This is my entry to the @upmewhale contest: "Global Warming and Climate Change, What Can Be Done?
I was born and raised in southern Chile. It is a place with many sources of clean water, extensive areas of native forest and no shortage of rain. There are many places there where you can appreciate rich soil which is soft, moist and filled with organic matter. Overall, it is a place where life can thrive.
Two years ago I begin living as a nomad, changing cities from time to time until I reached central Chile. This is an area where intensive agriculture is practiced and huge pine tree plantations cover the hills. Most of what is not covered by pine trees or crops is barren dry land and there are absolutely no clean sources of natural water.
The summer here is extremely hot and there are few places with shade to find comfort. The ground is hard, dry and dusty. A few plants make their way through this challenging land and fewer offer food to the hungry wildlife that roams around.
Picture from my window.
A few weeks ago I visited the house of an elderly couple. They had some pictures on the wall of a very green and lively looking place. I asked where that beautiful place was located and they answered it was right here.
It’s shocking to think this almost desertic area of the world looked like that before. Before the massive crops. Before the pine plantations used to feed the paper industrial complex. Before every acre of land was measured by how much money it could produce.
There are many who debate whether climate change is a natural phenomenon or caused by human activity. Beyond the data that supports one theory or the other, we have some concrete, tangible, observable actions that prove that the way we live is upsetting the balance of Nature and ultimately leading to an overall rise in temperature on a planetary scale.
Increased heat, drought, lack of rain in some parts and excess in others, tornados, floods, earthquakes… it’s all happening and you don’t have to manage all statistics to see that we are experiencing many changes. But, what’s causing it?
One of the most visible elements contributing to climate change is deforestation, done both for the extraction of natural resources as well as to make terrains suitable for agriculture. According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016 we lost 502,000 square miles of forest, which equals an area larger to South Africa.
Trees are essential in the regulation of temperature through transpiration:
Trees transpire water through their leaves, increasing the surface area contributing to evaporation. When a molecule of water evaporates, it takes with it some heat that could otherwise be used to warm the nearby environment. Trees provide an evaporative cooling effect that can decrease local air temperatures by several degrees Fahrenheit. This effect typically reaches its peak when evaporation levels are highest, usually at midday. Source
Not only do trees reduce temperature through evaporation but also through shade:
Leaves and branches reduce the amount of solar radiation that reaches the area below the canopy of a tree or plant. The amount of sunlight transmitted through the canopy varies based on plant species. In the summertime, generally, 10 to 30 percent of the sun’s energy reaches the area below a tree, with the remainder being absorbed by leaves and used for photosynthesis, and some being reflected back into the atmosphere. Source
Trees also help maintain adequate moisture levels both in the soil as well as the atmosphere by retaining water and later giving it back through their roots:
One tree can store 100 gallons or more of water after 1-2 inches of rainfall. Part of this intercepted water will slowly be released to the soil below, requiring less additional water needed for trees and crops, and part will evaporate into the air. Tree roots also store water which will eventually be released into the atmosphere through transpiration. Transpiration is the process by which stored water in tree roots travel to the leaves and then evaporate into the air through stomata or leaf pores. An average tree can release 250-400 gallons of water in one day. Source
Since water is slower to heat up and cool down, this helps to avoid drastic changes in temperature.
Water and moisture are not the only elements that trees help regulate for the good of the planet. They also transform CO2, one of the main gasses associated with climate change, into oxygen which is essential for most life on this planet.
So, we know trees are vital to regulating temperature and the lack of them will lead to imbalance. But, what other key players exist regarding climate change?
Greenhouse gases produced by human activity
Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called “greenhouse gases”, due to the similar effect they have with greenhouses. They are believed to be the main cause of climate change though I think they are only one of many elements involved.
All greenhouse gases exist naturally on the planet and are essential to life. However, they have a delicate balance with the rest of the gases and elements in the atmosphere to keep everything running smoothly. Human activity has upset this balance by releasing an excess of the following gases:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2): Produced mainly by transportation (29%), electricity (28%), industry (22%), commercial and residential (12%) and agriculture (9%). Source
- Methane: The main sources are fossil fuel production (33%), livestock farming (27%), landfills and waste (16%), biomass burning (11%), rice agriculture (9%) and biofuels (4%). Source
- Nitrous oxide: Sources of this gas are agriculture - mainly fertilizers - (67%), fossil fuel combustion (10%), biomass (10%), atmospheric deposition (9%) and human sewage (3%)Source.
