Without major societal changes over the next decade, the planet will face a global environmental catastrophe that will cause or worsen war, poverty, water shortages and massive species die-offs, or so says a dire report issued in fall 2018.
While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was shocking and disturbing, all hope is not lost. Because humans are negatively impacting the environment, it would stand to reason, then, that we could generate a positive impact by altering some of our behavior.
No doubt these changes will be difficult to undertake and will require permanent lifestyle changes, but the IPCC’s report outlines a planet very different and much less inhabitable than the one we have today if we don’t act: Sea-level rise will displace millions of people, coral reefs will die off completely, and huge numbers of animal species will disappear from the earth.
There’s no doubt humans have been the main part of the problem, and that’s why we have to create a solution. The first step is understanding how, exactly, our actions have created this situation. Here are the 10 biggest human causes of global warming.
Travel & Transportation
The vast majority of vehicles on the road (and in the air and water) are powered via fossil fuels, such as gasoline. As they burn this fuel to power their engines, these vehicles release carbon and other pollutants, affecting both air and water quality. In fact, transportation was a huge contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.
Greenhouse gases trap heat within the atmosphere, which causes global temperatures to rise. It’s this increase in global temperatures that, without intervention, will cause the worldwide catastrophe warned of in the IPCC report. It’s not hard to understand why transportation is such a huge contributor to global warming once you understand just how much we drive.
Share of all U.S. commuters by mode of transit
The transition of economies from primarily farming-based to primarily industrial is likely to have been the earliest cause of the rampant global warming we see today. Research suggests global warming was kicked off partly by the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. and other countries, which occurred in the mid-19th century.
While these changes took place in the United States and Europe nearly two centuries ago, other global economies are starting to emerge today, further contributing to industrialization and related pollution.
Change in annual CO2 emissions from fuel combustion (2000-2016)
Millions of acres of forest are cleared every year, whether to harvest wood for making lumber or paper, to clear land for farming and ranching or to make way for residential and industrial areas.
Forests store enormous amounts of carbon, essentially removing it from the air and preventing it from being absorbed into the atmosphere, and this is especially true of rainforests, which are even more endangered than other areas. In addition to losing the natural air-scrubbing function of trees, deforestation decreases biodiversity, which can cause ripple effects throughout entire ecosystems, putting whole species at risk.
39 million acres
Tree cover loss experienced in the tropics in 2017; that’s equivalent to losing 40 football fields’ worth of trees every minute for a whole year.
Biggest contributors to forest loss
Ranching contributes to climate change in a few ways. In addition to clearing trees to make room for large areas adequate for the care and feeding of animals for food, these animals create a huge amount of waste, which produces methane, a very harmful greenhouse gas. Consumption of meat and meat products is expected to continue growing, even doubling by 2050, according to one projection.
The industrialization of agriculture takes the potential negative effects of livestock production and amplifies them. While organic farming can have a positive impact on global warming by reducing carbon through the growth of crops, large-scale, industrialized farming negates the positive impact of organic food and animal production.
These large-scale animal-producing farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have risen sharply in recent years.
CAFO production as a percentage of global production
Additionally, the use of antibiotics in animal production is increasing, which contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans that is expected to become deadlier and deadlier.
Projected rise in antibiotics used in animal production through 2030
People killed annually by drug-resistant infection by 2050
Our need to have the latest gadget and get it delivered right now, in addition to a culture where disposability is seen as a positive, is a major contributor to global warming. This bent toward consumerism has ripple effects around the world.
The products used by humans contribute to more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 80 percent of total land, water and material use. In addition to the energy it takes to produce all the stuff we buy, keeping it going and using it to its fullest requires even more energy.
Share of greenhouse emissions from building and maintaining smartphones, computers and data centers, 2007
Share of greenhouse emissions from these sources by 2040
Overuse of Electricity
The gasoline your car burns was made using fossil fuels, which is how most people get their electricity as well. In the U.S., electricity generation is tied as the biggest greenhouse gas contributor, accounting for 28 percent.
