Where are the Humanities in the Climate Crisis?
Tue, Jan 2, 2024, 9:52am | By Thomas Cole
We’re living in the most precarious moment in human history. There are more than 14,000 peer-reviewed science papers making clear that climate change is real, the greenhouse effect began with the agricultural revolution and spiked with the Industrial Revolution, is human-caused and civilization, as we know it, is in the crosshairs of weather that is hotter than at any time in human history. The current, hottest year on record has exposed a quarter of the planet’s people to dangerous levels of extreme heat. Heat deaths have doubled. And it’s rapidly worsening.
With the cauldron-like heat boiling, baking and blistering the planet, cause and fault are important if we’re to tackle this destructive climate behemoth. There’s plenty of blame to go around. While we reasonably focus on the lawless behavior of the fossil fuel polluters, their enablers, and their subsidizing co-conspirators in Congress, there is room in this dilemma for science to assume some of the blame. I’ve written about this in Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch, How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land, publication date by the University of Arizona Press, Feb. 27, 2024. While there are now more scientists speaking out, showing up, several even chaining themselves to the doors of banks and fossil fuel companies, for the most part, they’ve remained in their offices and labs. They’ve limited their climate-crisis efforts to research, study, writing, reviewing a colleague’s work, and publishing.
Despite the variation that accompanies climate crisis calculations, until recently, their computations and conclusions invariably reflected the inherently cautious nature of scientists. Naomi Oreskes, historian of science at Harvard University and slayer of corporate myths, explains why so many scientists arrived late to the crisis: “Scientists hold themselves to an extremely high bar before they are willing to say that they know something is true … [a] high level of confidence, which is the so-called 95 percentile confidence limit. … Scientists have been very, very afraid of crying wolf, and the consequence of that is that we’ve all been fiddling while Rome burns, or maybe I should say, we’ve been fiddling while Greenland melts.”
Lucinda and I retired to the Pitchfork Ranch two decades ago with the goal of restoring habitat, improving the ranch for wildlife and introduction of at-risk species. The ranch’s rare type of regional wetland — the Burro Ciénaga —is unique to the American Southwest and a threatened ecologically significant water, essentially an endangered habitat. For those who are not familiar with this scarce arid-land water, historic ciénagas were shallow, marsh-like waterways reaching the toe of mountains on both sides of valleys, often spring fed, slow migrating waterways. Severely damaged, now most ciénagas are narrow, deeply incised creek-like remnants suffering near extinction as up to 95 percent of ciénaga habitat has been lost due to the absence of fire, beaver eradication, livestock overstocking, agricultural re-contouring and now the overheated climate. Depending on who you ask, before the arrival of Europeans, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of ciénagas in the International Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora, and Chihuahua, the few remaining are a mere shadow of their former selves.
The first decade of habitat repair on the Pitchfork Ranch focused on restoring the ciénaga and surrounds by installing grade-control structures in the incision and side-channels that drained into the main watercourse. We’ve raised the floor of the ranch’s 8.3-mile portion of the 48-mile-long Burro Ciénaga 2 to more than 4 feet throughout, with 5 to 7 feet remaining to refill the wound, allowing the flows to re-access the water-starved terraces. The changes since 2005 are easy to see.
A decade into the project, as climate change entered our thinking in a serious way, we realized the restoration had significant carbon drawdown implications. Fossil fuel carbon emissions are the principal cause of this crisis. It’s now settled that excess atmospheric carbon needs to be reduced from its current 424 parts per million (ppm) to 350ppm.
How do we draw down greenhouse-causing carbon? To answer this question, we need to keep Albert Einstein’s warning in mind: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” As I write this, Heirloom Carbon Technologies and its scientists have begun operating what it calls the first commercial plant in the United States to use direct air capture to vacuum greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. It’s expensive, and the small plant currently can only draw down 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year or an amount equal to the exhaust from about 200 cars a year. Yet, it’s a prototype, and the developers expect to rapidly expand and cost decline.
