An open letter to my 8-year-old second cousin
Why Does Everyone Have to Drive?
by Rikki Hall
First, I want to explain that I laughed out of guilt. I had just driven about 200 miles to see you. I was also proud that you understand there is a connection between driving and climate change, so the happiness of seeing your inquisitive brain at work mixed with the guilt of having driven so far to see it made me laugh.
At the time, we told you it's not just driving, but lots of things that contribute to global warming, things like using electricity. Global warming is a complicated problem. The complexity is both good and bad. It's bad because it means the problem is hard to understand. It's good because it means there are lots of things we can do to help fix it.
Driving less is certainly one of those things, but because there are so many other ways to help, it is probably not necessary to give up cars entirely. You are lucky to live in a town that was built before cars were common. You can walk to the store or the post office or school. A car is not necessary, though it can be convenient if you are in a hurry or have a lot of things to carry. Walking to the grocery store wouldn't be too hard, but walking back with lots of groceries would!
In America's older cities, people don't need cars for most things. They can walk or take a bus or ride a train. Your uncle Ben can go all over Philadelphia without a car, and my brother Jeff takes the subway to and from work every day up in Boston. Worldwide, most people do not own cars, whether because they are too poor to afford one or simply don't need a car.
In newer cities and towns in America, houses are often too far from stores and offices for people to walk. A car is necessary for daily life--so many Americans drive as much as they do because it's the only way to get things done. One of the ways we can cut back on the pollution that causes global warming is by changing the way our cities grow. Instead of cities always expanding outward into the countryside, new homes and stores and offices can be built where abandoned buildings once stood. Some old houses and buildings are too broken down to fix and have to be torn down, but many older buildings can simply be repaired.
That kind of growth not only keeps people closer to the places they need to go, it also saves land for forests and farms. Trees are an important ally in the struggle to stop climate change because they can clean polluted air. Planting trees helps stop global warming.
Like with old houses and buildings, we can also repair and replace old machines. Old cars generate more pollution than new ones. Old refrigerators use more electricity than new ones. Machines and appliances of all kinds tend to get cleaner and more efficient as people think of better ways to build them, and we are going to need smart people like you and your sister thinking of ways to make the world cleaner.
The electricity that makes most of our machines run comes from big factories that create a lot of air pollution, and those factories can also be fixed or replaced so they produce less pollution. There are many things we can do to make the air we breathe cleaner.
That's another important point. Air pollution is bad for many reasons, global warming being just one. Air pollution can make people sick. It can pollute rain and make the creatures that live in oceans and rivers and forests sick. It takes more air pollution to make Earth's climate change than it takes to make a person sick, so even without the threat of global warming, we should be doing more to clean our air.
Work hard in school, because understanding all this stuff and figuring out ways to solve the problems caused by pollution requires lots of brains. You will need to know math and chemistry and physics and biology, but you are a curious child with lots of brains, so I'm sure you want to learn all that stuff anyway. You've got a lot of smart people in your family who want to teach you too, so keep asking questions!
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.