Climate Change

Sustainable Development and Massive Tree Planting

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Earlier this year at a UN Assembly meeting in Beijing, Secretary General Antonio Gutteres stressed to world leaders that the time for transitional change is now; we have only 10 to 12 years to prevent the 1.5 degree global temperature change that indicates a point of no return, and “no country or community is immune,” as the Secretary General reminded the attendees. “As we know, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer, and the worst hit,” said Mr. Guterres. The solution lies in green and sustainable development, or projects that align with the Paris accord and the UN 2030 Agenda.

With this urgency serving as a global cultural backdrop, researchers at ETH Zurich, a university that specializes in science and engineering, have quantified a common question: can aggressively planting and developing forests absorb atmospheric carbon and buy us more time?

Researchers determined that the planet can sustain 2.5 billion additional acres of forest without including existing cities and farms, and that these additional trees could store 200 gigatons of carbon poured into the atmosphere by industrial activity.

The studies authors declared that 2/3 of historic carbon emissions could be reabsorbed by this massive development. While critics of the study maintain the amount would be closer to 1/3, the findings are still significant and even though it’s just a hypothetical thought exercise, the move could put a serious dent in the damage inflicted on the planet during the past 150 years.

“The new information simply allows us to re-prioritize investment into the restoration of forests and the conservation of existing forests as this has more potential for carbon capture than we could have anticipated,” according to the senior author of the study.

As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which is returned to the soil when the trees die and decompose. Just short list of countries with the space and terrain available for massive tree plantings could accommodate almost all of the 2.5 billion acres that would be needed to stave off climate change: Russia tops the list, followed by the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Now the most important question remains: who will organize this effort, and who will plant the trees?

Farming, Fate, and Difficult Decisions

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Imagine yourself a farmer in the early summer of 2019. (If this already describes you, the exercise should be easy.) Imagine the corn crop you planted, or attempted to plant, during the regular spring planting cycle has been damaged or washed away by a season of intense rain, unusual cold and strong flooding.

Now you’ll have to make a difficult set of decisions that may not only impact your own family and finances, but also the complex fluctuations and intersecting factors that put food on tables across the country.

You’ll need to either:

(1)  Plant your corn three weeks later in the season than you usually do, trusting that the floods are over, and raising a crop that may or may not be high and valuable enough to cover your loans by the season’s end.   

(2) Switch to a soybean crop, which tolerates a later planting and which farmers often do during spring seasons that are inclement for corn. The risk: soybeans are typically delivered to markets in China, which have been threatened by the current trade debacle. What if you grow a crop you can’t sell?

(3) Accept a subsidy so you can stay in the business…or not. Subsidies promised to farmers by the Trump administration require eligibility parameters, and these payouts will be limited or unavailable to farmers who have not planted anything yet due to flooded fields.

And then, the truly hard questions: If you hold a crop in storage while waiting for prices to return, what will you do if that never happens, or the water ruins your stored crop?  Will exiting farming now protect you and your family from a lifestyle with shrinking prospects? If you leave, what will you do instead? Where will you go?

And finally, consider the questions that fall not to you, but to the rest of us: What will we do if a year (or two or three) of painfully difficult decisions push farmers to exit the profession in critical numbers?

A healthy society and a functioning civilization depend on several things, including a democratic system of governance; a sustainable economy; ingrained support for education, culture and art; just, flexible and fairly enforced laws; and a system that brings accountability to those in power who work to undermine and corrupt it. But at the very core, none of these pillars can stand without universal access to clean water and food.

Without food, democracy, laws, culture, human rights, transportation, infrastructure and commerce fail quickly. And while climate change strikes at the heart of all of these things, none of our systems are more directly connected to the climate than our food system.

The United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and by simply examining the larger world, we can already see how climate change upends the lives of those who depend on the land for a living.

We may not all be able to grow our own food (though backyard gardens can supply us with both tomatoes and crucial lessons about the knowledge, labor, patience, experience, cost, risk, and moxy that it takes to grow a tomato, which can breed a healthy respect for farming). And we may not be able to protect ourselves from food shortages by implementing policy changes and price protections; a broken system, once broken, is difficult to rebuild, and abandoned fields don’t return to instant fecundity once lost overseas markets reopen.

