SECTION TWO: ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES
Environmental issues concern both the present and the future. They decide whether our future generations can live long, safe, and happy lives on Earth. These issues arose mainly due to industrialization and then were further amplified, encompassing more aspects of life. In this section, we will elaborate on some of the most important aspects of environmental concerns.
One: Global Warming
Global warming is one of the most discussed environmental issues today. Research shows that though global temperature has been relatively stable for thousands of years, Earth’s temperature has been rising steadily at an unprecedented rate for the past century. A series of observations has highlighted the gravity of the situation and garnered widespread concern from all over the world.
The Antarctic continental shelf is narrowing and huge icebergs are cracking off at an alarming rate. From January 10 to January 12 in 2017, one of the largest icebergs in history broke off from the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf. The iceberg composed 12 percent of the Larsen C ice shelf and weighed about one trillion tons with an area size of over 5,800 square kilometers, making it roughly the size of Shanghai. Additionally, glaciers at river sources are retreating rapidly as well. In the past decade, the Yangtze River and Yellow River have experienced several thousands of kilometers of glacial retreat at their river source in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; the Alps, long famous for their beautiful snow views, have also started to experience snow shortage on their ski slopes.
Greenland and the Arctic Ocean ice shelf are also undergoing significant retreats. It is estimated that summer Arctic sea ice has reduced 72 percent from 1980 to 2016, reaching an all-time low in October and November of 2016. Scientists estimate that the summer Arctic Ocean may be completely ice-free within the decade; if so, it will be the first time the Arctic is ice-free in one hundred thousand years.
The permafrost in the United States’ Alaska and Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park has also begun to melt due to global warming, and similar things are happening in Russian Siberia as well. In March of 2017, scientists discovered more than seven thousand dirt mounds in the Siberian Arctic area, each the size of a small hill and containing explosive methane inside. A number of spray mouths had also formed.
Global warming threatens humans on a multifaceted level. Take glaciers, for example; the influx of water from melting will lead to years of floods followed by serious shortages in water. People who live nearby and depend on major rivers will be seriously affected.
Glacier melting will also lead to sea levels rising. According to several scientists, since coastal areas have denser populations, one billion people will be threatened globally with every one-meter rise in sea level. Some countries located in low terrains may be swallowed completely. 40 percent of the Maldives and 60 percent of Tulu Lu have already been submerged by water. If the sea level does rise two or three meters by the end of this century as predicted, the inhabitants of these countries will face terrible consequences.
Global warming has also brought about natural disasters like we have never encountered in the past. The El Niño and La Niña phenomena are two such cases. Global warming also has a direct impact on human bodies. High temperature and humidity levels are ideal for the proliferation of parasites, bacteria, and viruses, which can lead to a significant increase in infectious diseases. Historically, most plagues and epidemics have happened during hot summer seasons; tropical rainforest countries are especially susceptible to such attacks.
The temperature of the earth is mainly determined by the sun. Sunlight is filtered to Earth at a rate suitable for human habitation, due to the existence of the Earth’s atmosphere. The sun’s temperature remains on the surface of Earth through a complex process, which we can simplify this way: solar radiation is partly absorbed by Earth and partly reflected back into space. When Earth re-radiates solar energy, it changes the nature of that energy and produces infrared radiation. This is the origin of heat. If all this infrared remained on Earth, Earth’s surface would be very hot; if all of it were reflected back into space, the Earth would freeze. A precise portion of infrared radiation must be retained to maintain a suitable temperature on Earth’s surface; this process is accomplished by the atmosphere.
The main components of Earth’s atmosphere are nitrogen and oxygen. They are transparent and allow light to pass through freely; however, some other elements of the atmosphere are not transparent, like carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and water vapor. They not only absorb infrared radiation but also produce it, causing Earth’s atmosphere and surface temperatures to rise. These gases are known as greenhouse gases. Even though they comprise only a small portion of the atmosphere, they have an extremely important role. Today, the average temperature of Earth is 15 °C; without greenhouse gases it would drop to -20 °C. If Earth’s atmosphere was covered in green- house gases, the surface temperature would rise to 200 °C. If either of the two above situations occurred, global ecology would be completely destroyed and humans would no longer be able to survive on Earth.
