Imagine being in a warm greenhouse filled with plants. When the sun’s energy reaches the greenhouse, it warms the plants and the air, but instead of leaving the greenhouse, the glass traps the energy inside to create a container. This is similar to how our atmosphere works. Our atmosphere invites the energy from the sun inside, and holds it in to create the complex conditions favorable to life. In our atmosphere, it is greenhouse gases that trap and hold heat in the atmosphere. So despite their negative connotations, greenhouse gases are not inherently bad. In fact, ideally, greenhouse gases are a completely natural and beneficial phenomenon that benefits our ability to live on this planet.
But imagine being in that same greenhouse with someone who’s smoking, a motorbike with the engine running, and a chemical processing station. That clean and enjoyable environment isn’t so pleasant anymore, and these negative additions to our environment rightly concern us for our health. Here on Earth, human activities like industry, toxic waste, transportation, and agricultural production increase the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Unfortunately, too many greenhouse gases means too much heat stays on Earth. The result is global warming.
The effects of global warming, such as rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and increased precipitation, don’t just affect our planet, they also affect our health. When sea levels rise, salt water has the potential to seep into and taint our water supply. Rising temperatures can result in heat-related deaths, droughts (and resulting wildfires), and a significant decrease in the yield of crops. Finally, heavy precipitation causes flooding that not only destroys entire communities but also results in the loss of life. These are just a few vivid examples; unfortunately, there are countless more subtle effects, including endangerment to vital plant and animal species, and even decreased oxygen sources. For a greater understanding of climate change, read Global Warming 101.
While it’s natural to want to avoid thinking about it, the best response for our communal health is to reduce the impact of these excess gases by caring for our atmosphere, and ourselves. In addition to the actions we can take for climate change, the best way to participate in collective wellness for ourselves, our neighbors, and our homes, is to curb our emissions, and encourage our friends, colleagues, and politicians to do the same. We may all be stuck in the same greenhouse, but if we work together, we can make it healthy and safe for future generations.
- Waste not, want not. Only use the energy you really need. Nearly half of the energy we use comes from electricity production. Turn off lights when you leave the room, don’t let water run while doing dishes or brushing your teeth, program your thermostat to turn down when you’re not in the home, buy only what you need, and walk or carpool to your errands. The more you conserve, the more that’s left to go around.
- Go semi-meatless. In addition to the gases produced from animals, raising animals for slaughter requires resources like grain production for feeding, water, and the use of oil and gas for keeping the animals, transporting the meat, packaging production, and refrigeration. Researchers at the University of Chicago estimate that through their eating habits, meat eaters are responsible for the expenditure of 1.5 tons greenhouse gases each year than those who do not consume meat. When you do eat meat, support your local organic farmers (who often grow sustainably). Purchase in bulk and store up for the season. And add more fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans to your diet—you may want to join a co-op or start your own garden.
- Enjoy the dark. Before the age of electricity, people spent more time in the dark, and that’s actually a good thing for the environment and health. Aside from the benefits of getting technology out of the bedroom and “unplugging,” connecting with darkness in the evening also has some serious health benefits. The absence of light at night stimulates melatonin production, which may decrease the risk of developing certain cancers and heart disease, and ironically, contributes to mood and weight regulation.