Warming Trends: Americans’ Alarm Grows About Climate Change, a Plant-Based Diet Packs a Double Carbon Whammy, and Making Hay from Plastic India

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

The Dixie Fire pushes through the Genesee Valley on Aug. 21, 2021 in Genesee, California. Credit: Allison Dinner/Getty Images

The Dixie Fire pushes through the Genesee Valley on Aug. 21, 2021 in Genesee, California. Credit: Allison Dinner/Getty Images

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CULTURE

The Growing Alarm About Climate Change

The number of Americans alarmed about global warming now outnumbers Americans who are dismissive of it three to one.

That’s according to a twice-yearly public opinion polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The latest poll, conducted in September 2021, found that 33 percent of respondents were “alarmed” about global warming. These respondents were the most supportive of climate action and said they strongly believed that they

will be affected by climate change. 

The poll, which has been conducted since 2008, categorizes respondents into one of six segments, based on their level of concern about global warming: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful or dismissive. 

In addition to the third who were “alarmed” respondents, the latest results showed that 25 percent said they were “concerned,” putting the majority of Americans in the two categories most supportive of climate action. Just 9 percent were “dismissive,” the category for respondents who rejected climate science and were least supportive of climate action. The cautious, disengaged and dismissive categories have decreased in size since 2017, while the alarmed category has nearly doubled.

“There is some degree of seasonality to public opinion on climate change,” said John Kotcher, an assistant professor at George Mason University involved in the research. “But some of these increases were so large in magnitude, it’s hard to imagine it’s purely just a seasonal effect.”

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Kotcher said the growth in climate alarm among Americans could be attributed to more political leaders talking about climate change, an increase in climate activism and more severe heat waves, hurricanes and wildfire events.

“I think we have some evidence to suggest that the extreme weather events that occurred over the summer and in the run up to the September 2021 survey likely played a role in some of the increases that we observe,” Kotcher said. “And the fact that media attention to the issue has also been growing likely amplified some of those effects.”

SOLUTIONS

When Traffic Slows, Biking to Work Accelerates 

Reducing traffic speeds to 20 miles per hour could significantly increase the number of commuters using bicycles to get to work, a new study found.

Researchers at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom looked at census data for 172,000 Surrey residents that showed where they lived, where they worked and what mode of transport they used to get to work. All the people included in the study lived 1.2 to 3.1 miles away from their workplaces.

The researchers examined the shortest route between home and work for residents who said they biked or drove to work and looked at the factors along the route that might be affecting commuters’ transport decisions, like traffic speed, traffic density, hilliness and the presence of bike paths.

The speed of traffic was the main factor deterring people from cycling to work, the researchers found. When traffic speeds along the route exceeded 20 mph, fewer commuters chose to bike to work.

The effect was more significant among women, the researchers found.

“Women are underrepresented in cycling in the U.K., and actually often in Western nations,” said lead author Nick Grudgings, who was a doctoral student at the University of Surrey when the study was conducted. “Not only does this give you a route to increase cycling levels overall, it also gives you a route to increase it in a targeted demographic and address some of the socioeconomic inequalities there.”

Increasing the number of commuters choosing cycling instead of driving can reduce carbon emissions, lessen traffic congestion and improve health among people opting to cycle, co-author Alex Hagen-Zanker said.

“We do know that there is a lot of potential gain,” Hagen-Zanker said. He estimated that the number of cyclists could increase by as much as sixfold if routes are made more bicycle friendly through improvements like bike paths. 

SCIENCE

Plant-Based Diets’ Double Whammy: Fewer Cows, Fallow Land 

A societal shift to planet-friendly diets could have a double-whammy effect at keeping climate-warming greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, according to a new study.

Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands and other institutions around the world looked at the EAT-Lancet diet, which encourages healthy, sustainable foods like vegetables and nuts over red meat and refined grains. They found that widespread adoption of the diet in high-income countries would not only reduce emissions by having fewer methane-belching cattle on the landscape, but would also allow pastures currently used for unsustainable food production to return to a natural state. 

“If you were to allow that land to revert to the potential natural vegetation that was there before, you would essentially double the impact from the dietary change,” said senior author Paul Behrens, an assistant professor at Leiden University.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature Food, emphasized that the double carbon benefit could be realized even if only high-income countries adopted the EAT-Lancet diet, and noted that those nations are most able to shift from a diet high in animal protein to a plant-focused diet.

Behrens said that food systems are an important sector in which to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from food systems alone, he said, could take the planet past 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming.  

“We’re not saying something that’s easy to happen. We discuss how this will require linking up of land policy, of environmental policy, of agricultural policy,” Behrens said. “We’re not saying that it’s going to happen. We’re just saying that these are the opportunities.”

SOLUTIONS

Making Hay Out of Plastic 

When Adishree Kasliwal was a young girl living in Jaipur, India, she had a desire to learn more about the environment and how to protect it. But, she said, she felt there was nowhere she could go to learn these things.

So when she was a teenager, she decided to create the resource that was missing from her childhood.

“I wanted a platform where young children could learn and express their opinions about the environment,” she said, “and they would have someone there who could guide them and who could tell them, ‘This is happening in the world and I want to hear what you have to say about it.’”

Kasliwal, now 16, is the founder of Team Earth, an organization educating children 8 to 16 about environmental issues like climate change and plastic waste, with speakers, lessons and hands-on participation in solutions. 

The organization’s latest venture is RE/WRAP, an online store selling products made by Kasliwal and the Team Earth children from plastic waste. The children turn the plastic into colorful baskets, stools and planters which they sell for 350 to 1,450 rupees, or about $5 to $20. The funds go toward helping reduce plastic waste, according to the RE/WRAP website. Each item is advertised as saving several bottles and hundreds of wrappers from going to the landfill.

“As soon as I step out of my house, all I see is plastic waste,” Kasliwal said. “I know there is something that can be done about it, but people here, they tell you ‘No,’ so I wanted to change that to make the world a better place, and make my own city a little bit cleaner.”

The plastic is cleaned and donated to Team Earth, and Kasliwal said it is easy for children to assemble it into something new.

“If children can do it, that usually motivates the others to see that this is a big problem,” she said. “If the children are telling us, that means it’s something that is important.”

SOLUTIONS

Real-Time Emissions Data: Everybody’s Asking For It 

The city of Reno, Nevada is now tracking its greenhouse gas emissions in real time, powered by a local startup company. 

The data, which measures emissions from the city’s utilities, vehicles and other sources, will help the city toward its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. 

The up-to-the-minute data can help Reno find ways to be more efficient and reduce emissions, for example, charging electric vehicles during the day when there’s a large supply of solar power instead of at night, said Josh Griffin, co-founder of Ledger8760, the Reno-based startup monitoring the data.

“We gather dozens, hundreds and in some cases thousands of data sources and assemble it in a platform that our customers can see immediately what’s happening in as real time as possible,” he said.

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This kind of data can be much more informative and useful than an annual emissions report, he said, and can help keep institutions on track toward their reductions goals. Reno residents can see their city’s emissions data on an online public portal supported by Ledger8760.

The startup (the number 8,760 in its name refers to the number ofhours in a year) has other clients utilizing its real time data services, including governments and private corporations. 

Griffin said that companies are in a big transition where they are increasing their climate impact monitoring, which he said will help customers make better informed business decisions to lower their impact.

“We’re in a process where granular data is becoming incredibly important. And people are asking for it,” Griffin said. “Our customers are asking for it because their customers are asking them for it.”