Winter 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FRM1

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Global Environmental Change: Extension Frontier for the 1990s


Bruce Justin Miller
Associate Director
Extension and Pacific Programs
Sea Grant College Program
University of Hawaii-Manoa

After years of warning from some of the world's leading scientists, global warming and ozone depletion are emerging as the major environmental issues of the '90s. Politicians armed with convincing scientific data have begun to call for action. Senator Al Gore, in talking about his recently announced Strategic Environment Initiative, termed ozone depletion and global warming "a serious risk to our national security, and probably the most critical threat our species has ever faced." World leaders are getting into the act. A communique issued from a recent economic summit stated: "Decisive action is urgently needed to deal with depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, loss of forest, and ocean pollution." The press has discovered the issue, and responded with front page coverage. And through all this noise, people are worried. A Washington Post article recently said: "From Fargo to Frankfurt, people are talking about the weather and wondering whether it's going haywire because of the greenhouse effect."

Good News/Bad News

The good news is that information about the problem has left the scientific community, captured the attention of the press, and started the politicians jockeying for position. The public, hearing the dire forecasts, is beginning to respond. The seemingly bad news is that, while everyone is aroused, not too much of substance is being done. Most scientists don't get involved in solutions, and governmental agencies have yet to develop policies to stop and reverse the trend. In spite of the rhetoric, few specific proposals have been adopted, and the relentless build-up in global greenhouse gases continues as we go about our lives, oblivious to the fact that each of us, in our everyday choices, is contributing to the problem. And the long-term damage will continue to worsen until remedial actions are initiated.

Obviously action must be taken, we all know that. The question is, who will take the lead? I maintain that no better vehicle exists than the Extension educators of this country. Global change and ozone depletion are the result of everyday activities of people where they live and work, and Extension educators have traditionally been there, whether on the farm or the waterfront. We should be moving as fast as we can to embrace this issue, not only because the emerging issue demands attention, but also because it has finally provided the reason Extension educators in both land- and sea-grant have needed to work together.

While some have questioned whether global change is an appropriate topic for Extension involvement, I suggest it's not only appropriate, but it's the only topic that can tie together many of our disparate interests and give them focus. No matter whether our programs are concerned with trees in the forest or plankton in the sea, and regardless of whether we work with skiers or surfers, fisherman or farmers, the lives of our clients could at some time in the future be seriously affected by the ramifications of global warming and ozone depletion. The threat of global environmental change has the unique ability to unite us in common programming as no other issue could.

Getting Started

Once we decide to take action, where do we start? The first and probably most important step, is to thoroughly educate ourselves on the related issues of global warming and ozone depletion. Because of the recent extensive media coverage of the topic, some of it fairly confusing, a lot of public concern, as well as misunderstanding, exists on key points. People don't understand why L.A. has too much ozone, and Antarctica hasn't enough. They ask if styrofoam cups still contain CFCs, and if they do, does burning destroy the CFC or release it? What types of sun screen and sunglasses are effective against ultraviolet radiation? Does planting trees in Boston make a difference to the global CO2 problem? Before we can design an effective program to deal with global change, we need to understand the causes and implications of global warming and ozone depletion. We further have to understand that nearly every action needed to reverse these trends, and every program we design, will also cure other longstanding resource problems. For example, when we conserve electricity and use a fuel efficient car to cut CO2 emissions, we also reduce our dependency on foreign oil, help our balance of payments, and reduce acid rain.

Once we've done our homework, where do we go next? As a start, the best way to approach the issue is from the point of view of our existing programs and present clients. Since global change is one of the few umbrella issues that will affect all aspects of our lives, it can effectively be approached from wherever we happen to be. If we work with rural clients, consider tree planting programs or town recycling rather than dumps or incineration. If our clientele is suburban or urban, focus on energy conservation - lure people out of their cars or encourage home insulation. If our focus is recreation, look at the effects of ultraviolet radiation on skin and eyes, and if it's marine, redouble efforts on elimination of marine debris or control of drift netting.

