The global impacts of global pollution are so terrifyingly vast and all-encompassing that fully comprehending the potential consequences can prove difficult for the human mind.
If it continues unchecked, scientists warn1 of an increase in extreme weather including rising sea levels, intensified and more frequent wildfires, devastating flooding, stronger hurricanes and prolonged droughts — all of which are projected to have colossal and costly impacts on public health, agriculture, politics, economic growth and human migration.
But there’s good news: Humans have the power to stop, and potentially reverse pollution, but only if appropriate action is taken immediately, and on a global scale.
While most people think of the burning of fossil fuels as the primary driver of pollution, data point to industrial agriculture as the greatest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 44% to 57% of all greenhouse gases come from the global food system. This includes deforestation, agriculture, food waste and food processing, packaging, refrigeration and transportation.2
So, while some argue that, in addition to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to 100% renewable energy, implementing new and costly carbon-capturing technology3 is the solution, mounting evidence points to a less costly and more natural solution: Harnessing the power of Mother Nature.
This includes organic regenerative agriculture,4 which promotes soil health, biodiversity, soil carbon sequestration and large-scale ecosystem restoration such as reforestation and the restoration of peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes and other important ecosystem habitats capable of drawing down and storing excess atmospheric carbon.5
Climate Columnist: ‘The Main Driver of Future Warming Is What We Do Now’
What happens on Earth within the next century in regard to climate change depends on the action humans do or don’t take, said David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor and climate columnist for New York magazine, in a recent interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Wallace-Wells, who wrote “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,”6 says we tend to think about climate change as something that began centuries ago during the Industrial Revolution, but the truth is that in the history of mankind, 50% of all the carbon we’ve released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels has occurred within the last 30 years.7
That means the fate of the entire planet may lie in the hands of just two generations, because what happens in the next 50 to 100 years from now will depend on how humans address climate change today, Wallace-Wells says.
Deadlier Wildfires in California
In the featured video, Rogan and Wallace-Wells discuss how climate change is worsening wildfires in California, causing the fires to burn hotter and more frequently. Science shows California wildfires could get up to 60 times worse as climate change intensifies, says Wallace-Wells.
That’s an alarming prediction considering California, in the past two years, had some of the most destructive fires on record. In fact, the Mendocino wildfire in July 2018 was the state’s largest ever, causing 60% more damage than any fire before it.8
There are a number of ways in which climate change may be intensifying California wildfires. For starters, hotter temperatures can create a drying effect, turning once-green vegetation into flammable wildfire fuel. Secondly, scientists say climate change is shortening California’s rainy reason, and shifting the Santa Ana winds in a way that fan deadly wildfires in Southern California.
In the podcast, Rogan says a firefighter once told him that with the right wind, it’s only a matter of time before a fire hits the top of Los Angeles, California, and burns all the way to the ocean, and there will be nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Development and urban sprawl are another reason wildfires could get a lot worse in California. When Native Americans stewarded the land, they often performed controlled burns to prevent the buildup of timber, but because some of America’s wealthiest elite insist on living in the California hills, controlled burns are out of the question, says Wallace-Wells.
His observation leads to an interesting statement about how the situation in California is unique in that climate change tends to impact the world’s poorest first. But in places like Bel-Air, a ritzy upper-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, the effects of climate change are working in reverse as it has largely been the ultrarich who are most affected by wildfires.
The damage has been both destructive and costly. Just three California wildfires, the Camp Fire, Woolsey Fire and the Hill Fire, are estimated to have killed 88 people, damaged or destroyed close to 20,000 structures and caused more than $9 billion in damage.9 Those costs may be just the tip of the iceberg.
$600 Trillion in Damages by the End of the Century
In the featured interview, Wallace-Wells talks about how climate change is an invisible threat. We can’t see carbon, and most Americans cannot see the effect excess atmospheric carbon is having on our planet, which makes understanding the severity of climate change an elusive concept for many.
But climate change is in fact having an effect, one where the consequences will likely be seen in the near future, but also may take millennia to play out. In an interview with Chris Hayes of NBC News, Wallace-Wells said:10
“We could have global climate damages of $600 trillion, which is double all the wealth that exists in the world today. We’d have hundreds of millions of climate refugees. We would have twice as much war or more.
And while temperature increases violence between states, it also increases violence between people. So, there’d be more murder, more rape, more domestic assault. It also raises the incidents of mental illness. It changes rates of ADHD [attention deficit hyperactive disorder] and autism.”
While Wallace-Wells admits that some of the science sounds alarming and extreme, even if just half of it turns out to be right, we’re in big trouble, he told Hayes, adding:
“Now a lot of this science is … going to be shown to be extreme. It’s going to be revised. I don’t mean to say that every single finding in every single paper is going to be a perfect prophecy of what the 21st century holds, but when you see a book that’s, like mine, 300 pages long — [and] on many of those pages, every sentence is a different study — you realize the huge scale of research that’s showing that we’re heading towards some really, really bleak outcomes very quickly.
And that even if 30 or 40 or 50% of the science in the book turns out to be not true — which I think [is] not going happen, but even if it did happen — we’d still be in for some really horrible, horrible suffering. In fact, I think suffering unprecedented in the entire history of humanity.”
