The Real Causes of Climate Change
Are way deeper than fossil fuels.
People who fear climate change (AKA global warming), usually blame rising temperatures, droughts and floods on people burning too much oil, coal, and gas. These “fossil fuels” warm the globe by putting a heat-trapping blanket of carbon dioxide (CO2) over Earth. But there are several other, more fundamental causes for climate change.
The deeper causes are civilization’s destruction of forests, wetlands, soils and oceans. CO2 isn’t causing climate change by itself. The problem is loss of the plants, animals, and microorganisms who keep climate in balance. Fossil fuels are just the straw breaking the camel’s back.
We can’t heal the planet with electric cars or other emission-reducing technological fixes. We need to understand, embrace, and support Nature in its tireless work of keeping the Earth fit for life. If we live as part of Nature, not as consumers of it, we can have not only more sustainable, but happier, more fulfilling lives.
Fossil fuels are not the only way industrial civilization kicks Nature in the face. It’s not even the worst way, and our abuse of the natural world carries over into how we treat each other and treat our own bodies. We are part of Nature, and we have to help Nature and help each other to heal the wounds that industrial civilization has inflicted on us. This is a big project with a thousand places one can connect and serve.
Stop paving over everything
Living things such as plants, fungi, and bacteria all absorb carbon and either cycle it into growth, like trees do, bury it deep beneath the surface, where it may eventually turn into coal or oil, or use it to feed other life forms. Life mediates climate. But modern civilization is all about getting rid of life: building roads and cities and parking lots on all unused land. “Unused” means not making a profit for a corporate owner.
Instead of maximizing profit as capitalism does, we should maximize life. We need more unused land. Good things happen there. Any land that isn’t growing food should be helped to grow whatever will grow there: grasses, shrubs, forests, swamps, whatever is best suited for the space. Nature can usually figure this out for herself if we let it alone.
I would go further and un-pave areas that are currently lifeless and serve no real purpose. Cities could turn huge areas of abandoned parking lots, roads and factories into parkland, farms or wild land, and soak up a lot of carbon in the process. This would undo some of the “urban heat island” effect, described by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Urban heat islands occur when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat. This effect increases energy costs (e.g., for air conditioning), air pollution levels, and heat-related illness and mortality.”
Urban heat islands are significant contributors to global warming. The islands often spread along highways into long chains of heat-trapping suburbs and cities.
There are strategies to bring more plant and animal life to cities and reduce heat. These include “Green (living) roofs”, which EPA says “provide both direct and ambient cooling effects.”. There are also green walls, or what is called Living Architecture.
China has created over 200 “sponge cities” in which large chunks of downtowns are dug up and turned into lakes, marshes and parks which absorb water and heat. Sponge cities reduce flooding, attract animals, and bring water to surrounding farms and wild land.
To me, Priority #1 is to stop building on unbuilt land. Instead of robbing more land from Nature, repair and care for what’s already built, like our bridges. Of course, people will still need housing and companies may need factories. But look at all the unoccupied, underutilized and decaying housing and factories we already have.
We could fix those up or rebuild instead of taking more land. Turn the rest into gardens and forests and grassland. They would cool the cities directly with shade and indirectly by absorbing carbon, while providing beauty and food.
I recognize that these changes would require large infringements on owners’ “property rights,” and I say, ‘Go ahead and infringe on those rights.’ Who gave anyone the right to degrade and destroy land, a gift from God (the Universe?) If you didn’t make it, how is it yours? We could also choose to compensate people for their land rights.
The same principles apply to agriculture. Maximize life, not production, and let Nature cool itself off.
Bring back the family farm
Industrial agriculture is constant rape of the farmland. We pour chemicals on the land to make some things grow and kill everything else. These chemicals inevitably run off into streams and neighboring land and poison the insects, birds, and plants there. Massive tractors compress the soil instead of aerating it. Land is typically left bare between growing seasons instead of planted with cover crops, so it dries out and erodes away. These practices turn farms into carbon emitters, when they could be carbon sinks.
