The Biology of Global Warming
What Manhattan may have looked like…
Often, as I’ve travelled and lived in different parts of the globe, I’ve stood on mountains and beaches and looked around, somewhat wistfully, trying to visualise how those landscapes would have looked a few centuries ago. I’m sure you’ve done it too.
Many, if not most, of these places were once vast tracts of old growth forest, with rich diversity in flora and fauna. Natural biological water cleaning systems were in place, as the hydrological cycle was efficient and largely unmolested by man. Most places still had rich, dark soils and no chemicals had yet been employed to stamp out soil life.
These were the days of 280ppm. We lived then with respect, if not even fear, for a nature wide and wonderful – never for a moment thinking we could one day be the cause of these vast and mysterious systems collapsing wholesale.
But, that was then. The industrial revolution, in combination with the exponential function that has taken the human population into a steep hockey stick incline (it took from the dawn of time until the 1800s before we reached our first billion people, but we’ve multiplied that almost seven times in the two centuries since), has landed us in a world that looks vastly different today.
Reluctantly putting visualisations aside, now as I scan the landscapes in front of me, it’s mostly just cities, tarmac and a massively inefficient waste-of-space large-scale industrial monocrop agriculture. Cycles of precipitation and transpiration have been interrupted as we’ve cut down forests, ploughed the land, and almost universally determined to pipe precious rainwater directly to the ocean. Water tables worldwide are falling and many rivers no longer reach the sea while often the land is parched, eroded and turning to desert.
And, oh, all that carbon! Razing forests and churning soils has been a mass eviction of CO2 into our atmosphere. For the last fifty years – the period we call the ‘Green Revolution’ – we’ve been hastening this process further through additions of soluble nitrogen which results in nitrous oxide emissions (almost 300x more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2) and which is now also seen to have even further detrimental effects on remaining forests.
Our before-abundant oceans – the massive heat and CO2 buffering mechanism we’re blessed with – are now taking in far too much CO2, changing seawater’s pH to the point where it’s interfering with basic processes for crucial members of the food chain: coral, molluscs and plankton.
Over the last few years I’ve spent considerable time examining these issues. The more I dug into it, the more depressing it got – not only because it’s looking increasingly like we’ve already passed the dangerous threshold (see also) that risks systemic environmental meltdown, but also because popular understanding of the problem is so linear in view. The chain reaction of the almost global recession of glaciers and the melting of the greenland, arctic and antarctic ice sheets and permafrost are the result of greenhouse gas concentrations from the 1980s, with a lot more damage yet to occur from today’s greater concentrations (see here for a summary of today’s noted changes), and yet mitigation has been almost entirely focussed on reducing fossil fuel consumption, only. Being a little ‘less bad’ does not a positive make. We can’t just reduce our emissions, we actually need to be sequestering GHGs out of the air – now! While reducing fossil fuel consumption is imperative, highlighting this alone sidelines the far more holistic course of also reinstating our soils as the massive carbon sink they once were. Increasing soil carbon not only has significant potential to ameliorate the climate change problem, but in doing so we increase soil fertility, improve soil structure (critical for water- and oxygen-holding capacity) and productivity whilst decreasing plant disease and insect attack (think improved nutrition and less chemicals). And, significantly, if we were to take these things a little further, developing biodiverse food forests to relocalise food production, we can also increase heat reflecting cloud cover whilst repairing/reinstating the hydrological cycle that supports all life on earth.
In other words – the focus of governments has only been on reducing emissions and the focus of trigger happy geo-engineering advocates has only been on ‘adjusting’ the world to accommodate our lifestyles, whilst little thought has been given to restoring natural biological mechanisms that would do most of the work for us, better, and for free. Like many aspects of modern civilisation, we find ourselves yet again dealing with symptoms and not root causes.
It’s with these thoughts in mind that I introduce you to The Biology of Global Warming (182kb 8-page PDF), which was originally published as pages 7-14 of the Dec 2006 – Jan 2007 edition of Nature and Society, the bi-monthly journal of the Nature and Society Forum.
The key point of the document is to ask the question why CO2 emissions were already rising before we really made much, or any, headway into mining for coal and drilling for oil. The answer is obvious:
- "Substantial de-forestation and farming of the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and North America prior to 1750 resulted not only in the release of vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere through the burning of timber and associated loss of soil organic matter but also the destruction of the carbon bio-sequestration of these forests."
- "…the destruction of up to 80% of the earth’s primary forests by humans during industrialisation could have resulted in a marked loss of natural cooling capacity and therefore increased global warming, particularly as biological systems increasingly need to shade and cool the planet from incident solar radiation."
To acknowledge these simple facts is to get us halfway to working on actual solutions. Harness biology and natural symbiotic relationships, I say, because through imitating natural systems in our food production we can initiate a ‘geo-engineering’ program that comes without side effects or risks and that holds significant promise of providing for human need in a manner that doesn’t put our race at odds with every other organism within the biosphere.
We now have no choice but to address global warming through its primary and initial cause. We need to rapidly re-establish natural cloud albedos and their cooling effects. To do this we need to re-establish the bio-systems that provided the transpiration and cloud nucleation processes on which such cloud albedos and cooling effects naturally depend. To help restore and support these bio-systems we need to biosequester carbon in forests but particularly soils so that they may enhance the natural infiltration and retention of availability soil water on which forest transpiration and cloud albedos depend. – The Biology of Global Warming (182kb 8-page PDF)
Postscript: Although perhaps controversial, I also personally believe that in such efforts we’ll need to quit our narrow views on maintaining only native flora, and work towards building food-providing ecosystems everywhere – systems that mimic natural forests in function but that utilise productive edible plants and trees alongside non-invasive support species.