[Journalism Essay Contest] Winners in environment category

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 31, 2019 - 15:00
  • Updated : May 31, 2019 - 15:00

Following are the winners of the 2019 Herald Journalism Essay Contest organized by Herald Edu in May. -- Ed.

[Part 1]

First Step to Clearer Air: A Common Scientific Language

By Shin Jae-im
Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies

As fine dust particle levels in South Korea reach over double the OECD average, many Koreans have pointed to China as a significant source of the lethal pollutant. China, for its part, has repeatedly dismissed such charges as groundless. Throughout this endless back-and-forth, it has become clear that discussion of the scientific research regarding the matter is haphazard and piecemeal. If left unremedied, such arbitrariness will impede consensus-building, not only internationally, but also domestically.

The first issue is with the scientific discourse and figures produced by South Korea. According to the Korea Herald, “A joint study by the Environment Ministry here with NASA in 2016 showed that about 34 percent of fine dust in Korea comes from the neighboring country.” More recently, however, Seoul mayor Park Won Soon cited a figure closer to 50 to 60 percent. Even when the passage of time is accounted for, the difference between these figures is significant. Such instances of internal contradiction have not been lost on Chinese observers, who understandably find it difficult to take South Korea’s claims seriously. Without reconciling this hodgepodge of findings by an array of institutions, Koreans should not expect to make progress on the issue.

An equally important issue emerges when South Korean and Chinese research are juxtaposed. Scientific evidence supporting either side of the debate floats around in cyberspace, but there is no comprehensive platform that forces the two stances to reckon with each other. As a result, the two countries have often ended up talking at, rather than with, each other.

South Korea, for example, has largely focused on the percentage of domestic fine dust pollution originating in China, as the figures quoted above show. China, on the other hand, has responded with a comparison of its own rate of air quality improvement versus South Korea’s over the same period. An official from China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment recently said, “Air quality in China has improved 40 percent, while that of South Korea remains the same or has worsened slightly (in the same period).” In this and other instances, each side assumes an angle that suits its own position without meeting the other’s argument head on with direct counter-evidence.

It’s time to put an end to this fragmented dialogue and establish a common scientific language about fine dust. The most feasible first step may be to establish an online database that aggregates all research results on both sides. Doing so will require each country not only to organize its own data, but also to consider the other’s data. Only on this common ground will the two countries be able to work together. For, where there is a shared problem, there must be a shared solution. 

Fine Dust Particles: A Here-and-Now Matter

By Kim Ye-rin
Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies

It’s been two years since South Korea became one of the world’s most polluted countries, and it looks like the dubious distinction is here to stay. The concentration of fine particulate matter in the air has become a particular concern for South Koreans, who are well aware of its deleterious (read: carcinogenic) effects. Alas, the South Korean government’s efforts have focused disproportionately on reducing the air pollution itself, with insufficient concern for how people should cope.

For example, when it was found that coal-fired power plants contribute, not only to the long-term trend of climate change, but also to the more immediate problem of fine dust, the government recently shut down ten such outdated plants. This measure was welcomed by environmentalists and politicians alike, who expected a significant improvement in air quality. The optimism, however, was brutally shattered by a scientific study showing that closing down coal power plants would only shave 1~2% off of total fine dust levels. Indeed, given the complexity of ultrafine dust, it is unlikely that a silver bullet will appear to decrease it to desired levels overnight. This is why the government should start focusing more on helping people minimize the damage done to their health by the pollutant.

So far, the government’s few efforts to keep citizens informed about pollution levels and coping methods have been inadequate, at best. Most notably, there are the constant disaster-alert messages, sent to individuals’ cell-phones. “Measures to lessen fine dust will take effect in the Seoul area tomorrow. Citizens should take health precautions, like wearing masks, etc,” reads a standard message. In its original Korean-language version, the word choice appears needlessly esoteric, exact figures are absent, and the advice given to citizens goes no further than general measures anyone can come up with. All this vagueness is worsened by the fact that citizens are given no idea about what exactly those “measures to lessen fine dust” are. A further problem is that messages are sent much too frequently, diluting the sense of urgency about both fine dust pollution and government-issued disaster warnings.

