A matter of life and breath

By  Janet Malone, CND, Catholic Register Special
  • April 26, 2007
Do you know what it’s like not to be able to breathe effortlessly? Do you have a loved one who has respiratory problems? Polluted air contributes to these serious problems. We can live without food and water for a period of time but we cannot live without air.

For Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, “air is the matrix that joins all life together. Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come.” Each of us has contributed to the increase of respiratory and other health problems by the unnecessary idling of our fossil fuel vehicles and their carbon dioxide emissions. What better way to celebrate Earth Day on April 22 than with a personal commitment to do our part for good air quality and the respiratory health of our loved ones, including Mother Earth.

Greenhouse gases (water vapour, the most powerful greenhouse gas, and carbon dioxide, the most abundant one) trap heat near the earth’s surface. Energy stored over millions of years in the form of coal, gas and oil, when released suddenly into the atmosphere, causes global warming with the pass-along effect. Snow and glaciers reflect sunlight but sea water absorbs it. With the decrease of polar snow, glaciers and ice caps, more of the sun’s energy is retained by the sea, contributing to warmer waters and climate change. Global warming is the sum of the different weather pattern changes that affect life as we know it in our ecosystems.

Fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, oil-based fuels and natural gas) are the leading manufacturers of carbon dioxide. We produce carbon dioxide whenever we burn fossil fuels in our homes and vehicles. It stays in the atmosphere a long time: around 56 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions caused by our burning fossil fuels is still in the atmosphere and this gas is both the direct and indirect cause of about 80 per cent of all global warming. Three gases, nitrogen (78 per cent), oxygen (20.9 per cent) and argon (0.9 per cent) comprise over 99.5 per cent of the air we breathe. One of the remaining trace gases, ozone, is vital to our life on this planet. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is what protects us from ultraviolet radiation which damages the molecules essential for life, particularly the DNA molecules found in every living cell. The ozone layer, our planetary “sunscreen”, is being jeopardized by greenhouse gases that have created large holes in it.  

Al Gore’s eco-documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, for which he received a 2007 Oscar, is based on bona fide scientific data and the support of most of the world’s scientists.  Graphically, Gore reminds us of a number of inconvenient truths about what our consumeristic lifestyle is doing to the planet:

Glaciers and lakes are shrinking, polar snow and ice are melting, shorelines are receding, indicating that carbon dioxide is higher than ever before. There is a cyclical pattern to the ups and downs of carbon dioxide but, in recent years, we have seen ever-increasing amounts of this gas. The 10 warmest years in history have been in the last 14 years and in the late 1990s, the northern hemisphere was the warmest it had been in 2,000 years.

In 2005, South America experienced its first hurricane, while Japan and the Pacific are setting records for typhoons. Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage when it passed over Florida, then doubled back over the Gulf, picking up strength from unusually warm Gulf waters before it hit New Orleans.

Natural Resources Canada and its Office of Energy Efficiency provide many practical ideas about what we, as average citizens, can do to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. In its interactive web site, you can enter in your municipality to determine how much carbon dioxide you produce there on a daily basis: When I entered “Charlottetown,” I learned that if every driver of a light-duty vehicle avoided idling for five minutes a day, the city could prevent 6.921 tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere daily (that’s 2,522.18 tonnes yearly or enough carbon dioxide to fill 429 gymnasiums). 

1) Reduce warm-up idling to 30 seconds; no more is needed with today’s vehicles.

2) Turn off your engine if you are going to be stopped more than 10 seconds (except in traffic).

3) Avoid using a remote car starter, which encourages unnecessary idling.

4) Use a block heater with an automatic timer for below freezing temperatures.

5) Be an advocate for reduced idling: pass on this information to at least one other person. Let us be proactive rather than reactive.
(Malone, a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame, writes from Prince Edward Island.)

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