By: John Bradley
Nature and conservation have been subjects of public interest for centuries. Since colonial times, nature in America has been viewed as a resource to exploit. Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1930 protected the Grand Canyon from being ruined by mining has been heralded as a great conservationist. In every generation of American and world history, there have been remarkable conservationists responding to scientific discoveries and evolving thought. The field of ecology is the study of how living organisms live together and interact with the habitat they evolved within. It became popular in the mid-20th century as the climate crisis became apparent.
Conservation and land stewardship practice has also evolved with scientific understanding and public awareness. Today, we increasingly think of land stewardship as maintaining or restoring healthy soil, biodiversity, and water so that the land supports a sustainable climate. To this end, we need to understand the many variables that shape the local and regional climate - healthy soil, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, what warms and cools the environment, to name a few. As part of a Climate Smart Community under New York’s strong policy framework, we have a broad mandate to address many aspects of the climate crisis. The better we understand the complexity that shapes climate, the more effectively we can contribute to a more sustainable community. In recognizing that climate is always local and global, action from the smallest to the broadest scale is relevant and worthwhile.
My perspective on stewardship seeks to address issues and actions that support sustainability. Whatever the scale of the land - backyard or a town park, a farm, a forest, a shopping center, or an industrial site - every land use has an effect on the climate. In this article I am drawing on readings that I found helpful in my exploration of what regulates climate, and how we can act.
Understanding this broader scope of stewardship takes us beyond a climate solution which focuses primarily on the carbon cycle - the transition to renewable energy, and sequestering carbon. By expanding the narrative to recognize the important roles of the water cycle, soil, biodiversity, and ecosystem regeneration, we expand our options for effective action at all levels.
Land Stewardship and all it implies is critical for addressing the climate crisis. The land’s trees and vegetation remove CO2 from the atmosphere and thus help regulate the heat trapping function of local atmospheres. In the long term, how we manage land, water, and soil to regenerate our ecosystems is just as important.
Scientists and environmentalists generally agree on the interconnectedness of all the ecosystems in the environment. Since the forests and oceans cannot absorb enough CO2 to prevent warming, it makes sense to reduce greenhouse gasses (GHGs) and at the same time restore the natural balance of the ecosystems we rely on to maintain a sustainable climate.
Humankind, through the growth of the world’s economies, has changed the face of the earth and thus reduced nature’s capacity to maintain stability. On all continents, massive deforestation, intensification of agriculture, depletion of fresh water supplies, building of urban areas, and more have all served to reduce nature’s capacity to regulate climate. We need to pay much more attention to regenerating nature at all levels - individual, local, regional, national - on all continents. Fortunately, this trend is well underway around the globe. There is much we can do as individual citizens, land and business owners, voters, and policy makers. There are many organizations, initiatives and policies leaning in the ’regenerative’ direction in almost every country.
Here are a few familiar examples of how these processes play out. Native planting and pollinator gardens are not just about more birds and bees. Biodiversity supports more complex food chains among animals and plants which sustains biodiversity and leads to healthier soil which in turn contributes to resilience to drought and other positive effects. Vegetation and its photosynthesis contributes to cooling.
Planting trees and conserving and restoring forests does much more than just sequestering carbon (greenhouse gasses) from the atmosphere. It impacts warming. Healthy biodiverse forests help cool the planet and sustain local rain patterns (the small water cycle, ‘precipitation recycling’ in hydrologists’ terms). Forests and vegetation build healthy soil that helps retain rainwater which plants need; trees pull water from the soil to sustain their life and in turn transpire which cools the surroundings (like when people sweat). The transpired water vapor helps form clouds and local rain. This small cycle repeats itself many times as weather moves across land masses. This process is slowed with fewer repetitions due to deforestation, clearing land and urban development. These disruptions lead to changes in local and global climate.
The disruption of these processes are underlying causes of aridification and desertification that have occurred on all continents, and contributes to the pernicious weather cycle of heat, drought, strong rains with flooding, and forest fires. The extent to which this process is reversible is a topic of research, experimentation, advocacy, and debate.
