There is nothing better than jumping in a cool lake on a hot summer day. For most of us living in Vermont, even with temperatures reaching into the 90’s, we can find ways to keep cool. But for most of the United States and countries around the world, the fact that July 2019 was the hottest month on record was cause for concern.
Globally, record-breaking heatwaves, with many consecutive days reaching over 100 degrees, triggered public-health emergencies.
In India, a crisis unfolded across the country as millions of people ran out of water for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Across Europe, cities had to set up emergency cooling centers, and hospitals were inundated with victims of heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses.
In Siberia and Alaska, plumes of smoke from unprecedented wildfires sent people to the hospital with asthma and other smoke-related illnesses.
The summer heat wave is a reminder that stopping global warming is important for our health and well-being. The promising news is that, according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can make important progress to reverse global warming by focusing on the relationship between climate change, land use, forestry and agriculture.
The IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land was written by scientific experts from around the globe. It highlights the growing threats to food and water from “rising global temperatures and unprecedented rates of land and freshwater exploitation in recent decades.” According to the IPCC, nature can also be part of the solution: climate-smart approaches to forest management and farming have the potential to slow global emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
The most important takeaway from the IPCC report is that depending upon how we manage the land, the land will help us reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, or it will be a potentially significant contributor to climate change.
First the good news: according to the report, between 2008-17, nearly 30% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions were absorbed by plants and soils. Plants “sequester” carbon by pulling it from the atmosphere as part of photosynthesis — the process plants use to grow. As a result, as long as plants, like trees, are alive, they continue to absorb and hold on to the carbon. This is why deforestation is of concern to climate scientists — forests hold nearly half of the stored carbon in the world.
While scientists have long known about the importance of the forest for storing carbon, there is a growing understanding of the important role that healthy soils can play. Scientists believe that the world’s soils contain three times as much carbon as there is in the entire atmosphere. This carbon comes from organic matter — from decaying plants and animals. Depending upon how farmers manage soils, greenhouse gasses can be sequestered or released into the atmosphere.
Now for the challenge: across the globe, climate change, along with the pressures of development, deforestation and mineral extraction, have resulted in less productive agricultural land and a reduction in freshwater available for agriculture and human consumption. This has already impacted the stability of agricultural global supply chains and is likely to get worse in the coming years.
It is also notable that nearly a quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from land-use, including agriculture, deforestation and peatlands. For example, rice farming, meat production and highly fertilized croplands, all emit major amounts of highly polluting methane and nitrous oxide gasses. Deforestation emits significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, poorly managed farmland and forests also increase climate impacts by:
making communities more vulnerable to climate-related storms; contributing to the intensity of droughts and the strength of forest fires; and causing desertification and the loss of agricultural soils.
The IPCC report makes the case that, “The way we grow our food and manage our forests can help us combat climate change, protect our communities from climate impacts, and enhance food security.” In Vermont, we have already seen how our food system and our forests are impacted by climate change. We saw prime agricultural soils wash away during Tropical Storm Irene, and we have experienced new pests and diseases that impact the health of our forests.
After this summer’s extreme heat, we need to act fast to change the way we grow our food and manage our land. Vermonters can lead the way by adopting farming practices that build soil health and minimize methane emissions. We can protect and manage our forests to sequester carbon. And, as individuals, we can choose to eat less red meat, and more locally grown food. Finally, we can pay attention to what we buy, and demand that businesses we visit do not source products in their supply chains from areas that have been deforested or that use agricultural practices that contribute to climate change.
There is a lot of work ahead of us, but the IPCC report makes it clear that it is within our power to ensure that we continue to have a healthy, livable planet and enough food to feed the world.
Deb Markowitz is the former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the former Vermont secretary of state. She is currently the Ceres vice president of Initiatives and Campaigns.