One only need look outside the window to understand that human-caused climate disruption is in overdrive.
Record warm temperatures, floods, droughts, wildfires and increasing incidents of extreme weather events have run rampant across the Northern Hemisphere this summer. These events, at least in part, stem from a global temperature increase of “only” 1 degree Celsius (1°C) above preindustrial baseline temperatures.
Harvard and MIT biogeochemist and climate and coral reef expert Dr. Thomas Goreau put this in stark perspective.
“Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 400 parts per million (ppm) [are] akin to bringing about a steady state temperature of 7°C higher and sea levels 23 meters higher than they are today,” Goreau, who is also president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance and coordinator of the Soil Carbon Alliance, told Truthout. In other words, the last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it increased the Earth’s temperature to a point 7°C higher than it is today, and increased sea levels 23 meters above their current level. Hence, we are now only waiting for the planet to catch up to what we’ve done to the atmosphere.
More than three decades ago, Goreau and some of his colleagues were already pointing out that the only way runaway global warming could be avoided was by utilizing and expanding carbon sinks – a natural or artificial area where carbon is stored — as a way of sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Despite this not happening on the scale necessary to avert widespread impacts of runaway climate change, Goreau, along with many others, is as determined as ever to utilize various methods of “eco-restoration” to draw carbon out of the atmosphere.
These recommendations have gained more attention lately. A recent BBC headline stated, “Large-scale wind and solar power ‘could green the Sahara.’” The article touts the possibility that if massive numbers of solar panels and wind turbines were installed across the Sahara Desert, they could dramatically improve the amount of rainfall, lower temperatures and increase vegetation.
Goreau is not alone in his idea of large-scale projects that could lead to this sort of mitigation. Adam Sacks is the executive director of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (Bio4Climate), an organization working to promote eco-restoration approaches. These include the reintroduction of abundant growth to billions of acres of land that has been severely degraded or turned into desert as a result of human mismanagement.
“Clearly, there are many steps along the way, and a primary one is to shift the climate narrative from one focused almost exclusively on alternative energy and reducing fossil fuel emissions to one that’s at least half about restoring global biodiversity and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere into the soils through photosynthesis,” Sacks told Truthout.
His approach is to focus on the extraordinary power of nature as a means of healing what ails the planet.
“Since the first microbes appeared over 3.5 billion years ago and began inventing all the biochemistry of life, living things have crafted planet Earth out of dead rock, water and gas,” Sacks said. “We have destroyed much of that life as our world population grew, and while humans are very clever about expanding carrying capacity, we have overdrawn our resource account and our talents have finally reached their limits. This has happened in many ways, but global warming is the culmination of millennia of hyper-technology.”
Sacks reminds us that if the biosphere itself is ill, so are humans, as we are simply one of its creatures.
“As the biosphere dies, so do we,” he added. “Fortunately there are thousands if not millions of people pulling in that direction on millions of acres. We need to multiply that a thousandfold to successfully address climate change.”
“We Already Know How to Do This”
Sacks feels that every country on Earth has grossly underestimated the severity, extent and rapidity of the impacts of climate disruption, and has been dismayed by how, as he sees it, “The full implications are only appreciated when the damage has been done and all that’s left is to watch as destruction and death have their way.”
This is why he founded Bio4Climate, as an attempt to avert these outcomes for millions of species, including humans.
For Goreau, who collaborates with Bio4Climate, this work is nothing new. He has been writing scientific papers on recycling carbon dioxide through the tropical biota to prevent runaway global warming for nearly 35 years. He made the first measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from deforested Amazonian soils and virgin jungles, and wrote the very first short paper on the subject.
Goreau’s 1987 paper even argued for a carbon tax, although at the time, he called it an “energy-growth” tax which would transfer income from fuel burners to environmentally sound tropical development.
Through books, talks and papers, Goreau has long been suggesting methods to the general public, as well as interested governments, for implementing the concept of regenerating carbon in soils and biomass while simultaneously pulling it out of the atmosphere.
“The idea is scientifically sound and has occurred independently to many people … as people try to think about solving climate change seriously,” Goreau said, though he noted that not many people seem to be familiar with the history of the concept of eco-restoration.
Last year, Goreau presented a paper at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization Global Symposium on Soil Organic Carbon that investigated how long it would take to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at safe preindustrial levels by way of drawing carbon into soils.
