Too hot? Another drought? Climate Change Explained by Melanie Hoekstra

Because I work for The Plant, a vertical farm and food-business that runs only on renewable energy generated onsite, I’m often asked about climate change––especially with the increasingly weird weather. So, what is the science behind climate change? And what can a sharp, young non-profit professional like you do about it? Good questions! Let’s take a look.

First: is this weather the effect of global warming?
Very likely. The trouble here is that “the weather” is really variable, whereas “the climate” is not so variable. It’s hard to point to a particular storm or heat wave and say, “That’s climate change,” because each singular event is just that––one piece of information. But all of these data points make it look like climates around the world are indeed changing.

I last took earth science in 10th grade. Remind me: why is this happening?
The carbon cycle! All plants (and animals) require carbohydrates to grow, which plants make by taking carbon dioxide from the air and adding the sun’s energy to spark chemical reactions. When a plant dies, the cells holding the carbon break down, releasing the carbon back into the air, where it can be reabsorbed by another plant.

Sure, but how does this cause climate change?
Basically, when we burn fossil fuels, we’re releasing carbon from plants and animals that didn’t fully decompose after they died. Millions of years ago, giant mud pits and peat bogs trapped rotting plants and animals underground where they couldn’t release their carbon. Increasing weight and pressure turned those fossils into fuels like oil and coal. So, all that carbon was slowly being pulled out of the atmosphere and stored in the ground. By burning those fossil fuels, we’re putting all that carbon back into the atmosphere.

But what’s the problem with that?
The excess carbon acts like an extra layer of glass on a greenhouse, trapping more heat. When the sun’s energy hits the earth, most of it is actually reflected back into space. Carbon dioxide molecules act like tiny mirrors, re-reflecting some of that heat back to earth. Over the millions of years that the carbon from those ancient plants and animals was pulled out of the air, the earth’s climate had the chance to adjust slowly. But returning all this extra carbon in just a couple centuries means we’re quickly increasing the amount of the sun’s energy trapped in the atmosphere, which in turn creates intense changes in weather that result in melting glaciers and higher winds.

Okay, got it. But what should I do?
Take action! Turn off lights, ride your bike, keep the thermostat closer to the outdoor temperature. All the things you know you’re supposed to do––do them, not only because they’re important in themselves, but also because they’re important to changing policy. Think about it: your nonprofit spreads the word about its mission through advocacy, but advocacy is really about getting people to pay attention to what’s important and act accordingly. Climate change needs to be addressed on a broad scale, but we’ll only convince policymakers that it’s important if we live like it is.

Melanie Hoekstra is the Operations Manager at The Plant, a vertical farm and food-business incubator.  She is a graduate of Chicago-Kent College of Law and the University of Michigan. She also holds a M.S. in Environmental Management and Sustainability from the Illinois Institute of Technology.  She cooks, reads, bikes, and sees her friends whenever she can.

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