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From political leaders to grassroots activists, just about everyone has an opinion on environmental issues. While viewpoints may differ, there is no denying that the environment affects every one of us. In this guide, we take a look at hot topics such as climate change, pollution and biodiversity and explain ways you can get involved in maintaining a healthy planet.
Environmental Issues: What Are They?
Environmental issues are defined as harmful effects to Earth and its natural systems due to the actions of humans. Although climate change can also occur from natural causes, human behavior has led to an increase in greenhouse emissions. While climate change is discussed frequently now, it has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution.
Climate change affects everyone and the ramifications are visible by the variation in temperatures and an increase of intense natural disasters. It contributes to even broader problems like rising sea levels and loss of biodiversity in our food systems. What’s more, the negative impacts are likely to affect those who are already the most vulnerable.
An additional concern is pollution and its influence on public health. Research shows that black carbon is making dangerous bacteria harder to kill and resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, black carbon increases risks of heart attacks, strokes and even lung cancer.
The vast amount of untested chemicals released into the air and found in our foods and household items endanger general public welfare. One study tested children for the presence of lead, methylmercury and polychlorinated biphenyls and found traces in over 89 percent of the subjects. As the future of society, kids need a safe and healthy start to life.
Issue Area: Biodiversity and Wildlife
The variation of life on Earth makes up biodiversity -- from humans to microorganisms -- and is a necessity for ecosystems, and society, to thrive. The loss of wildlife limits the ability of ecosystems to provide the natural services and resources humans rely on.
In recent years, ecosystems on Earth have been altered due to human interferences like deforestation and agriculture. The number of endangered species and declining populations are on the rise, which can lead to extinction. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, extinction, while sometimes a natural process, has increased 100 times during the last 100 years from the natural rate due to human interference. Disturbances to biodiversity would not only hurt the environment, but also human well-being. We risk food and energy security, access to viable water and materials, and become vulnerable to natural disasters.
Biodiversity is an important part of environmental functions and contributes the the natural resources humans rely on. Mitigating our contribution to this loss of species and investing in biodiversity is necessary if we wish to have a healthy life and world to live in.
Issue Area: Climate Change
Climate change is the deviation from average weather patterns lasting for an extended period of time. Although there are conflicting opinions when it comes to the exact causes, a majority of scientists studying climate agree that greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from humans play a large role. Fluctuations in Earth’s climate relate to other critical issues and have countless effects.
One closely related issue to climate change is global warming: A rise in the average temperature of the planet due to the emission of greenhouse gases. Global warming also has secondary effects, including rising sea levels due to the rapid melting of glaciers. A rising sea level would impact everyone and threatens wiping out coastlines and even whole states in the U.S.
Additionally, the continuous presence of carbon dioxide into the air is changing the chemistry of the water and lowering its pH. Only about 7 percent of greenhouse gases are stored in the Earth’s atmosphere--the other 93 percent dissolve in the ocean, leading to acidification. This results in sick marine life and ecosystems.
Dramatic and rapid changes in Earth’s climate also cause extreme weather and natural disasters. In the U.S., we’ve seen the effects of these changes with wildfires and droughts in California and the hurricanes and flooding in Florida and Puerto Rico. The impact these events have on communities varies, but according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) nearly one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, including climate and weather-related events, since 2009.
Issue Area: Oceans
The oceans covers nearly 80 percent of our planet and faces numerous threats including garbage patches and acidification.
The use of plastic throughout the world has increased dramatically, with roughly 335 million metric tons produced in 2016 alone scientists have estimated that over 5 trillion plastic particles are floating around the ocean, directly impacting the health of humanity. Marine organisms mistake plastic for food and consume it, affecting the food chain. In addition, plastic on the ocean surface could impact the exchange of carbon dioxide.
Plastic is cheap and easy to use, but consumers can make their voice heard by buying brands that don’t use packaging or utilize biodegradable alternatives. Here are other ways you can help with ocean plastic.
Coral reefs hold more biodiversity than rainforests but are much more vulnerable to the rising global temperature. Global warming has made the oceans hotter than fragile corals can handle, forcing bleaching and a majority of marine species to leave the ecosystem. Today, 75 percent of our coral reefs are gone, sick, or threatened due to climate change and other local stressors. Additional data shows that half the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016, all due to human influences.
Corals have nowhere to hide and with nearly 25 percent of all marine fish depending on them in some way, it is critical that we do everything we can to protect them. Preserving coral reefs is not only an investment in the environment, but an investment in human health and sustainability.
Global warming has also caused glaciers to melt, the sea level to rise, and alterations in ocean chemistry. As mentioned above, rising carbon emissions leads to higher carbon concentrations in the ocean, known as ocean acidification. Today, more than a billion people worldwide count on the ocean as their primary source of protein, meaning acidification can cost us lives. Although acidification impacts species differently, the lowering pH value can result in a number of unhealthy marine organisms, risking food and job security.
