Climate Change – Our Impacts and Our Roles

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Last week, we were asked to take an ecological footprint quiz. Many students in the class were surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, about their scores despite their efforts to be more environmentally and socially conscious. Some shared that their lifestyle here in Berkeley is different from where they were living before. For some, the change has enabled them to incorporate more sustainable behaviors, such as bicycling or using public transit rather than drive. Others shared that their current lifestyle as a student has made living sustainably more difficult – some must travel longer distances to visit home, and some shared that they are more tempted to buy packaged and processed foods due to constrained time and income. As Kolbert and Vitousek et al. discuss, human actions significantly impact the environment. However, this exercise made me consider the ways in which the environment impacts our actions, and how we must adapt to our environment. In light of the constraints and challenges that we experience in our current lifestyles, how can our actions and behaviors contribute to climate change mitigation and sustainability goals rather than exacerbate climate change?

From individual behavior changes to larger scale shifts in how we produce energy, design our transportation systems, and construct our housing, everyone can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action plans provide a framework for local, state, and regional governments to set benchmark goals, devise and implement a plan for reaching the goals, and set up a mechanism for monitoring progress. Wheeler brings this one step further by arguing that in addition to mitigation, we need to put more attention into adaptation and how we will cope with the inevitability that the earth will continue to get warmer.  He provides some examples of adaptation strategies such as moving development away from possible flooding and rising sea levels, preparing for drought and increased risk of wildfire, designing buildings to remain cool in hot weather, diversifying crops in agricultural areas, and preventing food shortages in the developing world. I would like to add social cohesion as another adaptation strategy that can help ensure that the most vulnerable populations, which are often times low-income and/or under-resourced, are not disproportionately impacted by climate change. Wheeler draws a connection between climate change action and social equity, stating that “…if poor people simply have more adequate and secure incomes they will be able to cope with climate change in ways similar to better-off individuals” (Wheeler, 2013, p. 115). I think that while alleviating poverty can help address some of the root issues of climate justice, the social ties and access to community resources that a person has can also go a long way in climate change adaptation. For example, during extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves, support from neighbors can be the most important method for survival, especially when external aid is not available. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, many residents were not able to evacuate because they lacked access to transportation or alternative shelter. Similarly, during heat waves, seniors who are socially isolated are more vulnerable to adverse health effects.  If they are not affiliated with any community organizations such as a church or senior group, neighbors may not know to check up on them when emergency events occur.

While the consequences of human activities and global warming will have long-term effects, Vitousek et al. emphasize that there have already been serious immediate impacts on our land, oceans, air, and wildlife. Climate change mitigation and adaptation is an urgent issue, not just one of the future, but the challenge, as Wheeler points out, is that it is not a high priority for most people.  What does it take to instill a sense of urgency? Are there opportunities to shift the awareness, sense of responsibility, and political will of this generation and future generation?