By Jasmine Kerber '20
The title “Tipping Point for Planet Earth” caught my eye this summer as I browsed options for Intro Seminar classes. “How close are we to the edge?” the course inquired, and I wanted to know the answer. 97% of scientists agree that humans have harmed the environment, but there are still plenty of climate change deniers in the general public. Even those who agree that we face a climate problem are often uncertain about the details and severity of the situation. Are we talking about an approaching apocalypse or some minor inconveniences? I decided to take the class to find out.
My introsem professor, Elizabeth Hadly, works in the biology department and is also the Faculty Director of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve. In addition to her academic accomplishments, she brings guest researchers, her dog, and baked goods to class. Professor Hadly and her husband, Anthony Barnosky (also a Stanford professor), published their book “Tipping Point for Planet Earth” in 2015 as a compilation of their years of fieldwork and research, and as a call to action for governments and citizens. Signing up for this course has been one of the best decisions I’ve made at Stanford so far. Through our discussions, I’ve realized that many of the world’s most pressing problems are linked to climate change.
I’ve understood for a while that humans have enormous power over Earth’s fate, but this course helped me see that we can influence the world in both positive and negative ways. If we continue to deplete our resources at the current rate, we will permanently harm the planet. However, we can also change the world for the better if we’re willing to recognize the issues we face, work to change bad policies, and cooperate with each other.
One of the most important things I’ve realized is how climate change affects humans on many levels. When our actions push the planet into imbalance, people will suffer just as much as animals and plants. Natural resources, for instance, are inextricably tied to global conflict. During a recent class, we discussed how wars over the control of natural resources are growing more common. The oil-rich Middle East provides clear examples. Syria, for instance, has large crude oil stores, which interests the U.S. government. As a result, when Syria’s president Assad allied himself with Russia instead of the United States, the U.S. government had an incentive to try to depose him at the expense of his country’s stability. The war that followed led to large-scale emigration that further complicated international relations. It’s terrible but amazing to realize that oil played an important role in this multi-faceted conflict. If we continue to consume natural resources at the current rate, we’re bound to see similar situations arise. On the flipside, smarter energy solutions might decrease international conflicts. I had not thought about the problem this way before coming to Stanford.
Climate change will also affect access to food and water, both of which are constrained by the Earth’s growing population. For example, much of Asia relies on gradual, seasonal runoff from melting glaciers for their water supply. If these glaciers disappear, the world’s most populous continent will lose one of its most important water sources. This point from Professor Hadly’s book struck me because the glacier problem is rarely presented this way. Many people have seen photos of polar bears stranded on floating chunks of ice, but how often do we link these images to water shortages on land? Those who see drought, forest fires, and other water-related problems firsthand know that this is a serious issue, including here in California.
I absolutely believe that endangered species, decreased biodiversity, and other frequently-discussed environmental issues are incredibly important. However, we cannot forget that people are in danger too. I found myself thinking that if all citizens could take my class, they’d each find at least one reason to care about climate change. This not only an issue for certain segments of the population. It is not just a problem for hipsters, for vegans, or for polar bears. Climate change is a problem for everyone, and we all need to be part of the solution. Luckily, if we recognize the common dangers we face, we can do so.
Note: These conclusions are my own, but Professor Hadly’s class provided me with interesting information and got me thinking about new topics.
If you’d like to learn more about environmental issues, try an introsem! If you want to satisfy WAYS requirements while doing so, visit https://iearth.stanford.edu
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