Regenerating life to cool the Earth

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I have been captivated recently by a new way of looking at climate change. It’s positive and empowering and it makes scientific and intuitive sense. You could call it the “life cools the planet paradigm” or the “land use leg of climate theory.”

In essence, this new paradigm is based on the observation that mature, intact ecosystems make a huge contribution to regulating the Earth’s climate. They do so by holding moisture in the landscape, seeding clouds, cycling water and storing carbon and water in the soil in a complex living matrix referred to as the soil carbon sponge.

Trees and plants are continually moving large amounts of water from the soil to the atmosphere through transpiration. This cools the surrounding area by using incoming solar energy to evaporate the water and release it as water vapor. A typical tree transpires 100 litres of water per day with a cooling effect equal to two window air conditioning units running all day long.

Imagine walking into a leafy green forest on a hot summer day. As you step into the woods, the air is cool and moist, and you feel refreshed and rejuvenated thanks to the shade and cooling effect of transpiration.  Now shift the scene to an asphalt parking lot full of cars on the same hot summer day and you get a hot, unpleasant experience.

The hot parking lot is a good example of how human land use practices are heating the planet. Without plants on the surface to absorb solar radiation and cool the environment, the incoming solar radiation that hits the bare surfaces is converted into heat.

Unfortunately, humans have been creating bare surfaces at a furious pace. It is estimated that humans have altered fifty per cent of the Earth’s surface by deforestation, land clearing, draining of wetlands, industrial agriculture, road building, etc. Sadly, therefore, we have lost fifty percent of the climate regulating services provided by intact ecosystems. No wonder the climate is askew.

The good news is that efforts to regenerate life can bring quick, positive results.

People all over the world are working energetically to restore forests, ecosystems, and the soil carbon sponge. A worldwide transition to regenerative agriculture is underway. In Andhra Pradesh, India more than 800,000 farmers have recently transitioned to regenerative agriculture and the entire state may soon follow suit.

Here at home in the Ottawa Valley, there is much we can do to regenerate life. For example, we can re-green bare areas, diversify our lawns with native plants, create mini wetlands on our property and participate in ecological restoration projects such as planting mini diverse Miyawaki forests in cities and backyards.

There is a great deal of sound science that supports the living climate paradigm. Scientists have been studying how climate is a product of living systems for decades. Two great starting points for learning more are the website Biodiversity for a Liveable Climate and the new film, Regenerating Life, that is available on Vimeo for streaming at home.

But what about fossil fuels and carbon dioxide, you may be wondering. The carbon dioxide leg of climate theory has had the spotlight for decades now. Alas, it only tells part of the story about what is causing global heating and climate disruption. There’s no question that there are good reasons to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels but, in my view, the real exciting gains for humanity at this juncture, lie in working with nature to regenerate life on planet Earth. The sooner the better! Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it!