Of course, there are private-sector services one can turn to -- most notably, websites and apps -- for information of a slightly better quality. But such information should be a public good made readily available to all citizens, not products in the marketplace that they have a choice to pursue or not. A good starting place would be to introduce a curriculum in public schools about fine dust pollution, composed of fundamental knowledge grounded in science. That way, even when people are confronted with partial information, they will be able to fill in gaping holes in their ability to steer clear of dirty air’s most detrimental effects.

Lost Home, Lost Hope

By Park Dong-han
Sangmoon High School

A crisis, where you wake up every morning, and gasp in horror to see your home one step closer to the ocean. A crisis, where you fear ‘tomorrow,’ as you are lost without directions on where to go. This surreal “climate crisis” is genuinely dreaded by more than 10% of the global population. Due to egoistic human exploitation of the Earth, it has resulted in catastrophic climate change, along with perilous rise of sea level. Since 1880, global sea level has already gone up 20 centimeters, which will be further elevated up to 7,000 centimeters if all icebergs melt. This scenario does not merely indicate changes in a new world map, but denotes the emergence of acute environmental refugee chaos, resulting in two dire problems: first, impending threat upon human life through loss of habitat and second, upon the environment through resource depletion.

First, the elevation of sea level has become the harbinger of “environmental refugee crisis,” threatening millions of lives. The Environment and Urbanization analyzed that 224 nations are currently placed less than 30 feet above sea level, where 634 million people inhabit, the 10% of the world’s population. The areas that are placed in low-lying areas are 2% of the entire Earth’s territory, including 66% of the world’s largest cities. These statistics all present a unified problem: an international political disaster. Submergence of land will create international climate exile, making formidable number of citizens flee and seek asylum in foreign nations. Yet, colossal number of citizens simultaneously coming in will be rejected by inland nations, due to citizens’ dissent and financial burden. This will make millions of people to become ‘ghost citizens’ without a national identity, which will deprive them of the fundamental “right to life” protection.

Second, environmental refugee crisis will entail another dilemma: “resource scarcity.” This is supported in the traditional Malthusian Theory of Population, which highlights how population growth inevitably entails shortages of all finite resources. If fleeing refugees cram into limited inland regions, the rate of resource consumption will outstrip humans’ ability to find and produce new resource, leading to complete chaos. Anthropologist, Thomas Homer-Dixon, argues that such chaos will unavoidably entail aggressive warfare. This is proven in various global case studies, most notably in Sudan. Having been the hotspot of civil unrest for more than half a century, Sudan is currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Increasing demographic pressure, yet lack of resources have all pushed the region into a spiral of lawlessness, which resulted in 300,000 deaths as well as displacement of two million people since 2003. As illustrated, resource scarcity problem will further facilitate clashes among countries in the next 20 years, involving extreme violence. Such conflicts will pose a bigger threat upon human lives and the environment, as a war will devastate everything.

Humankind is poised at the brink of climate cataclysm, which will drastically transform human habitat and lifestyle. Humans will be heading toward upper regions, supposedly mountains, which will have become islands by then. Once reached, however, they will be already compact with billions of population engaging in violent massacre to obtain food. Anarchy will arouse brutal instinct of humans, resulting in their most aggressive actions to survive. Is this the future that our children should live in? Something must be immediately done about this disaster, if we wish to change the next chapter of climate change. Our children deserve to live in a world, without worrying about their homes sinking every night.

Wildlife Conservation

By Lee Seung-hyung
Seoul High School

Much of the environmental issues today have stemmed from destruction of wildlife, say, ‘the natural state’ of nature: deforestation, unregulated hunting, pollution, etc. Toxic pollutants released due to human activities sabotaged the ecosystem by disrupting most plants and other organisms along the food chain. Deforestation from expansion of human territory not only took away the natural habitat from many wild animals, but also aggravated pollution by eradicating trees and plants that provide us with oxygen and clean atmosphere. Unregulated hunting may also bring extinction of several species. Proceeding from the facts listed above, a method to protect nature seems to be urgently needed before the total destruction of environment becomes a reality.

