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Environment

Aug 08, 2019

George Monbiot: How rejuvenating nature could help fight climate change.

A PhD Researcher in Climate Change Adaptation discusses how this approach could address the ecological crisis with Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot.

WRITTEN BY

Stephen Woroniecki

Natural climate solutions let nature do the hard work in the fight against climate change by restoring habitats such as forests and wetlands. This could absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help biodiversity thrive. 

Q: What has inspired you about natural solutions to climate change and what are their chief advantages over other approaches?

They bring together our two crucial tasks: preventing climate breakdown and preventing ecological breakdown. They are all things we should be doing anyway, to limit the scale of the sixth great extinction and protect and restore threatened ecosystems.

In these fields, as in all others, we have often tended to act in isolation, replicating effort, failing to recognise the synergies. Natural climate solutions show how we can use the self-regulating power of the living world to help fend off climate catastrophe.

I should emphasise that even if we use natural climate solutions to the max, we still need to halt almost all greenhouse gas emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground, if we are to prevent more than 1.5℃ (or even 2℃) of global heating. But it’s now clear that mitigation alone is not enough: we need to draw down carbon that we have already emitted from the atmosphere.

The other main strategies for carbon drawdown are both, in my view, disastrous. The first is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This means growing biomass in plantations, burning it in power stations to produce electricity, capturing carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases and burying it in geological formations.

Any deployment of BECCS sufficient to cause significant carbon abatement will also cause either humanitarian or ecological disaster, because of the vast amount of land – cropland or wildland – the plantations will replace. It is also likely to be self-defeating, due to the massive carbon pulse that conversion of forest lands to plantations will cause, and the vast amount of extra nitrogen fertiliser required, with its associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The second is direct air capture. Not only is this likely to be extremely expensive, but the carbon-heavy infrastructure it requires, reliant on a huge deployment of steel and concrete, could help push us past crucial climate tipping points before its positive impacts were felt.

These are both bad ways of addressing the problem. Why deploy them when there’s a much better one?

Author and activist George Monbiot. John Russell1/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Q: Clearly this is an emerging field, and research is needed to understand how best to implement natural climate solutions. What are some of the boldest and most exciting examples that have already been tried across the world that we can learn from and be inspired by?

At the moment, the two biggest identified carbon sinks are forests and peatlands, but one of the things that excite me most about this field is how little we yet know. Every year, major new possibilities are identified, in ecosystems that hadn’t been fully considered before. For example, we now know that vegetated coastal habitats – such as mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass beds – can accumulate carbon 40 times as quickly per hectare as tropical forests can, because of the way they catch and bury organic sediments in waterlogged conditions.

Coastal habitats like mangrove forests can store significantly more carbon than inland habitats.
Damsea/Shutterstock

One issue that has scarcely been explored at all is the carbon storage impact of stopping trawling and dredging. The seabed is a vast carbon store, but these activities, that scour over three quarters of shelf seas every year, kick carbon into the water column, where it can be oxidised and released. We don’t yet know for sure, as so little research has been done, but it could be that severely curtailing these destructive activities, which we should do anyway, as they are by far the greatest cause of ecological damage to marine habitats, could result in massively greater carbon storage.

I should mention two key principles. First, this isn’t just about creating new or renewed ecosystems. We also need to protect the Earth’s existing carbon repositories – such as old-growth forests – whose sequestration capacity would take centuries to reproduce. Second, that fertile cropland should not be used. Mass rewilding of the kind I propose should take place only on less productive land. Unlike BECCS plantations, natural ecosystems can thrive on infertile land, without extra fertilisation.

Q: The proposal for a Green New Deal in the US has called for a green transition of society and the economy through investment in renewable energy and by phasing out fossil fuels. How do you see the role of natural climate solutions within a broader transformation of our society and the world we live in?

I think natural climate solutions now need to be urgently deployed by all governments, alongside an extremely rapid reduction in energy consumption and substitution of fossil fuels. To avoid full-spectrum climate breakdown, we need a global cooperative effort on a scale that has not yet materialised. My hope is that the new, uncompromising mood among young people, and the brilliant protest movements, such as the Youth Strike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion, will help to make this happen.

