The Call and Times, Column 5 – Climate Change

18 02 2014

(February 7, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Climate Change: A Call to Action

            Between the Polar Vortex, weeks of unpredictable temperature fluctuations, and severe storms all around the world, this has been a winter to remember. Before the hustle and bustle of spring planting, I want to take this opportunity to write on an environmental issue that I care deeply about, one for which urban farmers will be a big part of the solution – climate change.

            Most people have some working knowledge of climate change, what is causing it, and maybe some of the more worrisome effects. But despite the significance of this issue, and the grave consequences of further inaction, the national television media seldom reports anything about climate change. For that reason, I will give a little explanation here.

            In the Earth’s upper atmosphere, there are gases that trap heat, preventing it from escaping back into space. This mechanism is called the Greenhouse Effect and, for much of human history up until about 150 years ago, had kept the Earth at a relatively stable temperature, allowing life to flourish. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent of the Greenhouse Gases, and because of its relatively high concentration, it has been a historical driver of global temperatures. For many millions of years, CO2 has been taken in by plants and microorganisms through a process called photosynthesis, and disbursed through decomposition and consumption by animals. Normally, these living organisms would eventually die and release that CO2 back into the atmosphere. In rare occasions, however, they have been buried under large amounts of earth and, exposed to high temperatures and pressures, slowly converted into energy-dense deposits of what we now call fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. This process reduced the atmospheric concentration of CO2 over many millions of years, and essentially left us with the atmosphere that Abraham Lincoln breathed.

            Since then, however, we have extracted and burned most of this fuel, re-releasing in a century and a half the same CO2 that took millions of years to be trapped, and raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from 275 ppmv (parts per million by volume) then, to almost 400 ppmv today – a nearly 50% increase. This rapid jump in CO2 concentration has resulted in a significant increase in average global temperature over the past 100 or so years, threatening to raise the Earth’s atmospheric temperature above the Holocene Maximum – the highest in the last 10,000 years.

            That said, the consequences of further climate change are inconvenient at best, and will realistically pose economic, ecological, and health-related challenges to people everywhere on Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a continued increase in average global temperatures over the next century. If fossil fuel use continues unabated, and global temperatures continue to rise, we will see the rising and acidification of the oceans (a death threat for much of the life in the sea), an uptick in the already severe weather phenomena (hurricanes being an all-to-personal example), droughts and floods that rival what the Midwest saw two years ago, a rise in tropical disease prevalence in North America, and slew of threats to agricultural production. Even the most conservative predictions are not something to ignore.

            And now that we know that there’s a problem, the question is: what can we do to fix it? The answer can be summarized in three words: energy, energy, energy. The United States, despite being only 4% of the world’s population, brags 16-20% of the world’s energy usage annually. Most of the CO2 that we emit comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which account for upwards of 80% of our energy supply.

            There are two types of actions that we can take in order to reduce our CO2 emissions as individuals – energy conservation and energy source replacement. Energy conservation means using less energy in our daily lives, by: buying energy-efficient appliances, and LED or CFL light bulbs; turning off lights and appliances when not in use; turning down the heat, even by a few degrees; driving the most fuel efficient car you can afford (and the fuel savings do add up), driving less, and taking public transportation; and installing heat-efficient windows in our houses.

            Energy source replacement simply means investment in alternative energy sources. This particular area is one that is near and dear to my heart, because it is what I am studying in college – so forgive me if I sound a little biased. There are a lot of alternative energy options available for consumers to become producers of their own energy, but the most widespread is probably solar photovoltaic. There are a few companies in Rhode Island that will work with homeowners to help them get solar energy systems – whether by giving them a low-interest loan, or by installing the panels for no upfront cost, and slowly taking the payments out of the reduction in the customer’s energy bill. Additionally, there are tax credits available on the federal and state level for residential alternative energy system installation. Other non-polluting energy systems that can work on a residential scale include small-scale wind power, residential geothermal, solar thermal (for water heating), and, for the more creative readers, methane digestion. I urge any of you interested to contact me or do additional research.

            As urban farmers, our group will absolutely play a vital role in the resolution of climate change in the years to come. Conventional agriculture in the United States (and through most of the rest of the world) represents a significant portion of our national energy consumption, to the tune of some 10 Calories of fossil fuel energy for each Calorie of food produced. By growing our own food, we effectively eliminate the fossil fuel input – specifically by not using energy-intensive fertilizers and industrial chemicals, and drastically reducing the distance that food must be transported (from 1500 miles to 25 feet). This is one great way that we can make our own, significant reduction to national CO2 emissions.

            Even all of this may not be enough. Individual changes will surely set us on the right path to a reduction in our carbon emissions, but action on a national (and potentially international) scale will be required to catalyze the necessary changes. We must contact our representatives and senators, on the municipal, state, and federal levels, and let them know that we support actions necessary to reduce our country’s CO2 emissions. For us in Rhode Island, we are blessed to be represented by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the climate’s biggest advocates in the U.S. government. He has given over 50 speeches in front of the U.S. Senate about climate change and the steps necessary to solve this problem. Let him know you support these efforts – I absolutely do.

            If you’re interested in more information than what I could discuss here, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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