How did I miss this story? Apparently it came out in October, so I guess I was a bit preoccupied with the election circus. I assume it flew under the radar for a lot of other people too. Here it is: on the scale of just a few decades, the combination of climate change and deforestation will likely result in the conversion of tropical rainforest to grassland in the Amazon. This article in The Guardian summarizes a peer reviewed study and aptly explains why/how this will happen. (Side note: The Guardian is one of my favorite sources for environmental stories. Of course, they’re all depressing stories that further chip away at any optimism I have left, but they are well done and it’s one of the few media outlets that seem to really focus on climate issues.)
I can’t say I’m surprised by this study (here’s a link to the original publication) but it’s deeply upsetting nonetheless. Tropical rainforests are often referred to as the “earth’s lungs”. While ⅔ of our oxygen actually comes from microorganisms in the ocean, tropical rainforests contribute a significant amount of oxygen to the atmosphere (20%) and, maybe more importantly, store carbon out of the atmosphere in all those huge, beautiful old trees. What does the loss of the Amazon rainforest mean for the planet? Many things, including
Let’s start with the carbon emissions. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, approximately 375 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted from human activities (World Meteorological Society). This has contributed to the warming of the planet and resulting increases in extreme weather (droughts, wildfires, hurricanes) and sea level rise. Note that 140 billion tons of carbon would likely enter the atmosphere with the conversion of rainforest to grassland. That’s nearly 40% of all the carbon that we have already contributed to the atmosphere but in a fraction of the time it took to get to this point. We thought we were already seeing rapid change. Buckle up everybody.
Let’s move on to the projected biodiversity loss. I’ve covered the importance of biodiversity loss in an older post (May 14, 2019) so I won’t rehash here. But needless to say, the scope of biodiversity loss that we face with the loss of the rainforest is very worrisome. Think about the potential cancer treatments that could be found in plants that grow only in the rainforest. Think about all the colorful frogs, the fascinating primates, the leaf cutter ants, the gorgeously colored birds, the rare orchids, I could go on and on (obviously, 10% of earth’s total biodiversity likely = millions of species). All that genetic potential, all that beauty will be gone. Let’s not forget all of the species that have yet to be discovered in the rainforest and all the indigenous people that live in and depend on the rainforests.
Then there’s the trees themselves. The trees of the rainforest actually generate about 40% of the precipitation that falls there and in surrounding areas of South America. When the trees are gone and the rainfall with it, conflicts over water resources will increase and agricultural outputs will diminish. This is a recipe for mass migration. Millions of people will be displaced, likely to North America. If conservatives in this country are upset about the current immigrant situation, they are going to be beside themselves in a couple of decades. We haven’t seen anything yet.
So, what is to be done? Well, first and foremost we need to vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we don’t fulfill the “worst case scenario” predictions of the IPCC and other models. You know how to do that: eat a vegan diet, use less energy, buy local foods, advocate for legislative change, etc. All the things I’ve mentioned in previous posts. A plant-based/vegan diet (you can do it! It’s so easy and tasty and healthy!) not only reduces your carbon footprint, but your land footprint as well. In the Amazon, deforestation is driven primarily by animal agriculture (see also this article). A global reduction in the demand for beef would slow destruction of the rainforest. In addition, the Rainforest Alliance recommends some other daily actions that individuals can take.
So, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything. To be honest, this “election season” plus COVID and dealing with the school year have just really gotten me down. My stress levels have been through the roof and I have not slept through the night in months. I know that I’m not unusual. Everyone is feeling like this. One bright spot is the recent news that Biden is installing John Kerry as a climate change envoy and pledging to rejoin the Paris agreement. After four LONG years, we can start to get back on track as a nation in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, something we should have done decades ago of course, but these last four years have been a major setback. I’ve also been buoyed a bit by the news that the U.K. recently put forth a major initiative aimed at restoring natural biodiversity by cutting farm subsidies in some areas and encouraging sustainable farming methods. Also, The Guardian reports many countries are pledging to be carbon neutral by 2050 or 2060 and two North Atlantic right whale newborns were recently spotted (this is a big deal!). Some rare good news.
But of course, the uplifting headlines are few and far between the negative ones. Just today these are a few of the headlines I saw:
(Note: this is a series of depressing photos on CNN’s website. This picture is of a cow that died of dehydration in an area that has seen climate change-exacerbated drought.)
You already knew it if you read some of my previous posts. Of course this mostly applies to those of you not eating a vegan diet.
And the hits keep coming. I’m not going to get into it now, but as more sea ice melts in the Arctic in the summer, the rate of warming for the entire planet will increase. The Arctic is a proverbial canary in a coal mine. That particular canary stopped singing decades ago, we just turned a deaf ear.
Sewage + warmer temperatures = low oxygen. Low oxygen = no fish. My first year environmental science students can all educate you on this issue. It's a classic.
Every year is now the hottest year. None of this is surprising, but it’s like icing on the worst cake ever. I can’t offer any words of comfort. All I can say is that now more than ever we need to advocate our legislators for quick and radical actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to take personal responsibilities: stop eating meat and dairy, buy less stuff, use less energy, etc, etc. You know the drill. Stop making excuses and do what you know has to be done. In the words of someone (?) "Do what must be done." (I feel like that's a Star Wars quote, but I have no idea who said it or which of the million Star Wars/Star Wars spin-off movies it was in.)
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist