Chapter 1LETTING OLD HABITS DIE, HARD
Vision, Voices, and Vegetables
In 2009, New York City students at the Brooklyn New School started a campaign that later became part of an effort called Styrofoam Out of Schools. Their mission? Well, you can probably guess it from the name. But to be clear, they wanted to get plastic-foam lunch trays out of schools.
The students weren’t worried that the trays were too flimsy or ugly or made out of a weird substance that wasn’t found in nature. They weren’t trying to be “different,” even though the idea of using anything other than plastic-foam trays in cafeterias was very different. They were concerned that the trays, which were used for only a few minutes before they were tossed in the trash, were not biodegradable and stayed around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Styrofoam is the trade name for polystyrene foam, a plastic material with many tiny air pockets trapped in its structure. Like many plastics, polystyrene is derived from petroleum. Plastic foam is used in food containers, packaging, insulation, and more because it is lightweight, inexpensive to produce, and excellent at keeping hot things hot and cold things cold. But it’s also … well, plastic, and not biodegradable. That’s just one of its problems. Not only is fossil fuel an ingredient, but the manufacturing process releases greenhouse gases that cause global warming (which can be said of the manufacturing process of just about any product), and it involves toxic chemicals linked to cancer. When the foam is heated, toxic chemicals can transfer from the plastic into the food and drink the containers were designed to protect. And finally, after the plastic foam has been used just once, it often ends up floating in waterways and oceans, where it breaks into tiny pieces that animals mistake for food, which can lead to their early death.
PETROLEUM: Another word for oil. A liquid that is naturally present in certain layers of rock beneath the Earth’s surface. It can be removed and refined to produce fuels including gasoline, kerosene, and diesel oil. Like coal, petroleum is a fossil fuel, meaning that it is formed over millions of years from the remains of plants and animals deep within the Earth’s crust.
At the time, over four million foam trays in New York City alone were being trashed every week, to be taken to landfills, where plastic foam can last for up to five hundred years, or burned in fiery incinerators, where it can produce harmful fumes. The “disposable” lunch trays didn’t just disappear. They hung around, degrading into smaller and smaller pieces and potentially leaching toxic chemicals, polluting and poisoning our soil, water, marine life—our very selves. Gross, right? And this was a normal part of everyday life.
Yet when the students thought about it, they didn’t want gross to be the norm. So they got together, they spoke out, they contacted government officials—they became activists—and within a year, all New York City public schools (more than sixteen hundred at the time) had set up “Trayless Tuesdays,” replacing plastic-foam trays with paper containers on, yeah, Tuesdays. In 2014, New York City public schools eliminated plastic-foam trays entirely from their cafeterias and replaced them with compostable, sustainably produced, Earth-friendly ones. Today, Styrofoam Out of Schools is called Cafeteria Culture and works with youth to “achieve zero-waste schools, plastic-free waters, and climate- smart communities.”
At schools like the Brooklyn New School, young activists didn’t just focus on trays. They grew food on the school playground. They instituted a salad bar and a schoolwide recycling and composting program, and made sustainability a part of the school curriculum. They changed their behavior, they changed their culture, they transformed their way of life.
ACTIVISTS: A group of people working to create change for the better in the world. Activists generally believe in using direct public action such as protests and marches to show support for, or opposition to, a cause or organization.
We Can All Be Superheroes
In the beginning, the mission of those young activists might have seemed unnecessary, wacky, even impossible. A lot of people probably told the students they were wasting their time. But those kids knew that it wasn’t just about school lunch. They had done the research and learned that our garbage and how we dispose of it says a lot about who we are. And it was pretty clear to them that they did not want to be polluting, poisoning, life-stealing citizens whose behavior was threatening the future of the Earth more than any superhero-movie villain ever could. You probably don’t want to be that either. Even though cartoon villains do get to do some cool-seeming stunts for a while, things never turn out well for those bad guys in the end. And they leave a lot of destruction and pain in their path along the way.
But it turns out that many of us have kind of been those bad guys for a while. And if we continue to live in ways that damage our air, our waters, our Earth—that threaten our everything—our story won’t end well either.
It’s time to write a new one.
YOUNG CLIMATE ACTIVISTS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
They keep talking about climate change being a matter of the future, but they forget that for people of the Global South, it is a matter of now.
—Vanessa Nakate, Uganda, founder of Youth for Future Africa and Rise Up Movement
It is when Indigenous peoples come together that powerful things happen. Through building relationships and sharing ideas, we can start to gather under the rafters of our own whare* to bring to light our own dreams, rather than just coming together when our governments or the UN wants us to.
—India Logan-Riley, Ngati Kahungunu ki Ngati Hawea ki Whatuiapiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand), a Maori activist for Indigenous rights who participated in United Nations climate talks *A Maori building
My Government has failed to take steps to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing extreme climate conditions. This will impact both me and future generations. My country has huge potential to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and because of the Government’s inaction I approached the National Green Tribunal.
