The IPCC Report: Key Findings and Radical Implications

The IPCC Report: Key Findings and Radical Implications

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capitalism.

Editor’s note: DGR has always argued that civilizations are inherently destructive and environmental destruction and degradation has been ongoing for millenia. Climate change is only another concequence of this inherently destructive way of life. This is why technical solutions will never work. What we need to do to save the planet is 1. immediately stop destroying it, and 2. restore what we already have destroyed. This logic is easy to understand if your loyalty lies with the planet and all life on it, but it seems very hard to understand if your loyalty lies with this destructive and addictive way of life.


By Brian Tokar

Beyond the headlines: what climate science now shows about Earth’s future. Can we act in time?

The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its latest comprehensive report on the state of the earth’s climate. The much-anticipated report dominated the headlines for a few days in early August, then quickly disappeared amidst the latest news from Afghanistan, the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in the US, and all the latest political rumblings. The report is vast and comprehensive in its scope, and is worthy of more focused attention outside of specialist scientific circles than it has received thus far.

The report affirms much of what we already knew about the state of the global climate, but does so with considerably more clarity and precision than earlier reports. It removes several elements of uncertainty from the climate picture, including some that have wrongly served to reassure powerful interests and the wider public that things may not be as bad as we thought. The IPCC’s latest conclusions reinforce and significantly strengthen all the most urgent warnings that have emerged from the past 30 to 40 years of climate science. It deserves to be understood much more fully than most media outlets have let on, both for what it says, and also what it doesn’t say about the future of the climate and its prospects for the integrity of all life on earth.

Click image to download report. (PDF, 248MB)

First some background. Since 1990, the IPCC has released a series of comprehensive assessments of the state of the earth’s climate, typically every 5–6 years. The reports have hundreds of authors, run for many hundreds of pages (this one has over 3000), and represent the international scientific consensus that has emerged from the period since the prior report. Instead of releasing a comprehensive report in 2019, as originally scheduled, the IPCC followed a mandate from the UN to issue three special reports: on the implications of warming above 1.5 degrees (all temperatures here are in Celsius except where otherwise noted), and on the particular implications of climate change for the earth’s lands and oceans. Thus the sixth comprehensive Assessment Report (dubbed AR6) is being released during 2021–22 instead of two years prior.

Also the report released last week only presents the work of the first IPCC working group (WGI), focused on the physical science of climate change. The other two reports, on climate impacts (including implications for health, agriculture, forests, biodiversity, etc.) and on climate mitigation — including proposed policy measures — are scheduled for release next February and March, respectively. While the basic science report typically receives far more press coverage, the second report on climate impacts and vulnerabilities is often the most revealing, describing in detail how both ecosystems and human communities will experience the impacts of climate changes.

In many respects, the new document represents a qualitative improvement over the previous Assessment Reports, both in terms of the precision and reliability of the data and also the clarity of its presentation. There are countless detailed charts and infographics, each illuminating the latest findings on a particular aspect of current climate science in impressive detail. There is also a new Interactive Atlas (freely available at interactive-atlas.ipcc.ch), which allows any viewer to produce their own maps and charts of various climate phenomena, based on a vast array of data sources and climate models.

If there is a key take-home message, it is that climate science has vastly improved over the past decade in terms of its precision and the degree of confidence in its predictions. Many uncertainties that underlay past reports appear to have been successfully addressed, for example how a once-limited understanding of the behavior and dynamics of clouds were a major source of uncertainty in global climate models. Not only have the mathematical models improved, but we now have more than thirty years of detailed measurements of every aspect of the global climate that enable scientists to test the accuracy of their models, and also to substitute direct observations for several aspects that once relied heavily upon modeling studies. So we have access to better models, and are also less fully reliant upon them.

Second, scientists’ understanding of historic and prehistoric climate trends have also vastly improved. While the IPCC’s third report in 2001 made headlines for featuring the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, showing how average temperatures had been relatively stable for a thousand years before starting to spike rapidly in the past few decades, the current report highlights the relative stability of the climate system over many thousands of years. Decades of detailed studies of the carbon contents of polar ice cores, lake and ocean sediments and other geologically stable features have raised scientists’ confidence in the stark contrast between current climate extremes and a couple of million years of relative climate stability.

