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Students: Stand Up to Climate Change!

October 15, 2009 By: Category: Top Stories

Today is blog action day. Bloggers around the world will unite to speak out against one common cause: Climate Change

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in climate change is not as important as whether you can recognize the universal, moral imperative of consuming less. If you practice steps toward consuming less, you will improve your own health and lifestyle, and as a bonus, you’ll save the planet.

Climate change doesn’t have to be exclusively scientific or political; it’s fundamentally a moral issue. We can all agree that taking more than you can consume, or more than your fair share, is wrong. And we can all agree that if you can reasonably afford to use less of anything, that you are morally obliged to do so.

As an environmental science major, I want to share two of the most important revelations I’ve had in the course of my studies, two interrelated ideas that are essential to understand how consuming new products daily, like food, clothing, a new cell phone, or any plastic product, is environmentally destructive.

The first is how coal power actually works. You’ve probably heard that coal power is ‘dirty,’ and that it generated carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that prevents heat from escaping the atmosphere, creating climate change that affects weather and precipitation patterns all over the world. But do you actually know why coal is such a big deal, or how coal is turned into energy that powers almost every aspect of our lives?

Simply, coal is burned to generate heat to boil water, and the steam from that water is channeled through narrow pipes to increase its pressure so when it is funneled toward giant fans or turbines they turn very rapidly. The mechanic energy from the turbines is transferred to a generator, which turns that energy into electric energy that we use to light our homes, factories, restaurants, etc. That electric energy isn’t just used for light, though, its also used in water treatment and transportation plants (so all the water you use also requires electricity), and for machines that slaughter cattle or create the micro-chips for your I-phone. But coal is not just used for electricity, it is also burned to generate energy that is channeled toward the manufacturing of plastic, a product that does not biodegrade, and which is used in almost every aspect of our lives. We use coal because it’s relatively cheap, abundant, and easy to get to. Nuclear energy functions the same way, but the source of heat is not coal but the splitting of atoms.

Now that you see how energy is generated, you may be able to see why coal affects nearly everything we buy because it all requires energy to be created. This means that you’re not contributing to pollution and waste only when you take long showers, leave your lights on, or throwing your garbage out of your car window. There are more subtle ways that you contribute to climate change; which leads me to the second realization: everything you buy or use has an environmental cost.

Food consumption, for instance has a huge carbon dioxide price associated with it because it involves energy at multiple phases: growing vegetables or raising livestock, harvesting and slaughtering, packaging, and shipment all over the world in refrigerated vessels. As a student, choices you make about food are the most important you can make in taking steps to consume less. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  1. Eat less meat-Meat has a much higher energy cost than vegetarian food. It’s also less healthy for you because livestock are often treated with antibiotics and force fed to grow them quickly and with more fat.
  2. Don’t use a tray-Trays encourage overeating and use unnecessary amounts of water. Use a plate to control how much you take. If you need more, simply refill your plate.
  3. Drink more water-Juices come from very specific parts of the world or country, so you most likely go to school far from where fruits are grown for the juice. Orange juice, for instance, comes almost exclusively from Florida. It is most likely concentrated, and high in sugar. Water is as local as you can get, and it’s the best thing for you.
  4. Eat in season-This may be the most challenging, partly because of variety and availability, but mostly because we simply don’t know what’s in season. But think logically. If you’re eating fruit in the winter, it’s not coming from the United States. It’s coming from anywhere south of Mexico, so how bad do you really need that mango or banana when it has such a high carbon dioxide cost? We grow some great fall-harvested crops here in the US like squash and apples. Resist fruits in the winter and look to get your nutrition elsewhere. If you think you can’t do it, remember that everyone ate in season before airplanes made it so easy not to. Ask your cafeteria staff for help in finding what’s in season, or even what is local.
  5. Avoid plastic!-Think about it, do you really need that plastic bag to carry your milk and eggs from the store? Do you really need that meal to-go? Consider that you may use that bag or plastic to-go container for five minutes, maybe an hour. Then that plastic will be around for thousands of years because there is no microbe or environmental force that degrades it. We simply bury it or dump it in the ocean. Five minutes of use for thousands of years of existence? That’s not right.

I hope I’ve provided you with some steps that you may not have know about. Of course, you should walk or carpool whenever you can, take short showers, unplug your phone chargers and turn of your computers when not in use. Now, armed with this extra knowledge, begin your quest to consume less, and I guarantee you will be healthier and happier for it, and you just might help out the rest of us along the way. Make loving choices that care for the planet and the other species you share it with.