top of page


As the world approaches 1.5 degrees Celsius in warming by 2030, policymakers must start making carbon-aware policy decisions. The UN explains various effects of high levels of warming such as increased temperatures, rising ocean levels, biodiversity loss, 23.1 million people in poverty, and the deaths of 13 million people per year. According to the New York Times, Scientists have even found that the Arctic will be ice-free by 2030. Climate change’s effects are even a current reality, as Reuters and NPR report floods and global heatwaves with devastating results, killing over 90,000 people globally. 

While scientists and politicians worldwide have been more conscious of these problems, the United States’ carbon footprint is exorbitant. According to research by Roser et al., the United States emits the second most CO2 globally at 15% of global emissions and 5.3 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. The United States can reduce this problem in two key ways. First, by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, and second, by using clean energy sources with high energy efficiency, like nuclear power.

Coal and black carbon are some of the most environmentally damaging energy sources used in the world. According to Statista, global coal combustion caused the release of 15 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2022 alone. Additionally, research from Ritchie et al found that coal was responsible for approximately 60 deaths per terawatt hour of energy via air pollution and coal mining accidents, and 820 tons of carbon emissions per gigawatt hour. Ritchie furthers, “...these estimates for fossil fuels are likely to be very conservative. They are based on power plants in Europe, which have good pollution controls... global death rates from fossil fuels based on the most recent research on air pollution are likely to be even higher.” What’s worse is that the United States uses a significant amount of this extremely harmful energy source. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 20% of the United States' energy is sourced from coal, and as Statista data corroborates, is the third largest consumer of coal in the world. Based on data from the EPA and Statista, the United States emitted 882 million metric tons of CO2 from coal alone. According to Roberts in 2018, this cost the United States $4.1 billion. 

Knowing that coal is a harmful and inefficient energy source, we should seriously consider nuclear energy as a cleaner, safer, and more efficient alternative. According to research by Ritchie et al, Nuclear energy causes 0.03 deaths per terawatt hour of energy compared to the 60 deaths per terawatt hour of energy of coal. In other words, when using nuclear energy, 1 person would die every 25 years instead of the 25 deaths per year because of coal. Additionally, nuclear energy releases only 3 tons of carbon per gigawatt hour compared to the 820 tons of carbon released by coal. The Nuclear Energy Institute finds that nuclear energy reduces 470 million metric tons of CO2 per year, the effect of removing 100 million cars off the road, and that a pellet of uranium, the size of your fingertip, produces the same amount of energy produced by 1 ton of coal. 

Countries such as France have seen such success in their energy sectors. According to the World Nuclear Association, as of 2023, France derives a whopping 70% of its energy from nuclear power. The French Embassy finds that France has even been able to reduce its per capita carbon emissions past the United States’ 5 tons of emissions per capita to 2 tons per capita. Additionally, “There has also been a 75-percent decrease in sulfur dioxide, which is responsible for acid rain, and had France not converted to nuclear energy, the emissions of smog-creating nitrous oxide would be 20 percent higher.” If France, now the second largest producer of nuclear energy, can see so much success, even offsetting high oil prices in Europe, surely the United States will be able to have a similar level of environmental and economic success. 

However, nuclear energy comes with some potential concerns. Nuclear energy, while extremely effective in its positive climate impact, has had safety issues over the years. In 1986, Ukraine had a massive accident at its nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. Using such a clean and powerful energy comes with some tradeoffs. Nuclear energy has risks regarding its safety. However, since Chernobyl, the technology for nuclear energy has improved immensely. The World Nuclear Association finds that the nuclear energy industry has avoided potential nuclear scenarios in which the reactor core overheats and causes a meltdown. “In the 60-year history of civil nuclear power generation…there have been only three significant accidents at nuclear power plants.” Since Chernobyl, no deaths have occurred due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. The injuries and deaths that occur are very few, are due to overexposure to uncontrolled nuclear material, and are contained within the reactors. The belief that nuclear energy is highly dangerous and could cause explosions as powerful as multiple hydrogen bombs at any moment is unrealistic. The probability of such meltdowns, thanks to modern technology, has dropped to nearly zero.