Electricity in the U.S. that comes from fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas
Number of devices in average American household that still draw power when turned off
Hundreds of millions of jobs around the world center on fishing, and about 3 billion people depend on fish as their main source of protein from food. But just as with most industries, humans have created too much of a good thing, and overfishing is putting the oceans at risk.
Human population growth and resulting overfishing are depleting natural marine stocks, which impacts the health and biodiversity of the entire ocean.
Global share of marine stock fished to within sustainable levels
Use of Aerosols
Though some forms of aerosols have been banned in many countries, other forms of them still are in wide use. These products are loaded with greenhouse gases, including CO2 and methane, as well as chlorofluorocarbons, which erode the ozone layer.
Production of aerosols has actually increased throughout the world, with most aerosols being produced in Europe.
Aerosol production by region or country (millions of units, 2017)
Inability to Change
Even if we addressed every single other issue on this list today, the impact of human-caused global warming will remain for decades, if not centuries. The magnitude of the issue is, quite simply, too difficult for many of us to comprehend. So, many of us think, if we can’t truly fix this issue, what’s the point of even trying? After all, it’s our very inaction that has caused or worsened many of these issues.
But humans are capable of change, as shown by the reduction in fuel combustion emissions seen in many countries since the early 2000s, including the United States, and by evolving public attitudes toward climate change and our role in it.
According to one poll, more than 60 percent of Americans say the government isn’t doing enough to combat global warming. In addition to urging action by political leaders and those running for office, what else can average people do?
- Fly sparingly, carpool and take public transit.
- Keep your current car as long as possible; if you must buy a new one, consider a hybrid.
- Recycle as much as you can, and buy recycled items.
- If possible, compost organic waste instead of putting it in the trash.
- Don’t use plastic water bottles.
- Buy fresh foods with little packaging.
- Cut meat intake (even one to two fewer servings per week adds up).
- Turn off lights and unplug devices when not in use.
- Shop and eat local; walk there if you can.
- Keep reusable grocery bags on hand, and if you can’t avoid plastic bags, be sure to recycle them.
- United Nations, Climate Change. (Undated). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/index.html
- Environmental Protection Agency, Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. (Undated.) Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions
- Brookings Institution, America’s commuting choices: 5 major takeaways from 2016 census Data. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/10/03/americans-commuting-choices-5-major-takeaways-from-2016-census-data/
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- International Energy Agency, CO2 Emissions Statistics. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.iea.org/statistics/co2emissions/
- World Resources Institute, 2017 Was the Second-Worst Year on Record for Tropical Tree Cover Loss. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/06/2017-was-second-worst-year-record-tropical-tree-cover-loss
- Science Daily, Harmful Environmental Effects Of Livestock Production On The Planet ‘Increasingly Serious,’ Says Panel. (2007.) Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070220145244.htm
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Antimicrobial resistance, policy insights. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/health/health-systems/AMR-Policy-Insights-November2016.pdf
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United State of America, Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/112/18/5649.full
- Worldwatch Institute, Rising Number of Farm Animals Poses Environmental and Public Health Risks. (Undated). Retrieved from http://www.worldwatch.org/rising-number-farm-animals-poses-environmental-and-public-health-risks-0
- Journal of Industrial Ecology, Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption. (2015). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jiec.12371
- Anthropocene Magazine, Smartphones are warming the planet far more than you think. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2018/04/the-energy-hogging-dark-side-of-smartphones/
- The New York Times, Just How Much Power Do Your Electronics Use When They Are ‘Off’? (2016). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/science/just-how-much-power-do-your-electronics-use-when-they-are-off.html
- Worldwatch Institute, Overfishing and Climate Change, Combined, Intensify Ocean Threats. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.worldwatch.org/overfishing-and-climate-change-combined-intensify-ocean-threats
- European Aerosol Federation, FEA Statistics Report 2017. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.aerosol.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/European-Aerosol-Production-2017.pdf
- ABC News, Stanford University, Resources for the Future, Public Backs Action on Global Warming – but with Cost Concerns and Muted Urgency. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.langerresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/1198a1Global-Warming.pdf