By Hae Jin Kang, 15, Granada Hills Charter HS
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Illustration by Nicole Chi, 15, La CaƱada HS

"Global warming and the Panama Canal are two great examples of how humans have affected the environment. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases that we use too much and…"

I scribbled down my notes during AP human geography class last October. Oh great, I thought, even one of my favorite classes is a bore today. We had been learning about culture and how it interacts with the physical environment. But what does global warming have to do with culture?

Meanwhile, I flipped around the book until I came upon Chapter 8, "Popular Culture." I read that global warming is an indirect result of our industrialized culture that promotes the use of cars and chemicals damaging to the environment. I was intrigued.

As I headed to my chemistry class, I wanted to learn more about global warming. The thought of our Earth’s temperature rising frightened me.

After chemistry was over, I asked my teacher, Mr. Lee, about global warming. I knew he could help me, because he is an environmentalist who rides a bike to school instead of driving and he also has environmental books in his classroom.

Mr. Lee said that global warming will happen but that it’s hard to know exactly how or when. Global warming is hard to measure because many people consider changes in the world’s temperature throughout a few decades to be perfectly normal in the 5-billion-year-old history of Earth and minimal in damage.

Mr. Lee also explained that some people say that global warming has already started, so we cannot prevent it. However, he told me that we could help our environment by doing small things, like riding a bike more often than a car. Global warming is a serious issue: sea levels could rise and some animal and plant species could become extinct if their natural habitat is changed by rising temperatures. How could I not have known about it?

I had to learn more

After I talked with my teacher, I did research at the library and at home. The U.S. Geological Survey defines global warming as an increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s surface, which occurs following an increase in greenhouse gases.

Some people say that the activities of our industrialized society—such as emissions from cars and power plants, coal mining, deforestation—have changed the natural balance of the Earth’s atmosphere. Other people say that there’s no proof that global warming is happening, and climatic changes are caused by normal geological conditions.

Here’s how global warming works:
The sun’s energy passes through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the Earth to heat the planet. Some of that heat escapes through the atmosphere, which is made up of many gases. The so-called "greenhouse gases," which include carbon dioxide, water vapor and others, form a gas shield around the earth that traps more of the heat inside, like in a greenhouse. Because the heat is trapped inside the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature rises.

If the Earth’s temperature rises too much, some scientists say it will cause more drought, fires in the rain forests, higher sea levels and increased acid levels in the oceans, which could kill many marine species.

These greenhouse gases are important to life. Without them the Earth would be too cold to support life, but too much of them is harmful.

Here’s the connection between people and global warming: all of these major greenhouse gases have increased in concentration since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of automobile exhaust and power plant emissions, and methane is released into the atmosphere from coal mining and oil and gas extraction. Nitrous oxide, which is used in fertilizer, is added into the atmosphere each year through farming, as well as from deforestation.

In history classes, I always learned that the industrial revolution was great for our society, but learning about global warming made me think how harmful it has been to our environment. Glaciers in the Arctic Sea have been shrinking and bird populations in the North Sea have decreased after their main food, sand eels, left the warmer waters, according to an article published in The Independent, a London newspaper.

Since that lecture, I have bookmarked dozens of Web sites on global warming, visiting them at least once a day. At the library, I have checked out books and searched National Geographic magazines for every bit of information I could scavenge.

I’ve been delighted to learn that many countries are trying to help stop global warming. So far, 140 nations have signed the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement among industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent between 2008 and 2012.

We can do a better job

The Kyoto Protocol went into effect in February. The most surprising thing for me is that the United States, the largest polluter of greenhouse gases in the world, has refused to join it. President Bush has said it’s harmful to the economy. It would be expensive for companies to alter the way they run their factories and it would be unfair to the United States because not all countries have the same standards, he has said. I believe that our government should have signed this agreement. After all, the environment belongs to the whole world, not just the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Everywhere I go, everyone I see, I can’t help but think what that person is doing wrong. People throwing away paper and bottles into the trashcan instead of the bins labeled "recycling" that are right in front of them. Friends leaving their lights on in their bedrooms, when they are eating dinner or watching TV in the living room. Students (even me!) using battery-powered calculators instead of solar-powered ones … and the list of bad habits just goes on.

I decided that I would work on shortening this list to help slow down global warming. For starters, I will reduce, reuse and recycle paper, glass and metal. It takes fewer raw materials to make things from recycled products, so less carbon dioxide is sent into the air during manufacturing. So recycle that water bottle! Reduce energy by turning off lights! And reuse paper. Although it may seem small, you’re helping a lot.

Steps you can take:

1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Reusing paper, glass and metal reduces carbon dioxide pollution by 70 to 90 percent.

2. Use compact florescent bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs. Florescent bulbs are better for the environment and are also 4 to 6 times more efficient because they give off less heat.

3. Save energy at home. You’ll save money and help the environment by not running the air conditioner when you’re not home.

4. Many of you have your driver’s permits, and even your licenses. If you do, check your car tires. Properly inflated tires burn less gasoline. Take the bus, carpool or ride a bike whenever you can instead of driving.