The long-term cycle of ice ages, for example, reflects shifts of about 50 to 100 parts per million (ppm) in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, compared to a current concentration (approximately 410 ppm) that is well over 150 ppm higher than the million-year average. We need to look back to the last interglacial era (125,000 years ago) to find an extended period of high average temperatures comparable to what we are experiencing now, and current carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are believed to be higher than any time in at least two million years.

With these overarching issues in mind, it is time to summarize some of the report’s most distinctive findings and then reflect upon their implications.

First, the question of “climate sensitivity” has been one of the more contentious ones in climate science. It is a measure of how much warming would result from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from preindustrial levels, i.e. from 280 ppm to 560 ppm. Early estimates were all over the map, giving policymakers the wiggle room to suggest it is reasonable to reduce emissions more slowly or wait for newer technologies — from better batteries to carbon capture and even nuclear fusion — to come along. This report greatly narrows the scope of that debate, with a “best estimate” that doubling CO2 will produce approximately 3 degrees of warming — far too high to avoid extremely dire consequences for all of life on earth.

Climate sensitivity is very likely (more than 90% confidence) between 2.0–4.5 degrees and likely (2/3 confidence) between 2.5 and 4 degrees. Of the five main future scenarios explored in the report, only those where global greenhouse gas emissions reach their peak before 2050 will avoid that disastrous milestone. If emissions continue increasing at rates comparable to the past few decades, we’ll reach doubled CO2 by 2100; if emissions accelerate, it could happen in just a few decades, vastly compounding the climate disruptions the world is already experiencing.

A second key question is, how fast do temperatures rise with increasing emissions? Is it a direct, linear relationship, or might temperature rises begin to level off any time in the foreseeable future? The report demonstrates that the effect remains linear, at least up to the level of 2 degrees warming, and quantifies the effect with high confidence. Of course there are important deviations from this number (1.65 degrees per thousand gigatons of carbon): the poles heat up substantially more quickly than other regions, the air over continental land masses heats up faster than over the oceans, and temperatures are warming almost twice as fast during cold seasons than warm seasons, accelerating the loss of arctic ice and other problems.

Of course more extreme events remain far less predictable, except that their frequency will continue to increase with rising temperatures. For example the triple digit (Fahrenheit) temperatures that swept the Pacific Northwest of the US and southwestern Canada this summer have been described as a once in 50,000 years event in “normal” times and no one excludes the possibility that they will happen again in the near future. So-called “compound” events, for example the combination of high temperatures and dry, windy conditions that favor the spread of wildfires, are the least predictable events of all.

The central conclusion from the overall linear increase in temperatures relative to emissions is that nothing short of a complete cessation of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions will significantly stabilize the climate, and there is also a time delay of at least several decades after emissions cease before the climate can begin to stabilize.

Third, estimates of likely sea level rise, in both the near- and longer-terms, are far more reliable than they were a few years ago. Global sea levels rose an average of 20 centimeters during the 20th century, and will continue to rise throughout this century under all possible climate scenarios — about a foot higher than today if emissions begin to fall rapidly, nearly 2 feet if emissions continue rising at present rates, and 2.5 feet if emissions rise faster. These, of course, are the most cautious scientific estimates. By 2150 the estimated range is 2–4.5 feet, and more extreme scenarios where sea levels rise from 6 to 15 feet “cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes.”

With glacial melting expected to continue for decades or centuries under all scenarios, sea levels will “remain elevated for thousands of years,” potentially reaching a height of between 8 and 60 feet above present levels. The last time global temperatures were comparable to today’s for several centuries (125,000 years ago), sea levels were probably 15 to 30 feet higher than they are today. When they were last 2.5 to 4 degrees higher than preindustrial temperatures — roughly 3 million years ago — sea levels may have been up to 60 feet higher than today. Again these are all cautious estimates, based on the available data and subject to stringent statistical validation. For residents of vulnerable coastal regions around the world, and especially Pacific Island dwellers who are already forced to abandon their drinking water wells due to high infiltrations of sea water, it is far from just a theoretical problem.

