Climate change is real, despite the ongoing national political debate. And it is humans, and our interaction with the Earth, that is the biggest threat to our planet. Without drastic changes – in behavior and population growth – the health of our planet is in serious jeopardy.
Pollution, ranging from fossil fuels to waste discarded into our waterways, is dramatically damaging our planet. Hydraulic fracturing, a method through which natural gas is extracted from rock, pollutes water and releases methane into the atmosphere, among other detrimental impacts. Yet it is happening all over the country. The shift to renewable energy sources is too slow and without significant incentives such as continuing tax credits for residential solar installations and awarding targeted research grants to make renewable systems more efficient, we are losing ground where we could be taking important steps forward. But fracking is a national issue that, for now, New Yorkers don’t face daily. However, we are facing health threats from numerous chemicals about which we know little.
There are over 80,000 chemicals used widely in consumer products. Some are used as pesticides, but others hide in upholstery, children’s toys or takeout containers. From orange phosphate to flame retardants to phthalates, these chemicals are present in plastics, furniture, food wrapping and even cookware. Hundreds of these chemicals remain unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is critical that any chemical compounds in common usage face FDA testing requirements that demonstrate their safety – as well as the compounds created when these chemicals come into contact with each other. There is no way to understand the full impact these have on humans, plants, animals or our planet. But we do know that they are causing systemic issues that threaten our food chain.
Common pesticides are known to sicken and kill bees. Infected or weakened bees often then contaminate their whole colony. Without bees to pollinate them, many crops are unable to survive. Without food, humans would be unable to survive. This has become such an issue in China that they have resorted to hand pollination of some crops. Yet we permit the sale and use of numerous classes of chemicals and pesticides that have been banned in other countries.
Our direct interactions with the planet are also exacerbating climate change.
One impact that is particularly relevant to New York City is the heat island effect. Due to our intense concentration of buildings, particularly tall or glass buildings, heat gets trapped. As a result, in cities the average temperature is higher than in rural areas. Increased temperatures increase demand for energy for air conditioning, impact water quality and cause additional greenhouse gases to be trapped in the atmosphere. Responsible development, a reduction of glass buildings, planting more trees and allowing for increased significant open space might not resolve all our issues, but would help mitigate this problem. We also need to take additional steps, like building green roofs, using designs and materials that reduce heat reflection, greater use of grey water and building specific renewable energy strategies.
The amount of waste we produce on an annual basis is also a critical challenge. Last year, New York City produced over 33 million tons of waste – more than any other city in the world. That is unsustainable. New York City has made some great progress toward addressing this with the implementation of a composting program and proposing the elimination of plastic bags at grocery stores. New York needs to expand the composting program, increase recycling and work toward eliminating excess packaging in products. We can, and should, revisit a reduction in the use of styrofoam in cups and single-use containers for takeout food. There are reasonable and more responsible materials which will biodegrade and reduce the output of materials that will persist in our environment.
The Earth has finite resources. While technological advancements have allowed us to become more efficient, access to fresh water and resources necessary to grow and raise food is limited. While we looked on in horror at the water catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, it is now clear that there are numerous locales where the public water supply is compromised. Not only is remediation important, but New York’s reservoir system must be protected, and the third water tunnel completed. This will allow us to repair our two existing water tunnels, where we believe leaks are draining excellent-quality water from our systems. Investments in city water delivery is vital, but so is focusing on water treatment plants, which reduce pollution in our waterways.
All of these efforts are needed, but unless we seriously address population growth, climate change will only continue to accelerate. We need to embrace the goal of zero population growth.
Zero population growth does not mean that people shouldn’t have children. For developed countries such as the United States, zero population growth would be achieved if every woman of childbearing age had 2.1 children.
Policies such as the child care tax credit are vital to working families. But we should rethink whether parents should be eligible for these benefits for their fifth or ninth child. We also need to fully invest in access to reproductive health services so that women can prevent or terminate unintended pregnancies. If women only had planned or wanted children, population growth would be slowed.
This is the only planet we have, and so far, we have taken insufficient steps toward ensuring it is viable for generations to come. We need a broad agenda that touches on all these areas in a comprehensive fashion in order to save our environment.
Deborah Glick is the state assemblywoman for the 66th District.