But we can do one important thing, right now in the summer of 2019: Help farmers to make the difficult decisions in front of them by supporting farm-friendly policies and standing up to poor and reckless trade decisions. Most important: we can recognize the impact of climate change that’s taking place before our eyes, and we can look around the world and into the future as we search for ways to adapt.  

Plastic Pollution: Where do we Stand?

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It’s 2019 and at this point, we all know that much of the human impact on our fragile planet comes from pollution. Our landfills are overflowing, and we haven’t successfully dealt with carbon emissions, toxic runoff from farm and lawn fertilizers, pesticides, manufacturing byproducts, mining waste, or the pollutants created by energy generation and transportation.

We’re introducing unwanted material to the biosphere at an ever-growing rate and we haven’t yet found the brake pedal, much less put it to use. One of the most depressing topics under this subheading can be summed up in a word: plastic.

The issue of environmental plastic is depressing, and in many ways paralyzing, for a simple reason. Each of us personally contributes to the problem every single day, and none of us know how to stop.

One Problem at a Time

Here at Just Atonement, we recognize that the problems are of the world are vast. So vast that in some cases, the metrics and charts that detail a given crisis contain numbers incomprehensible to the human mind. How many is a billion? How about 200 billion? How many children go hungry each night in conflict zones? How many people die of cholera each year due to a lack of clean water? How many grains of wheat are required to sustain a population of millions? How many years, months and days must pass before a nation is held accountable for a war crime? These numbers are available, but for most of us, they still somehow lie just out of reach. We can see the charts with our eyes, but we still can’t fully comprehend what they mean.

So it goes with plastic and the planet. A single coffee lid or plastic straw will lie on the sand for thousands of years. It will never disappear, generation after generation, lifetime after lifetime. One busy moment at a coffee shop, a single forgotten morning on the way to work, will leave this legacy for millennia. The giant garbage gyres made of such straws and lids are so vast that a two-day drive across a state like Texas still can’t cover their width. Our minds can’t typically process this, and since we need to get to work, the straw goes into the trash, the moment is forgotten and the day goes on. Since we don’t know how to prevent, slow, or comprehend the numerical extremes that lie within this series of events, we don’t want to try.

That’s normal.

But if we don’t, nobody else will.

So What, Then?

There is a way around this obstacle. The path is rocky and steep and the outcome is—so far—not guaranteed, but the road has two lanes: personal changes and policy changes. We can work hard to apply cultural pressures that convince our fellow consumers and ourselves to reject single-use plastic even when it’s available and convenient. And we can advocate and vote for policies that will remove plastic options from our lives, making them less available and thereby making individual smart choices easier.

But to get to either one, we need something that many of us struggle with: courage. That’s where organizations like Just Atonement can help. To move forward with either path, we need to overcome the paralysis and hopelessness that make us scroll past articles like this one  and this one. We need to trust ourselves, have faith, believe that our actions will create real change and then….take those actions.

Contemplating a sea turtle choking on our coffee shop straw is NOT pleasant. But contemplate it we must, before we use the straw and—most important-- before we refuse to think about it. Easy? No. But possible? We work every day to keep our eyes fixed on a distant future where sustainability is real, peace is attainable, and humans can live without fear, injustice, or a lack of access to resources, and we believe it IS possible.

If you’re looking for ways to gather your courage and help us find a path to that future, please contact our team today!

Birth Rates and Population Growth: How Many People can the Planet Support?

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When we talk about the future of democracy, the future of social institutions, and the future of the environment, we recognize that there are some trend lines that run beneath all three and these trends will have a driving impact one each future individually and on all of them combined.

One of these may seem, at a glance, to be the simplest trend line of all: fertility and birthrates.

The bottom line on birthrates looks simple at a glance. Measuring the number of literal people in the world is easier than aggregating all the complex metrics that contribute to, say, the global economy. How fast is the population increasing? Is it too fast or not fast enough for sustainability?