Wildlife conservation is an effort to protect wild plant, animal species, and their habitat, with the main goal of protecting the nature for the future generations to enjoy and recognize the unwavering value of wild nature. By conserving wildlife, it is possible to prevent any unforeseeable environmental hazards, ultimately restoring a healthy ecosystem ideal for human survival. To fuel the wildlife conservation, several government organizations are actively putting in effort to promote conservation of wild nature in different ways.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in the United States is a representative case. The NWF’s focus is based upon what they call ‘Common Agenda for Wildlife’, which includes a commitment to: active restoration and reconnection of wildlife habitat, transforming wildlife conservation to confront emerging stressors like climate changes, and connecting Americans with wildlife to inspire the next generation. The most prominent campaign is called Adopt-A-Wildlife Acre program, in which conservationists work to restore wild, free-ranging bison population and many other species like gray wolves and grizzly bears. Such wildlife populations are likely to get hunted down as they often leave protected boundaries to occupy a new habitat or seek for food, creating conflict with the local livestock. The NWF addresses this issue by convening meetings with local ranchers and tribal members to negotiate an economic incentive for their agreement to cooperate.

More direct government involvement in wildlife conservation is observable at the national park services, prominently the Yellowstone National Park, which is also a focal area for the NWF’s campaign of Adopt-A-Wildlife Acre program. Significant results have been made within this national park, including a remarkable success on the restoration of the gray wolf population. The gray wolves were almost entirely eradicated by humans from the 48 states in the mid-1900s, due to their tendency to prey on domestic stock once their prey bases were removed. In 1991, the congress appropriated money for wolf recovery and as a result, the reintroduction of wolves was completed in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1994. Within a year, their population recovered, and is now delisted from the endangered species in Montana and Idaho. This restoration of the gray wolves led to greater biodiversity throughout Yellowstone ecosystem through their preying on elks, whose carcasses provided food for various scavengers.

Never in the course of history have we experienced the state-of-the-art conveniences that we luxuriate ourselves in, but we have long forgotten something. Our entire civilization is built upon nature and we need to remember the beauty of being part of the spontaneous interplay of the natural world. There is progress to be seen, but more work awaits us.

Direction of growth—where shall we go?

By Hong You-bin

George Eliot once said, “The direction of growth lies in the human choice.” Her words cannot be agreed more. Depending upon every choice, the color of the path we choose to take becomes different. For centuries, humans’ choice to prioritize economy over environment did guide us to drastic growth—the one that has colored our society “red.” Today, humans cough out blood with suffocating respiratory illnesses created by environmental contamination. Despite terrifying consequences, humans are still caught up in a delusion that capitalistic wealth is the ultimate objective in life. But really? Without sustaining the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves. This is exactly why “green” is the color we must aim for. In this essay, distinguished policies of “green growth” will be suggested, which can be pursued through both individual and governmental level.

First, green economy must be pursued on an individual level, through the participation in “Green Crowd Funding Projects,” which raise money from common people. For instance, “Root Energy” is a green crowd funding project in Korea, which constructs solar power plants with citizens’ investments. The company then produces solar energy which is directly sold to the local community. Through such trade of clean energy, investors reap high revenue, which incentivizes individuals to become steady contributors in pursuing green growth. Like this, everyone must not blindly wait and depend upon the government to take action. Rather, we must proactively partake in launching or supporting green crowd funding projects, which can snowball into a huge awareness campaign that can make others to also be involved. Spreading the norm that “everyone” can create a green society—this is the pivotal key that can alleviate the environmental disaster.

Second, efforts on governmental level must be done through the creation of “Northeast Asia Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS),” involving Korea, China and Japan. ETS is an environmental system that allocates “credits” to every nation, prohibiting them from freely emitting, once designated credits are already used. As leftover credits can be sold, this positively motivates nations to invest in green technologies to decrease emissions. Such system has already been launched in Korea domestically since 2015. Yet, Korea’s struggle to handle pollution alone is a vain attempt, as China, the world’s biggest polluter, is next door. According to a research, China’s fine dust directly affects 69% of Korea’s air quality, signifying the importance of global collaboration. With all Asian nations participating in forming a regional bloc that aims for a common environmental goal, it will undeniably pursue not only regional peace, but also “life security” of all citizens in Asia.

The Earth has been abused enough as if humans had another one to go to. But we don’t. The world is already compact with global population of 7.6 billion, which will reach 10 billion by 2055. Formidable increase in population will merely result in deepened exploitation. Without green projects to recover the Earth, trillions will starve, flee and die. We must remember that the fate of the Earth is the most important issue facing mankind. Everything that humans have achieved will become valueless, if the Earth no longer exists. Pursuit of green economy is the only solution that is left. As what Henry David Thoreau said, “The proper use of intelligence is not to conquer nature, but to live in it.”

