Open Letter to Parents: Protect your Children from Climate Change (Part 1)

Skip Spitzer is a Portland-based single dad of super groovy son, Sander. The following article is the first in a series of articles calling on parents to recognize the threats posed by climate change.

Dear parent,

I’m a parent too. My son, Sander, is 2 ¾. Powered by love and responsibility, I am on the lookout for things that may affect him and try to make the best choices for him, even when they are very, very hard. Isn’t being a parent amazing in the way it helps us give of ourselves?

Still, I’ve not yet fully responded to the biggest threat to Sander: Climate change. It’s right there in front of us, yet so hard to face. It’s painful, but we owe it to our children—and every other child—to look, eyes wide open, and respond. This letter aims to help you do that.

What is climate change?

Our planet has had a life-friendly climate (typical patterns of weather) for a very long time. This is because a layer of gases in the lower atmosphere lets solar radiation in, but, like a blanket, limits escape of the resulting heat (the greenhouse effect). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important of these greenhouse gases.[*]

Things have remained good—mostly not too hot or cold—because of the carbon cycle, in which the amount of CO2 going in to the atmosphere is roughly balanced by the amount going out.

Especially in the last 100 or so years, however, greenhouse gasses have been building up in the atmosphere, now causing the climate to change very rapidly. The most prominent difference currently is that average temperatures of the atmosphere and oceans are rising (global warming).

Humans are the primary cause

This climatic change is mostly anthropogenic (human-caused). Our species messed up the carbon cycle. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere had been remarkably stable during the 650,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, varying from about 180 to 300 parts per million (ppm). Today, however, it’s above 400 ppm—the highest level in more than 23 million years.[1]

Most of this CO2 increase is the result of burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil). Raising livestock, using synthetic fertilizers, and industrial production (especially cement) have also played a big role. Humans have raised levels of other greenhouse gases, like methane, too.[2]

We’ve made a very bad mistake.

Climate change is making the physical environment less hospitable

As greenhouse gases accumulate, the abiotic (non-living) environment is generally becoming harsher.

Average surface air temperatures are rising.

Weather events—rains, floods, blizzards, hurricanes (typhoons), tornadoes, droughts, and heat waves—are becoming more frequent and extreme. Land is desertifying.

Oceans are becoming hotter, more acidic (as higher levels of CO2 in the air dissolve into them), and de-oxygenated (because warmer water holds less oxygen, among other causes).

Sea levels are rising, as vast masses of ice melt and because water expands as it warms.

Wildfires are becoming more frequent, intense, and destructive.

Air quality, and water quality and availability, are diminishing.

Changing conditions are breaking the web of life

These physical changes are disrupting ecosystems (the ways living things interact with each other and their physical environment). Animals, plants, and other organisms are directly affected by physical conditions, but also by the ways those conditions affect other living things.

For example, plants may be harmed by less rain, which may also kill soil microbes that feed on plant litter, in turn reducing soil aeration, which plants needs to survive. This interdependence means that climate-driven changes in the physical environment can cause cascading impacts—to the point where local extinction of one species makes more species disappear, bringing entire ecosystems to total collapse.[3]

There are countless cases of this disruption. Especially notable is that ocean phytoplankton (microscopic sea plants) are declining dramatically, most likely due to rising temperatures.[4] These organisms are the foundation of the entire marine food chain.

Likewise, climate change is harming insect populations around the world, which are crashing, threatening the “collapse of nature.”[5] Insects are essential for every ecosystem. In particular—by recycling nutrients from dead plants and animals, maintaining soil fertility, dispersing seeds, pollinating plants, and controlling plant pests—they are essential to all plant life.

We are part of the web too

Although it may seem that humans exist apart from nature, we too are affected by changes in the physical environmental and ecosystem disruption.

Those endangered phytoplankton absorb CO2 from the air, make possible the fish that billions of people eat, and actually produce at least half of the world’s oxygen.[6] Those disappearing insects are essential for agriculture, which we require for food, fiber, building materials, medicine, and more.[7]

We depend vitally on such ecosystem services (benefits from nature). Other essential ecosystem services include regulating the climate, cleaning water, limiting wildlife encounters, and controlling pathogens. Yet we are heading toward critical loss of every one of these lifelines from nature.

Read more from Skip Spitzer at Respond to Climate Change.

[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/co2-levels-for-february-eclipsed-prehistoric-highs/.

[2] For example, methane is up 254% and nitrous oxide 121% compared to 1750. See WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin: The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere Based on Global Observations through 2014. World Meteorological Organization. No. 11, 9 November 2015.

[3] Strona, Giovanni, and Corey JA Bradshaw. “Co-extinctions annihilate planetary life during extreme environmental change.” Scientific reports 8.1 (2018): 16724.

[4] Degnarain, N. and Stone, G.S. Soul of the Sea: In the Age of the Algorithm. Leete's Island Books. 2017.

[5] Sánchez-Bayo, Francisco, and Kris AG Wyckhuys. "Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers." Biological Conservation 232 (2019): 8-27.

[6] John Roach. “Source of Half Earth's Oxygen Gets Little Credit.” National Geographic. June 7, 2004.

[7] Jankielsohn, Astrid. "The Importance of Insects in Agricultural Ecosystems." Advances in Entomology 6.02 (2018): 62.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *