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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

402 Our greatest ally against climate change is the Earth itself

Day 402: Thursday April 22nd, 2021: Earth Day!

"Our greatest ally against climate change is the Earth itself

Ecosystems can draw down carbon and buffer us from the worst effects of climate change — but only if we protect them"

The Earth itself is our greatest ally in our effort to heal the earth. Ecosystems like California’s kelp forests absorb about half of the greenhouse gases humans emit. Without them, warming would be even worse. Nature shields us from the worst consequences of our own actions, forgiving the sins we refuse to repent.

But it cannot endure endless abuse. Life on Earth is threatened by overexploitation, pollution and habitat degradation, in addition to rising temperatures. The fraction of the planet that is undisturbed by human activities shrinks every year.

If we hope to solve climate change, we must also address the biodiversity crisis — restoring ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them. Otherwise, our species risks becoming lagents of our own suffering, looters of the only home we have.

One way to revitalize ecosystems: protect the ground they grow from.

Think of the soft, spongy soil of an old-growth woodland. Here, a towering oak tree draws up water and nutrients via threadlike fungi attached to its roots. In exchange, the fungi take sugar from the oak, funneling carbon from the air into the ground.

Now imagine a leaf from that oak drifting slowly to the forest floor. Perhaps it becomes food for an earthworm. Then microbes attack the earthworm’s droppings, breaking down the residue further still.

Eventually, the carbon that was once a leaf can become trapped in clods of earth. Other atoms may form strong chemical bonds with minerals like iron, which prevents them from reacting with oxygen and returning to the air. Under the right conditions, carbon might stay locked away in dense, dark earth for centuries. Soils contain more carbon than the entire atmosphere and all the world’s plants combined.

By allowing fields to lie fallow, or planting cover crops, they can return nutrients to the soil. Adding carbon-rich materials such as compost or biochar (a form of charcoal produced by burning organic matter in an oxygen-free environment) can boost carbon storage and enhance soil health.

A 2020 analysis in the journal Nature Sustainability found that better soil stewardship could reduce emissions by at least 5.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year — about 15 percent of current annual emissions.

“Once that happens,” Berhe said, “it’s not just the carbon status of the soil that’s improved. The soil literally becomes softer. It holds more water and nutrients. It’s easier for plants to grow in … and serve as a home for the most abundant and diverse group of organisms that we know of.”

Of the climate solutions they studied, few delivered more carbon bang per buck than mangroves — lush systems of salt-tolerant shrubs and trees that thrive where freshwater rivers spill into the sea. Though these forests occupy just 0.5 percent of the Earth’s shorelines, they account for 10 percent of the coast’s carbon storage capacity.

And they do more than just draw down carbon. With their luxuriant canopies and pillar-like roots extending deep into brackish water, mangroves provide shelter for small fish and help clean coasts. When storms strike a shoreline, they lessen the force of the waves.

“Human nature needs nature,” said Alfredo Quarto, executive director of the Mangrove Action Project. “But we don’t see it, we don’t see how integrated we are.”

“If we manage mangroves for making profits for the few at the cost of the many and the cost of our future,” he continued, “we’re killing ourselves.”

At one site in El Salvador, Quarto said, mangrove restoration efforts have revitalized the local fishing industry, boosted tourism and protected endangered sea turtles on the brink of extinction. Seen in satellite photos, the area is a richer, deeper green than any other part of the coast. From the ground, it is an aquatic Eden, perfumed by the mangroves’ bell-shaped flowers, noisy with the snapping of shrimp and the songs of birds.

“There is an alternative,” Quarto said. “That’s the thing we try to instill in people around the world.”

Yet the Earth cannot compensate for all of humanity’s pollution, said William Schlesinger, former dean of Duke University’s School of the Environment and a co-author on the 2017 PNAS study. Unless people also reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we emit, no amount of ecological restoration will save us.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to get off of using fossil fuels in transportation and heating and lighting and everything else,” Schlesinger said.

In public talks, he puts it this way:

“It’s easier to patch a hole in a bag than to pick up the marbles that fall out.”

