it is a threat worldwide
“Precipitation is less predictable than temperature,” he said. “The patterns of moisture are less consistent in patches of the country. Some are predicted to get higher moisture levels, but most places have lower soil moisture levels because of the additional temperature changes.”
Drought is another example of severe weather caused by global warming. It has impacted the southwest for years and caused record-breaking numbers of tree die-offs. The U.S. Forest Service reported that 62 million trees died in California in 2016. And Hochwender said in the southwest, the Colorado River is so overused it’s not even a river when it ends at the Gulf of California. In addition to fires, no water is available to grow crops making ranching hard.
IS IT REALLY HAPPENING?
Skeptics might say global warming is a natural occurrence and just part of earth’s regular cycle of heating and cooling. The more fanatical may claim climate change is simply a myth invented by environmentalists. But scientists’ know the facts. “It is happening,” Hochwender said.“Humans are responsible for it. The science behind it is simple.”
Greenhouse gases are defined as heat-trapping compounds that are released across the globe. They remain trapped in the atmosphere for centuries, causing a greenhouse effect. Hochwender said carbon dioxide is released when humans burn fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide and other gases, including methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide and others, are known as greenhouse gases. As humans burn more fossil fuels, more greenhouse gases are released. The gases absorb heat that is reflected off earth’s surface and then emit it back. With more gases, the atmosphere absorbs more heat — so the world warms up. John Blair, president of Valley Watch, an organization seeking to protect the health and environment of Evansville and the surrounding area, said coal-fired power plants are a huge cause of air pollution locally.
He said burning coal releases a lot of carbon dioxide — one pound of coal releases two pounds of carbon. But the problem is not just in Evansville and Southern Indiana. Power plants and other polluters are located all over the world, releasing high volumes of greenhouse gases every day. The Global Carbon Project reported that humans released about 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2015. And since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, humans have released a total of more than 2 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Breathing in all these gases is harmful. Angela Reisetter, assistant professor of physics, said it is no surprise that industrial pollution reduces air quality. “Not only is it bad for global warming,” she said, “but it kills. There are lots of health problems associated with it.”
The World Health Organization reported that air pollution can cause strokes, heart disease and lung cancer, as well as other cardiovascular diseases. The most dangerous particles in the air are pollutants like sulfate, ammonia and mineral dust — all found in industrial fumes. And if it’s making humans sick, imagine what pollutants do to the environment.
Blair said it’s worse in areas affected by deforestation. Trees can help absorb excess carbon dioxide from the air, but what if there aren’t enough trees? The carbon has to go somewhere and that’s when it dissolves into oceans, making them moreacidic and endangering delicate marine habitats.
“Carbon dioxide becomes a major load on ecosystems that are no longer capable of managing that load,” Blair said. “We need to deal with coal-fired power plants immediately.” And the ocean has more than acidity at stake — the EPA reported that oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the earth’s extra heat since 1955. This might keep the atmosphere from heating too quickly, but it could spell disaster for the oceans. Yale Environment 360, a publication of the school’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, described how North Atlantic Ocean waters are shifting, which could stall global ocean water circulation. The system of currents depends on the sinking of cold water, which is denser than warm water, to start the cycle. Warm water flows north and cold water flows south, keeping the global climate in check.
But global warming interrupts this system. Ocean water is getting warmer, so there is less cold water. And fresh water from melting ice caps is affecting the salinity and density of the ocean. If the currents slow enough, the Northern Hemisphere could cool and the Southern Hemisphere could heat. It would affect rainfall patterns, dry up rivers and greatly increase sea levels along North America’s eastern seaboard.
Blair said the sea level is already rising in Florida — beaches in Broward County have undergone massive restoration. The county reported that almost 2 million cubic yards of sand have been replaced due to erosion from rising sea levels. The efforts there are helping, for now, but other places are still at risk.
“What’s the world going to be like with the Florida Keys underwater?” Blair asked. The Keys, as well as other islands and low-lying coastal areas, could one day be completely below sea level. As water heats, it expands slightly, and the EPA reported the oceans are rising more than an inch per decade as they warm.
With temperatures increasing, it’s no wonder the oceans are warming. NASA and NOAA both reported that the top 10 hottest years on record have happened since 1998. Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, noted the average temperature is about 33 degrees more than the pre-industrial average. The organization estimates 1 degree of this change is from human activity.
And the impact of natural disasters has changed with the climate. An emerging problem has been diseases that strike in the wake of disaster. WHO noted that flooding — often due to hurricanes or rising sea levels — could contaminate the water supply, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
Another problem is the increasing populations of disease-carrying organisms like mosquitoes and ticks. They thrive in warm, wet climates, making flooded tropical areas ideal breeding grounds. And as the climate in the U.S. warms, mosquitoes can survive in new areas.
Hochwender said a notable example is the Asian tiger mosquito, which has introduced new diseases to the U.S. The National Wildlife Federation reported the mosquito, which originated in Southeast Asia, carries West Nile virus and the tropical disease dengue fever.
