July 2021 has earned the distinction of being the world’s hottest month ever recorded, according to global data released recently by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Elevated temperatures have worsened droughts and wildfires in many global locations, such as west coast states, and even our beloved northern Minnesota. Warming has also been blamed for the increased frequency and severity of weather events, such as hurricane Ida’s flooding.
The United Nations recently released a report that highlights our challenge. Climate changes are occurring in every region, according to the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report. This report reflects a rigorous scientific consensus assessment of climate change. Temperatures are warming and weather patterns are significantly changing. Limiting further climate change requires strong reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities such as burning fossil fuels coupled with sustained ecological improvements to help absorb carbon emissions.
To reduce damaging climate change, we must drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions and remove greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. One often-overlooked way to do this is through Natural Climate Solutions — including conservation and improved land management. Natural Climate Solutions offer ways to make forests, wetlands, and grasslands, a central part of an overall solution to climate change; a smart way to balance the climate equation.
The climate debates often focus on reducing emissions with little discussion of improving earth’s ability to absorb emissions. Added benefits of making our natural infrastructure more resilient may include reduced erosion, fewer droughts and floods and enhanced biodiversity, including keystone species that other species depend on, such as pollinators.
As a member of the United Nations Association of Minnesota, I was convener of a series of public meetings on sustainability and the emerging issue of climate change. These meetings took place during February 1992, prior to the first Earth Summit. Ambassador Robert Ryan, the lead US negotiator, and Frances Spivy-Weber from the Audubon Society spoke at all the sessions. While some participants sought to discuss abstract policies of carbon taxes or trading carbon credits the audience, especially young people, warmed to descriptions of the natural solutions because they promised so many additional benefits.
Conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy have decades of experience in restoring degraded landscapes with trees, plants and other ingredients to assure ecological integrity. Some changes require modifying ingrained practices. For example, international food company General Mills has championed “regenerative agriculture” among its food suppliers. Practices many include reducing tillage to retain organic materials and moisture in the soil. Another practice –cover-cropping — promotes continuous plant growth. When such cover crops are legumes, nitrogen from the atmosphere is sequestered in the ground to be absorbed by plants.
Natural Climate Solutions have not gained wide acceptance. According to Peter Ellis of the Nature Conservancy, solving climate change is totally feasible, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take equal parts innovation and collective action. The recent focus on technological innovation is great, but it’s important to recognize that innovation occurs in the non-human world as well. Long before humans existed, the planet came up with an incredible innovative solution to the same problem we face now: too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The solution “invented” by evolution over 3 billion years ago, is called photosynthesis.
One historical example of natural solutions dates from the Great Depression of the 1930’s. To counteract widespread economic breakdown and landscape degradation, 144 Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established in Minnesota and over 24 million trees were planted. Inspired by the New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps, President Biden is pushing for a modern counterpart: a Civilian Climate Corps that would create hundreds of thousands of jobs building trails, restoring forests and helping to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Our natural heritage and historic traditions connect us to our roots and offers us a hopeful future. It is time to boldly pursue many of these workable Natural Climate Solutions.