The Scale Of Climate Change Can Feel Scary, So We Asked 5 Climate Scientists To Break It Down

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The scale of climate change can be difficult to comprehend. Many diverse environmental issues — pollution, warming oceans, and increasing temperatures — are combining to make the future look, well, less bright. With the onslaught of news media, though, it can be difficult to parse exactly what the issues are, and how you can help, both as an individual and as part of a community. And that overwhelmed feeling can make us anxious and paralyzed. However, five leading scientists who work on different aspects of environmental science tell Bustle that there's a lot individuals can do to help.

"Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C," Dr. Jessica Blythe, an assistant professor at the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre at Brock University, tells Bustle. "The report essentially tells us that we’ve got to cut green house gas emissions within the next 10 years if we’re going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. This is both terrifying and motivating. Now is the time for action." The five scientists agree that we're at a tipping point where human action right now can really make a difference.

Apathy is so over: now's the time to get the information and see what you can do to help. Here are the facts on five different issues and what you can do to help.

1. Climate Change's Impact On Oceans & Coastal Communities

"From my perspective, the impacts of climate change on our oceans is the most serious environmental challenge we face as a species," Dr. Blythe tells Bustle. "Oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, produce more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe, and provide food, livelihoods, and cultural value to hundreds of millions of people. Put simply, without the ocean, there can’t be people.

"My research is focused on understanding the diverse impacts of climate change on oceans and coastal communities. In particular, I aim to highlight how different individuals and groups experience climate change differently and what shapes their different capacities to respond.

"We know that the impacts of climate change are highly uneven and unfair. For example, poor and marginalized communities, such as small-scale fishing communities where I’ve worked in Mozambique, also feel the consequences of climate change before we do in wealthy countries. Low-lying Pacific Island countries that had contributed almost no global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are often on the front lines of sea level rise, coral bleaching, and extreme storms." 91% of the people who live near coral reefs are in developing countries, and the UN estimates that by 2030 100 million people in the poorest countries worldwide could be threatened by poverty because of climate change and its effects.

So what can we do? "The single most important action humans can take to help lessen the impacts of climate change on our oceans is to drastically cut green house gas emissions," says Dr. Blythe. "Fortunately, there are plenty of options for getting involved ranging from individual behavior to global policy action. In our daily lives, we can make greener choices about transportation by taking trains, buses, subways, ride shares or biking. We can take advantage of grants or subsidies for increasing energy efficiencies in our homes or places of work. We can join local groups, such as Transition Towns, which aim to localize food, energy, and water in an effort to combat climate change. We can write letters to our local government, telling them that climate change and saving our oceans is important to their voters. Most importantly, we need to vote for governments that prioritize comprehensive climate change plans.

And she isn't a fan of quick fixes. "While this statement probably won’t be popular, I would advise readers not to comfort yourself by giving up plastic straws. While banning single use plastic is a good idea, it can distract us from focusing on the more important, yet far more challenging, task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions."

2. Snow Melting & Wildfires

Arctic expert Professor Heidi Stelzer, associate professor of biology at Fort Lewis College, tells Bustle, "I focus on climate change impacts in the mountains and the Arctic. I experimentally melt snow early, but wish for late-lying snow. Worldwide in the mountains, snow covers the ground for less of the year and melts earlier [than in previous decades]. As snow melts early, the window for wildflowers shrinks and the door for wildfire opens wide. I live in a community where snowpack last year was about 30% of normal (never thought I'd see that) and a fire followed that summer."

"Early snowmelt affects livelihoods of mountain regions; it affects ranchers and farmers, firefighters, rafting and guiding businesses, restaurants; it affects you and me. All this happens, then attention shifts away from a community when it is no longer ablaze. Yet, as the snow from this winter melts, the river is chocolate brown, full of ash and sediment from debris flows."

However, she believes there are things to be done. "Encourage policy makers to plan for mitigating climate change and if this does not happen, make some noise," she tells Bustle. "Support land conservation and water protection locally, regionally and nation-wide. Healthy landscapes take up carbon dioxide and store water, providing balance. The less land is disturbed the more it can provide these benefits. Healthy forests clean our air, whereas burning forests pump long stored carbon to the atmosphere, adding to our challenges. It's a win-win, as actions to grow our conserved land and protected water also create places of beauty and habitat for species we value."

And, she says, we need to be willing to invest. "If we can see how we benefit from environmental protection, a more sustainable path forward, we should have some 'skin in the game'. We should be willing to take some personal risks through sharing our perspectives, fostering conversation and encouraging greater understanding of the issue of climate change. A key risk we can all take is to listen to others, find out more about what leads them to advocate for or against actions that enable us to slow climate change and adapt to the changes underway."

3. Plastics, And How They Affect Our Health

Dr. Lori Hoepner, assistant professor at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center School of Public Health, tells Bustle: "My primary focus has been prenatal environmental exposures and their effect on birth outcomes and childhood health outcomes, specifically the effects of exposure to the plasticizer bisphenol a (BPA) ... BPA is considered an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) so it is just one of a class of chemicals of concern that are associated with hormone receptor mechanisms and the endocrine system."

Not only are greenhouse gases emitted in the production of plastics, but as they're used worldwide (and then become part of the trash or recycling), BPAs and microplastics make their way into our food and water. A 2016 study found that it's possible to absorb BPAs from food, drinks, water, air, dust, and soil.

The price for success is high, says Dr. Hoepner. "If we can reduce the prevalence of, or altogether prevent, childhood illness by reducing exposures to [these chemicals], we will have a ripple effect on quality of life, as well as overall healthcare costs." She's also concerned with the big burden of chemical use, consumption, and waste on our environment — and how it contaminates our food, water, and air.

However, to solve the plastic crisis, she thinks we need to go beyond recycling. "Humans need to look beyond simple solutions. For instance, in the case of plastics, recycling is a start. We need to promote environmentally-healthy behaviors. However, once an individual throws their single use plastic container in the recycling bin, it's like a check-mark in the 'being environmental' column. We have to be willing to leave our comfort zones of many modern conveniences, like single-use plastic, freely available plastic bags in stores, individual serving size of foods and beverages, condiment packaging, disposable utensils, disposable diapers, baby wipes, etc.

"There are many hurdles to overcome in order to help reduce our reliance on plastics, which will lead to reduced exposures ... One must also keep in mind that these classes of chemicals are found in other sources and my suggestions for plastic are the tip of the iceberg."

4. Air Pollution

Dr. Luz Claudio, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine tells Bustle, "The environmental challenge that I am focusing on in my research is to try to identify, prevent, and reduce the effects of environmental pollutants in vulnerable human populations, especially children. I do this work because children are particularly vulnerable to exposure to pollutants in the environment. Children tend to have higher exposures per body weight because they absorb chemicals more readily, they breathe more air, they are closer to the floor where there are often more of some classes of pollutants and they tend to put everything in their mouth, especially when they are really young. Also, exposure to a chemical pollutant early in life, even before birth, could have effects later in the life of children that can be unmasked as they grow.

"My team and I have investigated the asthma epidemic in children, especially children in minority and poor communities. We have also assessed how different other environmental factors can interact with poverty, diet, minority status, poor housing and other factors to cause disease More recently, we have also investigated the role of air pollution in causing neurobehavioral effects on children."

Human activity, she says, is culpable for these health issues, but we can do a lot to help. "Most of the types of air pollutants that we are investigating for their effects on children’s health are released through human activity." Air pollution can come from everything from domestic activities like cooking and heating to exposure to factory smoke, waste-burning, dust storms, and traffic emissions. "Collectively, we can as a society value the health of children by reducing emissions from traffic and other fossil fuels. For example, we are now in the process of estimating how small actions such as done by many people may quantifiably reduce the burden of disease in children.

"On an individual level, people have more control about their indoor air," Dr. Claudio tells Bustle. "Being aware of the role that indoor air can play on children’s health is a great step towards addressing this issue. Never smoking in the home, removing sources of VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds] such as certain carpeting, reducing or aerating items that produce a lot of off-gassing, and wall treatments that contain volatile compounds can be small actions that significantly reduce some of the indoor air pollutants."

5. Degraded Soil

Dr. Charlotte Rosendahl, faculty in Sustainable Agriculture at Sterling College, tells Bustle, "My background is in soil science and my main focus of interest has been on regenerating degraded soils. A third of the world's soils are already degraded and about 95% of our food depends on healthy soils, according to the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) in their latest report, so this is a very serious issue that we need to address now.

Her own research looks for solutions. "My focus has been on using biochar as a way to speed up the amount of carbon that can be stored in the soil and to combat soil-borne disease while healing the soil. Biochar holds on to nutrients and creates a habitat for soil microbial life which is the foundation for the soil food web that keeps the soil alive to feed the plants. She's also looking at the potential of agroforestry, a type of land use that pairs crop-growing with planting trees, and might be able to help problems with soil degradation, erosion and over-use of pesticides.

If you want to help and aren't a farmer, she says, look to both your environment and your palate. "Plant more trees and diversify your plate, especially to contain more nuts, fruits and berries," she tells Bustle. "Buy produce from a local or regional farm that practices sustainable agriculture and uses no-till polyculture or an intercropping system."

These five issues aren't the only ones we need to be focused on; environmental challenges right now are multiple, and they're all intertwined. But each of the five issues here, and many of the others around environmental health, are united by what we can do about them. Experts firmly believe it's possible to make some changes — by being willing to raise our voices and make some sacrifices for the planet.