Climate change It’s been discussed for several decades now. There is widespread consensus that it needs to be reversed. Last December, the U.S. was one of the nations that signed a historic accord in which countries agreed to take measures limiting climate change. Their target is to confine climate change to two degrees Celsius above what scientists have determined are pre-industrial levels. President Obama hailed the agreement as “the best chance we have” to stop climate change.
That’s what nations are doing, under the auspices of the 21st Conference of Parties. But what can individual people do? Specifically, what can millennials — a generation both aware of environmental issues and likely to be engaged in them — do? Can millennials reverse climate change?
Let’s look at the big picture first. Then we’ll look at what millennials can do to help.
Climate Change: What It Is
Climate change is largely caused by greenhouse gases that become trapped in the atmosphere and cause the earth’s temperature to rise. Greenhouse gases, in turn, are caused by fuel emissions. Coal, oil, gasoline and other fossil fuels all contribute. Deforestation — the cutting down and eliminating of vast tracts of forest — is also a contributing factor.
Rising temperatures cause multiple effects both on the earth and in the atmosphere. Polar ice caps and permafrost melt. Sea levels rise as a result. The oceans rise in temperature, making them uninhabitable for many ocean-dwelling species. Temperatures become extreme, with very cold winters and very hot summers. Storms — hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes — become more prevalent.
Because carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere for up to 100 years, scientists feel it is particularly urgent to reduce carbon dioxide emissions now. Even if zero carbon policies were adopted tomorrow, the amount of emissions already in the environment would cause global warming to continue for a long period of time.
This can be seen as grim news. However, most scientists believe that climate change can be reversed and stopped with the right policies and a sense of immediacy.
What Can Millennials Do?
So that’s the large scope of climate change. What can millennials do?
There are two things. One of the environmental movements most used tag lines is “Think globally. Act locally.” It’s an often-used slogan because it will work, if used effectively.
Let’s reverse the slogan’s order and talk “act locally” first.
One of the most efficient climate-change agents is at most millennials’ doorway every day. It’s the vehicle — the car, truck or van.
Whatever you drive, in all likelihood, it uses gasoline. It also uses motor oil. The vast majority of vehicles on the road do, and both gasoline and oil contribute to greenhouse gases.
Millennials can help reverse climate change by purchasing vehicles that reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. That means reducing or eliminating gasoline and oil — considering the purchase of alternative-fuel vehicles.
Types of Alternative Fuels
What are the candidates? Let’s discuss selected types of alternative-fuel available and the pros and cons of each:
- Ethanol. Ethanol can be produced from food crops and waste products. It is very clean in terms of carbon emissions. Eight million cars currently drive with a blend of gasoline and ethanol. However, less than 1% of U.S. gas stations have these blendsavailable.
- Compressed natural gas. Large supplies of natural gas exist, and it’s a clean-burning fuel. However, as with electricity and ethanol, few fueling stations currently exist. In addition, the car’s fuel tanks are large and can carry only the equivalent of a few gallons of gas. The range is limited as well.
- Biodiesel. Despite the association of “diesel” with a type of oil, biodiesel is made from a good kind of oil — vegetable oil and cooking oil among them. Emissions are nil. In addition, many vehicles in use can already use biodiesel. However, supplies are very limited.
- Electric cars and hybrids of electric/gasoline. These exist, but they can only be driven for a restricted number of miles before needing to be recharged. In addition, the infrastructure is limited. While any millennial can find a gas station within a few miles, electrical charging stations are few and far between.
- Hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen is a wonderfully clean fuel. The emissions are essentially water and that’s it. Not only that, but the fuel efficiency is double that of gasoline. Plus, the U.S. has a lot of hydrogen. The drawback, though? No refueling stations at all. Hydrogen batteries likely won’t be available until 2020, either.
Think Really Globally
As the discussion of types of alternative fuels makes clear, although millennials may want to reverse climate change, the infrastructure of vehicle fuel just isn’t helping them much. Even if millennials invest in biodiesel or electric cars, two of the most available types, they will run into issues with the number of miles they can actually drive, their ability to refuel effectively and often or both.
That’s where the second part of the slogan, “think global,” kicks in. Without a genuinely workable system for alternative fuel cars, the best millennial will in the world can’t use fuel-efficient or gas-free cars to reduce emissions and reverse climate change.
Two researchers at Google’s now-defunct energy conservation think tank believe that, despite the pressing need for zero-carbon fuel across industries and sectors, it ultimately won’t happen until very inexpensive alternative fuels are developed and accessible. At that point, they hope an economic rationale will kick in for the industry. The ability to operate more cheaply will incentivize leaders to rebuild their infrastructure to accommodate alternative fuels.
With private cars, trucks and vans, the issue may be more complex, though. Economic incentives exist for private drivers. Many forms of alternative fuel are significantly less expensive than gasoline. However, the change needs to happen from researchers and developers of fuel types, manufacturers of vehicles and the market that supplies fuel and maintenance, too.
That’s a tall order — and a complicated one.
What Can Be Done in the Meantime?
So how can millennials reverse climate change? They can acquaint themselves with the types of alternatives available and maybe purchase one of the alternative fuel vehicles. Millennials can also continue to push awareness, at all levels, of the need for reduction of fossil fuel use.