Small Steps Toward a Big Goal
By Hannah Solomon-Strauss on 09/14/2012 @ 03:07 PM
I’ll definitely spend more than enough time this year writing doom-and-gloom articles about how it’s likely too late to totally reverse the effects of climate disruption. Even if, as a global community, we begin to recapture carbon and emit less into our atmosphere, we’ve already warmed the planet, caused the extinction of species, and melted the polar ice caps.
A recent story by National Public Radio makes the point that climate disruption isn’t just a problem for the distant future: “‘[Climate change in cities] raises some significant public health issues, significant infrastructure issues,’ says Brian Stone Jr., of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech. “Extreme heat is potentially deadly to vulnerable populations. And it can cause infrastructure headaches ranging from power outages to warped rail tracks. ‘This isn't just a problem for 100 years from now; this is a problem for today,’ Stone says.
There are a myriad of these small steps that each and every one of us can do. In isolation, no single one of these actions can stop climate disruption, but taken together, our actions may reduce its harmful effects. A lot of these have been said before, but a few are worth restating:
- Reduce your consumption: Take reusable (ideally cloth) bags with you when you go shopping so you don’t need to use any more plastic or paper bags.
- Enjoy the fresh air: Walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation when you can.
- Be conscientious about when you’re using heat and air conditioning, and use curtains to keep your house a steady temperature against the summer sun or the winter wind.
- Go local: Buy food from your area or grow it yourself. Some groceries will be transported thousands of miles before ever reaching your home. As an added bonus, local produce often tastes better because it doesn’t spend as much time in transit.
Of course, these aren’t the only way to reduce your carbon footprint. Brian Stone Jr., quoted above, was profiled in a story by National Public Radio about abecause Ebenezer Baptist Church church in Atlanta that is taking matters into its own hands. (Actually, it’s not just any church—it’s Martin Luther King’s old church). Ebenezer has a garden next door—a garden that is quickly becoming an urban farm. This small green patch in the middle of the city accomplishes more than you’d think.
When we cut down trees and replace green space with pavement, we mess with nature’s processes for cooling spaces. “Open, vegetated space like [Ebenezer’s garden] helps water evaporate throughout the day. And evaporating water carries away heat. Like sweat, it's nature's air conditioning, but we've managed to interrupt that process in cities. The result is called the urban heat island effect, and it's adding to our warming woes.”
The “heat island” effect is when cities, made of concrete and metal that absorbs and reflects heat, warm faster than their rural surroundings. “If the planet heats up 4 degrees in the coming decades, cities will heat up a blistering 8 degrees,” according to Stone.
As cities heat up, air conditioners work harder, and their exhaust also contributes to the heat. Pavement heats up during the day and holds the heat at night, further heating the city. About 80 percent of the fuel that powers our cars and buses simply turns to heat. “In some cities, 20 to 25 percent of the total heat load is from engines,” says Stone. And a lot of this effect is due to land use in cities: more trees and more green space allows nature’s ‘air conditioning’ to work properly, siphoning some of that heat out of our concrete jungles and cooling cities the natural way. Without this green space, it’s a downward spiral of concrete that absorbs heat and keeps us warmer; we use our air conditioners and contribute to that heat; we don’t feel like walking in the heat and our cars turn gas into heat.
The good news—the whole point of my writing this—is that there is something you can do to reduce the urban heat island effect! If you’re not already taking steps to reduce your personal carbon footprint, try some of them out. More to the point, if you’re a member of a meeting, church, synagogue, school, or other institution with land that could be used as a garden or a farm, suggest it to the leadership. Every little bit does make a difference, whether in communications with Congress or in planting trees to reduce the heat island.
This weekend, choose one of our tips above for going greener and speak to someone about starting a garden or a farm in your community.
You can listen to the NPR story in its entirety here.