Industrial farming typically boosts food production for a few years and replaces a lot of workers with machines, which don’t receive salaries and so lower food prices. But the benefits haven’t proved sustainable, while the costs keep growing. Chemically-treated land loses productivity over time, because the life forms that would regenerate soil are degraded or killed. Without insects, birds, fungi and the like, farmers need increasing amounts of fertilizers to make crops grow and pesticides to keep weeds and pests down. They have to pay mortgages and buy new bags of hybrid seeds every year, falling deeper in debt.
According to scientists in India, the economic pressure to grow more food faster forces farmers to burn the previous crop’s waste, rather than letting it decompose into the soil. Without that nutrition, the soil loses its carbon-absorbing and plant-nurturing capacity.
There are positive alternatives to factory farming. Traditional family farms can focus on restoring land and growing food in sustainable ways. These methods are usually called “regenerative agriculture” or “permaculture.” They may include planting cover crops, trees and hedges, and creating ponds and marshes to hold water and attract animals that enrich soil.
Food produced in this way will usually be healthier, tastier, and pricier. It requires more labor and cannot be done in huge fields farmed by machines. How can small farmers compete with corporate farmers with their 100,000 acre spreads of land growing single commercial crops?
We could go a long way to house the homeless, employ the jobless, and connect people with Nature by breaking up those giant farms and moving people there to work them. To meet the world’s food needs with permaculture farms, we’ll need a lot more family farmers.
Like other landowners, industrial farmers will have to give up some rights, and small-scale farmers will need financial support from the rest of society. The rich will scream ‘This is communism;’ to which the only reasonable reply is “STFU. This is about keeping our planet a decent place to live.”
Since sustainably-grown food involves more labor, lower-income people will need help to buy it. Say everyone was given food stamps to buy Earth-friendly food through Farmers Markets or Community-Supported Agriculture programs. In a few years, we could have a better-fed, healthier world. Those who want to grow but aren’t able to create a whole farm could do gardens or participate in community gardens. Newbies can learn how to do this on the Internet. There are also organizations and communities to help people who want to farm learn ways that heal Earth.
This is a win-win-win proposition. But it all depends on having enough clean water.
Water and Climate
Philosopher of science Charles Eisenstein says water, not carbon dioxide,is the key molecule to understand for our climate. A lot of what I write here comes from his book Climate: A New Story.”
I can’t speak for the rest of the universe, but on Planet Earth, water is life. Everywhere there is water, things live. Without water, no life exists. Water also helps control climate by absorbing heat and carbon and allowing forests, wetlands, and prairies to thrive and regulate their environments.
Yet we waste water as if it had no value. Industries dump toxic waste into rivers and lakes. Oil companies use billion of gallons in fracking operations to get at gas trapped in rocks, a process that leaves the water hopelessly poisoned.
Oil pipelines crisscross every continent bringing fuels to people but constantly leaking oil into soil and groundwater, contaminating it for the rest of us. We’re doing a straight-up trade of water for fuel. The source of all life is given up for gasoline we then burn to drive to the mall.
These kinds of exchanges make sense when everything in the world is reduced to its ‘value’ expressed in dollars. Water has been so abundant that it was free; you couldn’t make money off it, while oil sells for big bucks. Ironically, now that industrial civilization has made clean water scarce, it’s starting to become expensive for ordinary users paying water bills. But big companies can still prevail on governments to give them all they want for almost nothing.
Water is also poisoned by dumping from chemical plants and mines, from agricultural runoff loaded with chemicals, pharmaceuticals and polluted urban wastewater.
When water isn’t poisoned, its life-giving flow is impeded by dams. Dams block rivers to create power and control floods, processes often celebrated as ‘fighting climate change.’ But the fossil fuels saved through hydroelectric energy need to be balanced against the loss of land that could soak up carbon, the methane released by flooded vegetation, and the displacement of people to the cities where they must consume more to survive.