Global warming happens for many reasons. Natural causes take place gradually and usually reach some sort of balance in the end; however, in the two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, humans have burned large quantities of oil, coal, natural gas, charcoal, and firewood. This, coupled with forest and grassland fires, has caused massive carbon dioxide discharge. Plant absorption of carbon dioxide can no longer keep up with its production, causing the carbon dioxide concentration in the air to rise steadily and resulting in the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect exacerbates constantly. Global warming leads to permafrost thawing, which releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane produces an even stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.
After repeated appeals from scientists, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming was finally put on the world’s agenda. The United Nations held a number of meetings to urge countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions, but they met great resistance. Industrial countries in particular held negative attitudes towards these negotiations. After decades of effort and global consensus, the Paris Agreement (or Paris Climate Accord) was finally adopted on December 12, 2015, at the Paris Climate Change Conference. It was signed on April 22, 2016, in New York. This day was marked as “World Earth Day” and celebrated as an extraordinary moment in human history. Over one hundred countries gathered at the United Nations to witness the signing of the Paris Agreement.
Only one year later, on June 1, 2017, newly appointed US President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in deference to his “Americans First” national strategy that prioritized the US economy and employment issues. The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement caused a global uproar, and many major countries voiced their objections. Unfortunately, nothing much can be done, since the United States is the world’s only superpower.
Two: Acid Rain and Air Pollution
In the 1850s, people discovered sulfuric acid in rainwater at the industrial city of Manchester. Scientists called this type of rain “acid rain.” The term became widely used and over time expanded to acid mist, acid snow, and acid ice. Normally, rain is slightly acidic due to the presence of carbon dioxide in the air; it is a normal phenomenon, but acid rain has an acidity ten times that of normal rain.
Acid rain is caused by air pollution and is a product of industrialization. Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossil fuels for industrial production has caused sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides to be released into the air. Once these particles encounter rain, they are converted into sulfuric acid and nitric acid, which then form acid rain.
Acid rain is harmful in many ways. In recent decades, many lakes in Western Europe and North America have suffered major fish shortages due to the acidity of the lake water. Forests in Central Europe have withered away due to acid rain erosion, and large stretches of grassland in Russia have disappeared for similar reasons. Acid rain filters the nutrients from the soil and reduces the fertility of the land; it wreaks havoc on crops as well.
Once the concentration of acid rain reaches a certain level, metals like lead, aluminum, and cadmium become soluble in acid, so acid rain will affect human health after entering the human body through drinking water. Acid rain can also enter the human body through other means, such as the ingestion of fish from acid rain-affected lakes, which could cause poisoning. Acid rain can also corrode building materials like metal, paint, and marble.
Air pollution not only threatens humans through the production of acid rain, but the emission of smoke and dust into the air is also harmful.
Acid rain and air pollution once plagued early industrialized countries; however, as regions like China, India, and Southeast Asia focus more on their own industrialization processes, acid rain has shown a trend of moving from developed countries to developing countries.
In 2013, “haze” might have been the keyword of the year for China. In January of that year, haze enveloped over thirty Chinese provinces four times; the capital, Beijing, only experienced five days without haze. Haze is a visual barrier caused when the dust, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and other particles in the air form an aerosol system. Once it encounters rain, it forms acid rain.
Air pollution has a serious effect on people’s health and quality of life, and the social outcry against this issue has become especially strong. In 2017, “defending blue skies” was written into Premier Li Keqiang’s government work report.
Acid rain and air pollution have attracted more and more attention globally. Many countries list them as the object of major scientific research projects. The United Nations has also held a number of meetings to discuss these issues, and many useful declarations and conventions have been produced. In 1979, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe signed the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), which went into effect in 1983. This was the first regional convention concerning air pollution, and it contributed greatly to the control of acid rain. However, as long as industrial production keeps up its expansion for the foreseeable future, control measures will only be able to alleviate harm—they cannot fundamentally solve the problem of acid rain and air pollution.
Three: The Loss of Biodiversity
There are about ten to thirty million biological species living on Earth today; only about 2.3 million of them have been identified, and most have not yet been classified. All these species together constitute Earth’s ecological chain; their existence is the basis of Earth’s ecosystem.
In accordance with the laws of biological evolution, existing species will die out and be replaced by new species in a constant cycle. This is a normal process, but the interference of mankind has changed everything. By destroying the natural evolutionary process of creatures, we are causing biodiversity to decline.
The importance of biodiversity is first manifested in ecological value. All earthly creatures relate to one another. Plants absorb moisture, carbon dioxide and inorganic salts from the soil, and air to produce photosynthesis under light. But they also alter the physical properties of soil and release oxygen and moisture into the atmosphere to achieve a balance. An adult needs 0.75 kilograms of oxygen every day, so human beings could not survive without the oxygen production of plants.