Although glaciers and ice caps naturally melt during the summer months, snow during the winter usually provides a balance. With a warmer climate, melting occurs quicker than the natural rate and less snow fills the gaps. This results in excessive melt water flowing into the ocean, leading to higher sea levels.
When sea levels rise as rapidly, coastal areas face serious threats: Flooding, erosion, and storms all become even greater concerns. While residents of coastal areas could be forced to move further inland, low-lying islands could be completely submerged in the years to come. According to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100, we can expect the oceans to be about 11 to 38 inches higher than they are now.
Melting ice can also affect biodiversity and animal welfare. As water continues to rapidly flow into the ocean, fish, birds and plants may lose their habitats. Animals like polar bears and penguins that rely on the cold weather and icy habitats face extinction while exposure to salt water could kill off plants and degrade soil.
Issue Area: Pollution
Substances with poisonous and harmful effects are regularly introduced into the environment. These pollutants come in a variety of forms but all threaten human and environmental health.
Often overlooked, noise pollution poses one of the biggest threats to human health and animal welfare. Constant exposure to loud noises releases a hormone that can lead to death from hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. For wildlife, noise pollution disturbs natural processes and forces many animals to migrate in order to avoid disruption.
Similarly, the human usage of light during the night disrupts the natural cycles of wildlife, causing confusion between day and night. Light pollution can also lead to depression, diabetes, obesity and sleep disorders in humans.
Air pollution is another life-threatening pollutant creating environmental issues. Caused by emissions from numerous sources, the most dangerous form of air pollution for humans is particulate matter. A range of particles from air pollution can enter the lungs and lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and even cancer. Likewise, greenhouse gas emissions serve as a contributing factor to environmental degradation through climate change and ozone depletion.
The world’s water is drowning in harmful chemicals, litter, waste, and other unnatural pollutants due to human influences. Around the world, some of the most common sources of water pollution are due to agricultural practices, oil and wastewater. When pollutants contaminate bodies of water, they deteriorate the quality and leave it unusable--making this a public health issue. The current decline in water quality is raising concerns as our world’s population continues to grow. Additionally, drinkable water sources are finite, and there’s limited support for areas that lack access to viable sources. This major concern emphasizes the importance of clean and affordable water for all and demands attention as humans continue to mindlessly use water in unsustainable ways.
Pollution is widely seen as a starting point that led to negligence and worse environmental conditions. For the most part, the pollution having these negative effects are consequences of human actions. The exhaust from our cars, fossil fuels and oil, factories, and even our food system all release pollutants into the environment. Fortunately, pollution is being addressed in a variety of ways, including innovative pollution-absorbing cement for smoggy cities.
Issue Area: World Population
Advancing technology and improved healthcare have decreased the global death rate, resulting in rapid growth. Progress in medicine is encouraging, but with a world population projection of 9.8 billion people by 2050, there are growing concerns about overpopulation, food security, urbanization, and a population "bust."
Rapid growth can also lead to urbanization, or the massive shift from rural to urban residency. While people often move to urban areas for improved access to things like education and healthcare, the population increase leads to increased consumption of food, goods and energy. For instance, there are typically more cars, which contribute to pollution, in urban areas than rural communities.
A growing population also leads to a growing need for food in a world where millions are already starving from lack of equity. Unfortunately, a number of developed nations are adding to the problem with their wasteful food practices and overconsumption. In addition to the rising demands for food comes the demand for housing. Vast amounts of land are lost to development which affects farming efforts. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. lost 31 million acres of farmland to urbanization, and numbers are still on the rise.
To address population growth and the challenges that come with it, we need to start with increasing access to reproductive education and family planning. Sex education paired with a revised and sustainable food system will benefit every part of the world.
Who is Tackling Environmental Issues?
The urgency behind these issue has inspired activism from individuals and organizations worldwide. Here are some you should know:
⦿ To support environmental health in early childhood, The Center for High Impact Philanthropy provides a Funder Brief detailing the harmful effects of chemical exposure in youths and the nonprofits working against it.
⦿ The Natural Resources Defense Council is a nonprofit working to preserve all aspects of the Earth: people, animals, plants, and natural systems.
⦿ The Health & Environmental Funders Network supports philanthropic solutions addressing environmental health and justice.
⦿ Using science and economics, the Environmental Defense Fund implements practical solutions to address the most pressing environmental issues.
⦿ The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets standards and enforces regulations.
⦿ Created by the University of Washington, EarthLab is an innovative solution using conversation to tackle urgent environmental issues.
⦿ The Children & Nature Network is a global movement using evidence-based resources, innovative solutions and policy change to promote equal access to nature for children.
