What's Worse than Climate Change?
Global Climate Change, regardless of whatever name happens to be in use at the time, continues to be one of the most contentious issues of our time. The debate surrounding its significance is occurring simultaneously along scientific, political, and cultural fault lines and resulting in a conversation that is often both raucous and unhelpful to the average person. On the one hand, there appears to be a growing scientific consensus that the Earth is warming at a rate well outside of established historical patterns. On the other hand, key questions about the unreliability of predictive models and the government’s involvement in cherry picking data remain largely unanswered. Perhaps most concerning of all is that the same group of people who are constantly claiming that climate change should not be a political issue are the ones responsible for marrying “fixing" it to a host of political and cultural agendas that are repulsive to anyone right of Bernie Sanders. Despite so many loud voices vying for attention on both sides, the current conversation is almost entirely irrelevant when one examines the facts of the situation a bit more closely.
At first glance, it would seem that there are only two choices for the concerned citizen: either climate change is occurring and we need to take drastic measures to address the looming crisis, or climate change is not occurring and there is no need to upend our whole economy chasing the wind. For the person who believes the first option, if we really are in danger of destroying the planet—and killing ourselves in the process—then surely we have to take any measures necessary to address the problem no matter how draconian and disruptive they may be. Yet if there is nothing to worry about, as those who hold the second option believe, then surely there is no reason to endanger a global economy that has been successfully addressing issues like poverty, disease, and famine for several decades now.
The mistake in both of these propositions is the assumption that climate change has a monopoly on environmental problems, and therefore whether or not it is happening is of utmost importance to determining what we ought to do next. Given the excessive coverage it has received in recent years, it’s not surprising that most of us are inclined to think primarily of climate issues whenever the topic of the environment comes up. But reality is far different. Reality reveals that we are facing a host of serious environmental threats, regardless of whether or not the climate is changing. Put another way: we are in big trouble whether climate change is real or not.
For example, despite recent progress, the Unites States is still losing over 1.7 billion tons of soil due to agriculture each year. That erosion, combined with the runoff of various chemicals into the Mississippi river, is causing a massive dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life simply cannot live. We’re depleting our fresh water supply at a dangerous rate, creating significant losses in forests worldwide, and seeing increased desertification, often with significant local impacts. And if all of these issues weren’t enough, there is so much plastic pollution in the ocean that we have started eating it in our seafood.
Conversations surrounding these issues are very different from the noisy climate change debate. They don’t focus on numeric trends or deal with potentially flawed long-range projections. Instead, all of these things are based on observable data, and it's relatively easy to verify that each of these events is occurring and beginning to have serious impacts not only on the Earth, but on human life as well. One example of such an impact is the compelling evidence that the Syrian Civil War—and the refugee crisis and other events that followed it—were caused by an agricultural collapse.
I realize that there is an abundance of alarmism within environmental circles, and I have no intention of adding to it here. Yet we need to look at the bigger picture: and the Syrian Civil War is a great starting point for such a conversation. Food, water, and shelter are all basic needs for human beings. When they cease to be available, people become desperate and terrible things happen.
Historically, drought and famine have had a well-established power to cause death, war, and destruction, and in a number of cases they have caused entire civilizations to simply disappear. Much of the damage we are doing to the Earth at this point, regardless of climate change issues, is going to impact things we need in order to stay alive. Destruction of cropland, lack of freshwater, or lack of access to edible saltwater fish all pose serious potential global problems that we cannot afford to ignore, regardless of which side of the climate change debate you are on. Now for the good news: the realization that there are many more issues at play than just rising or cooling global temperatures might produce even more despair for those who are concerned about the environment, but it shouldn't.
The very good news is that addressing these more serious concerns will address many of the biggest factors driving climate change, if we assume that it’s happening.
Each of the problems I’ve outlined above can be addressed using small-scale, mostly agricultural solutions. The great political struggle over the climate change issue has been primarily caused by the fact that the proposed solutions all “require” massive amounts of government regulation and deliberate wealth redistribution. Conversely, solving these problems simply requires that we begin making changes at the local level. This is especially true with our food production, which needs to begin to take building soil, preserving water, planting trees, and avoiding pollution much more seriously. All of these changes are more than possible for an individual farmer, and even those of us who aren’t producing our own food have the ability to make our purchases from those who are.
The reality is that there is no anti-earth conspiracy. We didn’t get here because a group of bad guys or mega-corporations set out on a quest to destroy the planet. Instead, we got here through the cumulative impact of millions of small decisions. If we, as individuals, begin to make positive changes that impact the way our food is being produced—and the impacts that production has on the earth— then that same cumulative impact will lead us back towards addressing the problems outlined above, as well as many others.
Which brings us back to climate change. We’ve discussed here how we’re in deep trouble whether or not climate change is occurring; I’ve touched on the relative simplicity of some of the solutions to those problems. Still, some people may still be wondering: if climate change is going to kill us all, why does any of that matter? Simply put, these same solutions will also address the climate change issue, assuming that it is real. Planting large numbers of trees, building soil through holistic grazing practices and heavy use of ground covers, and storing far more water in the landscape are all significant carbon sequestration practices.
If we do what is necessary to stop the problems we know with certainty exist, the net impact will be to sequester a very significant amount of carbon. Is it likely that we will need to work towards reducing emissions as well? Perhaps, but not in nearly such a dramatic fashion as is being proposed elsewhere. In addition to sequestering carbon, many of these same practices also curb emissions as a byproduct. For example, agriculture uses significant amounts of oil for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, packaging, and shipping of food.
Each of these practices comes with significant carbon emissions. Simply shifting to a localized food production system that relies on more regenerative agricultural practices would dramatically reduce all of these emissions. Thus, solving the problems that we can easily verify as real problems will have a net effect of both sequestering a large amount of atmospheric carbon and substantially reducing a sizable portion of carbon emissions.
We’ve got a serious environmental problem whether global climate change is occurring or not. However, if we take the necessary steps to address verifiable problems, we’ve also got a real shot at fixing the biggest factor driving climate change as a byproduct. In addition, the solutions can begin at the local level without the need for top-down, regulation-heavy government interventions which means we can—and should—ignore the fear-mongering calls for more government coming from proponents of climate change. However, we cannot ignore the need for a healthier relationship between human beings and the planet. Instead, we can start taking meaningful action steps towards making that happen in our personal lives through more conscientious practices and purchases.