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Pacific Northwest
Hawai'i CFS

A Teenage Perspective on the Climate Crisis 

By Sophia Sunhwan Lee, Intern

December 01, 2023
Center for Food Safety

As I stepped off of the Tube, I was immediately hit by a familiar smoky smell. I quickly turned my head towards my friend, our alarmed eyes locking. "Wildfire," we exclaimed in sync. Being from California, the smell was all too familiar to us. Of course, in that moment we were far from California, standing on the streets of London. We laughed, realizing that the possibility of a forest fire in the United Kingdom's largest metropolis was nearly impossible. But, our peers weren't laughing. They looked at us with concern, wondering how we were both so familiar with the smell of wildfires. At that moment, reality set in. We both realized that having a wildfire season and getting school canceled because of smoke wasn't a universal experience. In fact, those fires were a result of an increasing climate crisis.

The effects of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere are pervasive and undeniable. As a teenage girl living in California, I have been specifically impacted by wildfires, severe droughts, and increasingly frequent heat waves. But, throughout the U.S. and all over the world, people experience the impacts of our climate crisis in different ways. Despite the differences in the way people are affected by this crisis, the fact of the matter is that everyone, everywhere, is impacted by climate change in some way. This fact is what makes climate change one of the scariest but most important issues to solve. 

As a teenager, I often feel powerless when it comes to seemingly massive issues like the climate crisis. It feels like the future of our planet is in my generation's hands, yet I've found myself questioning whether anything I do will make a meaningful impact. For a while, I felt stuck, staring at a mountain that felt impossible to climb. Only after I began to break down the issue of climate change into smaller, more manageable action steps, was I able to feel sparks of hope for the future. Understanding the origins of global warming has helped me feel more informed, in control, and confident in certain climate solutions. In light of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28 starting yesterday, I wanted to share my journey grappling with these feelings of uncertainty in hopes to inspire others to make meaningful changes in their lifestyle for the benefit of our shared planet.

So, what is climate change and where does it come from? The straightforward answer is that greenhouse gas emissions are causing long-term shifts in the temperature and weather patterns of the earth. Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are some of the most common greenhouse gases. As emissions rise, so does the earth's temperature. The earth is now 1.1º C warmer than it was in the late 1800s. But, rising temperatures aren't the only consequence of climate change. Other repercussions include intense droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, and unpredictable storms. When we think of fossil fuel emissions, many might imagine dark clouds of smoke emerging from massive factories. However, the most common way that greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere is through our everyday actions. Transportation, heating, and landfills are all contributors to increasing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. 

Some might be shocked to hear, however, that industrial agriculture is responsible for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. About 70% of all nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture, and about 50% of all methane emissions are caused by concentrated animal agriculture. Nitrous oxide emissions are especially dangerous because N2O has 298 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. And, almost all of this dangerous gas is being released into the atmosphere through our agricultural systems. Yet, when we shop for our weekly groceries, we almost never consider how the food we purchase has permanently impacted the climate. 

While the source of our changing climate is largely our agricultural system, the solution may lie in a part of that system: soil. The earth's soil stores 2,500 billion tons of carbon, which is more than plants and the atmosphere combined. But, over time soils have lost 50-70% of their original carbon contents, making it more difficult for soils to carry out their important functions. However, through photosynthesis, plants can take excess carbon out of our atmosphere and store it back in the earth's soil. Through composting, cover cropping, and conserving forests, we can simultaneously reduce carbon in our atmosphere and feed soils the carbon they need. 

Solutions like these are simple but impactful. Each day, scientists are discovering new ways to mitigate our climate crisis. Although it won't be easy, it is possible. By understanding the origins of climate change, we can take steps to prevent further damage to our environment and possibly reverse preexisting damage. But, for it to be possible, everyone, including you and me, needs to start shifting their everyday lifestyles. 

While a lifestyle shift seems like a massive change, there are simple steps we can all take to lessen our carbon footprints. With COP28 starting yesterday, here are some easy ways to lessen our impact on the climate. The most important step is to become more conscious. Learn to pay attention to your power usage, transportation choices, and heating. It is especially important for us to become more aware of our food choices. If possible, buy food from local farmers at farmers' markets and stores that source from organic, local farms. Additionally, it is important to eliminate food waste whenever possible. Most importantly, try to learn more about where your food comes from and how it impacts the environment. In addition to food choices, take shorter showers, remember to turn off the lights, do full loads of laundry, and shop secondhand. As teenagers, these small actions are invitations to make a meaningful impact on a crisis that seems so insurmountable.