- Jen Isabel Friend
Breaking news! Water Solves Climate Change
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Which came first, the carbon or the drought?
Desertification is depressing. Billions of acres of lush land have become deserts thanks to mismanagement of water resources, and it’s increasing all the time. Each year, a new desert the size of Rhode Island is created in China. Flooding punctuates drought worldwide. And we blame rising CO2 levels for these challenges.
BUT there’s another story to tell! By shifting our perspective an inch, we can see that water is both the source and the savior of the climate crisis.
While it’s common to think that the changing climate has thrown hydrologic cycles out of whack, the truth is that throwing hydrological cycles out of whack has caused the climate to change far more quickly than carbon emission alone have. Because healthy hydrated ecosystems pull carbon from the air (aka soil sequestration). When the land is thirsty, it heats up, allowing temperatures to rise and gasses to remain in the atmosphere.
Global droughts are caused moreso by water privatization and poor farming practices than anything. We often think increasing desertification is caused by climate change, but nine times out of ten, deserts are forming because of business practices that are antithetical to nature's cycles. This shift in perspective is crucial because it allows us to access faster solutions. We all know that climate change manifests mainly through changes in the water cycle — droughts, floods, melting glaciers, sea-level rise and storms are intensifying. But instead of only seeing the ways that global warming is impacting water, let's look at the ways water can mitigate global warming.
Because carbon (CO2) mediates less than 5% of the total energy in the atmosphere; 95% of the total energy is governed by Earth’s hydrology!
Water is Cooling - who knew?!
We all know water is cooling. There’s nothing more refreshing on a hot summer day than a cold glass of ice water. And your skin sweats in an effort to cool itself. Turns out, plants do the same thing. It’s called transpiration and it’s one of the several ways that water cools the atmosphere. For every gram of water that a plant sweats, it reduces atmospheric heat by 600 calories.
Water can store, move and transfer better heat than anything else on Earth.
Water is the planet's thermostat, and despite high levels of greenhouse gases, water can still cool the biosphere and heal destructive climate feedback loops.
Water and carbon travel together, but water cycles can be restored much faster than soil sequestration can reduce atmospheric carbon levels. Drawing down atmospheric carbon is important, but it could take centuries, even if we were to reach zero carbon emissions right now. But we can cool the surface of the earth and mitigate the damage already caused by climate change just by restoring hydrological cycles and returning water to local watersheds in desertified regions.
The beauty is that this approach is inexpensive and low- or no-tech. That’s also the challenge, because it means there’s no high-tech corporate investments for capitalism to glom onto when solving this. We simply have to return to the ways that nature has been developing for millions of years, ways that created once gloriously life-rich habitats across the globe. And if it sounds too good to be true – well, Mother Earth is like that when we give her a chance!
Healthy ecosystem rely on well-functioning river basins and watersheds. Just like for your body to be healthy, you need to have healthy blood, lymph, cerebrospinal fluid, amniotic fluid, synovial fluid, etc. Your body is more than 70% water, and so is the Earth’s body. So water should be the first thing that’s addressed when the body of the Earth falls ill.
Nature-based solutions such as mangroves protecting shorelines from storms, lakes storing large water supplies and floodplains absorbing excess water runoff, are a key part of this strategy. These natural services perform an infrastructure-like function. Yet they are not built infrastructure, they are shaped, grown, eroded or deposited by nature. By quenching parched landscapes, retaining groundwater in the soil so aquifers can replenish, it will in turn regulate rising temperatures.
Forests are the lungs of the hydrological cycle, they absorb pollution, prevent flooding, and cooling the atmosphere as the trees “sweat” water (transpiration). Unfortunately, we humans have created nearly 13 billion of deserts by cutting down 75% of the original Earth’s forests, thereby reducing their powerful cooling effect. The clearcutting of forests should now be considered ecocide and a crime against humanity.
And wetlands are like the kidneys of the hydrological cycle, they filter and purify water of dirt and toxins before it reaches rivers, lakes and aquifers. They are both necessary to the health of our global water supply. And according to the United Nations Environmental Program, 60% of the world's wetlands have been destroyed in the last 100 years.
The amount of land stricken by serious drought more than doubled between the 1970s & early 2000s. And it’s slated to double again in the next 80 years. This is NOT because of Global Warming. This is because of privatizing and mis-managing water. Let’s stop allowing the big water cartels off the hook - it’s time to hold them liable for their share of climate change as vehemently as we attempt to hold pollutant industries and fossil fuel companies accountable.
CO2 won’t kill us. It’s the effect that CO2 has on water which is dangerous… The rising sea levels, floods and hurricanes. It is water that gives life and takes life away. Depletion of hydrology exacerbated the rise in CO2. And it is the further disruption of hydrology by CO2 that we recognize as the deadly effects of climate change. But water has been largely ignored in the climate debate because it was considered that hydrology is so dominant that we as humans can do little to influence it. That's not true!
