I recently returned from two and a half days at the first International Drawdown Conference held at Penn State University. The subtitle of the “Drawdown” book is: “The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.”
The message from the conference is one of hope. But before getting to that good news, I’d like to explain something about the bad.
If we continue on our current path of increased emissions, or make only modest incremental reductions, we are likely to move into a state called “hothouse Earth.” This refers to a state where the heating of the earth can no longer be controlled or stopped, no matter what we do. The scientific consensus is that, if we enter this state, it is the end of human civilization as we know it.
This will occur due to a series of feedback loops, which happens when the collapse of one of earth’s natural ecosystems has a ripple effect on others. We are already seeing some of this. Due to the warming of the air, soil and plant matter becomes drier or more prone to fires. When trees burn, they no longer absorb carbon through photosynthesis, but release the carbon stored into the atmosphere. This increases the atmospheric carbon, hence more warming, and more fires. The ash from the burnt forests carries into the atmosphere and some of it lands on arctic ice, which then is more prone to melting, further contributing to sea level rise.
The right-wing media has taken to referring to environmentalists, in a mocking way, as “alarmist.” The above information should make clear that everyone should be alarmed.
Now the good news. “Drawdown” provides a road map for solutions that, if scaled up, will reverse global warming. The levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already higher than at any point in human evolution. Drawdown refers to the point in time when those levels start to decrease.
There is much more involved in these solutions than stopping emissions. We also need to capture the CO2 that’s there and store it safely back on earth — this is called sequestering. Planting trees is one way of dong this, as is preserving the forests already here.
As an analogy; if there is no garbage pickup and it’s collecting on the sidewalk, we can reduce the rate at which we add more, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. This is why the transition to wind and solar renewable energy are essential, but not sufficient. At the conference we heard that there is no silver bullet for fixing this problem, but there is silver buckshot — meaning a range of solutions, all of which are necessary.
Generating electricity accounts for 25% of greenhouse gases. The food- and land-use sector is about the same, and this includes deforestation, meat agriculture and use of chemical fertilizers. Agroforestry, which combines trees and food cultivation, was emphasized as an effective strategy. Transportation accounts for about 14%, industry about 21%, and buildings much of the rest. Concrete accounts for about an equal weight of emissions as the concrete itself.
The Drawdown team has “done the math” to determine the impacts of all the solutions and ranked them for their effectiveness. This information is detailed in the book, which is written in readable non-technical language and also available online.
Two of the most effective Drawdown solutions are education of women and girls and family planning, which are especially critical in the developing world. In addition to limiting family size by access to contraceptives, family planning also impacts family well-being, equality and empowerment for women, which are seen as having positive ripple effects on many other Drawdown solutions.
Scaling up these solutions will be a significant challenge, but it is possible. We heard from the resilience officer for the city of Pittsburgh, which is making good progress toward a goal of reducing emissions 50% by 2030. However, Pennsylvania is also the largest producer of fracked gas, which emits significant amounts of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Many jobs and the state’s economy are now tied into that industry.
The Drawdown team wants to shift the narrative about the climate crisis from problems to solutions, from fear to opportunity, from resignation to inspiration and from conflict to collaboration.
If we are to reach Drawdown, it will require everyone to become a participant in solutions. There can be no waiting for others to do this for us. All individuals, groups, businesses, industries and policymakers need to take part. We cannot afford any bystanders in this challenge.
We also heard from Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and climate communicator, who encouraged all of us to talk about this issue. The solutions often start with something as simple as a conversation.
Joe Silverman is a retired psychologist and current climate activist. He lives in Florence.