—Ridhima Pandey, India, who, at age nine, brought a court case against the Indian government for failing to keep its Paris Agreement promises
I started my activism quite young—at 11. That was when I first heard about this thing called climate change. As a young girl in Samoa, a small island in the south Pacific, hearing the implications it had for my island scared me and jumpstarted my passion to do something about it … And feeling that you have a team, that you’re not alone, that we’re all in this together. It’s not just one person yelling from outside the UN building or our parliament. And where there are mass numbers, there’s power. Our slogan is: “We’re not drowning. We’re fighting.”
—Brianna Fruean, Samoa, founding member, 350.Samoa, Future Rush; first youth ambassador of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme
One lesson much too well learnt must be that something has to be done, not through the complicated negotiations and conference rooms of the [United Nations] but through our own small actions. We can find solutions right here. In the long run this may well be the vehicle through which solid decisions are taken on climate change issues.
—Winnie Asiti, Kenya, cofounder of African Youth Initiative on Climate Change
You’ve probably heard the somber predictions, the dire promises, the downright terrifying tales about global warming, the greenhouse effect, and climate change.
The basic science of the “greenhouse effect” is not especially complicated. It can be reduced to a simple statement: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, human beings belch increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is an important part of the air we breathe on Earth. Made of one carbon and two oxygen atoms, CO2 traps the energy and heat from the sun in our atmosphere. Without this and other greenhouse gases such as water vapor, heat would escape into space, and it would be too cold for us to survive. But too much carbon dioxide traps too much heat and warms the Earth to dangerous levels, contributing to climate change.
“Fixing” these truly worldwide problems might seem like impossible, superhero-level stuff. We’re only human, right? But that’s the thing. We are human. We are capable of changing our behavior and transforming the way we live. We’ve done it before. Maybe we can do it again. Maybe we can make the right changes to reduce our carbon footprint and address this global warming problem that threatens us all.
There are kids, regular kids like the Trayless Tuesday activists in New York City, kids like you, who think we can.
CAN YOU SEE YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT?
Sort of. A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases generated by a person’s day-to-day, hour-to-hour actions. You can “see” it by recognizing how much you participate in the burning of fossil fuels in your daily life. Fossil fuels may sound like an ancient dinosaur energy drink that enabled T. rex to use those tiny hands to its advantage, but they are natural energy sources, like coal, petroleum, and natural gases, that formed from the remains of plants and animals over millions of years. Unlike solar and wind power, fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources; they cannot be replenished once they are used. The fossil fuels used to power the engines that move our vehicles, create our electricity, make our products, heat our homes, cook our food, and do many other everyday things, all contribute to our carbon footprint. So do the emissions created by growing and processing the food we eat. The scientists at NASA explain it in these simple terms: “Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air because of your own energy needs.” For example, walking or using public transportation instead of cars and using a fan instead of an air conditioner can reduce your carbon footprint because you’ll burn less fossil fuel. Carbon footprint calculators are easy to find on the internet.
Another young person who believes in our ability to make the right changes is Isra Hirsi in the United States, who at sixteen organized U.S. participation in the International Youth Climate Strike. “These strikes are happening all over the world,” says Hirsi. “Getting young people out, going to state capitols, going to city halls, going to the nation’s capital and talking about these things, that says something. That’s what we’re trying to do: Change the conversation … Obviously, one strike isn’t going to change everything, but this isn’t the last strike.”
It’s not the end, not yet. Maybe we can make it a new beginning.
Chapter 2WHAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE, AND WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
Climate Change vs. Global Warming: Who! Will! Win?
Settle down, it’s not a battle. We often hear the terms used interchangeably, but they’re two different things.
Climate change refers to the long-term change in temperature and weather patterns that happen in any one place, or across the world. Climate change does include the warming temperatures on Earth, but it also includes extreme weather events like hurricanes, and the loss of ice from melting glaciers that cause rising sea levels.
When we talk about climate change now, we’re usually referring to the effects of global warming—the rising global temperatures that occur as a result of our increased burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The gargantuan threat of climate change should force us to re-think global systems that are disastrous for the planet and deeply inequitable. These systems mean 85 people in the world have more wealth and consume more than 3.5 billion people—half the world’s population. Our survival is dependent on governments making binding and drastic commitments to reduce emissions. But it is also dependent on a commitment to finally deliver on human rights promises and provide Development Justice to all.
—Alina Saba, Nepal, cofounder, Nepal Policy Center
Carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane are the main greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Like the glass in a greenhouse’s roof and walls, these gases let some radiant energy from the sun pass through to the Earth’s surface; they absorb other radiant energy from both the sun and from the Earth’s surface and in turn send radiant energy upward toward space as well as downward to Earth. This energy warms Earth’s surface. In a loop effect, the warmer the Earth’s surface gets, the more energy it releases back to the atmosphere and the more radiant energy the atmosphere then absorbs and sends back down toward Earth.
