As one of the biggest industrialized nations in the world, it’s no surprise that the United States faces a host of environmental issues.
From greenhouse gas emissions to oil spills, several things can wreak havoc on the delicate balance of nature. While the U.S. has made incredible strides in recent years to become more environmentally conscious—pushing for decarbonization and investing in renewable energy—there is still a lot of progress to be made.
Many young, budding environmentalists don’t know where to start when it comes to making a difference. After all, the problems can seem insurmountable at times. However, even the smallest changes can have a big impact when it comes to saving our planet.
So, what are the biggest environmental issues facing us today? Here are the five we feel are most pressing.
1. Climate Change
One of the most pressing environmental issues facing the United States is climate change. Climate change can be understood as a shift in long-term average weather patterns.
Climate change can be quite the hot-button issue, with passionate people on both sides of the debate. However, there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is real and is happening right now.
Some naysayers argue in bad faith, pointing to the fact that the Earth has gone through periods of warming and cooling throughout its history. However, the difference this time around is that the rapidity of the change is unprecedented, and it is largely due to human activity.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been emitting more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat from the sun and causing the Earth’s average temperature to rise.
Some of the far-ranging effects of climate change that have been observed in the United States include droughts, more frequent storm surges caused by intense hurricanes in low-pressure areas, and wildfires that burn hotter and spread more rapidly.
2. Air Pollution
Air pollution occurs when harmful chemicals or particulates are released into the atmosphere, which can cause respiratory problems, heart disease, and even death.
Ground-level ozone—a type of air pollution created when emissions from cars and factories react with sunlight—is particularly dangerous, and has been linked to increases in emergency room visits and hospitalizations due to asthma attacks.
Unfortunately, air pollution is a problem that disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, who are more likely to live near sources of pollution like power plants or factories—where the noxious air can make it difficult to sleep, play, or even breathe.
3. Water Pollution
Drinking tap water may one day be a thing of the past. Water pollution is becoming an increasingly pressing problem in the United States, as our water sources become contaminated with everything from pharmaceuticals to plastic microfibers.
Water pollution can come from a variety of sources, including sewage overflows, factory runoff, and even agricultural fertilizer. When these pollutants enter our waterways, they can cause a host of problems, from algal blooms that make it difficult for fish to breathe, to the creation of “dead zones” where marine life cannot survive.
As we have seen from the recent news on Flint, Michigan, Puerto Rico, Jackson, Mississippi, and elsewhere, water pollution can also have a devastating effect on human health. In Flint, lead from old pipes leached into the city’s water supply, causing a host of health problems for residents, including learning disabilities and behavior problems in children.
Deforestation occurs when trees are cut down faster than they can grow back, which destroys habitats and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (trees help store carbon dioxide).
Deforestation disrupts local precipitation patterns, which can lead to drought conditions in areas that were previously wetter (like California). It can also cause soil erosion, which can lead to problems with flooding and mudslides.
The United States is not as deforested as some other countries (like Brazil), but it is still a problem in certain areas, especially in areas like the Pacific Northwest.
5. Plastic Pollution
Our use of plastic and its impact on the environment is one of the clearest examples of how our throwaway culture is causing long-term damage to the planet.
Plastic is everywhere in our lives, from the water we drink to the packaging our food comes in.
While plastic can be convenient, it’s also incredibly damaging to the environment. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and their production releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Plastic never goes away—it can only break down into smaller and smaller pieces, which pollute our waterways and are ingested by marine life. This not only reduces the diversity of marine life, but it can also introduce harmful chemicals into the food chain, which can eventually end up on our plates.
These are just a few of the many environmental issues affecting the United States. As you can see, they are all interconnected—and solving one problem will go a long way toward solving the others. To learn more about what you can do to help, check out our list of environmental organizations working to protect the planet.