by Lindsay Chamberlain
Across the country, global warming and climate change are a hot topic in the media, at office water coolers, in schools, and at the dinner table. The reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel of top scientists from around the world, confirmed what many feared: global warming is even more serious than previously thought and human activity—mostly burning fossil fuels—is a primary cause. And the United States, with only about 5 percent of the world’s population, produces over 25 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Unless we take action now, the consequences will not be pretty—hotter air and water temperatures worldwide are already resulting in many changes that threaten the world as we know it: an unprecedented rate of species extinction; the bleaching and death of coral reefs (among the world’s most diverse ecosystems); melting permafrost that releases stored carbon dioxide and methane (thus intensifying global warming); higher temperatures that increase evaporation and produce more intense storm systems, including tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons; and melting ice sheets that threaten extinction of the polar bears—and the evacuation of hundreds of millions of people who are threatened by rising sea levels.
How can local communities respond to a global crisis? Over 400 cities and towns across the United States have already adopted the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and more are signing on each day. Here in the greater Lehigh Valley, the mayors of Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and Fountain Hill have already signed such agreements, as have the County Executives from both Lehigh and Northampton Counties. School districts, colleges, and universities are looking at commitments to sustainability in their operations and what they teach.
The first step in the Climate Protection Agreement is to inventory greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHG inventories not only identify the problem areas, they identify the areas that offer the biggest potential for improvement and help communities implement environmentally friendly alternatives. Most GHG emissions result from burning fuel and using electricity, so a small investment can lead to dramatic savings in fuel and energy costs while protecting our quickly-deteriorating environment for future generations to enjoy. Communities are switching to high-efficiency lighting; replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with hybrids; converting to biodiesel; replacing traffic lights with LEDs; encouraging walking, bicycling, and public transportation; improving insulation; developing more community gardens; and planting more trees to absorb CO2. At the same time, they are encouraging individuals to reduce their energy consumption and enlisting schools and colleges in the effort to raise public awareness.
Even development offers opportunities for sustainability—municipalities can use their planning and zoning authority to encourage renovation and reuse of existing structures instead of developing new areas. Not only does it keep all that trash out of the landfills, reuse also means that we don’t have to dig up precious farmland or cut down forests. Trees and natural vegetation absorb tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so municipalities are also planting more trees, requiring developers to preserve mature trees, and encouraging individuals to plant trees.
There’s an old saying in the environmental movement: “Think globally, act locally.” Responding to global warming is a perfect illustration of how this works, because our local actions all need to add up to create the change that is essential for survival as we preserve and improve our quality of life.
by Lindsay Chamberlain
Lindsay is a senior Environmental Science major at Kutztown University.