[Part 2]

Revealing the Faults

By Cho Yu-jin
Korea International School, Jeju Campus

Trees fall, rivers blacken, and the sky chokes on ash. It has become an undisputed fact that global warming and the surrounding environmental problems threaten food security, livelihoods, and the health of millions of people. Climate changes have led to rising temperatures and sea levels, melting the icecaps and staining the white artic red with the blood of polar bears. The escalating numbers of carbon emissions skyrocket to the glaring sun and stab our backs, yet people walk around unfazed.

We have been bombarded by news reports and information that global warming is indeed an immediate issue. It has become a powerful message as a “wake-up call” for nations, companies, and especially for individuals to make daily actions and environmentally sustainable changes to empower the future for the next generations and save the planet. We have been practically brainwashed to throw away trash in the right place, turn off lights when necessary, and use our feet instead of cars, but those pamphlets and education seem to lead us to a dead end. We recycle, reuse, reduce, but what’s the point of us doing so if companies dump poison into the rivers by the ton?

And yes, the problematic increasing carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industries have catalyzed the global community to collaborate to introduce an “efficient, meaningful plan” to reduce carbon emissions rates. A notable example is the Paris Accord, an agreement built upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to bring all nations together to combat climate change and increase their abilities to deal with the impacts as well. Nations set a clear goal of reducing the global temperature by 2 degrees, but what purpose do those fancy conferences and laws actually serve?

Despite such global response with ambitions of combating the threat of global warming, criticisms have arisen. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist, notes that “there is no action, just promises” in the Paris Accord.  The text is full of verbs such as recognize, encourage, and may, which give limited power to the international body to legally bind countries and discourage them from producing carbon emissions. The flexible language explains Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord: the commitments mentioned in the accord are not mandatory. In short, the policy lacks binding enforcements to control CO2 emissions in nations, defeating the purpose of "[bringing] all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change”.

From the eye of a callow high school girl, those fancy laws and policies seem to be in a straightforward manner, political posturing. A group of powerful delegates sipping tea, creating those “promising” policies for the sake of perfunctory gestures, their reputations, and for the news flashes. Certainly, the Paris Accord has set the path for nations to altogether mitigate the carbon emission rates, yet we still see smoke rising out of factories, companies dumping trash on the barren lands, and trees being cut to make new products.

The current impotence of international laws reflects the uncertainty and ineffectiveness present in regulating countries, and ultimately tackling the problem of global warming. In short, countries need to take practical, proactive stances on their own to step closer to achieve success in covering up those ozone layers. 

[Part 3]

Disappearing Snow on Mt. Hood

By Shin Hyo-im
Holderness School

I am a ski racer. Since 3 years old, skiing has been a big part of my life. To enjoy my favorite activity, I travelled all around the world, including Mt. Hood in the US and Hintertux in Austria. But questions to my skiing career became dubious in 2015. My visit to Mt. Hood was quite different from past years. The peak beautifully decorated with white snow was unseen—rather, muddy grounds with rocks were clearly visible, making it utterly impossible for skiing. This was when I started to ask questions to myself: what is happening to winter? Is “heat” really something that we should worry about?

If we closely take a look at the Earth, global warming is not merely warning the humanity on melting mountains. In fact, increasing Earth temperatures have resulted in frequent “heat waves,” which are prolonged periods of abnormally hot weather. Such weather transformations directly pose a dire threat upon human health. A human body’s internal temperature is normally between 36° to 37° Celsius. However, if internal temperature becomes close to 40° Celsius, which can be resulted by heat, all-important cellular machinery starts to break down, even injuring brain, heart, kidneys, muscles and other organ functions. This means that “heat” is not a trivial factor that causes simple dizziness and fainting. It is responsible for threatening lives, especially those of elders, babies, patients, outdoor workers and those living without air conditions. This severe situation is proven in dozens of devastating “heat waves” that had struck the world. The combination of high humidity and high night-time temperature was responsible for 70,000 deaths in Europe (2003) and 55,000 deaths in Russia (2010). In India, casualties from heat waves have increased 2.5 times between 1960 and 2009, despite the fact that India has only seen 0.5° Celsius rising in the past 50 years. Besides these examples, there are numerous more cities that annually suffer from “heat waves” that are occurring more often than ever.

