The news is full of climate change. Storms in the Pacific, hurricanes in the Caribbean and forest fires in California. On a more local scale, coastal erosion might be affecting the places you live and play, or maybe you’re wondering how we can go from flood to drought at such an alarming pace. While fluctuations in temperature are normal and there are always seasonal variations, the planet is under increasing pressure from global warming. The warmer temperatures mean that the atmosphere can hold more water and with higher temperatures comes more entropy – more thermal energy – more disorder and chaos. The heating effect is the result of a thick layer of ‘greenhouse gases’ that work like a blanket to keep the heat in. There are lots of reasons why carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere and they are almost entirely manmade.
In the atmosphere, carbon is attached to oxygen as the gas carbon dioxide. Plants use carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow – they convert the carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, which are used for structural growth of the plant and for storage of energy. When the plant dies and is buried, given the right conditions it turns into fossil fuels like coal and oil. This takes millions of years – that’s why coal and oil are known as ‘fossil’ fuels. When we burn them for energy, most of the carbon is released and enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
As I said, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas: it traps heat in the atmosphere. Without it and other greenhouse gases, the planet would be a frozen wilderness. Sadly, we’ve now swung in the other direction, and have burned so much fossil fuel that there’s about 30% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was throughout human evolution. In fact, according to ice core samples, there’s now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 420,000 years. The planet is warming up and if we don’t do something now to turn the tide, climate change will continue unchecked until the planet is uninhabitable for us. How has it come to this?
Unfortunately, we have an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. The energy they provide is required to power industry and agriculture , and there is limited (but growing) interest in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. The effects of fossil fuels are compounded by deforestation which has taken place on a massive scale. Cutting down and burning trees to clear land for agriculture reduces the planet’s ability to sequester carbon, and sending some of nature’s most effective natural filters up in smoke adds even more carbon to the atmosphere.
Modern farming practices, which rely heavily on petrochemicals, also reduce the soil’s ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides – all produced from oil – are used to encourage fast growth of crops, rather than the traditional practice of improving soil fertility by composting as our farming ancestors did. These chemicals destroy the microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, worms and insects that break down organic matter and stabilise soils. In the off season, farmers till the land, which further destroys the natural structure and when land lies fallow the soil, together with the chemicals, washes off and clogs up and pollutes waterways and lakes – in New Zealand this has made about 15% of monitored swimming spots no longer swimmable due to their pollution with agricultural chemicals. Trees were once an important part of the landscape, valued for their many benefits, rather than an obstacle to be cleared to allow easy access for industrial farming.
So, yes, agriculture is part of the problem, but it can also be part of the solution. There are many individuals and groups in New Zealand and further afield looking for ways to slow the rate of climate change. One of these is 4p1000, a global initiative with a New Zealand connection. The 4p1000 refers to the group’s desire to increase soil carbon stocks by just 0.4%, or 4 per 1000. Part of the Global Climate Action Plan, 4p1000 is a collaboration between public and private organisations and sends a strong signal to agriculture that they have a role to play in halting climate change and improving food security. The action plan is designed to complement other efforts and is driven by the group’s three aims: to combat land degradation, improve food security, and adapt agriculture to a changing climate. New Zealand’s own Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Researchis involved, and while the group’s actions are largely practical, they are based on science and the latest research available.
If you’re interested in finding out what’s happening to combat climate change and food security closer to home, theEnvironmental Defence Society is a good place to start. Some other groups that you might find interesting are 350 Aotearoa , the New Zealand Climate Action Network, Sustainability Council of New Zealand , Sustainable Business Network and Generation Zero.[ These groups may each work slightly differently, but they share a common goal – reducing the rate of climate change and the impact this has on the planet and its people.
Joining like-minded people to help fight climate change and the global food system is great, but as the old saying goes, charity begins at home. In my next post, I’ll give you some ideas to get you started with your very own climate change revolution, reducing your environmental impact and supporting a healthy you and a healthy planet.
Climate change affects our health, our environment and ultimately, our way of life. Making small changes in the way you live, work and play can contribute to turning the tide of climate change so we can allprosper.
The Environmental Defense Society http://www.eds.org.nz
350 Aotearoa is the New Zealand arm of the international climate movement 350.org https://350.org.nz
New Zealand Climate Change Action Network http://www.nzcan.org
The Sustainability Council of New Zealand http://www.sustainabilitynz.org
The Sustainable Business Network https://sustainable.org.nz
Generation Zero’s vision is to see New Zealand leading the way to a zero carbon futurehttp://www.generationzero.org