I was watching the latest season of The Newsroom, the brainchild of The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, when a climate-change subplot caught my attention. Not only did it catch my attention; it sent me into an outright panic. The segment was an interview with a US Environmental Protection Agency official, who stated with a straight face, that the world is doomed. This was based on the fact that carbon dioxide levels had reached 400 parts per million (ppm), and the last time they were that high was three million years ago and the sea level was at least 24 metres higher. Sorkin likes to use real news stories in his show, so I immediately Googled the data to see if this plot was based on actual research. It was.

In May 2013, global carbon dioxide levels passed the 400 ppm level for the first time in at least three million years. This finding came out of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography based out of Hawaii. Three million years ago the heat meant that the Arctic had no ice, the sea level was much higher, and there were swampy forests with alligators off the coast of northern Greenland. I was surprised I hadn’t heard about such a staggering milestone. What does this all actually mean? Are we doomed as The Newsroom would have us believe? The head researcher at Scripps, Professor Ralph Keeling, said ‘it is symbolic, a point to pause and think about where we have been and where we are going…it’s like turning 50: it’s a wake up to what’s been building up in front of us all along’.

At 400 ppm we are likely to surpass the two degrees of warming that many scientists agree is a tipping point for the environment, and if that concentration increases the predicted temperature also rises. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for decades so it is too late to prevent any effects, and the impact can already be seen, but by taking action now we can certainly reduce the temperature for the next generation and possibly prevent disastrous rises in sea level and other unknown consequences following a rise in temperature. The problem is, with all the varied and complicated advice, how do we know what will have the biggest positive impact on climate change?

Reducing consumption of meat and their by-products can have a noticeable impact on climate change. Research by the Worldwatch Institute estimates that animal agriculture contributes as much as 51 per cent of all greenhouse gases worldwide. This comes from the intensive water and food requirements to produce animal protein, as well as transporting meat to be sold, and even animal manure. By relying more on plant protein and the subsequent changes in production that would take place, harmful emissions would be reduced. Popular initiatives such as ‘Meatfree Mondays’ are encouraging small lifestyle changes with a big impact.

Buildings are responsible for around a third of global emissions. The emissions result from energy needed in construction, energy needed to power all the functioning of buildings, and the wasted energy from poor insulation. Whilst as individuals we may not be able to directly control the construction process, we can insulate our homes, choose energy efficient appliances, and reduce the temperature on the thermostat. When investing in property we can also check the green credentials of the construction and choose to vote with our money.

Whilst there is a lot we can do as individuals that cumulatively can have an incredible effect, the fact remains that the biggest single reductions in greenhouse gases come from policies at the international level. The Economist has estimated savings in carbon dioxide emissions from a number of policies. The single most effective policy is calculated to have been the Montreal Protocol of 1989 which phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a dangerous greenhouse gas used in common household appliances, whose reduction is equivalent to a reduction of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. Other effective policies include alternative energy sources and forest preservation. Given this, one of the most important acts we can do is to campaign for policy changes at a global level.

It’s certainly not easy being green, but armed with the information we can actually make smart decisions to do all we can to preserve our planet.

 

Sources:

The Newsroom episode referred to is ‘Main Justice’, season 3

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/may/10/carbon-dioxide-highest-level-greenhouse-gas

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/05/130510-earth-co2-milestone-400-ppm/

http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21618680-our-guide-actions-have-done-most-slow-global-warming-deepest-cuts

http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-solutions-for-climate-change/