Whatever you think of climate change projections, the impacts of extreme weather are evident: tropical cyclones in Alaska, arctic blasts, killer heat waves, extreme droughts, 500-year floods, mega wildfires, and life-threatening blizzards. The number of natural disasters has increased fivefold over the last 50 years, with economic losses increasing sevenfold. The costs to our health and safety, food and water supplies, and the natural systems on which we rely, grow by the day. This impoverishes current and future generations from living healthy, prosperous, and secure lives.
About a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use practices. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and the oceans also serve as major greenhouse gas sinks, absorbing about 41% of human-caused emissions out of the atmosphere. Harming these natural resources is doubly problematic: it increases emissions and diminishes their ability to serve as sinks.
Climate-friendly farming practices (e.g., rotational grazing, improved manure management, cover cropping, agroforestry, and biochar), along with sustainable forestry, reforestation, and the conservation and restoration of ecosystems, are natural climate solutions. They allow us to harness nature to stabilize the climate and adapt to the changes we are experiencing by moderating local temperature fluctuations, protecting water and air resources, and improving biodiversity and the productivity of the land. Extreme and volatile weather, like long periods of drought followed by torrential rain, is much easier to handle if the land is healthy and resilient in the first place. Aligning agriculture, forestry, and other land-use activities with the ecosystems on which they depend will allow us to leverage nature to fully address the climate crisis.
Climate Bizarro World in the Northeast
This year the Northeast U.S. has had record blizzards in some areas and warm, wet weather with very little snow everywhere else. New York City just set records for the latest-ever first measurable snow of winter and the longest period without snow, a record set less than three years ago. Winters across the country are on average 3.3°F warmer than in 1970. In the Northeast, winter is warming even faster. Out of 238 cities surveyed across the country, Burlington, VT (7.1°F) and Concord, NH (6.0°F) experienced the highest and fourth highest increases. The climate in the Northeast is projected to include more frequent and intense storms and increasingly higher average temperatures, which threaten food production, infrastructure, and our health.
A recent New York State climate impact assessment reports that temperatures could rise by as much as 4-7°F by the 2050s and 5-10°F by the 2080s, depending on how fast we cut emissions. To put this in perspective, the earth has not been 10°F warmer in 50 million years, a time when the polar regions were ice free. If this were to happen again, global sea level could rise approximately 70 meters (~230 feet), flooding every coastal city on the planet. This kind of change normally occurs on a scale of millions of years, not a few generations.
The Climatological Wild West
Also this year, California has gone from extreme drought to overwhelming flooding as an atmospheric river unleashed waves of rain and snow across the state. The good news is that reservoirs are refilling and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas will ensure plenty of water in the short-term. But, the state’s infrastructure is mostly designed to carry away floodwater rather than find ways to hold it on the land long enough to absorb and recharge depleted groundwater supplies. We know how to design systems that use existing natural features to do this, including bio-swales, permeable hardscapes, and by channeling stormwater into paleo canyons, ancient valleys filled with sand and gravel formed by Ice Age rivers. Planting trees is also one of the best ways to slow rainwater, prevent mudslides, and maintain clean air and water.
The mighty Colorado River, which provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigation for 5 million acres of farmland, is struggling under the largest drought in more than 1,200 years. Water levels along the river at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two of the largest reservoirs in the world, have dropped to all-time lows. Normally, Lake Powell’s hydroelectric turbines at Glen Canyon Dam can produce as much power as a large fossil fuel power plant, but the low water levels have cut the power production by more than one-third and threaten to shut it down completely. The federal government is imposing mandatory cuts in water allocations to the states that depend on the Colorado River after repeated failure to do so on their own. The drought is so severe that municipal water supplies to some residential communities have been cut off, forcing people to truck in water at huge costs.
How Bad Do We Let Climate Change Get?
The sooner we act, the faster we can stabilize the climate at a more manageable level and adapt to the changes that are occurring. The world’s leading climate scientists project that we must eliminate human-caused greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century to minimize the risk of severe impacts from climate change. This monumental challenge is possible with the right combination of smart policies, funding mechanisms, and technological innovations. But green technology is not enough. We must also incentivize conservation, reforestation, and other broad ecological restoration efforts.
The difference between swift and significant action now versus business as usual will mean the difference between more “manageable” droughts, floods, and heatwaves, or conditions so inhospitable that millions will be forced to migrate and fight for increasingly scarce resources. The former scenario is a world we can adapt to, while the latter presents a grim, dystopian version of the not-too-distant future. The question is how bad do we allow things to get?
Stabilizing the Climate & Adapting to Change
We can stabilize the climate in the coming decades by drawing down the sources of human-caused (“anthropogenic”) greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere and supporting the natural sinks that soak up a substantial amount of our emissions. Within each sector there are multiple solutions. For example, within the transportation sector, solutions range from electric vehicles and efficient ocean shipping to mass transit and more walkable cities. Despite the rampant doomerism and denial among us, there is evidence that we are actually turning the tide in our response to climate change. The U.S. just committed the largest climate funding ever enacted; renewable energy like wind and solar now account for 21% of U.S. electricity production, double the percentage of a decade ago; and electric vehicles and super-efficient heating and cooling technology have gone mainstream.
We need to ensure that the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change are born by those most responsible for it – the most industrially-developed nations. We need to incentivize less developed nations to take action to protect and conserve natural systems, and to support their need to adapt to changes effectively to ensure people around the world have food, shelter, and the basic necessities of a civilized human life. We also need to work with countries like China and Russia to make sure everyone is doing their part in an equitable and fair manner.
Without a doubt, we have a long way to go and there will be massive impacts inflicted upon future generations even if we act swiftly. But, the quicker we act now and the more globally-cohesive our response, the more manageable the changes will be. Combining a green technology revolution with an unprecedented investment in the world’s natural systems will not only stabilize the climate and restore the ecological health of the planet, but will also enrich and improve people’s lives, now and into the future.
You can do your part: plant a tree, buy local, eat well-raised meat more selectively, compost your food scraps, support conservation efforts, and vote for change.