Arguably, one of the most daunting points Wallace-Wells makes in his book is the rapid speed at which climate change is occurring — which, based on scientific data, could be happening up to 100 times faster11 than at any point in planetary history — a concept scientists are only recently beginning to understand.
New Data Show World’s Oceans Are Heating Faster Than Previously Thought
A new study published in January in the journal Science issued an alarming statement when its authors reported that the oceans are warming faster than previously thought.12
An analysis of four recent ocean heating observations, made possible by a fleet of nearly 4,000 floating robots that dive to a depth of 2,000 meters to measure temperature, pH, salinity and other data, found that the oceans are heating up to 40% faster on average than was previously estimated by a United Nations panel.13
The study is important for two reasons. For one, it aligns trends in ocean heat content with leading climate change models, disproving earlier research that suggested climate change was slowing, as opposed to increasing, over the last 15 years.
Secondly, the temperature of our planet’s oceans is key in measuring climate change because an estimated 93% of the excess solar energy trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the world’s oceans. Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-wrote the paper said:
“If you want to see where climate change is happening, look in our oceans. Ocean heating is a very important indicator of climate change, and we have robust evidence that it is warming more rapidly than we thought.
While 2018 will be the fourth warmest year on record on the surface, it will most certainly be the warmest year on record in the oceans, as was 2017 and 2016 before that. The climate change signal is a lot easier to detect if it is changing in the oceans than on the surface.”
100 Times Faster Than Ever Before
There are three major misconceptions regarding climate change: The first is the speed at which it is occurring; the second is the scope; and the third is the severity, says Wallace-Wells. It’s widely thought that climate change is something that happens really slowly over time — a phenomenon that, if anything, would likely affect our children or grandchildren, and that the world would have decades or even centuries to solve, he says.
But again, according to research, half of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released into the atmosphere since 1988 — the same year the dangers these emissions pose to the climate became widely known.14 Wallace-Wells drives this point home in the Hayes interview when he said:
“Scientific breakthroughs happen in the mid-19th century, but they weren’t widely known. But by 1990, when the U.N. is establishing the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the scientific community knew exactly what was going on — was advertising it at full volume — and we have not changed course at all.
In fact, we have done much more damage. Each of those years are the highest years of emissions on record. So, things are happening really, really quickly. We’re doing that damage in real time. And that has a lot of complicated lessons for how we go forward, how we think about responsibility.”
Reversing Course Naturally Through Mother Nature
While all of this information may sound (and is) overwhelmingly terrifying, the silver lining is that it’s often fear that invokes action. We should be scared, says Wallace-Wells, and we should take the threat of climate change seriously. So, what is it that we, as a human race, can do right now to address climate change?
Wallace-Wells advocates for the need to develop infrastructure that can capture carbon. Where we store that carbon is where things get tricky, he says. But what if Mother Nature, if properly utilized, can do the work for us?
Andre Leu, international director of Regeneration International and former president of IFOAM Organics International, says the solution to managing the climate now is through regenerating soil health.
Soils are the greatest carbon sink next to the oceans. Soil can hold more carbon than the entire atmosphere.15 But the problem is that industrial agriculture, characterized by destructive plowing, overgrazing and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, has severely degraded our soils and their ability to efficiently capture carbon. In some heavily farmed areas, these practices have resulted in the estimated loss of 80% of soil carbon.
Interestingly, the cause of this — the “Green Revolution” — has a name that’s actually an ironic misnomer, as this type of destructive agriculture is literally killing our Earth, which is a far cry from being a “green” way to live. Topsoil destruction, erosion and desertification are all exacerbated by industrial practices such as tilling, chemical use, monocropping and not using cover crops.
Maria Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that at the current rate of topsoil degradation, all the world’s topsoil will be gone in less than 60 years!16
Transitioning to Organic Regenerative Agriculture
Fortunately, organic regenerative agriculture offers the tools to regenerate the health of our soils and their ability to draw down and store excess carbon. It gets even better. According to Leu, transitioning just 10% to 20% of the world’s agricultural production to organic regenerative systems can sequester enough carbon to not only stop, but also reverse climate change. Leu states:
“Agricultural systems that recycle organic matter and use crop rotations can increase the levels of SOC [soil organic carbon]. This is achieved through techniques such as longer rotations, ground covers, cover crops, green manures, legumes, compost, organic mulches, biochar, perennials, agro-forestry, agroecological biodiversity and livestock on pasture using sustainable grazing systems such as holistic grazing.
These systems are starting to come under the heading of ‘regenerative agriculture’ because they regenerate SOC. Regenerative agriculture can change agriculture from being a major contributor to climate change to becoming a major solution. The widespread adoption of these systems should be made the highest priority by farmers, ranchers, governments, international organizations, industry and climate change organizations.”
So, while climate change is in fact a dire, ominous threat looming over mankind and all of life on Earth, the solution has the ability to not only pull us out of this crisis, but also to create healthier food and farming systems that will improve public health while regenerating nature’s ecosystems which promote biodiversity, soil health, clean water and a stable climate.