Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Climate Camp Afterthoughts (Part I)

I spent last week in Washington D.C. as an instructor and facilitator for the World Wildlife Fund's Climate Camp, co-sponsored by the esteemed organizations, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy. The week showcased the knowledge and ideas of a truly unbelievable group of conservation officers from around the world.

We were coming together to share ideas and devise strategies for managing natural ecosystems and human communities in such a way as to maintain their resilience to climate change--their ability to bounce back and recover if we are able to somehow enact the solutions needed to cap warming to 2 degrees compared to before the fossil fuel era (that is another 1.3 degrees warmer than now--we have already warmed 0.7 degrees). More than 2 degrees of warming and we are in deeper trouble (in terms of avoiding dramatic changes to both human and natural communities). More than 4 degrees, most scientists believe, and our lives will get really bad.

What I heard in presentations and saw in photo slides literally took my breath away. Around the world, from the Mongolian Steppe to the Andes, from the rainforests and savannahs of Africa to the Pacific Islands, from northern Alaska to Australia, local peoples are noticing frightening changes in their weather, plant growth, fish and wildlife migrations, livestock weight and fat content, and speed with which glaciers are receeding. Even in the taste of their drinking water and milk as accelereating glacial melt changes the water chemistry of streams and lakes.

Most of these people have little if any knowledge of global climate change--that it is being caused in large part by the pollution of the rich nations of the world (the U.S., for example, contributes about 25% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions). They are thus left with the frightening mystery of "what in the world is going on with the weather?" Some simply have come to the conclusion that the Gods must be angry with them.

Perhaps most alarming is the fact that 40% of the world's population gets its water for drinking and agriculture from glaciers that are retreating rapidly and are predicted to disappear within the coming 20-50 years. Where will these billions of people get the reliable flow of drinking and agricultural water they need once the glaciers disappear? This has the makings of a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the modern world has never seen.

Fortunately, being able to see this now means that we should be able to act now. And fortunately increasing numbers of people, businesses and governments are. What they are finding is inspiring: the solutions needed to address these problems benefit people and planet alike.

Of course first and foremost, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. It has simply not been a smart thing, from the standpoint of climate, to take hundreds of millions of years of buried carbon and combust it into the earth's atmosphere in just 100 years (if the earth were an apple, the atmosphere would be only as thick as its skin, so it is easy to see how putting humongous amounts of a heat-trapping gas like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is going to change the climate).

Clearly, we need much cleaner fuels and more efficient transportation, buildings, and living and business practices to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Since efficiency means "using less to accomplish more", and using less both costs less and pollutes less, this provides us with tremendous opportunities to improve our lives and businesses, finances and profits, health and our quality of life (as we demonstrate over at the CVI web site).

But what of maintaining the resilience of natural and human-altered (e.g. agricultural) ecosystems to the changes in temperature and precipitation that are accompanying climate change? Can more sustainable forestry, agricultural, livestock grazing, and other practices help provide a buffer to climate change's impacts?

I'll get to that in Part II.

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