Plants are the food source for herbivores, and herbivores are the food source for carnivores. Bacterial microorganisms decompose animal bodies and plant leaves to produce simple inorganic matter like carbon dioxide and water, which are in turn absorbed by plants as nutrients. Ecology is balanced in such a cycle; each creature has its own unique irreplaceable role within the cycle. The extinction or major decline of creatures will destroy this ecological balance; studies show that the extinction of one species usually endangers the survival of twenty other species.
Biodiversity is also important in terms of economic and medicinal value. Human existence is heavily reliant upon biodiversity. Our everyday necessities cannot be maintained without the variety of creatures, and many of our drugs are derived from animals and plants. Human beings would not survive without biodiversity.
Life originated in the ocean, but after organisms came to land they expanded to account for more than 99 percent of the global biomass. Biodiversity on land is mainly focused in tropical rainforests; nearly 90 percent of the world’s species lives in tropical forests, and 75 percent of the world’s birds have breeding grounds there. Therefore, the protection of forests—especially tropical forests—is essential to the conservation of biodiversity. Unfortunately, today’s global forest coverage is reducing at a rate of fifty thousand square kilometers per year, 80 percent of which are tropical forests. As these forests are destroyed, many unique biological species are declining rapidly as well.
Humans are also destroying biodiversity with the extensive use of pesticides, air pollution, water pollution, and other industrial waste pollution. When pesticides kill insects, they also kill birds and frogs. DDT has even been found in Antarctic penguin bodies.
Once rivers are polluted by nitrogen, phosphorus, and other man-made organic materials, algae will breed in large numbers, consuming the water’s oxygen and producing toxic, gas-like hydrogen sulfide. Aquatic organisms and fish cannot survive in such conditions; this is what we call the eutrophication of water. When water eutrophication occurs in the ocean, it is called a red tide. In the past three decades, red tides have appeared all over the world and caused coastal fish, shrimp, and shellfish to die in large numbers; coastal fishermen have suffered heavy losses as a result.
Human hunting of wild animals is also a major cause of biodiversity loss. Although African governments have expended great efforts to curb the smuggling and trafficking of ivory and rhino horns, the killing of wild elephants and rhinoceros has not stopped. The smuggling of rare wild animals has always been an important component of international crime. In China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, wild animals are regarded as delicacies.
Profound reflection reveals that since the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago, the five major extinctions on Earth have all been caused by natural forces like glacial arrivals, asteroid impacts, global warming or cooling, and frequent volcanic activities. The last major extinction occurred 65 million years ago; shortly after that, biological species recovered to peak numbers. Today, species are declining at a rapid rate once again, and all signs indicate that the earth is experiencing a sixth extinction period—one caused completely by human activities.
Scientific research shows that human intervention has caused a rapid increase in the rate of species loss, especially since the Industrial Revolution. The Global Environment Outlook (NOC) published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in October 2007 pointed out that the current rate of species extinction is one hundred times that of fossil records; many scientists believe the number should be one thousand times. The Industrial Revolution might have brought great material wealth to mankind, but it devastated the earth’s species. In July 2006, scientists from thirteen countries published a joint article in Nature magazine. The article mentioned that 12 percent of Earth’s birds, 23 percent of Earth’s mammals, 25 percent of pine and cypress plants, and 32 percent of amphibians were facing extinction. That number would increase by 15 percent to 37 percent over the next fifty years.
The largest animal population humans have seen to date is the passenger pigeon. They were migrant social animals that lived in the Americas and once reached five billion in number. The largest group of passenger pigeons had over two hundred million members and could obscure the sky during flight.
This spectacular species became extinct due to human activities in a matter of decades.
In the 1870s, immigrants flocked to the west of North America, cutting down the forest habitats of passenger pigeons and hunting them for food and sport. After three or four decades, only a few dozen passenger pigeons were left in zoos. People finally began to repent and started carefully feeding the passenger pigeons in captivity. Sadly, passenger pigeons were migratory animals that were accustomed to living in large groups, so they could not survive in small numbers inside cages.
The last passenger pigeon was called Martha; she died on September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. People recorded the exact time of her death and built a tomb for her. It read: “Human greed and selfishness has led to the extinction of passenger pigeons.” This was the first time humans truly mourned the extinction of a species.