This is perhaps the most important lesson nature holds for us. Though Earth has undergone countless changes in the past 4.6 billion years, we humans have experienced only a narrow band of the planet’s possibilities. Our species evolved and our civilization was built under fairly stable climate conditions. When things changed, they changed slowly, giving us time to adapt.

And we have never had to adapt to anything like the world we live in now. The last time atmospheric carbon concentrations were this high, humanity’s ancestors hadn’t even learned to stand on two legs. The last time average global temperatures changed this much, this fast — well, scientists don’t think that’s ever happened.

The rapid transformation of our planet doesn’t just endanger ecosystems; humanity will suffer. People have never lived on a planet without mangroves, or peatlands, or summertime ice. We’ve never had to go without the benefits the Earth provides.

Recovery is still possible — the kelp forests are proof. Along the California coast, marine protected areas have been established to protect kelp habitat. Fishermen are harvesting excess urchins from the barrens. Scientists are working on developing more heat-tolerant strains of giant algae, and environmental groups are restoring reefs and replanting the sea beds where kelp once grew.

Slowly, in scattered areas, the forest has started to return. The canopies are thickening; fish swim once more amid their swaying stems. Even the urchins are plumper and healthier — a reminder that all life depends on diversity.

Nature doesn’t only need us to save it. Humanity needs nature if we hope to survive.

Excerpts from Sarah Kaplan

April 22, 2021



Dedicated to Al Gore and The Climate Reality Project

On Christmas Eve, 1964, astronaut Bill Anders

Snapped a photo of the earth

As Apollo 8 orbited the moon

Those three guys were surprised

To see from their eyes

Our planet looked like an earth-rise

A blue orb hovering over the moon’s gray horizon

with deep oceans and silver skies

It was our world’s first glance at itself

Our first chance to see a shared reality

A declared stance and a commonality

A glimpse into our planet’s mirror

And as threats drew nearer

Our own urgency became clearer

As we realize that we hold nothing dearer

than this floating body we all call home

We’ve known That we’re caught in the throes

Of climactic changes some say

Will just go away, While some simply pray

To survive another day

For it is the obscure, the oppressed, the poor

Who when the disaster is declared done

still suffer more than anyone

Climate change is the single greatest challenge of our time

Of this, you’re certainly aware

It’s saddening, but I cannot spare you

From knowing an inconvenient fact, because

It’s getting the facts straight that gets us to act and not to wait

So I tell you this not to scare you

But to prepare you, to dare you

To dream a different reality

Where despite disparities

We all care to protect this world

This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel

To muster the verve and the nerve

To see how we can serve

Our planet. You don’t need to be a politician

To make it your mission to conserve, to protect

To preserve that one and only home

That is ours, To use your unique power

To give next generations the planet they deserve

We are demonstrating, creating, advocating

We heed this inconvenient truth, because we need to be anything

but lenient With the future of our youth

And while this is a training

in sustaining the future of our planet

There is no rehearsal. The time is

Now Now Now

Because the reversal of harm

And protection of a future so universal

Should be anything but controversial

So, earth, pale blue dot

We will fail you not

Just as we chose to go to the moon

We know it’s never too soon

To choose hope. We choose to do more than cope

With climate change We choose to end it—

We refuse to lose

Together we do this and more

Not because it’s very easy or nice

But because it is necessary

Because with every dawn we carry

the weight of the fate of this celestial body orbiting a star

And as heavy as that weight sounded, it doesn’t hold us down

But it keeps us grounded, steady, ready

Because an environmental movement of this size

Is simply another form of an earth-rise

To see it, close your eyes

Visualize that all of us leaders in this room

and outside of these walls or in the halls, all

of us change-makers are in a spacecraft

Floating like a silver raft

in space, and we see the face of our planet anew

We relish the view

We witness its round green and brilliant blue

Which inspires us to ask deeply, wholly:

What can we do?

Open your eyes.

Know that the future of this wise planet

Lies right in sight:

Right in all of us. Trust this earth uprising.

All of us bring light to exciting solutions never tried before

For it is our hope that implores us, at our uncompromising core

To keep rising up for an earth more than worth fighting for.

- Amanda Gorman


How to talk to kids about Climate Change (from National Public Radio)

Going Green Song

Mother Earth Environmental Song with Lyrics

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