⦿ Marine Conservation Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the world’s oceans by using science to identify the most pressing issues. MCI is working with scientists, politicians, government officials and other organizations to provide protection to essential ocean ecosystems and the wildlife living in them.
Charity Navigator also provides a list of 10 organizations working to preserve oceans and fight against ocean degradation.
Efforts Addressing Environmental Issues
Numerous approaches have been taken to target these issues:
Clean energy. To reduce pollution and our use of oil and fossil fuels, efforts have been made to find clean, renewable energy sources. Some include biofuel, hydropower, solar energy, and wind power.
Environmental education programs. One of the most basic things contributing to sustainability is environmental education. Learning about the environment and what is happening is one of the easiest ways to make a difference and reduce your carbon footprint.
Wildlife conservation. Wildlife, including plants, animals and habitats, plays a large part in balancing natural systems. A number of different organization are involved in wildlife conservation around the world and express the importance of conservation and investing in biodiversity.
Ecological restoration. Not only does ecological restoration assist in the recovery of the environment, but it promotes a healthy relationship between humans and nature. By repairing the damage we cause, we promote a healthier ecosystem and improve living conditions for humans, possibly with a profit.
Research for advocacy and policy change. Possibly one of the most important steps to achieving a healthy environment involves policy. But to gain government support, we need solid research and advocates to voice the facts.
Environmental Issues: How to Get Involved
Now that you know more about the pressing urgency of these environmental issues, here are a few simple ways you can make a difference:
Educate yourself. The first step to environmental advocacy is learning more about the subject and then helping educate others through civil discourse. After all, a recent Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans don’t believe climate change will affect them in their lifetime.
Eat like it matters. The way you eat has many different effects on the environment. To make your contribution positive, you can start with a sustainable, plant-based diet. This, along with reducing portion size and food waste, leads to a healthier life and reduces stress on the environment.
Reduce your carbon footprint. It may seem hard to do, but there are a few easy ways you can lessen your carbon emissions. As mentioned above, eating a plant-based diet is not only healthy, it reduces carbon emissions. You can also try carpooling, using public transportation or opt for a car-free life! These simple ideas can lead to big changes when implemented on a large scale.
Give time or money. Support organizations that are making an impact on environmental issues.
Here are a few additional articles that can help kickstart your journey.
⦿ This is how you can start your environmental activism journey.
⦿ Here’s how you can reduce your greenhouse emissions.
⦿ Health & Environmental Funders Network provides a few tips for successful environmental advocacy.
⦿ For donors, these are a few areas you can impact in the fight against climate change.
⦿ Access to clean and safe drinking water is a public health issue. Here’s how you can make an impact.
Environmental Issues: Make an Impact
Your philanthropy strategy may include channeling dollars toward an environmental issue fund. Here are several you can consider:
⦿ The Protect the Environment Fund works to bring capital to organizations focusing on protecting our environment. The fund supports 11 nonprofits addressing some of the greatest environmental challenges ranging from environmental education to protecting our forests.
⦿ The Global Greengrants Fund works around the world to catalyze grassroots-level solutions for the environment. By investing in local leaders through support and resources, communities are able to protect their ways of life and support the environment.
⦿ The Bright Funds Foundation Conservation Fund is focused on conservation and biodiversity. The fund intends to drive large-scale systemic shifts to sustainability.
⦿ Climate change is one of the most threatening environmental issues for the planet. The Bright Funds Foundation Climate Fund works to mitigate global climate change and its effects.
⦿ Hosted by Effective Altruism Funds, Lewis Bolland runs The Animal Welfare Fund. This fund works to support organizations that are focused on improving the wellbeing of animals, specifically the suffering of farm animals.
⦿ Bright Fund’s Water Fund supports vetted nonprofits that focus on using sustainable methods to provide clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to people around the world.
⦿ Cool Effect Coolection funds 11 vetted CO2-reducing projects that will affect the U.S. and the world.
Environmental Issues: Related Reading
Interested in learning more? Here are a few articles to further your understanding of the environment and related issues.
⦿ How do we solve global sustainability problems? According to the UN, global sustainability is only achievable one step at a time. Start small and find the ground you are willing to give.
⦿ Check out this list of books hand-selected by the Giving Compass team to learn more about environmental problems and solutions. Learning is the first step to making an impact.
⦿ Have you ever wondered if the different global issues we face are connected? Check out this piece by Kaysie Brown at the United Nations Foundation to learn more about the interconnection between global issues and why it matters.
⦿ This Giving Compass Original provides information detailing the effects of climate change on different communities--Find out why the lower class faces the biggest risks.
⦿ Isn't there something we can all agree on when it comes to climate change and pollution?
⦿ Do you know the leading source of carbon emissions in the U.S.?