“The world is too much with us,” wrote William Wordsworth more than 200 years ago, in response to the First Industrial Revolution. That statement holds no truer than today, when scientists have predicted that humanity only has a quarter of a century left to fight climate change before its effects become irreversible. If you’re ever at a loss for an environmental cause to support, here is a list containing 20 global environmental issues—in no particular order—worth reading up on.
1. Carbon Pollution
“Our house is on fire,” said Swedish student activist and School Strike for Climate founder Greta Thunberg in her address to world leaders at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, last January 2019. That might sound like a terrible oversimplification of a complex problem, but that perfectly summarizes what is rapidly happening to the Earth and its climate.
According to Harvard University professor and atmospheric scientist James Anderson (who is known for establishing that chlorofluorocarbons are responsible for the hole in the Ozone Layer), the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere are at levels that haven’t been seen in 12 million years, the implication of this being that the Earth could revert to Eocene Epoch–state climate, when there was no ice on either pole. Anderson further predicts that by 2022, no permanent ice will be left in the Arctic.
2. Rising Global Temperature
As if we needed more proof of a warming Earth, several areas of the globe are currently suffering from drought, dry spells, and heat waves. India, for instance, has experienced record temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius this year, bringing about water shortages and heatstroke-related deaths in some of its hardest-hit areas.
Scientists around the globe are unequivocal in stating that the world is indeed getting hotter. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions explains that human activity has been responsible for raising the Earth’s average surface temperature by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit. That figure may not seem like much, but if you consider the fact that that the five warmest years ever recorded took place within the last ten years (with 2016 being the warmest on record), you would be compelled to sound the alarm on rapid global warming too.
With climate change already in our midst, we turn to trees and forests to absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, according to the World Bank, the Earth has lost 1.3 million square kilometers of forests since 1990—an area approximately the size of South Africa.
While you are reading this sentence, a football field–sized forest is being cut down. Acres and acres of rainforest in regions such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil are rapidly being cleared for timber, palm oil, or growing cattle.
4. Plastic Pollution
Another recent crisis that has environmentalists alarmed is plastic pollution. It is estimated that every minute, the world consumes a million plastic bottles. Sadly, only around 9 percent of the plastics we use is recycled, the rest ending up in landfills and some in the oceans.
The proliferation of plastic, specifically single-use, is of particular concern, especially in light of news of microplastics and plastic trash littering our oceans and waterways, and increasing numbers of animals dying from plastic ingestion. Even humans are not spared from ingesting microplastics: a study has found that humans consume 5 grams of microplastics—about the size of a credit card—on a weekly average.
5. Shrinking Polar Ice Caps
In April 2019, the British Antarctic Survey reported that the world’s second-largest emperor penguin colony, located in the Antarctica, had disappeared overnight after the ice shelf they had been on collapsed.
The ice caps on either pole are melting at a rapid rate, more so in the last 20 years (compared to the last 10,000), with Greenland ice sheets melting the fastest. This could have catastrophic consequences for the rest of the world, as this could raise sea levels.
6. Reliance on Fossil Fuels
While many developed nations have taken strides to shift to sustainable energy, majority of the world still relies on fossil fuel—coal, natural gas, and oil—to power its industries. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016, the world’s oil and natural gas reserves will run out in about 50 years, while coal reserves will last us only about a century.
However, perhaps most pressing is the fact that the world’s dependence is continuing to add to its climate change problem. An estimated 750 billion tons of carbon is in danger of being released into the Earth’s atmosphere if we use up all our known fossil fuel reserves.
7. Ocean Warming
The world’s oceans are also bearing the brunt of climate change as they absorb the heat coming from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the ocean’s surface temperature has gone up by an average of 0.13°C every ten years since the 1900s.
What do rising ocean temperatures mean? A warming ocean is a threat to marine life, including corals. For humans, this also has adverse consequences to food security and livelihood. Additionally, rising ocean temperatures also cause the sea water to expand, posing a serious threat to coastal communities and low-lying islands and countries, specifically those located in the Pacific Ocean.
8. Coral Die-Offs
Corals are vital to sustaining marine biodiversity in our oceans. However, since 2016, nearly 20 percent of the world’s corals have died as a result of acidification, reduced oxygen levels in the seas, and rising ocean temperatures. In Australia, warms seas have resulted in the world’s biggest coral die-off, with the Great Barrier Reef losing hundreds of kilometers of living coral from coral bleaching.
