In the midst of months of heat and wildfires and a fall full of hurricanes—phrases like “unprecedented” and “record-breaking” hardly cut it anymore—we’re forced to grapple with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which arrived last month like a quietly ticking time bomb lobbed across already fretful terrain. The verdict: humanity has twelve years to slash emissions and stave off the worst effects of climate change. This, plus the roller-coaster weather that’s getting harder to explain away has left people, understandably, terrified.
This concerns me for two reasons. One is that anticipatory fear is a poor motivator, more likely to leave one paralyzed than spurred to action. The other is that such alarming declarations, delivered with such solemnity and certainty, blind us to that which has the greatest immediate impact on climate: nature. There are ample opportunities to work with nature to restore processes that influence climate and bolster climate resilience. She is just waiting for us to ask.
Climate isn’t only about numbers. It’s also about life, specifically the living natural systems that regulate climate and support cooling processes.
Certainly, the numbers in the IPCC and other reports are dire and we must quickly veer away from fossil fuels. But here’s the thing: climate isn’t only about numbers. It’s also about life, specifically the living natural systems that regulate climate and support cooling processes. You see, discussions of climate have largely been driven by physics and illuminated by models. But the constellation of phenomena that, collectively, we call climate, also reflects biology. These are interactions we can actually observe—and it is where we have tremendous agency.
Carbon, which looms large in our climate discussions, is the basic building block of life. The problem isn’t carbon per se, but that there’s too much carbon in the air rather than in the ground. In soil, carbon is the good stuff. It generates fertility: that dark, crumbly quality loved by gardeners is thanks to carbon. It supports biodiversity: carbon sustains soil microorganisms that form the basis of the food chain. It retains water: according to the USDA, a one percent increase in soil organic carbon represents an added 20,000 gallons of water per acre that can be held on the land. This offers tremendous resilience in the face of floods or drought.
Nature conveniently arranged to have lots of carbon underground; more carbon resides in the soil than in the atmosphere and all plants and animals combined. Yet primarily due to erosion and tillage, soil has lost much of its carbon: between 50 and 80 percent of the world’s cultivated soils has lofted into the air, where it combines with oxygen to form CO2. It’s the flip-side of our atmospheric carbon problem.
How might we build carbon in soils? We’re back to biology: through photosynthesis, plants pull carbon from the air to form carbon compounds. Plants send what they don’t need through the root zone to nourish the microbial life that, via underground barter, provides the nutrients the plants need. Some of the carbon is humified, or rendered stable. And so, the more lush and verdant our landscapes, the more carbon is returned to the soil.
Nature seeks complexity: the more leaf surfaces, the more plants layered into the environment, the more photosynthesis takes place and the more carbon is sequestered. Fields that yield a single crop? Not so much. Land left bare after harvest? A wasted opportunity to bring carbon back to Earth.
“Plants manage water, and in managing water they are managing heat.”
Our planet’s dominant greenhouse gas is water vapor, which acts as a conveyer of heat, alternately holding and releasing energy as it circulates. This is a central to the planet’s cooling system. New research is revealing the extent to which the water cycle is driven by vegetation: through absorbing and releasing moisture, plants transfer energy and therefore heat.
For example, all plants transpire: water moves up from the roots and out through pores, or stomata. This disperses solar radiation, and so is a cooling mechanism. The reverse process is condensation, which releases heat. Which typically occurs higher in the troposphere—think clouds—or in the early morning, as in dew.
This is how nature modulates temperature. Research in China and Africa shows the surface temperature difference between wooded and adjacent cleared land can exceed 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher local surface temperature means high rates of evaporation (moisture loss) and, beyond a certain point (about 115 Fahrenheit) loss of microbial life. The result is desertification: land’s diminished capacity to sustain life, a story that is unfolding through the world’s arid and semi-arid regions, including much of the U.S. Southwest. The key is that you need life, as in vegetation, to keep the moisture cycling. Peter Andrews, an Australian farmer and author, puts it this way: “Plants manage water, and in managing water they are managing heat.”
The point is: we need to understand that climate is very much a product of nature’s processes. We, too, are part of nature, a reality we neglect at our peril. The breadth of our climate problem cannot be expressed on a balance sheet. Nor will the remedies come from a boardroom. One irony is that some see concern about nature as a distraction from the important work of addressing climate change when, in fact, it’s central!
Rather than focus on what we fear and don’t want, let’s focus on what we care about and do want. Truth is, what we focus on tends to manifest. So rather than focus on perceived scarcity, let’s devote attention to creating abundance: of restoration projects, of natural beauty, of political will. Because, as it turns out, much of what we aspire to—aesthetic landscapes, nutritious food, a profusion of wildlife, thriving rural communities—actually lead toward climate solutions. Pursuing these avenues brings immediate benefits for us and for our loved ones. What can be a better mobilizer to action—and reason to stick with it?