NWF estimated 35 percent of people worldwide are at risk for dengue, but taking global warming into account, it goes up to 60 percent.
While mosquitoes are thriving under warming conditions, other creatures are losing their quality of life. NWF reported that flooding, deforestation and drought destroy habitats of countless animals. Polar bears have less space to live and hunt on Arctic sea ice, because ice caps are melting. Woodland creatures have fewer and fewer trees to use for food and shelter.
Hochwender said due to longer warm seasons birds are losing the ability to sense when to fly south for the winter. And what about humans? At the rate the planet is warming, we could one day be in as much jeopardy as our wildlife — unless we can change our lifestyle enough to make a real difference.
Where EVV Stands
Pick any direction you want and chances are you’ll run into a coal-fired power plant since there are seven of them located within about a 30-mile radius of Evansville. These plants emit millions of pounds of toxic pollution that effect the environment and the air we breathe.
While many states have at least one super polluter, the Center for Public Integrity reports that southwest Indiana has four — four plants that throw off massive amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, as of November 2016, there was more toxic pollution released into our area than in any other midsize or large U.S. city.
John Blair, who heads Valley Watch, a local nonprofit that since 1981 has tried to protect the public health and environment, explained that sulfur dioxide escapes from the stacks of power plants and combines with oxygen to form sulfate, a fine particle that enters the atmosphere, then people breathe it in and ultimately it gets into the blood stream.
“Fine particles can give people asthma, strokes, cancer and all kinds of health issues that have not been dealt with until this century,” he said. “We are culprits every time we breathe.”
Another problem concerns the Ohio River. The river in its totality is the beneficiary of much of the country’s industrial pollution and there are many concerns, some that center around nitrates, which are the result of fertilizer and animal waste runoff from farming that get into the river.
“The Ohio River is magnificent,” he said, “but at times, it’s been treated like a sewer.” Weather shifts are also having a greater effect on Evansville. Blair said this includes issues such as the severity of storms, the length of droughts, the amount of rainfall and the fluctuating winter temperatures.
“A milder winter here spells disaster for some[where] else,” he said. “It doesn’t hit you immediately. That’s why people deny it and do not worry about it. Places that are relatively cold are becoming warmer.”
Blair said that while he is not overly hopeful, he believes people living in the area need to accept that the problems occurring globally are also happening here as well.
“Evansville is one of the most docile communities I have ever seen,” he said. “The people here are not concerned with issues that affect their daily lives.”
Blair does not know of any new initiatives that might improve the current issues locally, especially with the regulation changes that might occur under the Trump administration.
“Everything was turned on its ear [with the Trump election], so I’m not holding out much hope for anything at this point,” he said. “Everything that has been accomplished can be taken away with the swipe of a pen.”
— Hannah Rowe
What Can You Do?
From air quality to disease to animal habitats, the world is being affected by climate change every minute. While it may seem like an impossible issue to conqueror, there are many solutions people can adopt to combat this growing global issue.
Most people think of large-scale solutions and government legislation when thinking about climate change. But each person’s seemingly small individual impact also adds up. While you may not be able to use wind systems to power the lights in your residence hall room, there are simple things students can do to help.
The age-old slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” is still at the core of all solutions. Turning off lights and unplugging appliances from outlets when not in use can reduce energy and the electric bill.
Turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth and taking shorter showers are simple ways of conserving water. Students can also decrease energy usage by air-drying clothes instead of using the dryer. Waiting to wash clothes until you have a full load and using cold water helps conserve energy and water.
The simplest but often overlooked solutions involve walking, biking or carpooling instead of driving alone and buying reusable bags instead of using plastic. And then there is recycling, a cost effective way to preserve natural resources by maintaining space and cutting down landfill use.
UE’s recycling program happens to be one of the most underused programs on campus. But Jan Schrader, risk and environmental management manager, said any type of paper, plastic, aluminum and tin cans and toner cartridges can be recycled.
Electronics can also be recycled and there are free recycling days where students and staff can recycle any obsolete electronic items they have. Even batteries can be recycled at specific drop-off spots.
“It costs money, but it is the right thing to do,” she said, “and I’m glad UE does it.” Although there are almost 100 recycling bins on campus, many students don’t know where they are or make the effort to find them. With recycling stations in 28 of UE’s 31 buildings, the program is single stream. Most recyclables can be put into one container and Evansville’s recycler, Tri-State Resource Recovery, sorts the items.
While most of the stations are evenly spread throughout campus, the seven residence halls pose a problem. Hughes, Hale and Morton halls only have one recycling bin each. Schroeder and Moore halls have four and Powell has six. Brentano has none.
Since residence halls are where students spend most of their time and generate the most waste, having more bins per building would be more convenient for students.
Ease is an important factor when trying to get people to form a habit and learning to recycle is changing one’s habits. “It’s about communication and awareness,” Schrader said. “We really need student awareness and participation to make it a great program. It is a good program, but it could be a really great one.”