“Stabilization could be achieved in decades only if we used the best existing carbon-farming practices, but never if we keep on doing what we are doing now,” Goreau said. “Thousands of farmers are out there doing the right thing and regenerating their soils, but the millions out there who are just running their soils down and amplifying the problem need to improve their act quickly for there to be any solution at all.”
Sacks is also realistic about what it would take. NASA climate scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) to Congress in 1988, and despite the ongoing efforts of tireless advocates, atmospheric greenhouse gas burdens have worsened almost every year, due in large part to burning fossil fuels.
“It should have been clear from the beginning that, even with effective sources of alternative energy, a global infrastructure would take a long time to reconstruct,” Sacks said.
But how feasible are projects like greening the Sahara? This one, in particular, would require nearly 3.5 million square miles of solar panels and wind turbines to produce the necessary change. What government on the planet is currently willing to invest in this scale of a project — even if we acknowledge that these kinds of projects may well be the last hope for mitigating some of the dramatically increasing impacts of runaway ACD?
Sacks readily admits that, on our current path, “there is no emissions scenario that can or will scale this large enough to truly mitigate the worsening impacts from human-caused climate disruption.”
“Even if we go to zero [emissions] tomorrow, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and their committed effects are consigning us to a future that will make life for humans extremely difficult or impossible,” he said.
John Liu is the ecosystems ambassador for the Commonland Foundation, a group working towards the realization of large-scale landscape restoration with local farmers and land users. He is also a groundbreaking filmmaker who focuses on documenting ecological restoration around the planet.
Liu told Truthout he is “excited and hopeful” about the large amount of energy and interest in large-scale ecosystem restoration that he says is “exploding all over the world.”
In addition to the work of the Commonland Foundation, Liu, who is also a visiting research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, points to Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation (a group working to restore ecosystem functionality),which he sees as proof that people anywhere can self-organize and self-govern in a way that is restorative of the Earth.
While Liu acknowledges that our current situation is “fraught with danger,” he added that he believes “we are entering a new era of human civilization in which we are required to collectively understand that we all have a responsibility to act to restore the systems that naturally regulate the Earth’s life-support systems.”
Liu said his greatest hope is in the Earth’s resilience, and pointed out that it is not the planet that is most at risk, but human civilization.
While most people point towards the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as the primary issue that needs addressing, Liu sees this carbon disequilibrium in the atmosphere as an “indicator.”
“What I have learned is that we cannot simply consider carbon in the atmosphere and believe that sucking it down will solve our problems,” he said. “Even in terms of human impact on the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide is not the greatest anthropogenic cause. Most people are unaware that moisture-laden air in the upper atmosphere caused by temperature increases from devegetation is a greater anthropogenic contributor to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.”
Like Liu, Sacks and Goreau both believe it is possible to mitigate the worsening impacts.
“Nature can do the recovery if we help by putting the necessary pieces into place,” Sacks said. “Just as absent beavers or wolves in a formerly intact habitat can completely transform the ecosystem within a few years, humans are also a keystone species, and can help nature recover orders of magnitude faster than nature would recover on its own.”
Sacks’s organizational compendium shows, as he put it, how “we already know how to do this in virtually all habitats between the poles.” He describes the methods as inexpensive and low-tech, and believes they increase productivity significantly, improve local economies and self-sufficiency, restore local water cycles, mitigate droughts and floods, and reduce resource conflicts.
“The challenge is that we would have to move this effort to a global war footing immediately,” he said. “The ‘windows of opportunity’ to act on global warming have been opening and closing and opening again (and closing again) over the past 30 years, and those squandered opportunities are just about dried up.”
There is no way to seriously mitigate the impacts of runaway climate disruption without drawing vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and Sacks and Goreau are convinced that the fastest way to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is via the biological sink.
“We’ve destroyed half the biomass in the world and turned it into carbon dioxide, and we’ve lost about half the carbon in the soil by burning it off,” Goreau said. “But if we were doing what the best people are doing here, we could solve the problem in a manner of decades.”
Given that there is five times the amount of carbon in soils as there is in the atmosphere, Goreau believes it is possible to sequester an immense amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide back into the Earth via natural processes like increasing nutrients in soils, as well as restoring wetlands and mangroves on a mass scale.
“From my point of view, we’ve got to be restoring carbon in all habitats and ecosystems,” he said.
Both Sacks and Goreau feel a lot of the responsibility lies with farmers and those who manage pastures, who should be regenerating the areas where they work, as opposed to industrial agriculture which, as Goreau puts it, “runs land dry of carbon.” Of course, this would entail governments supporting farmers — financially and otherwise — in working towards this way of operating.
