Humanity’s impact on environment exacting steeper price

March 27, 2019 — by Rohan Kumar and Oliver Ye

Traveling abroad reveals that environmental issues such as climate change and pollution have devastating impacts on not only the Earth as a whole, but also on individual people.

Lush vegetation casts shadows on the ground. Capuchin monkeys swing through the broadleaf evergreen trees that tower above, and colorful quetzals and toucans decorate the canopy.

These are the kinds of scenes in abundance at Monteverde National Park, one of 161 wildlife refuges in the Costa Rica.

But its beauty is threatened by climate change.

According to research conducted by NASA, over the past two decades, global temperatures have risen by over 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit and sea levels have risen by 8 inches. Glaciers are rapidly disappearing, animals are being forced to migrate toward the poles and ocean pH levels resulting from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are hurting the ocean’s biodiversity.

These statistics are often present in the news, especially since the United Nations released a report on Nov. 27 last year detailing how massive energy transformation would be required to combat climate change. When people hear about climate change, they may initially think about protecting natural areas such as Monteverde National Park, but the consequences of environmental issues are directly impacting communities on all continents.

Awareness about the environment’s influence on public health issues may reduce the disconnect between those who are as not directly affected by environmental issues immediately and those who are suffering from them.

When junior Selina Yang visited Nepal in 2017 for the first time, she saw a massive disparity in the quality of life between there and here. Nearly everywhere, including the capital city of Kathmandu, had significantly poorer infrastructure, housing and facilities than typical U.S. cities. Many citizens do not have electricity, close to half lack proper sanitation, and poor structural integrity makes many houses prone to damage during earthquakes. She also noticed that many citizens lacked access to clean water because of water pollution by untreated sewage disposal.

“I saw that many if not most of the people there didn’t have the most basic human need: water,” Yang said. “I watched as young children played in dirty rivers while the older locals told me of their corrupt government, doing nothing to solve their clean water crisis.”

While staying in an apartment in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, one of Yang’s friends used tap water to brush his teeth and ended up with severe diarrhea for the next two days.

Yang has visited Nepal twice, for two weeks in the winter of 2017 and two weeks in the summer of 2018. During the summer, Yang joined the humanitarian organization Water In Nepal to provide pipes, water tanks and filtration systems to the Godawari community. Together, they raised $18,000 to aid over 200 homes, restoring several ruptured joints in the water system and providing newer and more durable pipes for six different village schools.

Yang’s experiences in Nepal exemplify the importance of environmental health: Without it, basic human resources are contaminated and thousands of people suffer the consequences.

As a testament to this, The New England Journal of Medicine associated climate change to lives lost. In a 2019 report, the publication reported that climate change causes at least 250,000 deaths worldwide every year because of malnutrition, heat stress, malaria and other side effects. Reduced food production and extreme weather events resulting from climate change also contribute to human suffering across the globe.

In the U.S., many of these problems are negligible because of the strong health-care infrastructure in place. However, there have been many recent reminders that climate change can destroy the lives of thousands. The hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Florence destroyed billions of dollars worth of property, displacing thousands and leaving many homeless.

In 2017, hurricane Maria killed 2,975 people and left millions without power for 11 months. According to scientists, the recent wildfires in California are also linked to droughts that have plagued the state for the past couple years. These natural disasters, which are occurring more often than in the past, have all been linked to climate change.

In other places, the environment’s health is deteriorating rapidly along with the lives of people and animals. When biology teacher Lisa Cochrum visited Borneo in Southeast Asia in 2007, she witnessed firsthand the consequences of deforestation. Driving to the lodge where she stayed, Cochrum saw countless logging trucks passing by.

“After a couple hours of it, we went dead silent,” Cochrum said. “It was very emotional for us to actually see them pulling out the forest trees and realize that we were about to see the gibbons and orangutans that were literally going to be extinct the next day.”

Cochrum also discovered the impacts of environmentally unfriendly practices on locals when she traveled to India. There she met women in India who had participated in or lived near the mining industry.

Not only did the women experience harmful long-term effects of being exposed to mining sites for long periods of time, but their children were harmed by the living environment as well.

The piles of tailings, or chemical residues from mining, caused physical and mental deformities in the children of women who lived nearby. The chemicals damaged the health of pregnant women as well because of the lack of regulations on the mines.

“The last thing we want to do is impact the kids, particularly on a global level,” Cochrum said.

Cochrum has also become more aware of other disasters, recalling a recent dam break in Brazil that drowned 300 people nearly instantly. The copper tailings in the reservoir left a significant chemical residue, which will prevent inhabitants from returning to their homes for decades.

According to Cochrum, seeing such disasters happen in person makes them seem more tangible than reading about it in a textbook or online. As a result, Cochrum tries to incorporate her own experiences into her curriculum to give her students a more personal view of environmental issues. Being aware and engaged in such problems allows students to be more educated when making decisions.

Cochrum’s travels have influenced her significantly, both as a person and as a teacher.

“It stirred me up to do a better job of educating,” she said. “If we’re going to raise the next generation of leaders in Saratoga, and they’re going to go and participate in major corporations around the world, they need to understand the effect of their actions.”

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