Mankind’s history has been one of killings and extinctions. Humans set foot on New Zealand eight hundred years ago; today, most of their larger animal species and 60 percent of their bird species have gone extinct.
Humans arrived in Australia fifty thousand years ago; since that time, over 90 percent of the larger animal species living there have disappeared. Huge animals like the Diprotodon that had survived here for 1.5 million years and withstood ten glacial periods could not survive the catastrophe brought by humans.
We are biologically classified as Homo sapiens; many other members of the Homo genus were eliminated after encountering us. Homo Erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Neanderthals had all survived for hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of years on Earth. Why did they all become extinct after the arrival of Homo sapiens? So-called climate change and species devolution were not sufficient reasons; the main cause was massacre by Homo sapiens.
Fortunately, biodiversity has received wide attention from the international community today, and multiple meetings have been held by the United Nations. In particular, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed in 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development. It was followed by a series of conferences to implement specific objectives of the convention.
The Convention on Biological Diversity is a legally binding global agreement; it marked the first time a consensus was reached concerning the importance of biodiversity to mankind. However, different countries have differing levels of awareness and value attached to the convention, and implementation efforts vary widely. In addition, many fundamental issues like forest, grassland, and wetland destruction, as well as pollution issues, have not been solved; thus, the trend of biodiversity loss has not changed so far, and the foreseeable future is not promising.
Four: Destruction of the Ozone Layer
From Earth’s evolution history, we know that early Earth creatures survived in the ocean until four hundred million years ago when the formation of the ozone layer allowed life to move onto land. The ozone layer is crucial in protecting Earth’s creatures from harmful rays.
Oxygen generally consists of two oxygen atoms, while ozone is composed of three oxygen atoms and exists in the stratosphere ten to fifty kilometers about Earth’s surface. The ozone layer formed from the surplus oxygen produced by marine microbes in a three-billion-year period; therefore, the original process of life formation on Earth was a lengthy process.
Earth’s atmosphere is 99 percent composed of oxygen and nitrogen; the other 1 percent contains many other types of gas, and carbon dioxide is one of them. Ozone is only a very small percentage of the atmosphere.
Many of the rays in the universe—especially those radiated from the sun—are detrimental to life. If humans flew in space without protective devices, they would be killed by these rays very quickly. These rays are blocked before reaching Earth’s surface due to the existence of ozone in the stratosphere. Ultraviolet light is one of the most lethal rays, and 99 percent of it is absorbed by the ozone layer. Human survival is inseparable from the protection of the ozone layer.
Sadly, the ozone layer, which took over three billion years to form, has been seriously damaged by mankind in the past few decades. In 1956 and 1957, scientists discovered ozone holes above the Antarctic; these holes expanded rapidly and have covered the entire Antarctic continent, even extending to the ocean around the Antarctic Circle. In 1987, ozone holes were also discovered atop the Arctic and showed signs of expanding as well.
The main reason for ozone reduction has been identified: Freon. Freon was invented by the DuPont company in the 1930s. It does not burn and is non-toxic, very stable, and non-corrosive on metals. This not only makes it ideal for the refrigeration industry, but also for foaming agents, sprays, cleaning agents, disinfectants, and other products. However, it is the stability of Freon that makes it so detrimental to ozone.
As a refrigerant, Freon can be divided into two categories: chlorofluorocarbons and hydro chlorofluorocarbons. Chlorofluorocarbons are very stable and will not decompose as they float upwards to the stratosphere. Once chlorofluorocarbons encounter unfiltered ultraviolet light in the stratosphere, the chlorines inside will decompose into atoms and combine with less stable ozone to produce chlorine oxides and oxygen; thus, the ozone layer becomes damaged.
This is only the beginning of ozone destruction. Chlorine oxide and free oxygen atoms will also combine to form chlorine and oxygen, which repeats the process, resulting in a vicious cycle. Once the process starts, a chain reaction is initiated. It is estimated that one chlorine atom can destroy one hundred thousand ozone molecules, and its destructive force can last a hundred years.
For this reason, the United Nations Environment program held a special meeting in Montreal, Canada, in 1987. At this meeting, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol) was signed. It limited the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons and seven other types of products that cause damage to the ozone layer. A number of amendments have been made to this protocol, and most of the world’s major countries have participated in the treaty. The Montreal Protocol is considered to be the most successful collaboration of humans on environ- mental issues.
In fact, the control of ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons has received rather desirable results. Even so, it is estimated that ozone holes will not be completely repaired until the late twenty-first century, even in the most ideal circumstances.