“When you look at how effective the good farmers are at sequestering carbon, it is well within our reach to sequester enough carbon dioxide, and if there were carbon credits so they were rewarded, it would happen,” he said.
What to Do?
It’s not only farmers who are capable of acting on eco-restoration. What steps can each of us take?
“The most important is to change the mindset from ongoing growth to reducing resource exploitation and steady-state, regenerative land management and economics,” Goreau said.
For starters, he suggests that people with homes can transform their lawns into native plant and food forests, and everyone should begin to work within their communities towards urban or suburban farming. Sacks also promotes the movement to depave (roads and parking lots, for example). Depavement removes unnecessary impermeable surfaces and replaces them with green, growing things wherever possible. Additionally, Sacks points to forest regeneration efforts, and suggests that those who are interested in exploring more options should visit the Regeneration International website.
Liu admits that the question of what to do is challenging “even to discuss,” and that “it isn’t very helpful to suggest small measures that are unlikely to really change the situation.”
Still, on a personal level, he tries to slow down and consider his motivations and intentions. He says that the dominant culture’s media and education system have instilled ambitions for him — and most of us — “to rush around, to buy and sell things, to desire the ‘conveniences’ that I thought I ‘needed,’ to meet the expectations of society that have been conditioned into me through socialization. “
Liu believes each of us needs to be mindful and question the forces that drive our pursuits.
“Is our worldview something that is truth, or does it emerge from the past through norms created by those who practiced genocide, slavery, greed, power, brutality?” he asks.
Liu points out that shifting consciousness must occur alongside efforts towards biospheric restoration.
“There is [an] enormous disparity between the wealthy and the poor. There is also a growing sense of hopelessness that manifests in depression, suicide, nihilistic acts like mass shootings and great unhappiness,” he said. “The types of social dysfunction that we are witnessing are similar to witnessing ecosystem dysfunction in various biomes. A logical conclusion could be that our human social ecosystem is degraded.”
Goreau, meanwhile, is working on coral reef restoration “because we’ve already lost most of them to global warming.”
He has been warning of coral bleaching from overly warm ocean waters since the 1980s, and believes the tipping point for coral bleaching already occurred during that decade. He reminds us that our current global climate crisis is already “much more dire than most people realize.”
His projects entail the use of very low electric currents to stimulate coral growth, by way of steel grids erected underwater onto which then limestone rock grows, hence the building of reefs. He has found that in this way, coral can be kept alive at warmer temperatures as well, but added, “This is only a temporary measure to buy us some time until we can get more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
Goreau is currently aiming to revive 400 reefs around the world, and admits this is but a fraction of what needs to happen.
“Death Is a Natural Part of Life”
Goreau reminds us that all of these projects are taking place against the backdrop of runaway ACD. The reality, he says, is even more devastating than most mainstream predictions show.
“This is far worse than the IPCC’s [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] worst-case scenarios,” he said. Goreau noted that even the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios are “so minimal” because it takes the oceans 1,500 years to mix and turn themselves over. This is relevant, he said, because oceans “are storing 95 percent of the heat we’ve generated.”
Hence, until the cold water of the depths mixes with the warmer surface water, “We’re still not feeling the full impact of the heat we’ve placed in the oceans.”
This means that we will not feel the full impact for another 1,500 years — yet, as Goreau pointed out, the IPCC ignores this “because they are only looking 100 years ahead, which is 1/15th of the time it takes for the oceans to mix. They are simply looking at the wrong time horizon.”
As we reflect on how conditions have gotten to this point, Liu also reminds us how “death is a natural part of life,” given that the dominant culture ignores this reality, with dangerous consequences.
In his view, this denial of death “has inflated our opinion of ourselves and limited our understanding and happiness. It can be hard to accept, but death is inevitable and being aware of it is very useful.”
From his perspective, it is important to remember this not just as humans, but to do so for all of life.
This is all the more reason to focus on eco-restoration — and relatedly, Liu says, on the importance of the natural world more broadly.
“We need to look carefully and compare our creations to the eternally evolving life systems on the Earth and realize that everything we have ever made and everything that we will ever make combined is worth less that the fragile atmosphere that was respirated by living things over prodigious time,” he said.
In order to undertake eco-restoration on the scale that would be necessary to mitigate the impacts of ACD, those in power in countries around the world would have to immediately prioritize that “fragile atmosphere” above all else.