Extreme weather events from 2022, ranging from heat waves to historic low river water levels to drought and wildfire, highlight a destabilized climate and a precursor of what’s to come in the future. The last few years have experienced cooling due to the La Niña (cold) phase of the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) in the Pacific Ocean, as mentioned in last week’s Science Wednesday. When conditions neutralize, we’ll see the true impact of human-caused climate change. And when El Niño (the warm phase) returns, we’ll likely see exacerbated effects of this human-induced change. While natural disasters are to be expected on a dynamic planet, it’s the amplified human-caused impact that is worrisome.
Already since preindustrial times, Earth’s surface temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius. This is due to packing the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Warming shifts the flow of energy around the planet, altering weather patterns, raising sea levels, and turning past extremes into new normals. The planet has seen natural climate change in the past – due to plate tectonics, continents shifting and altering ocean circulation, and changing phases in orbital cycles (for example, the tilt of the planet). However, what’s different in the modern-day is the RATE at which this is happening. No natural events have ever caused such changes to the climate in a matter of a few hundred years – it’s taken thousands, if not tens of thousands of years from natural causes. So, this is unprecedented in history. Our (chemical) fingerprints are all over this. Past climate disruption events led to mass extinctions of creatures on land and in the oceans. We’re on track to do the same to this delicate planetary ecosystem.
So what are the solutions? The simplest thing is to not travel. But travel is a huge economy and it’s not going away anytime soon. Travel is fatal to prejudice – it opens minds to other peoples and cultures. Traveling to polar regions for many people can be eye-opening as to what we will lose if we stay the course – doing it on sustainable ships that care about the environment lessens the impact. From oceanographer, Dr. Sylvia Earle, who now has a ship named after her by Aurora Expeditions, “Ninety-seven percent of Earth’s water is ocean. It is our life support system and we need to learn everything we can about it. I see great synergy in working closely with a company that shares my vision for the future and which is, from the top down, passionate about the marine environment. Through traveling with Aurora Expeditions on the Sylvia Earle, I feel it is an incredible opportunity for people to learn about these marine habitats in situ, and as a result, become ambassadors for protecting them.”
If one must fly, travel light (the heavier the plane, the more fuel it uses); travel in the cheap seats (traveling business or first class is responsible for three times the carbon emissions as the cheap seats, based on space per person); fly direct, or, minimize stops, as take-off and landings consume the most fuel; for shorter domestic flights, opt to drive instead; invest in carbon offsets for environmental projects focused on renewable energy. While flying is a big contributor, it’s important to remember the cumulative effect of smaller day-to-day impacts from things like road transportation and electricity/heating, too. Try to carpool and not drive solo (or at all, if you can work remotely). Millions of solo drivers on the roads during work weekdays emit high amounts of fossil fuels and affect air quality and human health as well. Leaving lights on and running the heat or A/C constantly, especially in big homes, is also a big waste.
I’m well aware of my impact on the climate through travel, so, at home I walk, cycle and carpool/take public transport when possible. We’re a one car household; we try to buy local when able at our grocery store (often times, I walk there multiple times a week versus driving); we live in a small place; we don’t leave lights on; in shoulder seasons, we opt for having windows open versus heating/cooling. There are many small but cumulative things we can all be doing. Cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world can lead to mistrust and “America first” mentalities – and we see the impacts of that on modern society, especially when it comes to critical and rational thinking. I am encouraged by the development of renewable energy and sustainable practices by more and more companies. This next decade is critical and I do believe that humanity will rise to the challenge. There are many good, brilliant and innovative people and companies out there, looking to leave not carbon footprints, but no trace. To come up with solutions, we must talk about the problems, even if it’s hard to do so. It’s the only way to change.


photo: by Ulyana Peña, flying over the Andes, where, despite it being spring, conditions on the glaciers look like middle of summer.