Sustainability is one of my favorite words. The environment is basically my favorite topic. I love spreading the word and sharing what I’ve learned about climate change. I hope this passion has come across in my column.
So far, we’ve looked at the minute choices we’re often faced with. Should you wear contacts or glasses? Should you hand wash your dishes or put them in the dishwasher? Should you drive 10 miles to buy that shirt in person or have it shipped to your house?
These are just a few of the choices that we make each day that have an impact on our environment. They’re small things, but we have power over them.
But there’s one thing we seemingly have no power over: the big policies that run our world. In terms of the way lawmakers are thinking about climate change, there are two main ways to go about saving our planet: mitigation or adaptation.
Mitigation is changing our habits not only individually but also as a society to reduce climate change and its effects. It’s about decreasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are released into our atmosphere by changing the way we live our daily lives.
As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it in a 2014 report: “Mitigation is a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.”
“Enhancing the sinks” for greenhouse gases means increasing systems that already naturally inhibit those emissions. For example, the ocean, forests and soil naturally take carbon dioxide out of the air and store it. So, cutting down the forests isn’t exactly helping this effort.
Mitigation is by no means a one-person job. The IPCC report notes that greenhouse gas emissions mix in the atmosphere globally, so having one nation cut back on its emissions is not cobducive to curbing climate change.
Rather, curbing climate change needs to be a global effort. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are already dangerously high, and these emissions are affecting our world.
Carbon dioxide — the heat-trapping gas that’s responsible for much of the planet’s warming — stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Even if we stopped emitting 100% of greenhouse gases today, climate change would still occur.
That’s where adaptation comes in. Adaptation is exactly what it sounds like — adapting to the already changing climate. Rather than being diametrically opposed as they’re sometimes presented, mitigation and adaptation must be implemented hand in hand.
Through adaptation, we can reduce our vulnerability to the effects of the changing climate, which include rising sea levels, food insecurity and more intense and frequent weather.
Though climate change is a global issue, its effects are felt locally. Municipalities will need to improve flood defenses, plan for heat waves and wildfires and improve stormwater capture systems, among taking other precautions.
As the NASA website on climate change notes, our planet’s climate has been stable for 12,000 years. That stability was crucial in giving civilizations a chance to grow and thrive, including ours.
“Modern life is tailored to the stable climate we have become accustomed to. As our climate changes, we will have to learn to adapt,” the website states. “The faster the climate changes, the harder it could be.”
Keeping that stability is essential to the survival of human life. But the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter which policy options are best if politicians don’t institute them.
That’s where our power as individuals lies. We should be putting people in office who are aware of these issues, and are aware of the fact that this is perhaps the most pressing issue of our time.
It’s no longer possible to carry on “business as usual.” We must start mitigation immediately, and employ adaptation policy to deal with the fallout of our already detrimental actions. It’s critical for the future of our planet and the future of humanity.
Katherine Wiles is a senior writing about environmentalism and sustainability. Her column, “Sustainability Showdown,” ran every other Wednesday.