Reversing climate change… really?

"We are annealed to our creature comforts and our leaders are placed there to serve that end, whether they are corrupt or honest."

Tornado damage, Mississippi, 2023

This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought — days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year’s harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can’t do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving… in the dust.

— Bill McKibben, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, Rolling Stone, July, 2012

I can feel the heat of the sun on my thinning scalp more than I can recall having felt before. Maybe it is imagined, or maybe it is the much higher UV now. As the climate crisis spirals out of our control more with each passing day, we are all feeling the heat, and grasping for solutions, anything, to get us out of this mess.

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Shortly after Mr. McKibben wrote that quote above in 2012, I posted here:

The problem with trying to stop large scale climate change is that it may no longer be possible. We missed 150 years of warnings by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Keeling, Broecker, Gore, the IPCC and many others. The warnings whizzed past like orange traffic cones, telling us the bridge was out, just ahead. Now we are sailing through space. We don’t know at what point we may have already triggered the shift to a new stable state, or what scientists call an attractor, that may be 5 degrees warmer than the Holocene.

If we are lucky, we can land at something resembling the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum which our (reptilian) ancestors experienced 55 million years ago, lasting 200,000 years, but for that to happen, the curve of acceleration for climate forcing positive feedbacks will have to reverse, and fairly soon, and given the current state of methane clathrate bubblings, off-gassing permafrost, summer ice loss, Atlantic Conveyor retardation, and more, even that discomforting Eocene 5-degree scenario seems implausibly Pollyannaish.


Steffen, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene (2018)

We could say, l as did in this next blog post in 2017, there is a hierarchy of realistic survival choices, in roughly this order:

 From Griscom et al, PNAS. The Great Change, October 2017


I tend to think the world is never that simple. What we often think of as natural is the product of human tampering over thousands of years. What we often think of as engineered is really biomimicry. Nature has discovered all kinds of strategies by trial and error over billions of years, so we should be all in favor of biomimicry.


From Allen, et al., “Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions: Towards the trillionth tonne” Nature 458:1163–66; in World Bank Development Report 2010. The Great Change, November 2010

Natural climate solutions (NCS) are conservation, restoration, and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes and wetlands across the globe. These solutions are considered “natural” because they use nature’s own processes:

  • Protecting ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, and wetlands from conversion or degradation.
  • Managing forests, agricultural lands, and grasslands in ways that maximize their potential to store carbon, such as through sustainable forestry, more bamboo, and agroforestry practices.
  • Restoring degraded lands and coasts to healthy states, which can sequester carbon in plants and soils, which is the goal of the regenerative farming movement and the Ecosystem Restoration Communities.

The science behind NCS suggests that these methods could deliver more than a third of the emission reductions needed by 2030.

Nature-based solutions not only help in the fight against climate change but also help biodiversity, human health, and livelihoods. Healthy ecosystems restore a healthy planet. They also have greater allure. As I wrote here in 2019:

You can hit people over the head with top-down regulation but then you get resistance. Or you can lead people to their higher callings and the rewards to be found in frugal husbandry, ethical manufacturing and construction, and product revolutions.

Sustainable development has become something of an oxymoron, we acknowledge. It needn’t be. It is unfortunate how the terminology gets used these days. By sustainable development, the UN implies unlimited capacity for physical growth using an extractive economy. It should instead imply directed de-growth of that economy while simultaneously developing harmonious relationships with nature and each other in a sustainable spiral of endless improvement in the quality of life. Better, not more.

These sorts of things should really not be being negotiated by government leaders because that is already limiting discussion to the viewpoints of people who are only looking to their next election cycle or succession to the throne. “Development” means to them anything that can be promised to their people — whether delivered or not — to assure they, personally, remain in power.

— Acceleration, October 29, 2017


But that is really the rub, isn’t it? Cultural inertia. We are annealed to our creature comforts and our leaders are placed there to serve that end. Whether they are corrupt or honest, it is not about means, but the ends that they, and we, serve.

Cheap oil and coal, along with an anomalously mild and stable climate for 10,000 years, have tricked our economic systems by conflating the consumption and production of goods and services with availability of credit and technological prowess. Shortfalls are met not by rationing and reseeding but by increasing indebtedness or thinking outside the box. We strive to re-inflate national economies by buying, with money that we do not have, goods and services that we do not need, using financial instruments that are complete fictions, in order to sate our addiction to growth. We forget that “economics” and “ecology” share the same root. In Greek, it means “home.”

We need to get rid of the rhetoric that employs terms such as “developing countries.” In the world to come, the only developing countries will be those that follow the example of Bhutan, and develop qualitative measurement of happiness. In that sense the North is the most undeveloped. The notion that somehow all countries can achieve a higher standard of living by industrialization is a busted paradigm and we need to distance ourselves from it. India and Senegal will never be Sweden. Nor should they want to be.

— Slouching Towards Cancun, Nov 14, 2010

In that same July 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, author James Howard Kunstler wrote:

My beef with the whole “solutions” thing comes from my travels around the country, talking on college campuses and such; there is this whole clamor for “solutions.” The idea is, if you’re not optimistic enough, you should shut up. But there are subtexts to all these things. And the subtext to that particular meme is, “Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way we’re running it now, except by other means.” They don’t really want to hear about other arrangements. They want to keep on running all the cars, only differently. You know, like hybrid electric cars, or electric cars, or cars that run on algae secretions. But they don’t get that we’re done with that way of life. The mandates of reality are telling us something very different. They are telling us we have to inhabit the landscape and move around in it very differently in the future.

When those Rolling Stone pieces first appeared, I replied in my weekly blog post:

This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don’t work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself — it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.


Technofixes have to be seen for what they are — nostalgic longing for an extinct, Disneyesque futurism. Torus energy, biofueled airliners, Virgin Galaxy trips to the moon and desert cities encased in air-conditioned biodomes are all forlorn grasps at a tiny twig of what-might-have-been, as we plummet off the cliff face into a hellish post-Anthropocene.

— Vacuuming the Atmosphere, July 27, 2012

I concluded that post:

We need to let Gaia do what she does best. If we can just stop wounding her further, she might yet recover. She has the will to do it, although, at the moment, that happens to involve a serious and most unpleasant fever. It took us, the two-leggeds, hundreds of thousands of years of compassionate living, in the aggregate, for a stable Holocene period to emerge from the chaotic climate regimes of all preceding times. We pushed the edges of that stability with our cities, redirected rivers, man-made deserts and agriculture, but we also helped her recover, bypassing and even protecting huge expanses of rainforest and sacred, untouched mountains.

The balance our predecessors struck with our mother was a delicate one, and in a mere 150 years we destroyed it, but that equipoise may not be yet beyond redemption. We just have to put the forests back and stop soiling our nest.

It is not as simple as that now. With every passing year of neglect, half-efforts, and steps backward, the amount of repair required, and the bill, grows.

It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.


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Doyu Shonin said…
On our farm near Eugene (which we gave up mostly due to old age recently) we began to notice the UV thing about 2012. We're staying in the shade as much as possible pretty much April to October. I've put up a little shade house to grow my last few gardens. In the Willamette Valley!

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