But of course nothing is as simple as it seems. A rapidly falling birthrate in one country may generate worries about that country’s tax and labor base, but globally, this drop may be offset by a spike in another region that welcomes a burgeoning labor force but worries about resource availability.

Are there too many people? Are there not enough people? A yes or no answer simply won’t suffice.

The best way to get to the bottom of this puzzle is to gather all the data available—not one trend line, but dozens of them—and draw what conclusions we can by weighing each against the others. In the US, the population has trended precipitously upward in recent decades, but much of the increase has been due to immigration, not birth. In good news for the environment, US birthrates have slowly trended down, but not in all age demographics.  

And before we can cheer or worry over a specific data point, it’s a good idea to settle on a shared definition of “sustainable” rates. Those who would like to see a robust labor force see gloom in every dip, but those concerned about water resources in southwestern population centers might worry if birthrates inch too high before water and agricultural problems can be solved.

And of course, the subject of “correct” family size is both emotional and personal, even as personal decisions, cultural trends, and the reasons behind the trends shift from year to year. For example, some women may choose to have fewer children than they actually want due to economic pressures and concerns about college tuition and childcare costs. But within a year or decade, specific concerns give way to others, and the priorities and life-stage of a potential parent evolve and change over time. Throughout the fertile years of a person’s life, factors that drive birth decisions change as the landscape changes.

But as it happens, each person’s decision to have children will have a long-term impact on all of us. That impact is hidden somewhere in a vast field of population data.

Here are a few quick fertility-trend overviews provided by the Pew Research Center:

http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/birth-rate-and-fertility/

Here’s a review of total birth rates by country in 2018 from the World Population Review:

http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/total-fertility-rate/

Here are a few policy suggestions to combat declining birth rates, provided by the NIH:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4255510/

Here’s an HHS manuscript summarizing research on the links between population and the environment:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792934/

For more ways to engage with this topic and support our efforts to build a sustainable world, contact the team at Just Atonement.

December 2018: A Brief Review of Global Developments

This week, there are so many developments of special interest to Just Atonement taking place around the world that it’s difficult for us to keep up. So we’ve distilled just a few of these events and noteworthy items and summarized them here.

UN COP24 Takeaways

Monday December 3rd marks the opening of the UN COP24 Climate Change conference, in which UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez will address a large audience of world leaders gathered to discuss strategies climate action. His early message can be broken down into four key points. First, Gutierrez delivered a call for greater ambition in the generation of renewable energy. “If we fail (to reduce emissions by 45 percent before 2030) the Arctic and Antarctic will continue to melt, corals will bleach and then die, the oceans will rise, more people will die from air pollution, water scarcity will plague a significant proportion of humanity, and the cost of disasters will skyrocket.”

Second, Gutierrez emphasized the importance of creating implementation guidelines in order to build trust among nations. More will be encouraged to act if others are also taking action. For item three, he stressed that adequate funding must be procured for climate action, and four, he emphasized that social and economic action on climate change result in benefits, not burdens. It remains to be seen how this message will be received by world leaders. Here’s a longer summary of the discussion.

Conditions in Yemen

What has previously been documented as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” is now also considered the largest food security crisis in the world, according to UN officials. Populations cut off from resources by conflict in and around Yemen’s port city of Hudaydah are facing deadly threats of hunger and malnutrition.  The Under-Secretary- General of the UN, Mark Lowcock, examined the situation and has reported and reiterated that only a political solution can end the crisis. Please read more here.

Oil Drilling in the Arctic

While some national governments are working hard to develop renewable energy and slow reliance on fossil fuels, the Trump administration is doing the opposite, specifically regarding the prospect of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a neighboring area in Alaska known as the National Petroleum Reserve. In both areas, Republicans in congress are working with corporate interests in the state of Alaska to rush through environmental assessment studies, roll back protective regulations, and issue drilling permits as fast as possible, hoping to unlock increased oil production along the Alaskan Coast. Learn more about the destructive race for Alaskan oil that appears to be undergoing a rapid acceleration by clicking here.

For more information on important current developments in the areas that affect our work the most, contact the team at Just Atonement. As always, we’re working every day to protect a just, safe, and democratic future for all people despite the unique challenges of our century.