Flood control is also a double-edged sword. Flooding brings huge amounts of nutrients from rivers on to surrounding lands. Without that flooding, farmers must replace those nutrients with petrochemical fertilizers, and land degrades.
I won’t go into the loss of ocean life here — the sea grass, kelp, fish, coral reefs and mammals that human activity intentionally or unintentionally destroys. But their loss has a huge effect on other life, including on climate. Organizations working to protect the oceans could use your help.
May the forest be with you
No discussion of climate change would make sense without including the effects of forest removal. According to research cited by Eisenstein, people have been clearing forests for up to 7000 years, long before anyone was burning fossil fuels. A lot of cleared land eventually turned into deserts.
Since colonialism started in the 16th Century, the rate of deforestation has steadily increased and is still increasing today. The rainforests of Amazonia, Congo, Indonesia, and the Pacific Northwest are all being vigorously logged, with the result that denuded land supports less life, and water runs off without being absorbed.
Forests bring rain by transpiring water from the ground into the air, where it forms clouds that reflect sunlight into space. Without forests, the world dries out and heats up, and billions of creatures die.
I don’t have the heart to go into the horrors of deforestation now, but will mention one particularly awful industry, the grinding of living trees into wood chips for use as biofuels. This crime is presented as an environmental benefit, because wood chips are used instead of fossil fuels. Much of the world’s forest is slated to be used as fuel if plans go ahead.
Killing forests for money can’t continue, but society needs to help loggers find better work. Many loggers and the corporations that employ them have killed people who get in the way of their logging. Restoring and protecting forests could be better jobs for them, and other people volunteer to help forests. There are a lot of groups doing this work. I suggest connecting with one that is indigenous-led.
One last climate destroyer can’t be ignored, and that is war.
War against climate
The US military is the biggest single polluter in the world. Their planes and tanks and trucks burn enormous amounts of gas. Shells and bombs pollute and destroy infrastructure and water. The lives of farmers are disrupted; people go hungry and cannot worry about sustainability or their impact on Nature.
Yet wars continue and show no signs of stopping. People in power are now talking seriously about use of nuclear weapons. I’m not sure what the effect on climate of nukes would be, but it couldn’t be good. In times of wars and threats of war, all other priorities — such as a livable world — lose importance. All must be sacrificed to defeat the enemy, whoever that is.
Working for peace is working for a healthy climate.
About those fossil fuels
Climate change has a dozen causes, and fossil fuel use is only one. Does that mean we can drive and fly all we want and live in big houses that consume huge amounts of electricity and fuel? Can we keep building subdivisions whose residents must drive 90 minutes each way to work? Keep burning coal for electricity to light up the night sky so stars become invisible?
I would say no, we can’t do that, and most people don’t want to. We should indeed ride bikes, walk, or take public transport instead of driving. We should use fans instead of air conditioners, conserve as much energy as possible. But those changes are just a start, and it’s OK to start somewhere else. It’s not all about the greenhouse gases.
As Eisenstein says, reducing the climate crisis to carbon dioxide levels is counterproductive and wrong. We need to transform our economic and social relationships. We need to change from a culture that values everything by the money it can bring, a society in which we are isolated individuals seeking to survive, to one based on relationships. We should cherish animals, plants, places and people, and makes life our top priority in all we do.
With a million changes to make, no one person can do it all, and no one has to. Since all life is interconnected, anything you do will reverberate through the whole system. Housing homeless people helps. Freeing incarcerated people helps. Planting flowers for bees and butterflies, donating money to indigenous land defenders, buying from regenerative farmers, helping create community in your neighborhood so people aren’t isolated, whatever, it all helps. The odds may be against us, but there are billions of us. We can do this.
Eisenstein, Charles The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (2013) Also Sacred Economics (2011) and Climate: A New Story (2018)
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. I know I recommend this book a lot, but it’s life-changing and world changing. If you don’t read it, you will have missed something wonderful.
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