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When I was 8 years old, my family took a summer trip to Shanghai to visit my Chinese relatives. That summer was magical for me — home-cooked Shanghainese delicacies, showing off my Mandarin to my grandma, and evening crawfish catching made it a dream. 

But there was one thing I just couldn’t understand about this enormous city, huge on a scale that my suburban brain could not comprehend: Why couldn’t I breathe outside? I’d pester my uncles and aunts about the hazy colors outside and why my mom made me wear this dumb-looking mask all the time.

China is the world’s greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, also known as CO2: the climate change buzzword (or buzzmolecule?). Everyone knows that this simple, covalently bonded substance is emitted from cars and is the bane of every climate scientist’s existence. But how exactly does carbon dioxide contribute to climate change? Not many people, including educated adults, really know.

Environmental education in the U.S. is lacking. I could name the capitals of all 50 states by fifth grade, but I only learned about the greenhouse effect during my senior year of high school, not even as a part of a core curriculum class but from an AP course. 

So, allow me to break it down for you.

Carbon dioxide is a product of the burning of fossil fuels. Every living thing on Earth is carbon-based: you, me, the dinosaurs, Martin Scorsese, all of us. And when carbon-based beings die and are buried underground, they become compressed over time into fossil fuels such as oil and coal. 

Entire economies are based upon extracting these fossil fuels and selling them. The world runs on oil. And coal. And natural gas. And when these are burned, they emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other super fun chemical compositions that linger in our atmosphere. Altogether, carbon dioxide is the most abundant of these molecules, which is why scientists and legislators focus on it the most. 

We don’t want these pollutants in our air because they magnify the greenhouse effect. It’s absorbed after sunlight hits the Earth’s surface, which then radiates hot infrared wavelengths. These go into our atmosphere, where they are absorbed and then re-emitted repeatedly by gases there — greenhouse gases. When too many of those gases end up in our atmosphere, the greenhouse effect is enlarged. This causes the Earth to warm, resulting in climate change worldwide. 

By 2050, global temperatures are slated to rise 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Three is a small number, but the Earth has a specific equilibrium temperature. When we upset this balance, bad things happen. Ocean acidification decimates the shells and skeletons of marine organisms; coral bleaching and the melting of permafrost and glaciers begin to take off. Over time, these impacts have massive economic repercussions: sea level rises will destroy spectacular beachfronts and tourism, droughts will cause regions like the Middle East to dry up and mass migration will create chaos in communities everywhere.

Climate change’s influence knows no boundaries; it’s an international issue that the global community is not currently doing enough to combat. Why is that?

To put it simply: money. 

Fewer than a hundred companies worldwide generate 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these companies are state-owned; Chinese state companies produce around half of the world’s coal. Russian coal is similarly government-endorsed, as is Mexican and Iranian oil production. Altogether, these companies have emitted around 925 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions in the past 30 years.

With the way that societies worldwide are structured right now, it’s almost impossible to live a carbon neutral existence. Expansive freeway systems and the idyllic suburban lifestyle lend themselves to car ownership, which leads to a reliance on gasoline (unless you’re a Tesla-driving software engineer in the Bay Area). The food we eat is often grown far away and delivered to us. Fast fashion is not green in the slightest (it’s not a vogue color), and meat consumption is rising (cows are one of the greatest producers of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas). 

I’m not saying any of this to guilt you; it’s not like I live completely carbon neutral, although I swear I’m trying. Most people view climate change as an issue that’s far away from them as if it’s not something real or not something that personally impacts them. 

A lack of education leads to the perpetuation of activities that further our climate crisis. Teachers are not taught about climate change, and most states have no framework in place to integrate this material (some state educational agencies are even funded by oil companies; Google “Petro Pete” and prepare to be amazed). 

Today, climate change’s very existence is still a point of contention. Sure, environmental protection is a politicized topic, and the devices that our country will use to combat it should be publicly debated. But teenagers approaching voting age should not learn about climate change and its mechanisms for the first time as a platform of a political party. 

Reinforcement of environmental subjects should exist at all levels of education in the United States; for all the times we learned about the American Revolution, we should learn about climate science at least once. Americans can be the pioneers of environmental education worldwide. If we raise the next generation to be climate-conscious and environmentally aware, we will enable them to make the green choices current generations aren’t. 

Now I know the truth about the Shanghai smog I grew up visiting. I know what’s causing it and why it’s unlikely to disappear on its own. When I think about China, my mind flies to the clean, evening air around me as I flung crawfish out of that lake outside of Shanghai. I don’t want kids in the future to think of China and picture a hazy urban landscape with people wearing masks or to think of Los Angeles and imagine a brown cloud of sadness over a valley. 

We can create a connection to the Earth for kids through climate education. Improving environmental education gives people the power to care about — and to change the fate of — our climate.

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].