Opinion: How land — and the way we use it — is at the center of the climate crisis

Editor’s note: On the same day that many global leaders met in a United Nations forum on biodiversity, writer Judith Schwartz looked at the intersection of land, climate change, ecological health, and sustenance. Schwartz, a contributor to FERN, has written three books. Her most recent, published last month by Chelsea Green Publishing, is The Reindeer Chronicles, and Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth.

Our landscapes are taking a beating. As I write, swaths of western acreage are ablaze, while last month Hurricane Laura and the derecho that swept through Iowa brought devastation to farms and cities alike. We are increasingly seeing damage to land as an inescapable casualty of climate-driven weather chaos. But what if we regarded land, and how we treat it, as central to climate solutions? This would help fill a piece that’s missing in discussions of countering climate change: the importance of functioning ecosystems.

Landscapes play a significant role in climate. At its most basic level, the story of climate is the story of what happens to solar energy when it meets the ground. The fate of our sun’s largesse — whether it is incorporated by life-forms or becomes heat — is determined by natural processes: the carbon, water, nutrient, and energy cycles. These intertwined cycles are driven by the activities of myriad life-forms, from microbes to animals and plants. Picture, for example, an arid African savanna that’s been abandoned by farmers, an image that might accompany news reports on the ravages of famine and drought. In this parched landscape, sunbeams fall on unwelcoming terrain — generating heat, evaporating moisture, laying waste to soil biology, and killing plant life. The sunlight remains dynamic energy, but it is absorbed by the environment in a detrimental way, its potential unrealized.

Imagine that this land is improved through regenerative grazing, so that animal dunging, urinating, and trampling of plant matter add nutrients and carbon to the soil, promoting native vegetation and maximizing water retention. The upshot? More of that sunshine is captured by plants. This sets the living system in motion as solar energy is 1) turned into sugar, some of which 2) is sent out through the roots, where 3) it supports a thriving microbial community, and 4) is stored in the soil, as in a battery. This builds soil carbon and supports greater biodiversity, keeping water on the land and helping repair the water cycle. Enhanced soil moisture means longer-lasting green growth and therefore higher production, an extended period of active photosynthesis and carbon drawdown, and a briefer season of dormancy and fire risk. And, of course, healthier land improves food quality and security.

It is time to bring the conversation about climate down to earth. How we treat our land matters. This is good news, because land is where we have tremendous agency; by managing our land for enhanced ecological function — for operational carbon, water, nutrient, and energy cycles — we are enhancing climate resilience and mitigation. We are also producing healthier and more abundant crops while relying less on inputs that are expensive and environmentally counterproductive. In short, we will be working with nature, rather than against her.

In The Reindeer Chronicles, I share stories of earth repair from across the globe. On China’s Loess Plateau, a region the size of Belgium was transformed from hardscrabble wasteland to lush, green vistas — while lifting 2 million people out of poverty. Small-scale projects, too, can be dramatic. Starting in 2010, permaculture designer Neal Spackman worked with local Bedouins to rehabilitate a 90-acre site in western Saudi Arabia. After decades of desertification, the area had lost virtually all vegetation, and was down to its geological bones. Using only captured local rainwater — in a place that averages less than 2.5 inches of rain a year — the team planted thousands of trees. In 2016, the project ran out of funding and irrigation was stopped. Still, after three years and despite almost no rain, 80 percent of the trees survived. (See this Al Baydha Project video.)

The fact that some of the most successful projects take place amid the most extreme conditions indicates the extent of what’s possible, often against great odds and with minimal investment. The cost of the Loess Plateau project was $17 per acre, per year. We can consider how that compares with the price of flooding from continued hillside erosion and siltation of the Yellow River.

Strategic land restoration can minimize the impact of weather events — and even reinstate disrupted weather patterns. Spanish climatologist Dr. Millán Millán has documented the loss of daily summer rains in the western Mediterranean for more than 30 years. He links the change to deforestation, draining marshlands, and development along the coast. Moisture evaporated from the sea was never enough to induce precipitation, he found. Rather, the rains depended on water vapor from transpiring vegetation that was picked up by passing breezes. Millán says replanting pivotal areas can return some of this rain, albeit perhaps some miles away. This is a remarkable prospect: the possibility of undoing ecological disruption, of reconnecting what has been severed — in this instance the flow of moisture carried on the winds.

According to eco-restoration advocate John D. Liu, who filmed the Loess Plateau rehabilitation starting in 1995, successful efforts are marked by three trends: increases in biodiversity, biomass, and soil organic matter. This combined trajectory also characterizes productive agricultural systems. Bolstering ecological health can certainly help farms be more profitable. Restoring degraded and underperforming landscapes can also provide employment: applying reparative tools and practices represents a meaningful source of work, particularly in languishing rural areas where people have few opportunities.

Climate resilience, thriving farms, and employment. This is what valuing ecosystem function will yield. All of which turns on the question: What do we want to make of our daily bounty of sunlight?