Also, for the first time, the new report contains detailed projections for the unfolding of various climate-related phenomena in every region of the world. There is an entire chapter devoted to regionally-specific effects, and much attention to the ways in which climate disruptions play out differently in different locations. “Current climate in all regions is already distinct from the climate of the early or mid-20th century,” the report states, and many regional differences are expected to become more pronounced over time. While every place on earth is getting hotter, there are charts showing how different regions will become consistently wetter or dryer, or various combinations of both, with many regions, including eastern North America, anticipated to experience increasingly extreme precipitation events.

There are also more specific discussions of potential changes in monsoon patterns, as well as particular impacts on biodiversity hotspots, cities, deserts, tropical forests, and other places with distinctive characteristics in common. Various drought-related phenomena are addressed in more specific terms, with separate projections for meteorological drought (lack of rainfall), hydrological drought (declining water tables) and agricultural/ecological drought (loss of soil moisture). It can be expected that all these impacts will be discussed in greater detail in the upcoming report on climate impacts that is due in February.

There are numerous other important observations, many of which directly counter past attempts to minimize the consequences of future climate impacts. For those who want to see the world focus more fully on emissions unrelated to fossil fuel use, the report points out that between 64 and 86 percent of carbon emissions are directly related to fossil fuel combustion, with estimates approaching 100 percent lying well within the statistical margin of error. Thus there is no way to begin to reverse climate disruptions without an end to burning fossil fuels. There are also more detailed projections of the impacts of shorter-lived climate forcers, such as methane (highly potent, but short-lived compared to CO2), sulfur dioxide (which counteracts climate warming) and black carbon (now seen as a substantially less significant factor than before).

To those who assume the vast majority of emissions will continue to be absorbed by the world’s land masses and oceans, buffering the effects on the future atmosphere, the report explains how with rising emissions, a steadily higher proportion of the CO2 remains in the atmosphere, rising from only 30 to 35 percent under low emissions scenarios, up to 56 percent with emissions continuing to increase at present rates and doubling to 62 percent if emissions begin to rise more rapidly. So we will likely see a declining capacity for the land and oceans to absorb a large share of excess carbon dioxide.

The report is also more skeptical than in the past toward geoengineering schemes based on various proposed technological interventions to absorb more solar radiation. The report anticipates a high likelihood of “substantial residual or overcompensating climate change at the regional scales and seasonal time scales” resulting from any interventions designed to shield us from climate warming without reducing emissions, as well as the certainty that ocean acidification and other non-climate consequences of excess carbon dioxide would inevitably continue. There will likely be substantially more discussion of these scenarios in the third report of this IPCC cycle, which is due in March.

In advance of the upcoming international climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland this November, several countries have pledged to increase their voluntary climate commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, with some countries now aiming to achieve a peak in climate-altering emissions by mid-century. However this only approaches the middle range of the IPCC’s latest projections. The scenario based on a 2050 emissions peak is right in the middle of the report’s range of predictions, and shows the world surpassing the important threshold of 1.5 degrees of average warming in the early 2030s, exceeding 2 degrees by mid-century, and reaching an average temperature increase between 2.1 and 3.5 degrees (approximately 4–6 degrees Fahrenheit) between 2080 and 2100, nearly two and a half times the current global average temperature rise of 1.1 degrees since preindustrial times.

We will learn much more about the impacts of this scenario in the upcoming February report, but the dire consequences of future warming have been described in numerous published reports in recent years, including an especially disturbing very recent paper reporting signs that the Atlantic circulation (AMOC), which is the main source of warm air for all of northern Europe, is already showing signs of collapse. If carbon emissions continue to increase at current rates, we are looking at a best estimate of a 3.6 degree rise before the end of this century, with a likely range reaching well above 4 degrees — often viewed as a rough threshold for a complete collapse of the climate system.

