Are We Leaving Our Grandchildren a Poisoned Chalice?

By Stephen Ashkin

Most Expensive and Damaging Hurricanes in the USSpeaking on a British national television show, Prince Charles recently told viewers that he is progressively more concerned that his future grandchild, due this summer, will be born into an “increasingly dysfunctional world” due to environmental degradation and climate change and will wonder why his generation and his parents’ generation did not do more to tackle these issues.

The Prince said that in recent years, he has grown more concerned about the long-term impacts of climate change and how humans may be contributing to it. He believes a more sensible, functioning world would put more thought into the relationship between environmental damage and climate change.

“I don’t want to be confronted by my future grandchild and have them ask, ‘Why didn’t you do something about this?’ Now that we will have a grandchild, it makes it all the more obvious that we must try and leave them [a world] that isn’t a total poisoned chalice.”*
While there are still climate change skeptics who deny that human actions have contributed to climate change, some correlations and statistics simply cannot be ignored. For instance, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reports that the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011, and that between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30 percent increase in “radiative forcing” (the warming effect carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping, long-lived gases have on our climate when released into the atmosphere).

This warming of our climate has serious climatic repercussions, some of which are violent in nature—for example, increasingly powerful and damaging hurricanes. Of the ten most expensive and damaging hurricanes ever reported in the U.S., all but two occurred during the past ten years, and all but one occurred since 1990. (See listing below.) The U.S. has also experienced increasingly serious flooding, droughts, and other “acts of nature” that can be attributed to climate change.

It is statistics like these that have caused nearly all of the world’s climatologists to believe that the Earth’s climate system is unequivocally changing, and more than 90 percent also believe humans are causing this change. The large increase in greenhouse gasses in the past two decades, as noted by the WMO, is most assuredly the result of the increased burning of fossil fuels to power buildings, automobiles, and power stations.

At one time, much of the blame for this was focused on the U.S. However, anyone who has seen the scores of high-rise hotels, apartments, and office buildings that have sprung up in China and Vietnam or the massive daily traffic jams in Malaysia and Bangkok—where just a few years ago virtually everyone commuted on bicycles—knows the world has changed dramatically during the past 15 years. Climate and environmental change are global issues that must be addressed internationally.

However, there are many simple things individuals and organizations can do to protect the environment and ensure our children and grandchildren do not grow up in a “poisoned chalice,” as Prince Charles calls it. Below are just a few of the steps that we can all take:

Get Educated: Some climate change skeptics may simply be unaware of how serious climate change is and how likely it is that humans are contributing to it. This lack of education can result in denial. We must all become more informed and educated by taking the time to access credible, unbiased sources and learn about what is happening around the world and the role humans play in these changes. We must all become more attuned to what is happening and look for ways to help.

Use Less Electricity: While Americans are using more electronics and gadgets than ever before, electricity demand in the U.S. is actually growing very little.** While there are a number of reasons for this–everything from less manufacturing facilities to better insulated buildings and the more efficient use of electricity, etc.—there is still more that we can do. One very simple change we can all make is to switch from using hot water to cold water when washing clothes. According to one study, approximately 80 percent of the energy used to wash clothes is used to heat water. But detergents are now available that work very well in cold water.

Eliminate Energy Vampires: Most of us know that many of the appliances we use every day in our homes and offices continue to consume energy even when turned off. These products are popularly referred to as “energy vampires.” What we may not know is just how much energy they use. It is estimated that ten percent of the average residential energy bill is the result of energy used to power appliances that are turned off.*** In office facilities, with scores of computers, monitors, copiers, fax machines, and other devices that use large amounts of what is referred to as “stand-by power,” this percentage is likely far higher. In some settings, building managers now turn to cleaning professionals to identify and completely turn off electronics, putting an end to energy vampires.

Measure and Monitor: While major retailers may know exactly how many items they have sold, in which stores, and on which days, they may have little idea of how much water, electricity, fuel, natural gas, or waste is generated by an individual store at a given time. Similarly, there are property management firms that keep constant track of their vacancy rates and rental income, yet have little idea how much power each individual property is consuming. This unawareness can cause costly oversights; luckily, these issues can be rectified. With the introduction of Web-based sustainability dashboard systems in recent years, managers can easily monitor and measure the use of many consumables, as well as the amount of greenhouse gasses they are generating. With this information in hand, they can begin taking significant steps to reduce consumption, which is not only a cost savings, but can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions—a major contributor to climate change.

I have children of my own, and soon may likely have grandchildren. I can relate to what Prince Charles is saying, as I am sure most of us can. Ours will likely be one of the first generations to hand our children a world far more environmentally unhealthy than the one we inherited. We may not be able to rectify the damage that has already been done; however, there are steps we can all take as individuals, communities, and nations to slow these trends.

*The word chalice derives from the Greek kalyx (through the Latin calyx), and refers to a large cup or goblet.
**U.S. Electricity Use on Wane, Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2013.
***Pull the Plug on Home Energy Vampire Appliances and Stop Standby Power Use, ABC News, July 25, 2011.