Another aspect of these processes is that when the climate warms, the atmosphere is holding more of the heat that the earth reflects from the sun. As explained above, this is regulated in large part by the ecologies on the earth’s surface. Trees and plants deposit carbon in the soil and the vegetative cover prevents bare land from reflecting the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere and contributing to warming. To oversimplify, the land’s vegetation and healthy soil use the energy from the sun for photosynthesis and transpiration. This process has a cooling effect. But when the sun’s radiation is reflected into the atmosphere, such as from bare earth or parking lots, there is a warming effect. Greenhouse gasses increase this atmospheric heat retention. The present climate crisis is the outcome of the world’s economic development based on fossil fuel and the vast changes in land use patterns exploiting natural resources and disrupting the atmospheric balance natural evolution achieved.
Agriculture plays a dual role for the earth - feeding our species and impacting the local and global climate. Many industrial agriculture practices deplete the soil, limit carbon sequestration, disturb the small water cycle thus contributing to warming. When the ground is not well covered with vegetation (as happens with some monocropping) it contributes to warming. Warming is aggravated by tilling the soil and releasing carbon stored in the soil, and thus having a warming effect in the atmosphere that holds heat. Agriculture is very local, with variation from farm to farm, region to region. We are fortunate in the Hudson Valley that so many farms use sustainable farming practices.
Agriculture, globally, is undergoing a transition away from conventional/industrial agriculture to practices drawing from agroecology and regenerative agriculture, thus more closely replicating nature’s ecosystems. This trend, more pronounced with smaller farms, has a positive effect on the climate and is increasing on all continents. National policies vary as do corporate policies, but the trend is evident across the globe.
The more we understand the systems and cycles of nature and ways our activities impact them in terms of weather and climate, the better we can see ways to make a difference. I think this is true at whatever the level we view our environment - individual, community, workplace, industry, region or watershed. Most readers of this newsletter are likely already very engaged in their community. Hopefully some of this information will help us to do more, speak up, support the right projects, stand up for policies and actions that are regenerative rather than extractive, and think about how we ourselves can live closer to this ethos. So my answer is do more of what we are doing, get more focus on regenerating our ecosystems, and keep educating ourselves.
References: These references led me to the perspective that supporting biodiversity, healthy soil, and the small water cycle may in the long term be as important as reducing fossil fuel use for a survivable climate. Reducing fossil fuel use is no less urgent.
Classics on conservation and ecology with important discussion of solutions:
Enric Sala, The Nature of Nature: Why we need the WIld, 2020, National Geographic Press, Washing D.C.
Douglas Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your backyard, 2019, Timber Press, Portland
Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Nature’s Fight for Life, 2016, Liveright Publishing, NY
2023 in Watery Review, Alpha Lo, https://climatewaterproject.substack.com/p/2023-in-watery-review
Alpa Lo is a physicist / earth scientist focusing on the complexity of water cycles. This summary of his work last year, ties many fields together. Very readable until you click down deep.
Biodiversity for a Liveable Climate - https://bio4climate.org/
This website provides multiple examples of how biodiversity contributes to a liveable climate-
https://bio4climate.org/course-offerings/a-new-climate-story-course/ - Interesting bibliography.
John Feldman, Documentary filmmaker has two excellent educational film on the climate science discussed in this article.
Regenerative Agriculture and Agroecology - a vast literature exists. Agriculture is variable at so many levels - local, regional, watersheds, climate-sheds, etc. :
Climate Resilient Agriculture in the Hudson Valley - https://www.scenichudson.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Climate-Resilient-Agriculture-in-the-Hudson-Valley.pdf
Paul Luu, Farmers have the Earth in Their hands - Editiones La Butineuse,2021 - A good description of the evolution of agriculture and the current transition to regenerative agriculture - an international perspective, https://www.editions-labutineuse.com/en/product/farmers-have-the-earth-in-their-hands/
In the Fall of 2023, I posted a review of a sister publication from Editiones Butineuse - ‘Cool Stuff from Climate Science Basics’ , I reviewed Hydrate the Earth and The WeatherMakers - https://imby.com/post/155965