9. Water Shortage
The shortage of potable water is a threat to human health and is also fuel for civil unrest in parts of the world. Already we are seeing the effects of water shortage in some of the world’s arid regions. In Cape Town, a port city in South Africa, rapid population growth and drought has brought about a water crisis that threatens to cut or limit access to clean water to its almost 4 million residents.
Aside from coral bleaching, another serious threat to marine biodiversity is overfishing—the harvesting of ocean species at rates that exceed the fished wildlife’s capacity to replenish themselves. Aside from threatening food security, overfishing can affect ecology by disrupting the marine food chain.
11. Species Extinction and Loss of Biodiversity
The year 2018 saw the death of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, as well as the effective extinction of this subspecies, as the two remaining white rhinos are both female.
Human activity—in particular habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and overhunting or harvesting—has largely contributed to mass extinctions in the past century. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that by 2050, as much as 50 percent of the Earth’s species will be labeled extinct.
12. Overconsumption and Resource Depletion
The Industrial Revolution has reaped for human beings much progress and economic gain. However, this has come at the cost of the earth’s finite resources. In 2018, August 1 marked the arrival of Earth Overshoot Day—that is, the day the world’s demands on nature exceed what the Earth can regenerate over the whole year. It was also the earliest date since the Global Footprint Network began calculating ecological overshoots in the 1970s.
The world relies on minerals and metals for constructing roads and bridges, building shelter, and even to power our watches and smartphones. But while mining has economic benefits, it also has adverse effects on the ecosystem, some of which are the following:
- Ground, water, and air contamination and pollution
- Deforestation and soil erosion
- Destruction of biodiversity
- Soil compaction
- Soil nutrient depletion
14. Rapid Urbanization
Rapid population growth usually leads to urbanization, which in turn gives rise to several environmental problems, including urban heat, heat islands, human intrusion and encroachment on natural habitat, flooding, and air pollution, among others.
15. Improper Waste Management
“There is no such thing as ‘away,’” said Annie Leonard. “When we throw something away it must go somewhere.”
As mentioned previously, 91 percent of the world’s plastic waste isn’t being recycled. Rather, it ends up languishing in landfills or in incinerators which, in either case, contributes greenhouse gas emissions. Simply put, the world is creating more trash than it can handle. Several developed countries, including Canada, have even come under fire for shipping tons of their recyclable and non-recyclable waste to developing nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
16. Air Pollution and Public Health
Urban areas in China have been put on the global spotlight recently for being badly hit by air pollution. Aside from the unsightly appearance of grey smog blanketing the urban landscape, air pollution also poses a respiratory hazard to inhabitants. The adverse health effects of air pollution are so great and widespread that the World Health Organization has labeled it the world’s largest environmental health threat.
17. Industrial Agriculture
According to environmentalists, large-scale factory farming is not only deleterious to human health (due to pesticide toxicity, water pollution, and antibiotic resistance), it is harmful to the environment too. Some of the ecological impacts of modern agriculture include soil erosion, acidification, soil nutrient depletion, and biodiversity loss.
The hot, dry summer months are often notorious for sparking wildfires which, if uncontrolled, can spread over hundreds of thousands of acres, such as what happened in the 2018 Butte County Wildfire in California, which claimed 85 lives.
While forest fires can start from something as simple as the sun’s heat or a spark, majority of wildfires are actually caused by human activity, such as cigarette-smoking, campfires, even arson. Effects of wildfires on the environment are varied and include air pollution, loss of wildlife, and loss of forest cover.
Enormous consumer appetite is fueling spending and economic growth—as well as environmental degradation. A study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is the result of household consumption. Another study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology concludes that the richer the country, the greater the consumption—as well as its impact on the environment. (Predictably, the United States leads the pack, with a per capita carbon footprint of 18.6 tons CO2 equivalent.)
20. Nuclear Waste
Nuclear power has been widely hailed as a potential source of clean energy—after all, unlike coal-fired, gas, and oil plants, nuclear energy contributes very little to climate change as it does not emit as much greenhouse gases (although certain stages of the nuclear fuel chain do use fossil fuel).
However, a cause for concern for environmentalists is the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants, which carries the risk of contaminating the soil and water if not managed properly, or in the event of accidents and natural catastrophes (such as what happened in Fukushima in 2011).
The list of environmental issues is long and complex. With that, it can get scary to think about the uphill battle we have to fight in order to combat these issues. However, as psychologist Nathaniel Branden notes, “The first step toward change is awareness.” In the fight against climate change and all other environmental issues, knowing is definitely half the battle, and action is the logical next step.