Earth Day 2018: The 10 Most Pressing Environmental Concerns Facing Our Planet – And Rays of Hope for Each

Dear Commons Community,

Today is Earth Day 2018.  This posting was written by Pam Wright and Bob Henson for the Weather Channel.



Today is Earth Day, and the world comes together to take a hard look at the state of our planet and to inspire people and nations to become catalysts for change.

The movement began on April 22, 1970, when 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.

Now, 48 years later, Earth Day has become a global event each year and more than 1 billion people in 192 countries will come together again Sunday for Earth Day 2018.

To commemorate Earth Day 2018, we at have taken a look at the state of the planet in light of some recently published studies. We also offer a ray of hope for each of the 10 most pressing environmental concerns.

Here’s our list:

1. Ocean & Plastics

Plastics dumped in our oceans are harming marine wildlife.

The amount of plastic making its way into the Earth’s oceans is staggering.

A recent study from the World Economic Forum notes that 9 million tons of plastic enter oceans every year, which amounts to the equivalent of one garbage truck dumped into the ocean every minute. That figure is expected to double by 2030.

The plastic is killing marine life. An estimated 90 percent of seagulls mistake plastic for food and have bits of plastic in their guts. Researchers say if the trend continues, 99 percent of seabirds will be affected by 2050, the date scientists predict there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

Ray of hope: There are more and more alternatives to plastics coming online, including bamboo straws, reusable mugs and compostable utensils made of cornstarch. A growing number of cities, states and countries have restricted or banned plastic bags. Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday that the United Kingdom would seek a ban on all single-use plastic straws.

2. Rising Seas

Rising seas will change the landscape of this planet and possibly much faster than expected.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June says the long-warned acceleration in sea level rise is no longer imminent – it’s already underway.

According to the study, sea levels rose at about 1.1 millimeters annually, or 0.43 inches, per decade before 1990, but from 1993 to 2012, seas rose at a much higher annual rate: 3.1 millimeters every year, or 1.22 inches, per decade. It may seem like a small rise, but it’s alarming to scientists that the rate has tripled in a relatively short period of time.

In addition, disruptive tidal flooding known as “nuisance flooding” that now affects the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coastlines on 3 to 6 days per year will strike as often as 80 to 180 days a year by the 2040s, according to a major report from NOAA’s National Ocean Service released in February.

Ray of hope: If we make serious cuts in greenhouse emissions, we could bring down that potential 57-inch rise by more than a third (down to 36 inches), as noted in the paper cited above.

3. Extreme Weather

Hurricanes, wildfires and severe thunderstorms made 2017 the costliest year on record for weather-related disasters in the United States and it only previews things to come, experts say.

Scientists and decision-makers from around the world took a survey for the 2018 Global Risks Report to identify and analyze the most pressing risks facing the planet and found that extreme weather is the greatest threat to humanity over the next 10 years, topping weapons of mass destruction.

The authors noted that extreme rainfall “can be particularly damaging.”

“Of the 10 natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides,” the authors added. “Storms and other weather-related hazards are also a leading cause of displacement, with the latest data showing that 76 percent of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.”

New studies confirm that the hydrologic cycle is intensifying and the heaviest rains and snows are getting heavier. Meanwhile, drought impacts are getting worse because of rising temperatures. Soil moisture and runoff tend to decrease as temperatures go up, which makes both hydrological and agricultural drought worse, even if the rainfall deficits (meteorological drought) don’t change.

While people try to link extreme weather events to climate change, experts warn that a single event is not an indicator of climate change. Rather, it’s changing trends over a longer period that are a better indicator of human-induced climate change.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program and former president of the American Meteorological Society, likes to say that “weather is your mood; climate is your personality.”

Ray of hope: Adaptations such as water conservation can go a long way toward ameliorating the impact of drought. Smart urban and regional planning can help mitigate the risk of floods.

4. Wildlife

Late last year, the world was shocked at images making the rounds of an emaciated polar bearlooking for food. It turned out that this bear may have been dying of cancer rather than starving. Yet because of the longer-term threat they face due to decreasing Arctic sea ice, polar bears remain a poster child of animals around the world that are at risk from climate change.

Every year, more animals are added to the endangered species list. While many are listed because of poaching and development, the majority are also impacted by climate change, pollution and a decline in their habitats.

“Identifying which traits contribute to a species resilience and vulnerability will allow us to develop more robust conservation action plans in the face of a changing climate,” the World Wildlife Federation says on its website. “Different species will be affected in different ways; sometimes negatively, but not always.”

Ray of hope: Some species may be able to adapt to changing conditions if the rate of change is not too extreme. Certain regions may be able to serve as refuges, such as far northern Canada for polar bears, since year-round sea ice is likely to persist there longer than in some other areas.

5. Forests/Plant Life

Plants and forests are vital for the health of our planet.

For one, they serve as “carbon sinks,” meaning they have the ability to absorb atmospheric CO2 through the process of photosynthesis, which pulls carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.

Fire, drought, insect infestations and disease outbreaks as a result of human-caused warming can all put our forests and grasslands in jeopardy. Deforestation is a huge issue in the tropics, where vast tracts of rainforests have been slashed and burned in the last several decades.

One study in Nature Climate Change found some good news: The planet’s total mass of plants and forests (biomass) increased from 2003 to 2012, reversing a downward trend.

Not all forests are doing well, though. In Texas, some 300 million trees died after a major drought and record-hot temperatures in 2011. Across the western U.S. and Canada, bark beetle infestations have wiped out vast swaths of forest over the past 20 years. Drought weakened many of these trees, and rising temperatures allow the beetles to thrive.

“The tree mortality that we’re experiencing, it’s really unprecedented,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said in a video for the California State Association of Counties. “Unless you get into the Sierra Nevada, and particularly the central and southern Sierras, you don’t necessarily understand the gravity of it.”

Grasslands are another important U.S. ecosystem that has undergone decline. It is believed that at one point, grasslands covered more than half the globe. In North America, a fifth of the continent was covered in grassland, but today, only 3 percent of tallgrass prairie remains, according to a Yale University study.

It is expected that a warming planet will change how ecosystems interact, which could further endanger our plant kingdom.

Ray of hope: Individuals, local governments and organizations are working to change land management policies and practices, including grazing methods that protect grasslands.

6. Climate Refugees

An estimated 2 billion people may become displaced from their homes by 2100 due to climate-driven rising seas, a study published in June 2017 says. That amounts to roughly one-fifth of the world’s population.

The majority of those will be people who live on coastlines around the world, including about 2 million in Florida alone.

“We’re going to have more people on less land and sooner than we think,” lead author Charles Geisler, professor emeritus of development sociology at Cornell, said in a press release. “The future rise in global mean sea level probably won’t be gradual. Yet few policymakers are taking stock of the significant barriers to entry that coastal climate refugees, like other refugees, will encounter when they migrate to higher ground.”

Ray of hope: If societies around the world recognize that climate change may lead to new refugee crises, they can develop new ways of addressing migration across borders that recognizes the pressures exerted on society by extreme weather, climate variability and long-term climate change.

7. Famine/Scarcity of Food

Global harvests have been going up, on average, for decades. However, some researchers predict that rising temperatures linked to human-caused climate change will cause an increasing drag on crop yields.

According to one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), corn yields would decrease an average of 7.4 percent for every degree Celsius that the Earth warms, all else being equal. Similarly, wheat yields would be reduced by 6 percent on average, rice yields by 3.2 percent and soybean yields by 3.1 percent.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide will offset some of these trends, actually helping to increase many yields in the short term. As temperatures continue to rise, though, the balance is expected to shift to a net drain on global crops, particularly in tropical zones.

A review of more than 1700 studies found that “business as usual” global warming (an increase of 2 degrees C) is likely to produce an overall negative effect on global crop yields as soon as the 2030s, getting worse over time. Adaptation by farmers could help reduce but not eliminate the impact.

Increased carbon dioxide also tends to push some crops toward carbohydrates and away from protein. A study by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health determined that rising carbon dioxide levels could reduce the protein content of staple crops like rice by 7.6 percent and wheat by 7.8 percent by 2050, which could mean that millions of people will become protein deficient.

Ray of hope: The planet’s food supply has tripled over the last 60 years, increasing even faster than the rate of population. New strains of crops are being developed to deal with climate extremes such as intense short-term drought. Changing where some crops are grown could also help. If more people move toward a plant-centered diet, it will stretch our planet’s food supply even further as well as helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

8. Water Supply

In 2014, the National Climate Assessment found that “water quality and water supply reliability are jeopardized by climate change in a variety of ways that affect ecosystems and livelihoods.”

Regions such as the southern United States and the Caribbean will face water shortages and competition as runoff and groundwater recharge decreases, the assessment notes. In addition, decreasing snowpack will threaten water supplies in climates similar to the Southwest U.S., which depends on snowmelt.

Water supplies are also becoming more and more contaminated by nitrogen-rich runoff from development and agriculture.

The growth of bottled water not only leads to more plastic in oceans, it also increases greenhouse gases and may interfere with the progress toward clean water supplies in developing countries.

Ray of hope: Individuals, cities, and nations can take big steps toward water security by conserving water in a variety of ways. Early this year, Cape Town, South Africa, faced a potential shutdown of its municipal water system, but it delayed “Day Zero” (at least for now) thanks to major conservation efforts. Shifting water-intensive crops away from regions of intensifying water stress can also help.

9. Climate-related Illnesses

The World Health Organization said in a July 2017 report that death rates as a result of climate change could top a quarter of a million a year by 2050 because of heat stress related to global warming, extreme weather events, malnutrition and the spread of infectious diseases like malaria.

According to WHO, the direct damage costs to health from human-caused climate change is estimated to be between $2 billion and $4 billion per year by 2030. This excludes the costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation, WHO notes.

There will likely be some drop in cold-related disease, although it’s not expected to fully counteract the increase in heat-related illness.

Ray of hope: Public health practices have greatly reduced the incidence of malaria worldwide, in spite of global warming. If we anticipate the amount of climate change that’s already “baked in,” and we work to limit greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll have the best chance of addressing climate-related health problems as they crop up.

10. Wildfires

The number of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment published in 2017.

Scientists say there will be a further increase in those regions as the climate warms. Droughts are becoming hotter in places like California, which pulls more moisture out of forests and makes them more fire-prone.

A century of fire suppression has left many U.S. wildlands vulnerable to intense fires. Wildfire impacts are also ramping up because more and more people are living in “fire country” at the urban-wildland interface.

The devastation resulting from wildfires is not limited to forests and property. Fire-related illnesses will likely increase in tandem with the expected increase in wildfires.

In 2017, some 58,000 wildfires burned more than 9.2 million acres across the United States, making the air in many towns and cities too dangerous to breathe.

Linking an increase in wildfires to climate change is similar to linking extreme weather to a warming planet. It’s about the trends.

In a paper published in PNAS in 2016, researchers determined that human-caused warming has doubled the total area burned in the western United States over the past 33 years.

The consensus among scientists is that drier conditions as a result of climate change will increase the incidence of larger and more frequent wildfires, particularly in area already prone to wildfire activity.

Ray of hope: Controlled burns can help reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildland fire. Increased awareness of the growing fire threat at the urban/wildland interface may help reduce the type of development that puts both firefighters and residents at risk.

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