There are two lower-emissions scenarios in the report, the lowest of which keeps the temperature rise by the century’s end under 1.5 degrees (after exceeding it briefly), but a quick analysis from MIT’s Technology Review points out that this scenario relies mainly on highly speculative “negative emissions” technologies, especially carbon capture and storage, and a shift toward the massive-scale use of biomass (i.e. crops and trees) for energy. We know that a more widespread use of “energy crops” would consume vast areas of the earth’s landmass, and that the regrowing of trees that are cut down to burn for energy would take many decades to absorb the initial carbon release– a scenario the earth clearly cannot afford.

The lower-emissions scenarios also accept the prevailing rhetoric of “net-zero,” assuming that more widespread carbon-sequestering methods like protecting forests can serve to compensate for still-rising emissions. We know that many if not most carbon offset schemes to date have been an absolute failure, with Indigenous peoples often driven from their traditional lands in the name of “forest protection,” only to see rates of commercial logging increase rapidly in immediately surrounding areas.

It is increasingly doubtful that genuine long-term climate solutions can be found without a thorough transformation of social and economic systems. It is true that the cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically in the past decade, which is a good thing, and that leading auto manufacturers are aiming to switch to electric vehicle production over the coming decade. But commercial investments in renewable energy have leveled off over the same time period, especially in the richer countries, and continue to favor only the largest-scale projects that begin to meet capitalist standards of profitability. Fossil fuel production has, of course, led to exaggerated standards of profitability in the energy sector over more than 150 years, and most renewable projects fall far short.

We will likely see more solar and wind power, a faster tightening of fuel efficiency standards for the auto industry and subsidies for electric charging stations in the US, but nothing like the massive reinvestment in community-scaled renewables and public transportation that is needed. Not even the landmark Biden-Sanders budget reconciliation plan that is under consideration in in the US Congress, with all its necessary and helpful climate measures, addresses the full magnitude of changes that are needed to halt emissions by midcentury. While some obstructionists in Congress appear to be stepping back from the overt climate denial that has increasingly driven Republican politics in recent years, they have not backed away from claims that it is economically unacceptable to end climate-altering pollution.

Internationally, the current debate over reducing carbon pollution (so called “climate mitigation”) also falls far short of addressing the full magnitude of the problem, and generally evades the question of who is mainly responsible. While the US and other wealthy countries have produced an overwhelming share of historic carbon pollution since the dawn of the industrial era, there is an added dimension to the problem that is most often overlooked, and which I reviewed in some detail in my Introduction to a recent book (co-edited with Tamar Gilbertson), Climate Justice and Community Renewal (Routledge 2020). A 2015 study from Thomas Piketty’s research group in Paris revealed that inequalities within countries have risen to account for half of the global distribution of greenhouse gas emissions, and several other studies confirm this.

Researchers at Oxfam have been studying this issue for some years, and their most recent report concluded that the wealthiest ten percent of the global population are responsible for 49 percent of individual emissions. The richest one percent emits 175 times more carbon per person on average than the poorest ten percent. Another pair of independent research groups have released periodic Carbon Majors Reports and interactive graphics profiling around a hundred global companies that are specifically responsible for almost two-thirds of all greenhouse gases since the mid-19th century, including just fifty companies — both private and state-owned ones — that are responsible for half of all today’s industrial emissions (See climateaccountability.org). So while the world’s most vulnerable peoples are disproportionately impacted by droughts, floods, violent storms and rising sea levels, the responsibility falls squarely upon the world’s wealthiest.

When the current IPCC report was first released, the UN Secretary General described it as a “code red for humanity,” and called for decisive action. Greta Thunberg described it as a “wake-up call,” and urged listeners to hold the people in power accountable. Whether that can happen quickly enough to stave off some of the worst consequences will be a function of the strength of our social movements, and also our willingness to address the full scope of social transformations that are now essential for humanity and all of life on earth to continue to thrive.


Brian Tokar is the co-editor (with Tamra Gilbertson) of Climate Justice and Community Renewal: Resistance and Grassroots Solutions. He is a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and a long-term faculty and board member of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology.

World On Track For “Worst Case” IPCC Climate Change Scenario

World On Track For “Worst Case” IPCC Climate Change Scenario

This article, originally posted by the Woods Hole Research Centre on August 3rd 2020, states that the “Worst case” for CO2 emissions scenario is actually the best match for assessing the climate risk, impact by 2050. 


The RCP 8.5 CO2 emissions pathway, long considered a “worst case scenario” by the international science community, is the most appropriate for conducting assessments of climate change impacts by 2050, according to a new article published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was authored by Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) Risk Program Director Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Dr. Spencer Glendon, a Senior Fellow at WHRC and founder of Probable Futures, and by WHRC President Dr. Philip Duffy.

Long dismissed as alarmist or misleading, the paper argues that is actually the closest approximation of both historical emissions and anticipated outcomes of current global climate policies, tracking within 1% of actual emissions.  “Not only are the emissions consistent with RCP 8.5 in close agreement with historical total cumulative CO2 emissions (within 1%), but RCP8.5 is also the best match out to mid-century under current and stated policies with still highly plausible levels of CO2 emissions in 2100,” the authors wrote. “Not using RCP8.5 to describe the previous 15 years assumes a level of mitigation that did not occur, thereby skewing subsequent assessments by lessening the severity of warming and associated physical climate risk.

Four scenarios known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) were developed in 2005 for the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report (AR5). The RCP scenarios are used in global climate models, and include historical greenhouse gas emissions until 2005, and projected emissions subsequently. RCP 8.5 assumes the greatest fossil fuel use, and a resulting additional 8.5 watts per square meter of radiative forcing by 2100. The commentary also emphasizes that while there are signs of progress on bending the global emissions curve and that our emissions picture may change significantly by 2100, focusing on the unknowable, distant future may distort the current debate on these issues. “For purposes of informing societal decisions, shorter time horizons are highly relevant, and it is important to have scenarios which are useful on those horizons. Looking at mid-century and sooner, RCP8.5 is clearly the most useful choice,” they wrote.The article also notes that RCP 8.5 would not be significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that “we note that the usefulness of RCP 8.5 is not changed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming pandemic restrictions remain in place until the end of 2020 would entail a reduction in emissions of -4.7 Gt CO2. This represents less than 1% of total cumulative CO2 emissions since 2005 for all RCPs and observations.”
“Given the agreement of 2005-2020 historical and RCP8.5 total CO2 emissions and the congruence between current policies and RCP8.5 emission levels to mid-century, RCP8.5 has continued utility, both as an instrument to explore mean outcomes as well as risk,”
they concluded. “Indeed, if RCP8.5 did not exist, we’d have to create it.”


You can access the original article here:

https://whrc.org/worst-case-co2-emissions-scenario-is-best-match-for-assessing-climate-risk-impact-by-2050/

Featured image: Efbrazil / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Sea levels rising 60% faster than projected by IPCC

By Institute of Physics

Sea-levels are rising 60 per cent faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) central projections, new research suggests.

While temperature rises appear to be consistent with the projections made in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report (AR4), satellite measurements show that sea-levels are actually rising at a rate of 3.2 mm a year compared to the best estimate of 2 mm a year in the report.

These findings, which have been published today, 28 November, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, are timely as delegates from 190 countries descend on Doha, Qatar, for the United Nation’s 18th Climate Change Conference this week.

The researchers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Tempo Analytics and Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales, state that the findings are important for keeping track of how well past projections match the accumulating observational data, especially as projections made by the IPCC are increasingly being used in decision making.

The study involved an analysis of global temperatures and sea-level data over the past two decades, comparing them both to projections made in the IPCC’s third and fourth assessment reports.

Results were obtained by taking averages from the five available global land and ocean temperature series.

After removing the three known phenomena that cause short-term variability in global temperatures – solar variations, volcanic aerosols and El Nino/Southern Oscillation – the researchers found that the overall warming trend at the moment is 0.16°C per decade, which closely follows the IPCC’s projections.

