As I’ve spent more time travelling in green blogging circles, I’ve discovered that environmentalists don’t all agree on what issues are most pressing. There are a whole lot of threats to the health of our planet and the people who live on it, and the truth is that no one person can solve all of them. The green movement is really a collection of people who feel concerned about the well-being of our planet, and generally agree that something needs to be done, but focus on different aspects of that work. Some people are concerned about the toxins we’re exposed to in our daily lives, other people worry about plastic in the oceans, many people strive to protect plant and animal life, some people are working to address climate change and others want to ensure that we have safe and secure food systems.
While many environmental issues overlap, the truth is that sometimes they also conflict. A good example of this is the conflict between reducing our exposure to toxins and reducing our overall consumption. If you have a PVC shower curtain that’s doing the job, but you’re worried that it’s off-gassing chemicals like phthalates, you have a choice to make. Do you replace it, thereby sending a perfectly good shower curtain to the landfill? Or do you keep it, and keep on inhaling whatever toxins it’s putting out every time you visit your bathroom? There’s not a really easy answer on this one.
Keeping in mind that the environmental issues we face are actually diverse, I saw something on Facebook recently that irked my inner scientist. As an engineer, I clocked a lot of time in math, physics and chemistry classes, and I learned to value precision. When we’re discussing scientific problems, we need to be clear about what the problem is if we want to have a hope of solving it. So when I saw an environmentally-inspired political image suggesting that climate change is caused by pollution, I was annoyed by the lack of clarity. In fact, climate change and pollution are two different things.
Climate change is caused by an increase in the concentration of certain greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The three gases responsible for most of the warming in our atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane. None of these gases are pollutants. They’re not harmful to human beings, plants or animals. In fact, they’re produced and consumed by human beings, plants and animals. Carbon dioxide, which is most often pinpointed as the greenhouse gas to be concerned about, was actually present in much higher concentrations in the atmosphere when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
None of this is to say that climate change isn’t a problem – I absolutely believe it is. Since the dinosaurs roamed the earth many species have appeared and disappeared, in part because of changes to the climate. If we toy with our climate, the same thing could happen to us. We need to take that very seriously. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t be concerned, it’s that climate change and pollution are two different things, and one can exist without the other.
Having said that, it is true that in some cases climate change and pollution are connected. Burning fossil fuels releases both greenhouse gases and pollutants. As well, as temperatures increase levels of certain pollutants increase. All the same, it’s important to be clear when we’re talking about environmental science. The fact is that many people still don’t feel a lot of urgency about the state of our planet. Some people still deny that human beings are contributing to climate change at all. When we share incorrect information, we’re not furthering our cause. So let’s take the time to be clear, and get it right. Our future is at stake, we need to be on our game.
Whether you’re working to reduce your own carbon footprint, composting your kitchen scraps, shopping second-hand, growing a garden, choosing less-toxic personal care products, or marching in a demonstration, your contribution to the health of our planet matters. We don’t all have to have the same focus, and we don’t all have to view the same issues as the most pressing. As long as we’re taking the time to learn what’s happening, be clear on the issues and make changes in our lives, we’re on the same team. That’s the important thing – not that we all agree completely, all the time, on how to play the game.