Another group of scientists have been reporting on nature-based solutions for capturing heat-causing carbon that we’ve all known about since grade school: photosynthesis. Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2 — one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms) separates the carbon from the oxygen atoms, releases the oxygen for us to breathe, consumes about 60 percent of the carbon for food and transfers the remaining 40 percent underground for nourishing subsurface life. Again, scientists have done a modest job of ensuring that we know about this. Oh, the papers are out there. And the studies are given high praise in the Paris Climate Agreement. Yet, I’ll wager this is the first you’ve read about natural climate solutions.
A consortium of 19 universities and other organizations released a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States titled, simply, “Natural Climate Solutions.” The paper contends “the most mature carbon dioxide removal method is improved land stewardship — better stewardship of land is needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of holding warming below 2°C.” The report identified and quantified 20 natural climate solutions, “conservation, restoration and land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions across global forests, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural lands.” This may be the first time a specific number has been attributed to this potential: “natural climate solutions can provide up to 37% of cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030 for a [greater than] 66% chance of holding warming below 2°C.”
The next year, another natural climate solutions paper — this one for just the United States — was published in Science Advances. It refined the earlier paper’s coarse global analysis and expanded and updated the range of options, concluding: “natural climate solutions … are the most mature approaches available for carbon conservation and uptake … [and can] increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse gas emissions … of the United States.” Next, a 2022 paper found marshes, bogs, and similar wetlands (like ciénagas) are “sweet spots” that capture five times more excess atmospheric carbon than forests and 500 times more than oceans.
Why scientists have failed to flood Optimist, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks, Lions and similar community clubs and organizations with these important scientific discoveries in the fight against the climate, biodiversity and companion crises presumably reflects the nature of scholars, ensconced in academia. Scientists failed us. Our failure — most of us have done far too little to make up for our responsibility for the climate and companion crisis —to take these civilization threatening crises seriously, our failure to consume less, fly less, eat less beef and a host of recalibrating changes on how to we live sustainably on the planet is beyond dispute. Not one of us is without fault, not one of us is safe. My thinking about scientists making so little effort to actively spread the worrying truth about the climate crisis got me thinking, where are the Humanities in this massive failure to assume responsibility for the mess we’re in and how to do something about it?
Ethics are a core Humanities discipline and Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic’ in his 1948 A Sand County Almanac is, as Wallace Stegner wrote, “almost a holy book in conservation circles … one of the great love letters to the natural world.” It’s the most cited work in virtually every environmental discipline, Leopold famously wrote: the “key-log” needing to be moved for the establishment of a land ethic is to “quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically prudent. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
In context of the planet’s declining health, the failure of Leopold’s land ethic to gain traction may be the most consequential scholastic failure in American life. The stature of ethics in today’s America also bears some fault. There are others, but whatever the causes, there has long been an antidote to this atrocity. Leopold’s essay in the 1948 A Sand County Almanac is the foundational writing for ethical thinking about the environment. Suggestive of the book’s place in American life, it was hardly read in the early 1950s and even the 1960s. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that it was discovered. It became a best seller a full quarter century after it was written. Still, it’s failed to gain a grip on the American mind, its place in our day-to-day world is faint, of little consequence in our everyday lives.
As we stand at the crossroads of survival and extinction, if we can agree that solving the climate and companion crises is critical, that natural climate solutions can play a meaningful role in solving these crises and that we’ve been poorly served by scientist’s failure to create a prominent public face for both the crises and natural climate solutions, have humanities scholars and their colleagues also neglected the duty embedded in civic virtue to expose this land ethic to the general public, at this most important moment in human history?
To learn more about Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch, How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land, go to the ranch website, pitchforkranchnm.com: read blurbs, excerpts, and pre-order.
A Thomas Cole spent 32-years as a small-town lawyer in Casa Grande, Arizona. He served as Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council and Casa Grande City Council before retiring with his wife Lucinda to the Pitchfork Ranch in Southwest New Mexico where they have worked to restore the ranch’s rare ciénaga and surrounds, improve the habitat for wildlife to breed, birth and raise their young, and drawdown excess atmospheric carbon.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post/article does not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these blog posts/articles do not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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