Does the thought of nitrogen deposition keep you up at night? If you answered no, you’re not alone. When my professor posed this question to a classroom full of environmental studies majors and students at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, we all shook our heads. Who worries, really passionately worries, about nitrogen pollution? Yet, when my professor had asked us if we worried about climate change moments before, the response was, unsurprisingly, a resounding yes. Nitrogen deposition is just one of many pressing environmental issues that most people, including environmentalists, have never heard of because we’ve become so focused on climate change. In recent years climate change has almost come to represent the environmental movement itself: We’ve become not the environmental movement, but the defenders of climate legislation and science movement.
“But, isn’t climate what it’s all about?” one of my friends asked as we were discussing which issues the environmental movement should emphasize. Global climate change is undoubtedly a crisis worth worrying about as it will affect a host of other issues from industrial pollution to biodiversity loss. Yet, while climate change is arguably the greatest threat to our world due to the myriad effects it carries along with it, it is far from the only threat our environment faces.
Consider the issue of water pollution. Currently, more than a billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water. Closer to home, despite the fact that relatively strong legislation, like the Clean Water Act of 1972, exists in the U.S., an extensive New York Times study of Environmental Protection Agency records from 2004 to 2009 revealed that the West Haven Water Pollution Control Facility and the New Haven East Shore Sewage Treatment Plant were out of regulatory compliance and had 108 and 72 violations respectively in their last four inspections. Besides being gross, the release of nutrient-rich sewage into water bodies can stimulate the growth of algae, leading to mass die-offs of the fish and shellfish we like to eat.
And raw sewage is far from the only thing we’re dumping into our waters today: We’re also washing huge quantities of pharmaceuticals down the drain. Environmental Protection Agency scientists have found everything from Prozac to the synthetic estrogens from birth control pills in nearly every major water source they’ve examined. What’s particularly troubling is recent research suggests that these chemicals are causing amphibians to become hermaphrodites; we don’t even know what effect these chemicals have on human health.
Even when the water itself in our drinking water supply is clean, we may contaminate it by bringing it into our homes through PVC pipes, which are linked to reproductive and neurological problems and whose byproducts vinyl chloride and dioxin are classified as known human carcinogens by the National Toxicology Program. And PVC is everywhere: We use it in everything from the PVC toys that we give babies to chew on to the cell phones with PVC components that we put up to our ears.
Yet, despite all of the action-alert e-mails I get from various environmental organizations asking me to sign petitions and donate money to their campaigns, I’ve never heard from them that my own keyboard could be killing me. I receive hundreds of e-mails and pre-addressed donation envelopes with pictures of polar bears atop melting icebergs in my mailbox asking me to keep up the climate fight. Yet, if we’re truly environmentalists and not just climate fanatics, shouldn’t immediate issues like water pollution worry us just as much — if not more — than the climate crisis whose worst effects thankfully still impending?
I say all of this not to draw attention away from or deemphasize the all too pressing threats posed by global climate change. We shouldn’t give up yet on the hope of passing meaningful climate legislation or assume that we needn’t bother to minimize our own carbon footprint.
However, at the same time, we can’t afford to neglect the multitude of other threats to our environment. We can’t wait until the climate issue is fixed before we start focusing on the other problems before us. As we’re seeing both at home and abroad, solving climate is proving far trickier than even the worst pessimists would have predicted. And while we look away, issues like nitrogen deposition aren’t solving themselves. But we can start solving them today. If we were to take just a fraction of the attention that we currently devote to climate and apply it to some of our other most pressing environmental issues we could get something meaningful accomplished right now.
Lily Twining is a junior in Pierson College and a co-chair of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.