Collaborative effort needed to solve global environmental problems

Illustration by Tennerry Carttar

Our generation is destined to live in one of the most important and interesting time periods in human history. Technology has profoundly affected the way we interact with each other and our environment.

Science has enabled many of us to have more energy and resources than ever before. But now scientists are questioning our assumptions about how we should interact with our home planet. In celebration of Earth Day, let’s take a look at what we know and how we must change for the future.

Light from the sun warms the Earth and powers our climate. The Earth’s surface emits infrared radiation due to its temperature. Certain gases up in the atmosphere absorb much of this radiation and re-emit it in every direction, recycling substantial amounts of energy back to the surface.

Spectroscopy has allowed us to learn that water vapor is the main “greenhouse gas” on our planet, as it absorbs and reradiates back to Earth’s surface more infrared radiation than any other gas.

Carbon dioxide is the next most important greenhouse gas. Its concentration in the atmosphere has been steadily increasing since humans started burning large quantities of fossil fuels.

The poles of our planet are too cold to have abundant water vapor. Therefore, based on fundamental physics, increasing atmospheric concentrations of other greenhouse gases will have the largest warming effect on polar areas.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in September 2012 the Arctic sea ice decreased to its lowest level since records began. The data suggests that our whole planet is warming, with significant amounts of heat energy going into the oceans and the Arctic.

The way we are interacting with our planet is increasingly threatening almost every ecosystem we study.

Our energy system is primarily based on burning fossil fuels. When we first started combusting these resources, we had no idea how our actions would affect the rest of the planet.

We began to see local negative effects first. Particulates from fuel combustion have caused significant breathing problems for many people.

Gradually, we noticed more effects on other ecosystems. Fish far away from power plants show high concentrations of mercury and other toxins that were once safely trapped in coal.

This has made it dangerous for us to eat fish we catch in local rivers and ponds. The many negative effects of our current energy system keep surfacing and providing incentives for us to change the way we operate.

Our economic system has allowed all of these negative externalities to be paid for by our health and our environment. These costs must be factored into the price that we pay for energy. Short-term economic thinking, greed and ignorance have created almost every problem we face. We must embrace higher modes of thinking if we are to find solutions.

The most important aspect of our planet that we must protect is its biodiversity. Humans are currently destroying biodiversity at a rate not seen on Earth since the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is impossible to adequately quantify the value that the diverse organisms on this planet have to us, so we must do everything we can to preserve the biodiversity that is left.

In order to accomplish this, we must transition away from fossil fuels immediately and instead harness the abundant energy in sunlight. Powering our planet with current solar energy poses significant engineering problems, so it is best that we start now while we still have fossil fuels to fall back on. We must also economically incentivize agriculture to move carbon back into the soil.

The changes that we need to fix the problems we have created will never occur if we believe the many people who do not understand the way the Earth works or who have incentives to maintain the current energy system.

Some people suggest that we should burn every carbon based energy form we can find in the ground, even low quality tar sands. Is there any evidence that this would not pose significant problems for our kids? Can it be proven that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will not warm our planet even though we know it absorbs infrared radiation? This would be a great discovery that would earn the researcher global prestige and recognition.

But, sadly, this has not happened. We must not wait until catastrophes for swift action in transforming our energy system. By then, it could be too late.

I do not know how we will solve the problems we all face together. I only know that solving them will require our cumulative effort based on the best science we have. We do have the capability to solve the problems if we act quickly enough and toward the right goals.

Learn as much as you can about these issues. Never has the survival of our species depended so critically on how well we plan ahead for future generations. Extracting more from our planet is not a solution. History can be used as a reference, but the best guide we have on the path ahead is our logic, our ability to figure out how the world actually works and our courage to act based on the best knowledge available.

Matt DeCapo is a graduate student in geography. Please send comments to