We have also created some synthetic gases that contribute to climate change such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), as well as sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These are known as fluorinated gases and are used for refrigerators, air conditioners, foams, and aerosol cans. Source
Now, this item is not usually considered into climate change awareness but I want to point out why I think it’s important. We saw how trees are important to regulating temperature and how they transform greenhouse gases into oxygen. They also transform other polluting gases which help us maintain clean air.
But trees have already been cut down and they take so much time to grow! So there’s nothing to do, right? I mean, by the time the trees we planted grow the Earth will be nothing but a boiling cauldron! Well, not really.
The problem with reforestation initiatives is that they are planting trees in the ground and praying to God that they will survive and hopefully someday they will fix everything. But trees don’t thrive easily by being placed on a random patch of soil. They thrive by being part of a dynamic ecosystem that includes nutrient-rich soil, abundant fungi presence, seed spreading birds and pollinating insects.
Apparently the best way to achieve such a scenario when we allow nature to do the work. Instead of spending tons of energy planting trees, we must protect areas from the activities that impoverish the soil and damage vegetation (livestock, agriculture, industrial wastes, etc.). Proof of this can be seen in this short documentary called “Fools & Dreamers”, which is very enlightening on how we can restore the planet:
“All the serious work of natural regeneration of native forest and wildlife is being done by Nature. People say to us: “are you planting all this forest back?” And it’s a sensible sounding question, but really if we were planting this forest back, we’d never do it. On fifteen hundred acres of land, of wild, hilly, rough terrain… we’d never do it. Nature is planting the forest back in totally ecologically appropriate and scientifically interesting ways”. - Hugh Wilson.
Taking care of soil also reduces the need for fertilizers which are a big source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, as previously stated. Good soil is characterized by greater moisture retention, therefore, preventing drought and overheating which destroys the ecology underground.
Livestock farming deserves a little heading of its own because its one of the pillars of human-induced climate change. Altogether, the meat industry produces around 18% of the total greenhouse gases associated with human activities. It requires 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef and 30% of the total landmass is destined to cattle.
Besides the big picture data, cattle step on the ground causing erosion where it is steep and compacting the soil on the flat surfaces. This stops trees from growing back, stopping the recovery of the much necessary forests. Without forests, there is little water retention in the ecosystem which ultimately leads to drought and desertification of the territories. We deforest an area the size of Panama every year, so if we add these things then we are definitely digging our own grave through the consumption of meat!
What we should do about this
There are many actions that can be taken to reduce our impact such as recycling, eating less or no meat, growing your own food, crafting, permaculture, riding bike and avoiding fossil fuels.
On a personal level, I believe that the base of change should be found in caring for the soil, water, native forest and flora. And I’m not only talking about conservation and leaving reserves for future generations. I’m talking about learning how to benefit the most with them while preserving and helping them thrive as well.
We should do our best effort to learn about local trees and plants. Learn to forage food, medicine and crafting materials from Nature. We should take care of the soil in our yards, even if its a small one. Imagine if all rich people allowed forests in their huge yards instead of mowed lawn… they would be recovering thousands of hectares of forest without having to spend any money or effort!
We should mulch (cover the ground with leaves or dried grass) everywhere to avoid evaporation and help the ground retain water. We should abandon the idea of “weed” and change it for “potentially useful herb that I will soon learn how to interact with, in a mutually beneficial way”. We should accept our ignorance regarding the natural world and begin the path to learning how to integrate ourselves with it.
I think the key idea here is that we have to stop seeing ourselves as separate from Nature, and recognize how dependent we are of it. And even if we didn’t depend on it and it was possible to replace everything artificially, would that be what we really want? Do we want a world without wildlife? Do we really desire to live a life where everything must be paid for? These are important questions everyone must take their time to answer on their own.
I have no proof that this will solve climate change or that it will put an end to all ecological problems, but it’s a start. Not only will this help life on the planet, but the life of every individual who embarks on the journey, bringing them closer to a healthier and more conscious way of living.