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INTRODUCTION: Why Green Challenge is more than just hot air
The impact of global warming is not limited to Arctic ice.
If you took a hypothetical "walk across Virginia," you would see changes in all of the state's ecosystems, said Roger Mann, director of research at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. From the mountains, to the Piedmont, to the coastal plain, to the Chesapeake Bay and out onto the ocean's continental shelf.
"In every one of these you can find evidence of the signature of global warming," said Mann, who testified earlier this year before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on these local impacts.
Oyster diseases are living through winters because the water doesn't get cold enough. Tree-harming insects in the Piedmont and mountains are also thriving in milder winters. Atlantic surf clams that fisherman used to catch as far south as Cape Hatteras are now rarely found south of the Chesapeake Bay.
These environmental changes, seen here in Virginia, are the reason behind a weekly newspaper series called the Daily Press Green Challenge.
You'll find the series every Thursday on the front of the Life section, and any time at this Web site. The first step of the challenge is to use the online "carbon calculator" to determine your household's contribution to greenhouse gasses. The "challenge" is to reduce that number by 15 percent.
The Green Challenge series includes tips on how to reduce your energy use at home and on the road to reach the goal. You can chat with other challenge-takers at dailypress.com/gogreenforum and exchange ideas, frustrations or inspiration.
Intentionally, the series will not veer into the political debate about global warming - its long-term impacts and solutions. Instead, we've chosen to focus on what you can do, right now, to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.
The Green Challenge focuses on what is now clear, according to the vast majority of scientists who have studied climate change: Human activities since the Industrial Revolution have been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and this is not good.
"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," stated the leading authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a report earlier this year.
Coal-fired power plants belch carbon dioxide to support a rapidly industrializing world's appetite for energy. And in the U.S., our strong economy and lifestyle - built on large houses and car-centric habits - contribute about 25 percent of the world's man-made greenhouse gases.
These gases are the byproduct of what is simply our way of life today: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.
But the government climate panel and other scientists maintain that if these gases are not cut by 80 percent by 2050 the planet could face severe consequences: rising temperatures, drought, more intense storms and a rise in average global sea level of at least a foot-and-a-half by 2100.
Yes, we know this is the domain of polarizing public figures such as Al Gore. But look who else is saying greenhouse gas emissions must be cut.
Sen. John Warner, Virginia's Republican senior senator, has emerged as a leading voice on Capitol Hill calling for action on climate change.
The chief executives of General Electric, Ford Motor Co. and DuPont are pushing the corporate world to act now.
And a group of retired military brass recently made public their firm stance: If the causes of global warming aren't dealt with now, the military needs to seriously step up its planning for the fallout.
For example, global warming can lead to droughts, which can lead to food and water shortages, which can lead to political unrest, said the military leaders, part of a group called the Center for Naval Analyses.
The Daily Press Green Challenge isn't going to solve these problems. But it does recognize them head on, and asks readers to think about - and act on - the ways in which our daily choices contribute to the problem.
Think back to Virginia's future.
More drastic climate changes could bring greater impacts, Mann said. The wetlands that filter your drinking water could dry out. Warmer water could wipe out the eelgrass that is the habitat for the seafood you like to eat. As forest footprints move, invasive species could move in and take over, smothering biological diversity.
"You see biology reaching turning points and limits," Mann said.