Although climate science skeptics may suggest that the scientific examination of global warming and its impact on climate is still in its infancy, it has actually been going on for a long, long time. Nearly seven decades ago, in 1956, one of the most widely read newspapers in the world, the New York Times, published this simple summary of the greenhouse effect in an article about research scientist Gilbert Plass:
The atmosphere acts like the glass of a greenhouse. Solar bradiation passes through to the earth readily enough, but the heat radiated by the earth is at least partly held back. That is why the earth’s surface is relatively warm. Carbon dioxide, water vapor and ozone all check radiation of heat. Of the three gases that check radiation, carbon dioxide is especially important … As the amount of carbon dioxide increases, the earth’s heat is more effectively trapped, so that the temperature rises … Despite nature’s way of maintaining the balance of gases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is being artificially increased as we burn coal, oil, and wood … It will have a profound effect on our climate.
THERE’S NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
Eunice Foote (1819–1888) was an amateur scientist and women’s rights supporter. In the 1850s, Foote used an air pump, thermometers, and glass cylinders to discover that the heating effects of the sun were stronger in moist air than in dry air, and even stronger and more stubborn in the presence of carbon dioxide. CO2, she found, trapped more heat than hydrogen, oxygen, or common air, and the cylinder containing carbon dioxide took much longer to cool down. Foote was years ahead of her time in theorizing that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would warm the planet. A male scientist presented Foote’s research at the 1856 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to little fanfare. Three years later, the now more well-known John Tyndall found similar results in his study of carbon dioxide.
John Tyndall (1820–1893) was an Irish math and science professor who researched how different gases in our atmosphere absorb the Earth’s radiant heat, concluding that water vapor and carbon dioxide were the strongest absorbers. Publishing his findings in 1859, he described what today we call the greenhouse effect: “The atmosphere admits of the entrance of the solar heat, but checks its exit; and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet.”
Svante Arrhenius (1859–1927), a Swedish physicist, was the first to construct a mathematical model to calculate how the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects our climate. In 1896, he predicted that the doubling of carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel burning would increase global temperatures by three to four degrees Celsius.
Roger Revelle (1909–1991), an oceanographer, and Austrian geochemist Hans Suess (1909– 1993) demonstrated in 1957 that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels was accumulating in the atmosphere. At the time many scientists believed oceans absorbed most of the CO2 from burning fossil fuels, but Revelle and Suess showed that the chemical mix of seawater prevents it from retaining all the extra carbon dioxide. “The increase of atmospheric CO2 from this cause is at present small,” they wrote, “but may become significant during future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially.” In 1956, Time magazine summarized his groundbreaking work for its readers: “Since the start of the industrial revolution, mankind has been burning fossil fuel (coal, oil, etc.) and adding its carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In 50 years or so this process … may have a violent effect on the earth’s climate.”
Charles David Keeling (1928–2005) was hired by Revelle to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the pristine air of Antarctica and high atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Keeling established a stable baseline of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Just two years later, in 1960, he reported the baseline had risen. The graph showing the rise in carbon dioxide levels over the years is called the Keeling Curve. The measurements continue today.
Change Is Only Natural—Unless It’s Not
Way back in 1824, French scientist Joseph Fourier pointed out that the Earth’s atmosphere acted kind of like a glass box, similar to a greenhouse that traps heat from sunlight and protects a gardener’s plants from colder temperatures outside. Our atmosphere keeps us from burning up under the heat of the sun during the day, and from freezing completely at night. In a Goldilocks kind of way, our atmosphere has trapped just enough heat to keep things not too hot and not too cold and more or less “just right.”
We know that some climate change is natural. Changes in the Earth’s orbit have moved the planet closer to the sun and farther away again, causing warming and cooling cycles. Volcanic eruptions have filled the atmosphere with particles that blocked sunlight and cooled the planet; others released gases that made things hotter.
But things have been going wacky for a while. The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius (about two degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880, during the Industrial Revolution. That seems like a long time ago, right? And one degree sounds pretty insignificant. We don’t usually feel the difference in temperature when it changes by a degree or two.
But we’re talking about changes in climate, not weather. Weather refers to short-term, day-to-day variations in the atmospheric conditions in a specific area, while climate describes what the weather is like over a long period in a specific area. And over the whole history of time as we know it, these changes have been happening pretty fast. But now things are happening faster than ever.
The Industrial Revolution literally made for big business with large-scale manufacturing and production. It improved the quality of life for some people, but it also dramatically increased the brutal enslavement of Africans.
As the textile industry grew in England, the appetite for cheap cotton was fed by the inhumane system of using Black people’s forced labor to produce and pick the cotton in the British colonies. By the 1790s there were approximately 700,000 enslaved people in the United States. The invention of the cotton gin in 1807 meant that harvested cotton could be processed quickly by machine, encouraging plantation owners to produce more cotton. Along with other developments of the Industrial Revolution, like weaving machines and steamboat transport, the cotton gin drastically increased production—and also increased the output of carbon dioxide. Cotton became a major U.S. export, and the soaring profits aggressively increased demands on the land—and on the enslaved human beings forced to work that land. Fueled by the extreme violence and ruthless dehumanization of slavery, the increased production put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, creating more changes in our climate.
Although this period of industrialization has often been seen as the start of our current climate change trend, researchers are exploring the idea that negative human impact on the Earth’s climate began even before the Industrial Revolution.
Copyright © 2022 by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich