In Theodore Roosevelt’s seventh message to Congress on December 3rd, 1907, he stressed conservation, stating, “To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.”
Remaining cognizant of natural resources to ensure “prosperity” for future generations is not a message that has changed since 1907, but in fact grown in importance in those 109 years. Population has since then sky rocketed from 1.75 billion in 1907 to over 7 billion in 2016. Colonized countries such as China have developed independent economies and consequently have had boosting eras of industrialization, and technological developments and a growing consumer culture have given rise to sustainable and not-so-sustainable ways to use our natural resources.
Environmental problems that for Roosevelt were “far into the distant future” prove to affect our daily lives. This Earth Day is the perfect opportunity not only to reflect on the environmental problems that have already occurred but also to consider the challenges that are yet to come.
Our Declining Resources
Many of the problems with natural resources, such as water shortages, are caused by both misuse and overuse which will lead to problems in the near future.
In California, for example, mismanagement, a five-year drought, and an abundance of agriculture has led to a severe water shortage that, according to News-week, will cost California 2.7 billion dollars in 2015 alone. So what exactly caused the water shortage?
First, California over-estimated the amount of water that they have. When officials divided up rights to the Colorado River, which provides critical water supplies to seven states including California, they claimed it has 1.4 trillion gallons a year more than the river actually produces, a mismanagement that led to a disproportionate number of citizens with water.
Second, 70% of the Colorado River’s water goes to producing two thirds of our nation’s fruits and nuts. According to the Pacific Institute, each American indirectly uses over 300 gallons of California’s water each week by eating food grown in California. Additionally, one almond takes almost an entire gallon of water to produce. In a state where thousands of citizens are without running water, if California limited the production of almonds, it would make a huge difference on water accessibility to citizens.
Additionally, due to the drought, California has started tapping into aquifers, or groundwater, for up to 60% of its water use as rivers start to dry up, according to CBS News. This is a problem because, according to PBS, of the 37 major aquifers, 21 of them are losing more water than is being replaced and 13 aquifers could exceed a point where they will not replenish themselves. Because of mismanagement, California is depleting natural resources in order to fulfill the needs of the people and agriculture and forcing them deeper and deeper into the dry and expensive desert California has created.
The Sixth Mass Extinction
In addition to resources readily declining, scientists say the Earth is on the brink of its sixth mass extinction in the past half-billion years of plants and animals –except instead of cataclysmic asteroids or volcanic eruptions, the primary cause is humans. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 99% of threatened species are at risk due to human activities, through habitat loss, introduction of new species, and climate change.
According to The Washington Post, the Earth is losing mammal species 20-100 times as fast as ever before, a statistic meaning that extinctions could rival the event that killed the dinosaurs 250 million years ago. Thus, by mid-century, 30-50% of all species could be heading toward extinction.
“We are now moving into another one of these events that could easily, easily ruin the lives of everybody on the planet,” Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich said in a video created by the school. Our loss of biodiversity is not a problem that is off into the future but one we are right in the middle of as more than 10,000 species annually go extinct.
China and their Environmental Problems
China’s air pollution due to urban development and an abundance of factories is another example of how environmental disasters can lead to the need for change. According to The New York Times, air pollution is calculated to contribute to 1.6 million deaths a year, which is specifically 17% of all deaths in China and 4,400 people a day.
The dangerous particles are fewer than 2.5 microns in diameter. After entering the lungs, they are absorbed into the blood stream and can result in asthma, strokes, lung cancer, and heart attacks. The particles are part of the smog that shrouds large cities such as Beijing, and that comes from industrial zones.
Due to these staggering numbers, China, the world’s biggest polluter, also has the world’s largest renewable energy market, according to CNN. China has had to face its reality, and in doing so they have made environmental reform a main part of their five-year-plan, which, according to Telegraph, is a social and economic plan that details changes from 2016 to 2020. Additionally, last year, in an agreement with President Obama, China pledged to cap its outputs of greenhouse gases by 2030 or earlier.
The Real Meaning of 2 Degrees Celsius
In 2009, 114 countries signed the “Copenhagen Accord,” which recognizes the “scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.” So, why 2 degrees?
According to Carlo Jaeger, chairman of the Germany-based Global Climate Forum, “Humans never have lived in post-2-degree world, if we start warming the planet way beyond what humans have ever experienced, God knows what will wait for us.”
Regardless of whether this increase in temperature is due to humans or just natural climate irregularities, this number was agreed to represent a dangerous increase by countries around the world at the most recent international Climate Change meeting in Paris . They pledged to do their best to limit warming “well below” 2 degrees by moving towards 100% clean energy, meaning no greenhouse gas emissions, between 2050 and 2080.
According to NASA, the global world temperature has raised almost 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. Local temperatures fluctuate significantly, but global temperatures depend on “how much energy the planet receives and how much it radiate back into space—quantities that change very little.” In fact, it was a drop of only 2 degrees Celsius that caused the Little Ice Age.
The World Resource Institute has projected that if we continue to live the same and emissions remain “unabated,” the world is on track to exceed its “budget” in 30 years, “expos[e] communities to increasingly dangerous forest fires, extreme weather, drought, and other climate impacts.”
Scientists and the international community have agreed that 2 degrees, the number you haven’t ever really heard of, will determine the way we chose to live our lives in the near future and how we chose to cut back on certain aspects of them.