Column: September resolution

For most of us, summer is a busy, sometimes hectic, but enjoyable time.

And for many of us, summer has provided an opportunity to escape from daily stress and interruptions via tweets and “breaking news alerts.” But now, as summer winds down, and we return to another phase of reality, there are concerns, often overlooked by the media, that deserve our serious attention.

One particular issue affects our summers, and it’s not just a local dilemma. Unfortunately, it has the potential to influence virtually all aspects of our lives, through all seasons and everywhere we live. It is a truly existential concern, and one we ourselves have created.

Awareness of our possible disruptive impact upon nature on a large scale was perhaps first expressed in the early 1800s by Alexander Von Humboldt, a global explorer, scientist and humanitarian. Today, that perspective and wisdom has developed into the comprehensive fields of ecology and environmental science.

Evolving from decades of observation and research, specific interest now focuses on one aspect of contemporary science often referred to as “climate change.” But some groups and individuals don’t acknowledge the strong scientific data that the vast majority of scientists around the world regard as valid. The “scientific method,” which they follow, has made possible virtually all the great scientific strides of humankind.

In addition, agencies around the world, such as NASA, NATO, the UN, and all branches of the United States military have accepted that general research on climate change and its implications. In fact, in a January 2019 report, the Pentagon acknowledged that a majority of its critical bases are threatened by the increasing effects of climate change, and is taking measures to minimize the consequences. Such concerns apply not just to the United States, but to all on this planet.

Underlying the science behind these concerns are some common molecules that exist as simple gases in the air we breathe and in the atmosphere. In certain forms and concentrations, these are essential for life and are in the bodies of virtually every living organism. One of their collective functions is to selectively admit sunlight energy to the earth, letting some escape while retaining a “proper” amount as heat energy. In doing so, those molecules have produced the relatively predictable temperature range for life as we know it. That, it turns out, is similar in function to the glass in a greenhouse, thus the terms “greenhouse effect” and “greenhouse gases,” which make it easier to understand this process.

Just as too much retained sun-energy will overheat a greenhouse (if the glass is too thick), so too will planet earth begin to overheat if too many of certain molecules accumulate in our atmosphere. Thus the term “global warming” is used to describe that process.

Among several, such relevant gases, two are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). The energy that these gases help retain, directly or indirectly, becomes the energy that fuels many of the natural and man-made activities on this planet. This is relatively basic physics and chemistry, but the consequences are quite different and certainly more comprehensive and complex.

What science now states as happening is that those gases are increasing, at a troubling rate, in our atmosphere. Predictably, this is causing the earth to warm, and increased energy is being incorporated into the energy of other systems around the planet. More specifically, the air is warmer and the oceans are warmer. That energy feeds directly into the weather patterns and climate on the earth. This certainly could influence the intensity and frequency of storms and begin to disrupt the jet stream and climate patterns in general. We’ve just witnessed the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Dorian, with some winds over 200 mph. Remember Sandy? Katrina?

The next objective is to identify the source of those increasing greenhouse gases contributing to this situation, which in part is derived from analyzed ice-core samples. Those studies have shown that carbon dioxide levels had been relatively constant for several hundred thousand years, but starting at about the time of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, things started to change. As the resulting emissions began to increase, so did global temperatures, admittedly not in a perfect correlation, but the average trend has been consistent.

Many data points from many sources support this connection. The burning of fossil fuels seems to be the most significant factor leading to global warming and consequently, climate change.

While the CO2 given off is not the only culprit, it’s perhaps the most significant. But close in significance, is methane — also from fossil fuels — produced in part as a component of digestive gases, which is released from farm animals and others worldwide. Certain nitrogen compounds, used in fertilizing crops (and lawns) also contribute to this situation.

This can be viewed as a case of over-consumption and over-production on a global scale. By doing so, we have created a sort of “environmental debt,” with many of the production costs being absorbed by the environment. This is like not fully paying off a credit card or even the national debt. Even more serious, interest on the debt is growing and probably compounding.

So, what do we do? Stop eating meat? Stop flying? Stop driving?

No. We want to enjoy life, and have many more outstanding summers. But we need to focus on significantly better ways to transform our lives and society. It’s up to us, not so much as individuals, but as active community members, businesses and branches of government, to take united action. This is up to you, me, and all of us.

Climate scientists, with much data and evidence, tell us that time is running out. Consider making this your “September Resolution,” and a gift to the children of this and the next generation.

— Islander Herb Stelljes has a master’s degree in biology and additional studies in theoretical ecology.