Moreover, extreme heat is quickening the spreading of various deadly diseases as warm climate facilitates the activities of viruses. Among infectious diseases, there are two kinds that are the most worrisome. First, vector-borne diseases, caused by pathogens usually transmitted by mosquitoes, are currently on the rise as warm weather increases pathogens’ survival rate and accelerates its production through reduction of incubation period. Consequently, mosquitoes thrive by increasing various diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis, which all contribute to fatal deaths. For instance, malaria alone threatened 216 million people in 2016, killing 445,000, mostly children in Africa. Second, extended heat also raises possibility of water and food-borne diseases through increasing microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. Heat will activate their activities, which will increase the prevalence of salmonella and cholera. Such infectious diseases are already on the rise in especially poor nations where they do not have solid social infrastructure that promotes education on sanitation. Thus, mere rise in heat will further devastate poor and uneducated people’s lives through various illnesses resulted from water and food that they eat every day.

The only one home that we live is definitely becoming hotter, even at this moment. Without actions done, this “heat” will not only destroy specific winter-related industries, but rather cause much further devastation—a direct threat upon the existence of the humanity. With every global citizen taking a part in rescuing the Earth, we all must stop this “heat” from rising, through every measure that we can possibly take. 

A New Attitude Toward Plastic Waste

By Chung Seok-woo
Shanghai American School, Pudong Campus

The discovery of plastic in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt and its versatility, resilience, and cost-effectiveness have led to its wide industrial and commercial applications, but these same attractive features have also led to its indiscriminate use in the last century, causing what could soon be irreparable damage to nature as well as to human health and life.

The core problem with plastic is ironically related to one of its strengths: resilience. Plastic takes up to a thousand years to decompose naturally, so plastic waste is typically buried or incinerated, resulting in the ground seepage or air dispersion of harmful chemicals that threaten fragile ecosystems as well as human health and well-being. Perhaps worse, vast mountains of untreated plastic waste are discarded directly into the environment through littering and illegal waste disposal, and one devastating manifestation of this irresponsible action is what is now called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the single largest accumulation of ocean plastic waste located in the north central Pacific Ocean, covering more than a million square kilometers and undoubtedly causing horrific and often irreversible damage to marine life. One kind of plastic waste that is especially worrisome takes the familiar form of plastic bottles. Plastic water and soda bottles are a ubiquitous part of everyday life, and this has in turn become a ubiquitous catastrophe across the globe. According to Business Research Company, more than $250 billion a year is spent on bottled water worldwide, and this is growing at 9% per year. At about $1 per bottle, this amounts to 250 billion plastic bottles (1.5 million tons of plastic) per year. Sadly, the Voyage of the Odyssey reports that only about 25% of these bottles get recycled. Korea is not an exception. According to Taurus Investment and Securities, Korea generates 700 million plastic bottles a year, and the country currently faces growing amounts of unprocessed plastic waste.

The problem of plastic waste mandates viable and sustainable solutions, and thankfully there have been some efforts offering real hope in recent years. For example, researchers are working on bioplastics composed of natural materials such as corn starch. Looking virtually indistinguishable from synthetic plastics, bioplastics can break down much more quickly and easily (sometimes within weeks). However, the responsibility for solving the problem of plastic waste should not rest solely on technology; it rests ultimately on users of plastic. In this light, some companies are trying to change how we consume water. Tap Projects offers an app that allows people with tumblers to find free water-refilling stations nearby so that they don’t have to buy bottled water. Starbucks offers discounts to customers who buy coffee using their own mugs or tumblers.

Noteworthy in many such promising solutions is the required involvement of multiple parties and a fundamental change in their attitudes toward plastic waste. Technological innovation for more environment-friendly plastic should be fostered through more favorable regulation and funding by the government instead of being relegated solely to capitalistic motivation. Tap requires convincing retail establishments and public facilities to provide additional service for free for the good of the environment and people to carry the extra weight of tumblers. Café discounts necessitate cafes to do something counter to their interests (e.g., no more Starbucks logo on disposable cups that acts as free advertising) and customers to accept the inconvenience of washing their own containers. All this suggests that much more must be done to combat plastic waste and more importantly that optimal solutions require everyone, not just some, to become a vested stakeholder in the desired process, solution, and outcome. This may indeed be the only way for solutions to be truly viable and sustainable.