Satellite measurements of sea-levels showed a different picture, however, with current rates of increase being 60 per cent faster than the IPCC’s AR4 projections.

Satellites measure sea-level rise by bouncing radar waves back off the sea surface and are much more accurate than tide gauges as they have near-global coverage; tide gauges only sample along the coast. Tide gauges also include variability that has nothing to do with changes in global sea level, but rather with how the water moves around in the oceans, such as under the influence of wind.

The study also shows that it is very unlikely that the increased rate is down to internal variability in our climate system and also shows that non-climatic components of sea-level rise, such as water storage in reservoirs and groundwater extraction, do not have an effect on the comparisons made.

Lead author of the study, Stefan Rahmstorf, said: “This study shows once again that the IPCC is far from alarmist, but in fact has under-estimated the problem of climate change. That applies not just for sea-level rise, but also to extreme events and the Arctic sea-ice loss.”

Land Change, Failures of Omission, and the Renaturing of Climate

Land Change, Failures of Omission, and the Renaturing of Climate

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” – Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

By Rob Lewis, originally published by Resilience.org

Land change is a scientific term you’re not likely to hear in mainstream climate conversation, which is a shame, because what it refers to, the climatic effects of human damage to living landscapes, is a big part of the climate crisis. I talk in greater detail about land change and how it got left out of the climate narrative in an earlier Resilience piece, called Putting the Land Back in Climate. Here, I want to consider the effects of this omission, not only in the practical terms of climate policy, but in terms less definitive. What does it mean to our treatment of the land that it’s gotten to be left out of our picture of climate? Or another way of putting it: how does not knowing that our local landscapes hydrate, cool and stabilize our climates, affect our relationship with those landscapes or lack thereof?

But first I want to be clear that nothing here questions or counters the danger of carbon emissions, the greenhouse effect, or subsequent global warming. Land change should be seen as being in addition to these things, or more to the point, intimately entwined with them. The climate, when fully comprehended, emerges as a constellation of actors and effects, physical and biological, with an unimaginable complexity of feedbacks and signals. To reduce it all to quantities of carbon, and speak only of that, is to miss the thing itself.

So let’s quickly review what land change is and how it got left out the climate picture.

One way to think of land change is as original climate change. We began changing climates as soon as we started draining marshes and plowing soil, as observed in the time-worn adage: desert follows the plow, and seen now in deserts like those of the Middle East, which were once lush with marshlands and cypress-draped hills. The reason has to do with water cycles, which are largely invisible to us. We don’t see the roots underground, interlinking with extravagant webbings of soil fungi, soaking up spongelike massive quantities of water, around 600 liters per day for the average tree. Nor do we see the water evaporating from microscopic pores under the surfaces of leaves and needles, which like all evaporation, is profoundly cooling. And we don’t see the columns of vapor rising from trees and fields, feeding the clouds overhead to rain somewhere else and continue the cycle. Lastly, we don’t see the soil absorbing and holding that moisture, banking the landscape against drought and flood. Life not only sequesters carbon, it sequesters water as well. The two, it turns out, go hand in hand.

Scientists refer to this with the term evapotranspiration and know it to be fundamental to the hydration, cooling and moderation of local and regional climates. It follows then, that when we damage, or “change” land it dries out, heats up, and becomes prone to hydrological extremes like drought, floods and heatwaves. Sound familiar?

When coal and oil was discovered, a new cause of climate change entered the picture: emissions of greenhouse gasses. And early climate science treated it that way, as an additional cause, not the cause. Mediterranean-climate expert Millan Millan remembers that time, referring to it as a “two-legged” climate understanding—one leg for land change and hydrological effects and a second leg for carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect. So how then did we arrive at an official narrative which describes only carbon emissions as the cause of climate change? What happened to the land leg?

