My carbon footprint
A documentary, a daughter and all that is dear
I’ve always felt like a modest environmentalist. I use canvas grocery bags (OK, sometimes). I primarily buy cruelty free products, recycle at work and contribute a small stipend each month to purchase a portion of my energy from green sources. My daughter and I are protectors of snails in danger of being squashed on sidewalks and we let no six-pack plastic ring go uncut. We care. Somehow I convinced myself that was enough.
Recently I had the opportunity to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, documenting the state of Earth’s global-warming condition due to greenhouse gases. Educated as a scientist, I appreciated the wealth of hard data Gore had compiled, but what brought me to weep, as if I had lost someone I loved, was the manner in which he gave meaning to the data. Under the layers of percentages, charts and graphs, the exposed bloody heart of his message beat as loud as Ichabod Crane’s. Everything I love, everything that is dear to me, is at stake.
Everything I do is for my daughter. And for the first time I realized that none of it will matter if her ability to live on Earth is not sustained or if I leave her a planet where the fresh water supply for millions is gone, where she’ll face unbearably hot summers, an Arctic with no ice, and, in turn, warmer oceans, a teetering marine ecosystem and higher sea levels that will swallow coastal communities worldwide in one gulp. And will she walk upon a barren Earth, void of the rich species we have today? If these are the legacies I leave to my daughter, I will have realized my greatest failure as a parent.
Global warming is the result of a worldwide dependency on fossil fuels. However, America contributes slightly more than 30 percent of the problem. Here’s what happens in bustling American homes much like my own. Unnecessary lights are left on, a few notches on the thermostat are chosen over a heavier sweater, the TV is alive, the radio hums, the dishwasher and dryer are rumbling at peak hours, and, “Shoot! I need to run to the store in my high-performance vehicle for the cat food I forgot earlier.”
In the simplest terms, Gore explains what the emissions from the energy and gasoline we gorge ourselves on each day do to our atmospheric layer—the thin, fragile shell that stabilizes the Earth’s temperature. As we send more and more carbon emissions into our atmosphere, the very composition of this layer changes and thickens, trapping the sun’s heat and unnaturally warming the planet.
Without perspective, a few degrees warmer doesn’t really sound that bad. But as temperatures slowly continue to rise, the change in climate begins to unravel the fabric upon which the natural world is built, upon which human civilization depends. Gore took this fairly ambiguous concept and gave it life in tangible measures of potential destruction, suffering and extinction.
Our Arctic is melting. As the ice dwindles, more of the sun’s rays are absorbed by the ocean rather than reflected by the ice that has disappeared. This warms Arctic waters and fuels destruction of the remaining ice.
Warmer temperatures have slurped-up ice shelves in Antarctica, as well. Twenty to 25 miles of Larsen B 700-foot tall ice shelf, the largest in the world, was expected to be stable for more than 100 years, explained Gore. But within 35 days it disappeared in March of 2002.
Reruns of what Gore referred to as massive rushing torrents in the middle of Greenland’s ice sheet play over and over in my head. You see it and instinctively know something is very wrong. It was eerie and I felt vulnerable as if the only thing protecting me from the rushing torrents was the thin layer of glass in my television. Freaky.
As silly as it sounds, it may not be far-fetched. Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, U.S. Geological Survey and several universities completed their research last year, funded by the National Science Foundation, on melting polar ice sheets due to temperature increases. The findings anticipate worldwide sea levels to rise more than 20 feet by the end of this century.
Gore paints a simpler picture. The San Francisco Bay? Underwater. Southern Florida? Gone. The World Trade Center Memorial in New York City? Swallowed. How about the Netherlands, Beijing, Shanghai, Calcutta? More than one-hundred-million people will be displaced. Where will they go? How will we handle a catastrophe of this magnitude with immeasurable social, economical and environmental consequences? I have so many questions.
Warmer oceans also threaten our ocean currents, weather patterns and the health of marine ecosystems. In the Arctic, polar bears are drowning from hypothermia and exhaustion as they attempt to swim increasing distances between fewer and fewer floating chunks of sea ice. Their diminishing habitat prompted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose listing the bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in December of 2006.
Some species can respond to rising temperatures by rapidly migrating to an ecological niche with cooler temperatures. But this has significant consequences in the natural world. As new species invade, competition for resources, such as food, shelter and territory, can threaten or extinguish the weaker species. New strains of diseases can be introduced, which can wipe out a healthy population. Prey that was once controlled by predators can go unchecked and wreak havoc on the environment. In essence, we’ve triggered the Earth to wage war against itself. And we know what war looks like.
Gore wove a very personal side of his life into the documentary. He took us back in time when he was a small boy and he and his sister, Nancy, helped his father, a tobacco farmer, grow and harvest the plant. He talked about the death of his sister years later, when she succumbed to lung cancer from smoking since she was 14. “The idea that we were a part of this was so painful on so many levels. Whatever explanation that made sense in the past didn’t cut it anymore. The day of reckoning comes and you wish you had connected the dots more quickly.”
I understand now. I’ve connected the dots and it is my turn, as Gore says, to decide how I will react.