Q: Geoengineering proposals are often criticised for taking risks with natural systems that could have catastrophic consequences, often with little to no consultation from the people who could be most affected. How do we ensure natural solutions are carried out democratically and without echoing the technocratic arguments of many geoengineering projects?

Whatever we do has to be done with and through the people, it might affect, under the “nothing about us without us” principle. Natural climate solutions must work with the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people and other local communities, and their benefits must flow to these communities. No project should be pursued that undermines their land rights, economic security and well-being. On the contrary, all projects should seek to strengthen them. There are some excellent examples of how this can be done around the world, compiled by the Equator Initiative.

Q: Restoring natural habitats can sometimes mean giving authority to external experts at the expense of local people. What do you think is important to bear in mind when making the case for natural solutions to local communities?

A rain-fed home garden in Sri Lanka which grows food for people and offers refuge for nature.
Stephen Woroniecki, Author provided

I believe all projects should be guided by the Freirean approach – developed by the Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire – of mutual education and understanding. An outsider should not turn up with the attitude that she has come to impart her superior knowledge to local people. She starts by asking them to teach her about themselves, their lives and needs, and to exchange knowledge, in the hope that all become both educators and educated. The outsider might bring new ideas and perspectives – that are, I believe, essential – while local people bring intimate insights into and knowledge of the peculiarities of place and community, that are also essential.

Q: How can people get involved in designing, implementing and managing natural solutions to climate change?

We list on our website the organisations already involved in the field, some of whom would welcome your help. But the most important thing right now is to spread the word as far as you can.

Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.The Conversation

Stephen Woroniecki, PhD Researcher in Sustainability and Climate Change Adaptation, Lund University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover photo: Mangrove forest in Kannur, Kerala by Shagil Kannur

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Environment

Oct 09, 2019

Forrest Galante: The Modern-Day Charles Darwin

Except biologist Forrest Galante is not searching for the origin of species, more like auditing the books, and in a few very successful instances, erasing names from the roster of extinction.

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WRITTEN BY

Douglas Baughman

As host of Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive, Mr. Galante sets out looking for animals long-presumed to be extinct, or as he put it, “gone from the planet, wiped off the face of this earth.” His searches have cast him across 46 countries. In the process, he has been bitten by sharks and venomous snakes, mauled by a lion, charged by a hippo, stung by a man-of-war jellyfish, and stabbed by a stingray.

Forrest catches a ride on the dorsal fin of a tiger shark.

“Shit happens, like for real—the bee stings, the food poisoning, the allergic reactions,” he says. “I flew into a cocaine dealer’s airstrip in the middle of the Amazon just to gain access to caimans [large reptiles closely related to alligators that can grow to more than 13 feet in length and weigh up to 880 pounds]. These are all real things that we did, and they are all filmed and on the show and part of the challenges we face in order to do the work that we do. The reason we’re so successful is because no one else is doing it. It’s very dangerous and very difficult. And I love it!”

Last year, off the eastern coast of Africa, Mr. Galante captured camera footage of a Zanzibar leopard, a big cat that had been classified as extinct for 25 years. More recently, during an expedition to the Galapagos earlier this year, he found a female Fernandina Island tortoise, a species not seen for more than a century. The finding is one of the most significant wildlife discoveries in decades.

I caught up with Mr. Galante at the wildlife film festival in Grand Teton National Park last month. I specifically wanted to ask him about his early childhood growing up in Zimbabwe and how that experience possibly shaped his perspective of wildlife conservation and influenced his career.

Forrest examines a turtle near Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

Forrest Galante: As I sit here in this beautiful lodge looking out at a few bison roaming around it’s probably the closest thing to Africa that I’ve seen in North America, outside of Alaska. Where I grew up, basically just like this, overlooking a valley and a lake, at any given time, you could see megafauna, large animals roaming the plains of Africa. But sadly that is something unique to the African continent, except for very small microcosms in South America and at one time Southeast Asia, and of course, at one time here. It has disappeared from the world, and it’s disappeared because of human impact and hunting pressure. Growing up in Africa, I witnessed the disappearance first hand. Watching the numbers of large animals diminish shaped my entire being with regard to becoming a biologist who focuses on extinction. I realized that to study those creatures that are not long for this world and try to preserve them is the most important work.