The issue of nuclear waste, possibly the biggest problem with nuclear energy, has also been mitigated by current technology. While it is not easy to store, and there are remaining risks of radioactive material leaking into soil, government regulations on radioactive waste are extremely stringent, and have taken all protocols necessary to safely store nuclear waste until the radioactivity levels decline sufficiently. The U.S. Energy Information Administration finds that most nuclear waste produced has low levels of radioactivity. Furthermore, spent fuel with higher levels of radioactivity are safely stored underground far below soil levels for thousands of years, until they are safe to remove, according to the World Nuclear Association. The concerns surrounding the safety of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste are understandable. Nuclear energy will never be a perfect energy source, but it may be the best that we have for the environment and an efficient energy economy.  

Climate change and the United States’ carbon footprint are not problems with overnight solutions. One of the best steps we can take in the right direction is by increasing nuclear energy usage and decreasing reliance on coal.


Zhong, Raymond. “Arctic Summer Could Be Practically Sea-Ice-Free by the 2030s.” The New York Times, June 6, 2023, sec. Climate.

Press, The Associated. “Pakistan’s Floods Have Killed More than 1,000. It’s Been Called a Climate Catastrophe.” NPR, August 28, 2022, sec. Asia.

Dickie, Gloria, and Gloria Dickie. “Why Some Heatwaves Prove Deadlier than Others.” Reuters, August 2, 2022, sec. Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals.

Nations, United. “Causes and Effects of Climate Change.” United Nations. Accessed March 30, 2024.

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “CO₂ Emissions.” Our World in Data, January 22, 2024.

Statista. “Global Coal Use CO₂ Emissions 2022.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Roberts, David. “Friendly Policies Keep US Oil and Coal Afloat Far More than We Thought.” Vox, October 6, 2017.

“Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Nuclear Energy Institute. “Climate.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

“Nuclear Power in France | French Nuclear Energy - World Nuclear Association.” Accessed March 30, 2024. “5 Key Takeaways from the Nuclear Energy FY2023 Budget Request.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

“Chernobyl | Chernobyl Accident | Chernobyl Disaster - World Nuclear Association.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Ritchie, Hannah, Pablo Rosado, and Max Roser. “Nuclear Energy.” Our World in Data, March 20, 2024.

Statista. “U.S. Coal Energy Consumption 2022.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

US EPA, OAR. “Frequent Questions: EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.” Overviews and Factsheets, December 12, 2016.

Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nuclear Fuel.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

“Radioactive Wastes - Myths and Realities : World Nuclear Association - World Nuclear Association.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Cover Image: “Advantages and Challenges of Nuclear Energy.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Humans now inhabit over twice the amount of flood-prone land compared to four decades ago. [1] As we expand along coasts and into floodplains, the opportunities for floods to occur multiply. The cruel and unending pollution from global industries damages the fragile water cycle, impacting communities worldwide. An increase in temperature allows air to hold more water vapor, which leads to more powerful and severe storms, along with an increase in rainfall. [2]

This global shift has recently heavily impacted the west coast of the United States, where residents of San Diego, California received unprecedented amounts of rain on January 22, more than the city typically receives in a month. [3] Homes and businesses were surged with feet of water as citizens tried to minimize the damage from an imminent thunderstorm, which has now been dubbed the “thousand-year storm” for its intensity. Upon further investigation, however, there seems to be more to the story. Meteorologists report that even the most severely impacted places would have received just six inches of rain, not the several feet that citizens observed. There is an additional, more obscure factor behind the flooding. Like its urban equivalents, San Diego has several water damage countermeasures put in place to prevent natural disasters like Jan 22. One of the most important is its massive stormwater system, which is designed to pump out water to bays and oceans as it receives incoming flow. On the day of the storm, six of the city’s 15 pump stations were overwhelmed and therefore unable to properly drain the streets, leading to a buildup of water spreading into buildings. These stations were the driving force behind most of the destruction in the flooding.

Had more care and attention been paid to the city’s old systems, the effects of the storm could have easily been minimized. Most of San Diego’s stormwater infrastructure was built around 50 to 100 years ago, making it outdated and primitive compared to modern networks. Officials were even aware that the structures were at risk months before the storm, yet did not take any actions to improve them. A presentation given last year to the city council alerted that four stations were in critical condition. “Water is leaking out through the walls,” described a civil engineer at one of the stations. “There’s cracks everywhere, water is coming through.” Mayor Todd Gloria even admitted that the condition of the system was concerning, noting in one address that it “keeps me up at night”. The stormwater pumps are not the only pieces of technology that sorely need updating, though. Thousands of miles of underground water pipes are decades past their expected service lives. Burst pipes were responsible for creating 20 sinkholes in 2022 alone.

San Diego’s monumental flood is a dual-sided warning about the danger of falling behind in an expanding world and against the ecological demolition that happens every single day. These are two sides of the exact same global coin. Without any impactful action, Earth is expected to warm up by at least 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, with expert estimates ranging up to 8.6 degrees. [4] The amount of human-inhabited flood-prone land is also on track to increase by 45% by the end of the century. [5] Our world is on a slippery slope downwards. The infrastructure of the past can no longer sustain our new lifestyles. San Diego’s stormwater department has been consistently coming up short each year, and now the program is $4.8 billion behind in its planned projects. [6] We need to take action immediately, for the sake of our generation and future generations.

San Diego is now making several efforts to minimize damages. The City council recently approved Mayor Todd Gloria’s plan to waive reconstruction fees for affected citizens. For small businesses and nonprofits, the city also created emergency grant funding to provide those in need with extra resources. [7] Let’s support San Diego in their rebuilding efforts, and look towards the Jan 22 flood as a symbol for change. If we work together, there’s no flood that can overtake us.

Cover Image: 

Every plastic bag has a story. 

It begins in a plastic factory, where tubs of molten polyethylene are blown through a tube and cut into squares. The bags are shipped to your local grocery store, the shopping mall, your favorite restaurant. When you pick up takeout spaghetti and garlic bread from that restaurant, the bag will help you carry the food to the car and from the vehicle to your home, and then you’ll stow it away in a cabinet. The pasta is delicious, by the way. Twenty days later, you pull the bag back out to throw away scraps of the apple you just peeled. You toss the bag in the garbage disposal. Next Tuesday, as the garbage truck empties a week’s worth of waste into its dark recesses, the bag tumbles from the side of the black bin and escapes onto the street. Egged on by the wind, the bag escapes your neighborhood, floats under the freeway overpass, and finds itself in the creek alongside the local smelt fish. The water carries the bag out to sea. Your bag is already tattered when it arrives there, but the waves and rapid current break it into further pieces as it drifts further and further away from the coast.

Your bag is gone, right?

Not exactly. Along its journey, it’s been shedding small fragments of its body, little white bits of shrapnel often invisible to the human eyes.

Microplastics. Commonly defined as any plastic particle less than five millimeters in length, they’re absolutely everywhere. 

A 2019 study calculates that humans consume up to 50,000 microplastics every year. Severe estimates say that this is the equivalent of one credit card per week. 

Let’s go back to that plastic bag. As you untie the knot, it sprinkles microplastics across your pasta container lid the same way you shake parmesan across a plate of spaghetti. As the bag floats from the street across the highway into the river, scratching against the pavement and riled by winds, it leaves behind microplastics. And when it dissolves into the ocean waves, it releases tens of thousands, perhaps millions, more.

A 2023 study estimates that there may be up to 170 trillion microplastics in the ocean, and describes this pollution as a “growing plastic smog.” Another researcher put it as a “thickening plastic soup.” While scientists currently don’t have conclusive results about their possible health impacts, current research indicates that they are likely harmful. Microplastics have been found to absorb hazardous substances like heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and more. They also may accumulate in narrow passages in the human body, resulting in blockages, inflammation, and other adverse health effects.

Why do we still not know the exact effects of microplastics, even though they’re everywhere? The reason for this is because they’re everywhere. In fact, scientists can’t find a control group of people who have never been exposed to microplastics. This is shocking in and of itself. There are very few things that every human has experienced or known. The sun. Gravity. Eating food. Sleep. And now among those things — microplastics. Despite this, many governments haven’t yet implemented policies to address microplastic contamination.

California is now the first government in the world to require the testing of microplastics in drinking water. Senate Bill 1422 required the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a definition of microplastics by July 2020 and to develop a standard methodology for the detection of microplastics in drinking water by July 2021. 

In November 2021, the State Water Board published the Microplastics in Drinking Water Policy Handbook, which details some of the progress they’ve made. The document defines “nanoplastics” as any particle between 1 nanometer (the size of ten atoms) and 100 microns (the thickness of an average human hair). “Large microplastics” are any particle between 100 microns and 2.5 centimeters (the size of a peanut). These size comparisons demonstrate the vast disparities in the size and shape of microplastics. With enough degradation, pieces of your plastic bag might even reach the nanoplastic level.

The Board also established two primary methods for the detection of microplastics: Raman spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy. Both these techniques use similar approaches to identify plastics. In Raman spectroscopy, high-intensity light is used to excite the molecules within individual particles. The Raman scattered light that is returned can be used to analyze the particle’s chemical composition. In infrared spectroscopy, a machine measures the vibration of molecules through infrared light. 

While both these methods are effective at accurately identifying microplastics, spectroscopy still has some distinct disadvantages. The procedure uses highly complex and expensive devices that require trained personnel to operate, making it inapplicable to many scenarios where microplastic detection is needed. As a result, the California Water Board is considering “surrogate methods” such as flow cytometry, turbidity, and total suspended solids to more cheaply and efficiently detect microplastics while maintaining a high degree of accuracy.

Lastly, the California Water Board has begun the process of monitoring plastic content in drinking water across the state. They’ve been accomplishing this by partnering with accredited labs to develop a comprehensive testing process. Now, thirty Californian water providers will be required to perform quarterly tests on their source water, beginning this fall.

All this is a fantastic start for the first government in the world to pass legislation surrounding microplastics. It’s also the first standardized drinking water monitoring plan for microplastics. But a lot more needs to be done, and some fear that we might already be too late.

Senate Bill 1422 does not discuss the filtration of microplastics from drinking water. Such a topic needs to be addressed in future pieces of legislation or independently researched by the Water Board. Other researchers are excited about California’s progress, but many are concerned that microplastics in drinking water aren’t even the biggest issue. Humans inhale just as many plastics through the air. 

With our earth looking more and more like plastic smog or a plastic soup, the question is not only how to remove microplastics from existing water sources, but also how to prevent future plastics from being created and distributed. Of course, there’s Senate Bill 54, which requires all packaging in California to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. And all Californians are familiar with Senate Bill 270, the policy that bans single-use plastic bags at stores. 

Independent innovator Boyan Slat constructed his own solution to cutting off plastic pollution in oceans through a cleanup system called the Interceptor. When he discovered that rivers are the primary source of ocean plastic pollution, he designed an autonomous, solar-powered solution to intercept all downstream river contaminants before they enter the ocean. Interceptors have been placed in rivers across the world, and October 2022 saw the grand opening of the newest boat in Ballona Creek, Los Angeles. The Ocean Cleanup, Slat’s non-profit organization, aims to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution.

Non-profits, independent inventors, and government policymakers are all pooling their energy and expertise to address the issue of plastic and microplastic contamination in our waters. Some good news is that recent efforts have removed record amounts of plastics from high-density areas of contamination like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

If all goes well, let’s see what changes we’ll have to make to the story of your plastic bag:

In ten years, a ship will scoop the bag from the middle of the Pacific alongside millions of tons of other plastic waste.

In fifteen, your bag will be caught at the mouth of the river by an interceptor before it even gets lost at sea. 

And in twenty, the bag won’t be made out of plastic at all. 


Becker, Rachel. “California Approves Microplastics Testing of Drinking Water Sources.” CalMatters, 7 Sept. 2022.,

Bill Text - SB-54 Solid Waste: Reporting, Packaging, and Plastic Food Service Ware. Accessed 23 July 2023.

Bill Text - SB-270 Solid Waste: Single-Use Carryout Bags. Accessed 23 July 2023.

Bill Text - SB-1422 California Safe Drinking Water Act: Microplastics. Accessed 23 July 2023.

Cox, Kieran D., et al. “Human Consumption of Microplastics.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 53, no. 12, June 2019, pp. 7068–74. (Crossref),

Eriksen, Marcus, et al. “A Growing Plastic Smog, Now Estimated to Be over 170 Trillion Plastic Particles Afloat in the World’s Oceans—Urgent Solutions Required.” PLOS ONE, vol. 18, no. 3, Mar. 2023, p. e0281596. PLoS Journals,

Gruber, Elisabeth S., et al. “To Waste or Not to Waste: Questioning Potential Health Risks of Micro- and Nanoplastics with a Focus on Their Ingestion and Potential Carcinogenicity.” Exposure and Health, vol. 15, no. 1, Mar. 2023, pp. 33–51. Springer Link,

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What Are Microplastics? Accessed 23 July 2023.

bottom of page