Droughts are happening more and more frequently. In fact, there’s a 50-50 chance that Lake Mead (heard of Hoover Dam??), a source of water for more than 22 million residents of the Southwest, will be dry by 2021. Already the Colorado River system is at half capacity, following eight dry years. Water shortages and forest fires are just two of the consequences.
If carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue at even moderate rates, the planet will warm another four to seven degrees, flooding low-lying areas and potentially entire nations. Carbon emissions are also “acidifying” the oceans. “There’s a whole category of organisms [from coral to plankton] that has been around for hundreds of millions of years” at risk of extinction, warns Ken Caldeira at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institute.
Tropical insects have begun moving into temperate zones, partly due to changing El Nino weather patterns. Bacteria are popping up where they were never found before. “We are crowding wildlife into ever-smaller areas, and the human population is increasing,” reports Marc Levy at Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. “That’s a recipe for something [like bird flu and SARS] crossing over” to humans. The emergence of new diseases has quadrupled in the past 50 years, thanks at least in part to widespread destruction of natural wildlife habitats.
While these headlines convey only some of the ominous signs of global warming, the choices that green consumers face aren’t always clear-cut. For example, aren't those new energy-saving light bulbs a source of mercury? Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) do contain, on average, about four milligrams of mercury, a heavy metal responsible for incalculable human suffering. But using a CFL in place of an incandescent bulb for six hours a day saves 126 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. That translates into 170 pounds of CO2 emissions. In fact, CFLs actually reduce mercury emissions over the long run, since coal burning currently supplies half the electricity to American homes. In one year, an incandescent bulb emits three times the mercury as a compact fluorescent bulb. Multiply that by the number of lights in your home, and CFLs can make a real difference.
Have you heard that ethanol actually increases greenhouse gas emissions? This past February, benefit analyses for corn-based ethanol were called “one-sided” by Princeton researchers because the studies neglected to consider the carbon costs of diverting farmland from existing uses. According to these new figures, ethanol from corn will increase greenhouse gases by 93 percent over a 30-year period. Should you forgo biofuel? Not at all: Using garbage to produce these fuels would keep farmland producing food, as does algae (newly surfacing as an alternative biofuel).
Then there’s the question that regularly confronts you at the checkout counter––paper or plastic? You may already know the answer: Bring your own reusable bags. Both other options carry environmental costs. Every year, the United States uses 100 billion plastic bags—the fossil fuel equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil. Less than one percent of these bags are recycled, so plastic remains in the environment permanently, leaching into soil and groundwater while harming birds and other creatures. Yet the production of paper bags produces even more waste, along with air and water pollution. Plus, deforestation only worsens the effects of dramatic weather.
What You Can Do
1. Recycle and reuse. Recycling paper uses 70 percent less energy and 55 percent less water than creating new paper. Recycled paper may include virgin scraps and fibers left over from manufacturing (saving on transportation costs), while 100 percent postconsumer waste comes only from paper that’s been recovered from the solid waste stream. Mixed paper is usually sent overseas (often to China that uses coal-fired plants in recycling) and shipped back to this country, increasing carbon costs.
Whenever possible, use washable cups, napkins, plates, and towels instead of paper ones. Reduce the amount of paper in circulation by paying bills and reading the news online; save needed information to your desktop rather than printing it out. Recycle aluminum, cardboard, glass, paper, plastic, and tin cans every week; some retailers will recycle batteries, motor oil, and paint for their customers. To save dollars and reduce environmental impact, buy from thrift shops and second-hand stores.
Leave grass clippings on your lawn instead of bagging them. Cut grass decomposes naturally, adding organic matter to the soil. The ultimate form of recycling? Compost your fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells, and leaves.
2. Eliminate unnecessary packaging. Natural products stores have bulk-buying sections where you can purchase as much as your family can use or store—without bringing home a lot of cardboard or plastic. Carry reusable shopping bags wherever you go.
Instead of buying bottled water, drink straight from the tap, using a filter if you’re concerned about quality. Invest in aluminum containers for water or coffee and tea. Avoiding plastic containers can save 1.5 million barrels of petroleum each year.
3. Reduce your home’s carbon footprint. Replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and turn off lights when you leave a room. Unplug CD players, phone chargers, and video games when you’re not using them. Set your hot water heater no higher than 120 degrees, check your insulation, vacuum refrigerator coils, and keep your freezer full to save energy. Buy only energy-efficient appliances, and look for take-back options when shopping for electronics. Consider solar-powered attic fans, water heaters, outdoor and pool lights, flashlights, and radios. Contact your power company to see if you can buy "green power" (or go to www.zoomer.sierraclub.org
and click on Efficiency/Renewables).
Clean with chlorine-free, natural cleaning supplies. Wash clothes in cold water and dry them outdoors. Limit showers to five minutes, install aerating showerheads, and fix leaky faucets.
4. Travel green. Improving gas mileage by as little as three miles per gallon can reduce carbon emissions by 3,000 pounds a year. Check your tires often and get regular tune-ups to boost efficiency. Remove your roof rack when you’re not using it. Don’t drive aggressively; slow, steady acceleration can also save fuel. If you need a new car, shop for a hybrid or a vehicle with a flexible fuel tank that will allow you to use renewable fuels. Ride a bike or scooter.
If possible, live near where you work or at least carpool. Take public transportation if available. Combine errands each time you start the ignition, and don't let your car idle. Walk every chance you get to improve both your health and the planet’s. If feasible, take the train rather than flying. And consider carbon offsets to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions (visit www.terrapass.com);
you can help balance your environmental impact for under $10.
5. Buy organic. While carbon offsets are promising, it’s even more important to help eliminate harmful chemicals in the environment. Organic certification forbids the use of persistent, toxic herbicides and pesticides, antibiotics (their overuse has contributed to drug-resistant bacteria), synthetic hormones (linked by some experts to weight gain and other health problems), sewage sludge (a source of heavy metals and other unwanted toxins), and genetically modified organisms (their environment impact remains unknown) in production and processing of these goods. When you choose organic baby products, beverages, chocolate, fabrics, essential oils, foods, herbs and spices, personal care products, pet foods, or supplements, you know they have been produced sustainably, using less energy and less water, protecting soil and water supplies, and promoting animal and plant diversity.
6. Get outdoors and garden. Plant trees and shrubs to help shade your home in hot weather. Select organic and heirloom seeds for your garden. Mulch with used newspaper, paper bags, grass clippings, and leaves to cut down on watering. When you do, water deeply early or late in the day. Avoid chemical fertilizers or pesticides and the lawn services that use them. Rake leaves by hand and use a reel or push mower––gas-powered equipment adds to air pollution. Keep mower blades sharp, and mow grass high to make your lawn denser and to encourage greater root growth.
Enjoy local bird sanctuaries, botanical gardens, parks, preserves, and wildlife areas. Eco-friendly backpacking, camping, canoeing, and hiking encourage appreciation of nature's numerous gifts. Support local and national preservation groups to help ensure the continuation of these gifts.
7. Take action politically. Ask your mayor to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and to prepare a "Cool Cities" action plan for cleaner city vehicles, energy efficiency, and renewable energy (go to www.sierraclub.org/coolcities)
. Contact state and national representatives and urge them to promote cleaner cars, green energy, and tax incentives for alternative sources. Talk to school officials about serving organic foods in the cafeteria and saving energy. Join local, regional, and national organizations that help protect the environment. In this election year, carefully study candidates’ energy and environmental platforms and voting records.
By putting into practice just a few these planet-saving initiatives, we can make a world of difference.