If we want to expand beyond the scope of our present programming, the most effective way is to concentrate on public education. One of the most important things is to design programs that will educate people about their responsibility to take action. These actions must specifically relate to people's everyday life. Many of the recent articles on global change and ozone depletion, while technically correct, are abstract and difficult to read. They relay facts, but don't really help people make a connection between their everyday actions and the impending long-term global changes.

Once we get people to understand the problem and its implications, we then have to empower them to take action with personal things they can do. Some examples of action programs, many not new, that we as Extension educators can start include reducing CO2 emissions through a wide range of conservation projects, eliminating use of CFCs, and planting trees (see Table 1).1

Table 1. Examples of action programs on global environmental change.

1. Initiate programs designed to prevent further global change.
    The best way to reduce CO2 emission is through energy conservation, and here we can resurrect our old 1970s projects that enhance energy efficiency:
  • Install home insulation.
  • Increase auto fuel efficiency.
  • Switch to cleaner fuels for home and work.
  • Conserve electricity at home and work.
  • Support development and use of mass transit.
  • Start alternative energy projects.

    Another way to cut CO2 emission is by cutting waste:

  • Work on projects designed to reduce excess packaging.
  • Start recycling programs that will handle most waste.
  • Educate people on need to recycle rather than burn waste.

    We can also prevent global warming by reducing use of manmade greenhouse gases:

  • Reduce non-essential use of CFCs and halons through consumer education and legislation.
  • Store CFCs and halons until safe disposal is available.
2. Design programs that will directly mitigate future global change or its effects.
  • The best way to mitigate global change is to increase tree cover worldwide. Design and implement programs to plant trees where they are gone, and protect them where they still exist.

    We can also work to alleviate some expected effects:

  • Educate the public about ways to protect themselves from ultraviolet radiation increase.
  • Work with state planning agencies to factor sea level rise into coastal plans.
  • Encourage protection of open space behind beaches and around marshes, so there's room for migration if necessary.
3. Encourage needed research that will answer uncertainties about global warming and ozone depletion.
  • Close gaps in our knowledge of the potential effects of enhanced ultraviolet radiation on marine plankton, coral, and food plants.
  • Study the economic impact of ultraviolet radiation increase and global warming, so that costs of mitigation and prevention can be compared and evaluated.
  • Initiate sociological studies to predict public response to global changes, such as reaction to threat from the sun.
4. Work to support legislators, agencies, and organizations actively working on global change issues.
  • Where appropriate, network with the climate change programs of organizations such as Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Friends of the Earth (FOE), and Sierra Club.
  • Organize letter wiring campaigns in support of strong global protection legislation introduced by Senators Gore, Hollings, and others.
  • Work with your state legislature on strong statewide bills.

Individual Responsibility

In addition to our professional activities, we also have to take a few personal steps. We must finally see that the global problems we're now facing, while arising out of the imperfect application of technology, still remain the results of choices, freely made, by each individual on this planet. Once we begin to see this, we have to encourage, through example, in our families, friends, colleagues, and clients, the concept of individual responsibility for solving the problem. Government and business, even at their most enlightened, probably won't be able to do it alone. We have to use our individual choices to make a difference. And, taking this one step further, we need to develop a global ethic that recognizes the interrelationship of our air, water, and land resources... "think globally, act locally." We have to see that deforestation in Nepal can lead to floods in Bangladesh, and that the use of CFCs in Honolulu may mean higher skin cancer rates in Australia.

The global environmental crisis is extremely serious, but it's also ripe with opportunity for positive social change. A Chinese symbol for crisis consists of two characters. One means danger, the other means opportunity. The scientific community has clearly articulated the danger, and the alarms have been sounded. I think it's now our responsibility, as Extension educators, to seize the opportunity that this global issue presents to unite, perhaps for the first time, on an issue that cuts across economic, social, and geographic boundaries.

No matter what our separate values and long-term dreams, they can only be realized if we effectively solve this and other global issues. I saw a bumper sticker recently that said: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way. But do something." I suggest Extension educators of this country are in the right place-at the right time-to take the lead on educating the public about global environmental change.


1. A comprehensive summary of action steps, found in a well- written booklet, "50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save the Earth," is available for $4.50 from the University of Hawaii Sea Grant Extension Service, 1000 Pope Road, MSB 205, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822.