Top 6 Environmental Issues

coal_quarry_BernhardLand_stone_getty.jpg
Coal contributes to several of the top environmental issues, whether it's climate change, land use, or pollution. Bernhard Lang/Stone/Getty

Since around the 1970s, we have made great progress on the environmental front. Federal and state laws have led to greatly reduced air and water pollution. The Endangered Species Act has had notable successes protecting our most threatened biodiversity. Much work has to be done, however, and below is my list of the top environmental issues we are facing now in the United States.

Climate Change

While climate change has effects that vary by location, everyone is feeling it one way or another.

Most ecosystems can probably adjust to climate change up to a point, but other stressors (like the other issues mentioned here) limit this adaptation ability, especially in places that have lost a number of species already. Particularly sensitive are mountain tops, prairie potholes, the Arctic, and coral reefs. I argue that climate change is the number one issue right now, as we all feel the more frequent extreme weather events, the earlier spring, melting ice, and rising seas. These changes will continue to get stronger, negatively affecting the ecosystems we and the rest of biodiversity rely on.

Land Use

Natural spaces provide habitat for wildlife, space for forests to produce oxygen, and wetlands to clean our freshwater. It allows us to hike, climb, hunt, fish, and camp. Natural spaces are also a finite resource. We continue to use land inefficiently, turning natural spaces into corn fields, natural gas fields, wind farms, roads, and subdivisions.

Inappropriate or nonexistent land use planning continues to result in suburban sprawl supporting low-density housing. These changes in land use fragment the landscape, squeeze out wildlife, put valuable property right into wildfire-prone areas, and upset atmospheric carbon budgets.

Energy Extraction and Transportation

New technologies, higher energy prices, and a permissive regulatory environment have allowed in recent years for a significant expansion of energy development in North America.

The development of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has created a boom in natural gas extraction in the northeast, particularly in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits. This new expertise in shale drilling is also applied to shale oil reserves, for example in the Bakken formation of North Dakota. Similarly, tar sands in Canada have been exploited at much accelerated rates in the last decade. All these fossil fuels have to be transported to refineries and markets through pipelines and over roads and rails. The extraction and transportation of fossil fuels imply environmental risks such as groundwater pollution, spills, and greenhouse gas emissions. The drill pads, pipelines, and mines fragment the landscape (see Land Use above), cutting up wildlife habitat. Renewable energies like wind and solar are also booming and they have their own environmental issues, particularly when it comes to positioning these structures on the landscape. Improper placement can lead to significant mortality events for bats and birds, for example.   

Chemical Pollution

A very large number of synthetic chemicals enter our air, soil, and waterways. Major contributors are agriculture byproducts, industrial operations, and household chemicals.

We know very little about the effects of thousands of these chemicals, let alone about their interactions. Of particular concern are endocrine disruptors. These chemicals come in a wide variety of sources, including pesticides, the breakdown of plastics, fire retardants. Endocrine disruptors interact with the endocrine system that regulates hormones in animals, including humans, causing a wide array of reproductive and developmental effects.

Invasive Species

Plant or animal species introduced to a new area are called non-native, or exotic, and when they rapidly colonize new areas, they are considered invasive. The prevalence of invasive species is correlated with our global trading activities: to more we move cargo across the oceans, and we ourselves travel overseas, the more we carry back unwanted hitchhikers.

From the multitude of plants and animals we bring over, many become invasive. Some can transform our forests (for example, the Asian longhorned beetle), or destroy urban trees that have been cooling our cities in the summer (like the emerald ash borer). The spiny water fleas, zebra mussels, Eurasian water-milfoil, and Asian carp disrupt our freshwater ecosystems, and countless weeds cost us billions in lost agricultural production.

Environmental Justice

While this one is not an environmental issue in itself, environmental justice dictates who feels these issues the most. Environmental justice is concerned with providing everyone, regardless of race, origin, or income, the ability to enjoy a healthy environment. We have a long history of unequal distribution of the burden posed by deteriorating environmental conditions. For a multitude of reasons, some groups are more likely than others to be in close proximity to a waste disposal facility, breathe polluted air, or be living on contaminated soil. In addition, fines levied for environmental law violations tend to be much less severe when the injured party is from minority groups.

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