No matter what happens at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, Scotland next month, now is the time for all actors besides the governments of the world —individuals, universities and research labs, corporations, faith-based organizations, and civil society—to examine their practices, assess the risks of inaction, and chart their way forward to contribute to climate change solutions.
Put simply, the four main tasks for all actors in society to undertake are:
- Curtail CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels urgently
To stop the deterioration of our climate and our Earthly habitat, we must stop relying on the energy that comes from burning fossil fuels, because the energy comes with emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere, heating the planet and disrupting our complex climate system. Our civilization depends on energy; but for it to be sustainable for the long term, we must forego energy from coal, oil, and natural gas, and instead get more and more of our energy from carbonless renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar energy.
2. Restore organic matter in sorely depleted soils
Most crops grow in soil, a mix of minerals, organic material, living organisms, gases, and water. Soil contains nutrients that plants need to grow. Growing is an extractive process that can leave the soil depleted if erosion occurs or if good management practices are not followed. Much of America’s cropland is severely depleted, requiring massive applications of fertilizer to ensure adequate crop yield, and yet are generating massive toxic runoffs. After the crop is harvested, the leaves and stalks ideally are plowed under, and the field left fallow for a season, allowing the plants to return the nitrogen they drew from the soil while growing, as well as the carbon dioxide that the plant captures from the atmosphere and converts into various carbon compounds as the plant grows, that then decompose when plowed under. Fertile soil is a sink for carbon dioxide .
Unfortunately, America’s cropland, indeed the world’s, has been eroded, over-farmed, and poorly managed. Regenerative farming is beginning to find widespread adoption throughout the Mid-West and West. The practices are good for the soil, the crops, consumers, the environment, and for farmers’ bottom line. President Biden has proposed shifting agricultural policy from the Commodity Credit Corporation toward paying farmers to shrink their carbon footprint, and Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine has introduced the Agricultural Resilience Act in the House.
3. Reforest cleared lands to build up carbon stores
Trees, individually or collectively in forests, perform a vital service for humans. Plants, and especially trees, absorb carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere and, through the process of photosynthesis, convert energy from sunlight into oxygen and plant tissue. Trees thus create the conditions that enable humans to survive and thrive. They create what has been called a “Goldilocks” environment—not too hot, not too cold, just right for humans. Trees have provided man with the ambient temperature our species needs and maintained it with only slight fluctuations throughout the entire lifespan of homo sapiens.
However, in the roughly 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humankind has upset that fine balance. We have burned billions of tons of the fossilized remains of ancient plants that time has changed into coal, oil, and natural gas. Once burned, the carbon in those once-living plants is released into the air, where it traps some of the heat from the sun, preventing it from escaping back into space, and heating up our climate, nudging us out of our comfort zone. At the same time as we have mined and burned many billions of tons of fossil fuels, we have cut down millions of square miles of forests to create pasture land for cattle to graze on, or crop land to grow feed for cattle, which contribute greatly to climate change through their methane emissions. Only a little is directly used to grow food for humans. Without the forests to remove CO2 from the air and replace it with oxygen, the imbalance has become more pronounced, and our climate has heated so rapidly that we are facing temperatures not only uncomfortable but life-threatening.
It is essential that we both stop burning fossilized plants for our energy, and that we reforest the lands we have denuded of trees for agriculture or cattle raising.
4. Develop resilience to climate change now and in the future
Resilience may seem like a new word because it is now in vogue, but it is actually based on a Latin word, and was first used in English several centuries ago. Its Latin root means the ability to bounce back from adversity. It also implies being prepared to meet whatever comes your way. Sir Arthur Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, saw the value of the concept then he adopted “Be prepared” as the Scouts’ motto in 1907.
These days, with the climate becoming more volatile and less benign, many people are embracing resilience as a way to cope with increasingly frequent, increasingly severe extreme weather events. Rather than being taken by surprise when a storm or flood hits, people are learning to anticipate trouble before it strikes. Floridians do not have to venture out for plywood to board up their windows at the last minute, they are already stocked. Baltimoreans do not have to strip the store shelves of “white goods” (milk, bread, and toilet paper) before a storm, because they have bought ahead.
More and more people have bought generators as insurance against an electrical outage. More and more store water in tubs and pails, and keep supplies of drinking water, canned goods, and food that does not need refrigeration.
All are examples of resilience, planning ahead, being prepared, and bouncing back once the worst has passed.
With widespread adoption of these four tasks by all the actors in society, progress on climate change can and will proceed, no matter what happens in Glasgow.