Understanding Climate Change

Let’s think warm thoughts. Let’s think childhood summers, when we ran around barefoot, caught fireflies, went swimming and maybe tried camping out—maybe some of us still do these things. Maybe we didn’t realize it as children but all these activities depend on a healthy environment. You don’t have to love hiking or rafting or learning about types of trees to love the environment. You could simply like to take a walk during your lunch break or enjoy birds on your walk home from the train.

Recently words like ‘sustainability,’ ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ and ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ are thrown around so often that I wonder, for instance, how many know that climate and weather are not interchangeable. The reason we refer to ‘climate change’ as climate change is because patterns in weather changed over a long period of time, about 50 years. For instance, the summer of 2012 in Wisconsin was ridiculously hot with very little rain—great summer to be biking to a gardening internship. This was an odd weather pattern. This past summer was unusually cold, again odd weather. When these patterns become more common they can be used to help explain the climate of a region.

These strange patterns are linked to ‘global warming’ due to an abundance of ‘greenhouse gas emissions.’ Global warming does not mean that everywhere in the world is going to heat up, in some places it might even get colder. Among other contributors, global warming is the result of people adding too much carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. Yes, global warming is not a natural phenomenon, but caused by the habits and actions of people. This addition of carbon dioxide results in more heat trapped between the surface of the Earth and the atmosphere (I apologize for getting technical here, please post if something is unclear).

‘Greenhouse gas emissions’ are the result of the burning of such gases as carbon dioxide, (the most widely used and concentrated gas), methane and nitrogen. The emissions from our cars, power plants, buildings, livestock, etc create this ‘greenhouse’ effect. The trapping of these gases, like I mentioned before, heats up the earth like an unnatural greenhouse. When the gases are trapped, along the heat from the sun, it warms the earth, melts the ice, messes with climates and creates the issues that change the way we have to live.

In other words, individually we have to cut our own carbon emissions in order to live more ‘sustainably.’ This doesn’t mean you have to give up your car forever or only eat foods that come from within 25 miles of your home year round; this is unreasonable. If we’re ever going to make a difference we have to start smaller. Even if all meat eaters ate beef only once a week that would be a huge improvement. Likewise, if everyone with cars used them fives times a week that would reduce about 1,600 pounds of carbon emissions per week per person according to the EPA.

The point is that you don’t have to change your life completely in order to reduce how much you contribute to global warming. For instance, I always use reusable bags when I go to the grocery store and I never buy coffee or tea unless I have my reusable mug with me (by the way, both of those make great gifts). These are easy ways to cut down on pointless trash. The good news is that these are easy changes we can make in our everyday lives. Making simple changes will bring more fireflies and simple summer nights for future generations.

Water, Water… Everywhere?

For those of us from the Midwest, we take great pride in the Great Lakes. Not only do we use them for enjoyment and economical purposes, but it is where many people get their drinking water. Every county within the Great Lakes Basin is permitted to take water, water from these areas flows back into the lakes naturally. The Great Lakes Water Compact is a group made up of the eight states and two Canadian Providences that border the lakes. This group upholds the Compact and makes decisions as a singular unit. This Compact was signed into law in October 2008.

The City of Waukesha is located just outside the basin in Waukesha county Wisconsin. This is the first request for use of the Great Lakes’ water from a community outside the basin. Waukesha is facing a uranium problem in their wells and is under a public mandate to find a new safe source of water before 2018. With the Mississippi River too far way and their aquifer contaminated Waukesha turned to the Great Lakes as their only option.

Last summer, public meetings were held to gain general opinion and answer questions. Several environmental groups in Wisconsin have urged this request to be denied. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has to approve the plan first before it is sent to the other ten officials for their approval. This group of ten will decide as a whole; one vote against this request means it will not go through.

What does this mean for the rest of us? If the City of Waukesha is granted access to Lake Michigan’s water, what’s to stop other counties further from the basin to ask for Great Lakes’ water? Fresh water is becoming scarce and it is a problem that the rising generation will need to solve. Levels in the Great Lakes are already falling each year, allowing a larger population access to the water will make this problem worse.

My Midwestern pride is not what drives my vote against this request, but my foresight into the future and my passion to protect the environment. People are not the only creatures that rely on the Great Lakes; various numbers of fish, plants and mammals would not survive without this freshwater system. Economically, fishing, recreational and shipping boats would not exist without there physically being water.

Similar to today’s dependency on oil, the dependency of tomorrow will be for fresh water. We’re already seeing it as residence in West Virginia went a week without water in January after their water was contaminated keeping them from even bathing in it. What would you do without any running water in your county for a week? In the West, the Colorado River no longer reaches the Gulf of California. This year will be the first year that the amount of water entering Lake Mead will be reduced. Everyone, the wealthy and less fortunate, will need to cut down on water usage.

While the issue of water is taunting and there is a way to stay afloat. We can all take shorter showers and maybe shower less often (better for your skin anyway), turn off water when brushing your teeth, use rainwater to water plants inside and outside, to name a few. Fresh water is a luxury; in the United States we’re lucky that most of us take it for granted. The battle for water will continue in Waukesha but it’s a war that is just starting worldwide.