DB: One of the things the conservation movement and environmentalism rarely discusses is the effects of military action in the world on ecosystems and species. Coming from Zimbabwe you would have seen the devastation war and civil conflict wreaks on the landscape.

“What right do we have to take over a habitat that’s been there over millennia?”

FG: Not just directly but indirectly as well. Zimbabwe went from a country that was super-affluent to one that was poor and starving in the span of just 10 years. Every tree suddenly was needed for firewood or building, every animal for food, and that’s an indirect result of conflict. That’s terrible. Culturally, there were many things the Shona people where I’m from in Zimbabwe would not touch, never dream of eating because they had always been affluent. But now, when they’re starving to death, those traditions and cultures go out the window in order to save themselves. That’s terrible for the people; it’s terrible for the culture, and it’s certainly terrible for the wildlife.

Forrest amongst a herd of water buffalo in Southern Sri Lanka while searching for Pondicherry Shark; Near Yala National Park.

DB: When you consider North American history, for example when bison roamed from Montana to Texas, and then compare that time to now, where parks like this exist for the most part as natural zoos, what does that say about the future of wildlife conservation and is preservation from extinction our only recourse? Is that where we are now?

FG: Well, just think how sad that is. It’s terrible, actually. To get a glimpse of what the natural world was like – because this is just a drop in the bucket of what it should look like – and see how stunning it is and how much wildlife there is and then realize it’s gone, to me, is horrific. It’s not fair. So, yes, where are we at in this world? Well, there are eight billion of us. We’ve taken over and pushed out room for the wildlife to be natural. And that’s the problem. It’s overpopulation. It’s an encroachment on habitat. What that means is managing what remains because these little pockets, like this beautiful one we’re looking out at here, deserve to be saved, and the species that reside in them and their carrying capacities all need to be managed.

Testing the effects of hecs technology on a Tiger Shark in the Caribbean.

DB: How do you envision managing it because management means different things to different people? North America, where we had large landscapes to set aside, is very different from circumstances in other parts of the world, like India for example, where establishing a wildlife refuge for tigers means displacing large populations of people. In our effort to preserve wildlife, what is the criteria for establishing an equitable balance?

“Displacing a large population of human beings is absolutely worth it for a small population of wildlife.”

FG: Displacing a large population of human beings is absolutely worth it for a small population of wildlife. If human beings own every piece of wilderness, where’s the balance, where’s the space for wildlife? What right do we have as just another living organism to take over a habitat that’s been there over millennia? That’s the difference between being a humanitarian and being a biologist, and on a bigger scale being a realist? There are 6,000 tigers left in the world. There are eight billion people, two billion of them are Indian. No offense to the Indian people – I’m not a humanitarian, clearly – but the tigers deserve a little land.

DB: What are your objectives in the conservation movement? What would you like to see happen in the next five, ten years, or even the next generation?

FG: I don’t want to see just one thing done. I don’t want to save the bison. I don’t want to save the tigers. I want to see a generation of young people who care about saving all of it together. The message I tell on my show is about hope. We live in a time when we are so callous of ecophobia – a condition, by the way, I absolutely hate! – because species extinction and global warming are in the headlines every day, to the point that you feel nothing anymore. Rhinos are going extinct. Okay, next. I mean, you feel nothing because you see and hear it every single day, so flipping that on its head, giving it a positive message and not saying look at how doomed we are but rather look at what’s left, look at how great these beautiful things are that still exist. That’s the story I tell on Extinct or Alive. Whether I find the extinct animal or I don’t find the extinct animal, either way, along the journey we’ve encountered this incredible habitat, that incredible animal, this amazing interaction and all those little pieces of the puzzle, those little things that still exist in the ecosystem are so mind-bogglingly fantastic! That’s the message I want people to take away. The culmination of all those little things to inspire a generation of people to care about conservation, to care about preservation is what I want to see.

DB: How do you feel about working in television?

FG: I love it. I absolutely love it. I love it because it allows me to reach such a large audience. It’s nice to be able to tune into television that is not just entertaining, but that is scientifically valuable.

Forrest in the Grand Tetons.

Watch the new season of Extinct or Alive, which airs beginning October 23 on Animal Planet.

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