By EMILY MCEVOY
The World Meteorological Organization announced on Monday its annual findings of the concentrations of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, and they were not pretty. The level of carbon dioxide has surpassed 400 parts per million – 50 PPM over what is considered a safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists are worried about what this might mean for our environment if we are not able to begin reducing this number immediately. This seems unlikely, however, considering that while 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is due to human activities, less than half the population believes this is the case.
Just a day earlier, the World Bank released a report stating that continued increases in global warming will result in an additional 100 million people falling into poverty by 2030. And while this figure may be staggering, scientists have long been reporting that as ecosystems are destroyed, food chains are disassembled; as temperatures rise, people are at a higher risk for disease; and if these trends continue, cities along the coasts will be flooded and unlivable. Most importantly, according to the World Bank, is how climate change will affect agriculture production, yielding fewer crops and higher prices in areas that are already food scarce, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. As 350.org, an advocacy group fighting to bring the PPM back down to 350, puts it, “The last time CO2 levels were this high, humans did not exist.” While our species will not suddenly disappear now that the level has reached 400 PPM, we should be concerned about what climate change will mean for our health, especially those who live in poorer areas. At the risk of sounding dramatic, climate change has the very real ability of killing our species off, and not as far in the future as some are set on believing – yet we continue to try and deny this.
Part of the problem is lack of discussion about the issue. Yale recently published a study on the attitudes and beliefs of Americans on climate change, which found that 74 percent of people report talking about global warming with friends or family “rarely” or “never.” People are more likely to talk about a breaking news story than an issue that is affecting us over time, especially since the threat of climate change does not seem that imminent or personally relevant. Most of us have probably heard the anecdote about boiling a frog – put it in room-temperature water and gradually heat it up and the frog will not notice or try to escape, but put the frog in already hot water and he will immediately try to jump out. In this scenario, our entire population is the frog; since the climate change is occurring gradually, we do not perceive it to be threatening or personally relevant, and therefore are less likely to talk about it, instead favoring issues that seem more immediately pressing (like the economy or foreign policy decisions). In fact, the same study found that only 32 percent of people surveyed believed that people in the United States are being harmed “right now” by climate change.
However, another part of the problem is how the issue is framed by those we normally turn to for information. While 21 percent of Americans reported hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month, I think it is safe to assume that the majority of media coverage is regarding policy on climate change, which, while important, does not give the average American any idea of how global warming might be affecting them personally or what steps they can take to be reducing their individual footprint. This ties into the general public’s understanding of what causes global warming. I would argue that most people have heard that electricity use and transportation emit a large percentage of the greenhouse gases (31 percent and 21 percent, respectively). However, I doubt as many people know that livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, partly because of the relationship between the government and the food industry. This lack of information is seriously holding us back from any real change in our individual carbon footprints – after all, it is much easier to cut out meat from your diet one day a week than buy a new hybrid car.
With the new statistics released by the World Meteorological Organization yesterday, hopefully an increase in attention will be focused on climate change and what individuals can do to make a difference. Policy changes are important, but as we have seen, any real change to existing policy or introduction of new regulations is a slow process shaped by political factors beyond the public’s knowledge. We cannot afford to wait for political leaders to force change – we need to begin taking action ourselves. Although this has been true for a while, passing the 400 PPM threshold is a warning siren that we can not ignore for any longer. Hopefully with this new data, the American population will begin to view climate change as an immediate and personal threat since this is the only way they will truly be summoned to action.