If we do not begin taking the grassroots effort required to restore water in local watersheds, we will be left with the Faustian options of Geo engineering ( artificially re-creating the climate by putting more pollutants into the atmosphere). I believe this is already being done to a far greater degree than we realize. Yikes!
Let’s look at other options:
So, while of course it’s important to reduce CO2 emissions, a much more powerful way to handle the planetary heat imbalance is to reduce the amount of re-radiation in the first place by keeping the ground cool. We can also reduce the amount of re-radiation that gets trapped in the atmosphere by reducing hazes particles and water vapors.
Now how to reduce the water vapor and persistent hazes in the atmosphere?
Just condense water vapor into high albedo clouds which can reflect solar radiation and close the hydrological cycle by bringing the water back to the land as rain. This means using rain nuclei to condense water vapor and haze particles into a drop of rain. There are a few kinds of rain nuclei, but the the most important one is a hydrophilic bacteria that enters the atmosphere through plant transpiration. As the rain clears the water vapor hazes from the atmosphere, it allows more of the re-radiated heat to escape into the upper atmosphere and rehydrates the landscape, recharging the soil carbon sponge that supports and extends the ground vegetation.
So, restoring the hydrological cycle on Earth will also restore the carbon sponge in the soil and allow plants to sweat and to breathe. After all, plants are the most powerful hydrological air conditioning system on Earth and the best carbon pumps available to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and back into the soil. For each additional gram of carbon it draws down, the soil can retain an additional 8 grams of water, which means more vegetation and therefore cooler ground (reducing the level of heat re-radiation), more fertile soil, and richer microbial communities in the soil, providing more nutrient dense food. In other words, we need a planetary effort to restore the carbon sponge in the soil to take advantage of the cooling effect of plants’ transpiration. The only way to restore soil and plantlife is to make sure that water stays within its watershed. This means no more giant hydropower dams, no more water diversion projects, and no more massive fossil water theft from aquifers.
Let’s explore how that would work:
We could start with a global covenant on water. The water crisis has commercial causes but no commercial solutions. Market solutions are like offering the disease as the cure.
The solution to an ecological crisis is ecological, the solution for injustice is Democracy. Ending the water crisis means rejuvenating ecological democracy.
There are three basics aspects to water conservation:
Rainwater remains in local watersheds. This means restoring the areas where rainwater can fall, flow, and seep into the soil. Water retention can happen with gardens at buildings, good urban planning, water harvesting in food production, etc.
Groundwater mining extractions just can’t exceed re-charge just like a bank account can’t be withdrawn without new deposits. When we mine aquifers, we steal from our children. And I think we shouldn’t even touch fossil waters on any appreciable scale.
Gotta stop polluting groundwater. And legislation should include penalties for domestic corporations that pollute in foreign countries too, not just in their home country. And we need a “blue revolution“ in agriculture, as far reaching as the green revolution was, where we start getting more “more crop per drop”.
Of course, nature based solutions challenge the the growth imperative of economic globalization. But as Edward Abby said, "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” The beauty and the tragedy is that these aren't complicated technical engineering feats for private companies to invest in, but rather community programs that involve people intimately and reciprocally with their water. Like www.caringforourwatersheds.org which connects students with their local watershed. Community sustainable development programs would be many times cheaper than the technology that governments and corporations currently support, and they'd protect bio diversity and prevent natural disasters and water wars. The water that is in the hydrological cycle will provide for us forever if we care for it and allow it to renew. So while offsetting your carbon footprint is great, protecting your local watershed is even better! To find out how to get involved with your local watershed, subscribe to my newsletter! I’ll be posting more about local water activism soon.
All we have to do is bring over 12 billion ruined acres back to life. And, by working with water instead of against her, we can do that easily, quickly, and cheaply! The bottled water industry makes about $100 billion annually. It’s been estimated that it would only take about $15 billion to solve the water crisis!
So, I support a tax on financial speculation, just a fraction of a percent, on every stock, bond or derivative that’s based on the water industry. Even a tiny tax could fund the full reversal of the entire water crisis worldwide.
We know how to turn the water story around – restoring drylands, dried wetlands and the biodiverse living abundance that water brings. Even the driest state in the U.S., Nevada, is turning wet again with proper management that reintroduces and supports key species such as beaver. Such hydro-restoration can pull gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere and return greenhouse gases to pre-industrial levels, in a matter of a couple of decades or less.
As Buckminster Fuller said, “It’s hard to change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Nature has already built that model. It’s called the hydrological cycle. It’s up to us to restore it.
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