A clue can be found in the titles of the IPCC’s periodical Assessment Reports, such as the most recent assessment Global Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. What is meant by those last four words? The easiest answer is to think of the physical science basis is as the mathematic, or quantitative basis, the basis necessary for the computer modelling of climate. When CO2 emissions emerged as a climate threat, science immediately turned to computer modelling to ascertain and predict the effects. Carbon emissions, well dispersed in the atmosphere, proved highly amenable to such modeling, while the biological/hydrological processes of land change were the opposite. Though we can feel the effects of land-change, and are surrounded by it in the form of wastelands and vanished species, it is almost impossible to render in quantitative terms. The processes are too detailed, complex, varied and changing.

A good many scientists are currently working to resolve the matter, quantifying land change effects and bringing them into global computer models, and we can expect the next round of IPCC assessments to include some of this work. But that’s still five to six years off, and by then trillions will have been spent on industrial infrastructure causing how much land change?

This must be the first and most tragic effect of leaving land change and water cycles out of the analysis. Nature disappears, reduced to quantities of carbon, buried under tech jargon, sacrificed all over again for a new era of human device and progress. To the plow, the ax and cattle drive, we now add the solar farm, transmission corridor and a new generation of mines.

Environmentalism has suffered mightily from this formulation, and now confronts a kind of ecological Sophie’s Choice: either sacrifice the land or sacrifice the climate. It can be that stark. Consider the US state of Virginia, who’s recently passed climate legislation is resulting in thousands of acres of forest being cut for solar farms and transmission corridors, much of it to support data centers for tech corporations like Google and Microsoft. Meanwhile, those citizens who elect to protect their forests rather than sacrifice them for energy generation are labeled NIMBYs.

But there’s more. With this big industrial push comes a parallel push for what is being called “permit reform.” The Inflation Reduction Act, recently passed in the US, contains 1.2 billion dollars to staff up permitting agencies in an attempt to rush this infrastructure. And I noticed, when Senator Joe Manchin tried to attach a “permit reform” bill to the IRA, the official environmental opposition was carefully directed at only the permitting reform around fossil fuels. Presumably, they are for it when it comes to industrial infrastructure deemed “green” or “clean.” Thus, another dichotomy: big green working to take away permitting power from little green, the locals defending their own land bases. Ask yourself how long you think such contradictions can last.

There’s a personal dimension here as well. I know for myself, once I began learning about the biological, water-based aspects of climate, my view of climate and the natural world transformed. Muir’s oft-quoted observation, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” suddenly came alive. I discovered, over and over, that when I grabbed the thread called “climate” it was hitched to everything on Earth, part of something very much alive and capable of recovery. And with that my doom, not my worry and concern and grief, but that powerless sense of doom vanished. I stood on different ground, having come to know its power.

Now I see my surroundings, my climate-shed if you will, not as climatically helpless against rising CO2 emissions, but the very basis for climate healing and recovery. This is what happens when you bring the living land back into the climate equation, it comes alive. The land turns ally, and a new clarity emerges, with a very different set of priorities.

First, protect all remaining wild and semi-wild places. They are the last living links to the once cool, wet Holocene climate, which we can still save. Understand that where land is at its healthiest, so it’s climate function.

Second, restore the lands we’ve already damaged. Here is where hope literally grows. For buried within the sad fact that half of Earth’s land has been converted to human use, is the stunning comprehension of just how much land is available and waiting for restoration, bringing new carbon sequestration and water cycling to the climate system at game-changing scale.

Third, stop “changing” land. Housing developments, logging, road building, solar farming, all continue with no public awareness of the climate damage being done. Integrate land change into the environmental review process.

Fourth, slow down, cool down—the only thing that ever has reduced emissions. The land is telling it needs rest and recovery, not to be subjected to a new industrial revolution.

Do we really need decades of climate modelling to figure these things out? Might there be other ways of approaching this crisis?

We are not alone in this. For the land, though degraded, still retains its potential for regeneration. Given a little protection, ecosystems recover. Even the poorest soils contain ancient seeds of bygone life, awaiting only water. And in the field, the land’s enthusiasm for reemergence continually exceeds the expectations of those working to restore it. It turns out that regeneration, and the passion for regeneration, is in the very grain and fiber of all that surrounds us.

Those seeds are in us too. That’s the invitation. But only the land, and the processes of life, can bring the water.

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash