The environment is a cause for concern for all of us. In this interview with Professor Ronald Geyer who has dedicated himself to environmental science and management we discuss why not to buy houses on the coast, the depleting water table, wildfires becoming more common with each passing year and more including the extreme conditions prevailing and probably getting worse in time to come.
We also talk about what we as individuals can do.
Coasts and Wildfires
Professor Geyer, thank you for this opportunity for an interview with you. I recently heard an intellectual say, do not buy a property anywhere near the coast in any part of the world. What are your views on this?
Thanks for having me. The many impacts from human-made climate change have become very visible in recent years, with sea level rise being one of them.
California, for example, has over 1,500 kilometres of coastline and is already affected by it. I’m afraid we will lose many houses to rising sea levels.
Wildfires, not only in the US, but across the world are becoming quite frequent. How can governments and individuals help?
2020 was the worst fire season that both Australia and California ever had, which is another effect of climate change.
These changes are here to stay, so we will have to adapt to them. At the same time, we have to stop climate change from getting even worse.
The two most important things for this are to stop burning fossil fuels and to stop deforestation.
I recently called for a phase-out and ban of fossil fuels.
Deforestation and Climate Change
Estimatedly, how much of the forests are lost each year, most especially on account of the increasing necessity for food?
Land degradation and deforestation are a major cause of climate change and biodiversity loss and are happening all over the world, including the critically important Amazon rainforest.
Satellite imagery shows that deforestation in the Amazon rainforest had actually been declining to below 5,000 square kilometres per year in 2012.
Sadly, it has been increasing again since then and reached over 11,000 square kilometres per year in 2020. We need to put pressure on the governments that allow this to happen.
Please tell our readers about the pollution caused by something as simple as washing of synthetic clothes and day to day items used by the average individual.
This is a big question. You could write a whole book about this, and, in fact, I have just written a book about it.
Let’s just take the example of clothes. The production of the fibres, whether it is cotton or polyester, requires energy and water and generates emissions.
So does turning the fibres into fabric and these fabrics into finished clothes. When we wash and dry our clothes we also consume water and energy, especially if we wash our clothes often and use electric or natural-gas-powered dryers.
It turns out that washing our clothes also releases microfibres into the waste water, which can then end up in water-bodies or on land. If these fibres are synthetic, like polyester, they won’t biodegrade in the environment.
We have yet to fully understand the environmental consequences of these microfibre emissions.
Reducing Food Emissions
What can be done to reduce food carbon emissions?
Producing all our food is a significant source of climate-change-causing emissions, called greenhouse gases or GHGs.
The best thing to do to reduce GHGs from food production is to eat less animal protein (especially less beef) and more plant-based protein.
Will we continue to experience reduction of availability of seafood or is there hope?
Sadly, many wild fish stocks are still declining. Some people think that aquaculture (fish farming) is the solution, but I am not so sure.
There are many studies that show that marine protected areas (which are off limits for fishing) can reverse the decline in fish and seafood stocks, so this is what we should be doing.
And again, we should eat more plant-based protein and less animal-based protein.
Climate Change and Water
How scarce is water going to become in time to come?
In many parts of the world water is already a scarce resource. The American Southwest, where I live, is in an ongoing, severe drought.
Climate change will make this even worse. We will have to adapt to this new reality. One important way to do this is by using and wasting less water.
Are we drilling deeper and deeper for water as the years go by?
Groundwater is a major source of potable water for agriculture and households.
In many regions of the world groundwater tables are sinking, which means that we have to drill deeper and deeper wells to reach it.
This is not sustainable, though, so we have to find better ways to manage water supply and use.
Will the young generation and those to come, have to live with extreme conditions that have been created?
I have to admit that I am worried about the kind of world my generation will leave behind, which is the reason I changed my career.
Conditions will worsen and get more extreme, but it is impossible to predict just how bad. Maybe this is the wakeup call humanity needs to finally change its way of life.
I am working on the assumption that it is not too late to turn things around, but that immediate and drastic action is required.
You have contributed a chapter to the Earth 2020 book. Please tell us about this?
This was a fun project and the first book chapter I wrote for a general audience. The book celebrates the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which is coming up again on April 22.
The first Earth Day in 1970 marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The book has 25 or so chapters on all aspects of environmental sustainability, is written in non-technical language, and you can download it for free!
It also has amazing images from one of my favourite photographers, Edward Burtynski.
Our readers are mainly young people in different parts of the world. A word of advice for them?
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I started to become worried about the state of the environment, but was not confident enough to confront the adults.
I am very impressed by teenagers that do, like Greta Thunberg. It turns out that grown-ups don’t always know best, so learn the facts and then challenge the adults!
Professor Roland Geyer is at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California. After obtaining a graduate degree in physics from the Technical University Berlin, he decided to pursue a career in environmental sustainability. Professor Geyer studies the environmental impacts that are generated during the production and consumption of goods and services and looks for ways to reduce these impacts to sustainable levels. Find out more about his work at https://www.rolandgeyer.com/.
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