While Powell has a well-organized recycling area, with bins labeled according to what each should hold, that’s not the case with most. Better signage, along with more bins in residence halls, could greatly improve campus involvement in recycling.
“I would like to have consistent bins and signage throughout the campus,” Schrader said. “I would love for it to be obvious, where you know you are in a recycling area and you know what to do.” Schrader said volunteering with the recycling program is the biggest thing students can do besides recycling their own items. While work-study students handle UE’s program, there are opportunities for others.
Another way to get involved is through the national Recyclemania Tournament,which has been under way since the beginning of the month and continues through March.
Schools across the country compete for honors in a number of categories. About 350 schools collected more than 79 million pounds of recyclables and food organics last year. “My goal is to raise awareness during that time period,” Schrader said. “I have never really been in it to win.”
Another group working to better the environment is the Environmental Concerns Organization, which tries to solve campus environmental problems. Senior Tyler Wintermute said the goal of the organization is to improve the community’s environmental outlook any way it can. “Any sort of environmentally beneficial activity on campus, even if it is another organization’s, we want to reach out and make it possible,” he said.
ECO is developing a campus compost plan started by former students of Philosophy 316, “Environmental Ethics,” a course dealing with a form of philosophy that considers how humans interact with their natural environment and nonhuman animals. Eventually, ECO hopes to propose an environmental sustainability plan to UE officials as a long-term option. Several groups, including Sodexo, are on board with the idea.
Sodexo happens to be one of the biggest promoters of the campus environmental fight. General manager William Haliburton said Sodexo already does things like bale cardboard that the city picks up and donates leftover food to a local rescue mission. They also recycle the oil from their deep fryers and don’t use trays.
“We are open to different avenues on how to be more environmentally conscious,” Haliburton said. “It is part of our duty.” He also said Sodexo is always looking for ways to make positive environmental impacts and one idea is to get rid of Styrofoam to-go containers and switch to reusable ones that will be washed and reused daily.
There are other organizations working on smaller project solutions. Wintermute said Moore Hall is the only hall to have a sustainability committee that helps residents stay aware of ways to be eco-friendly.
UE made the commitment to build “green” when it remodeled sections of the School of Business Administration. It continued its commitment with the green-certified Ridgway Center, which opened in late 2008, and the men’s basketball facility in 2013. “As a university, we have made it one of our goals to reduce our carbon footprint in any way we can,” former President Stephen Jennings said in 2008. “We are backing up that commitment with action.”
While many believe there are more things that can be done in Ridgway, it is an environmentally friendly building. It was designed to save energy and its bathrooms have water-saving, dual-flush handles to conserve water. Many Ridgway rooms and offices also have motion- sensors to shut off lights when not in use. UE also supports the eco-friendly, bike share program, Upgrade Bike Share, sponsored by the city. Riders pay an hourly rate or become members to rent bikes. There are seven stations throughout Evansville, including the Walnut station near the basketball practice facility.
Whether it’s seemingly insignificant like the direction you move a toilet handle or a campus wide program like recycling, everyone can help lessen climate change and be eco-friendly. Some may seem inconvenient, but once you get in the habit of doing them, they only make sense to do.
While doing our individual parts will definitely make a difference, Reisetter believes activism is the key to any significant global change.
“Not only do we need to make personal changes, but we need to get out there and let the government and our electric companies know what we think,” she said. Reisetter suggests that students write to their utility companies, Congressmen and women and state representatives since letters from concerned voters can be influential. In order for long-term, worldwide changes to occur, they need to happen at the utility and policy level.
“We can go out and put solar panels on our houses all we want, but that won’t fix the global problem,” she said. “We can go out and be more energy efficient to the extent we can. But when it comes to changing energy, activism matters.”
—Stephanie Hunt also contributed to this story
Paying The Tab
What price would you put on the world? According to the White House budget for climate change, in 2014 that figure was about $11.6 billion. That is an improvement over the $2.4 billion that was dished out in 1993. If organizations need funding for something related to climate change, it has to fall under one of these categories — technology that will help reduce emissions, science to better understand what climate change is and international aid for developing countries. If funds are needed but do not relate to these categories, the money will have to be found elsewhere.
Funding for these categories has been increasing by millions since 2013. In order to increase the amount of clean energy technology used inside the U.S., the government approved a budget of more than $6 million to be put into use during 2014 and the Environmental Protection Agency received $145 million. With the amount used for climate change, you would think there would be more progress in the field.
For national organizations that need funding, they can turn to the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results, which provides grants related to environmental science. STAR is focused on research involved with air pollution. It gives millions of dollars to organizations researching new technologies that will reduce emissions and pollutants. The government spends millions each year in the name of climate change, but not much has changed. Technologies that have been found to help reduce emissions related to climate change — like windmills and solar panels — still cost thousands of dollars.
With such high costs, these tools are going largely unused, as the average American cannot afford them. With the amount of money awarded each year, the cost of tools used to combat climate change may decrease or there may even be new, more affordable technologies available in the years to come, thanks to the increasing amount of funding the government has given each year.