Here at the Rainforest Partnership, one of our key tenets is promoting the preservation and reparation of the world’s tropical rainforests. The propensity for vegetation in these massive forests to absorb excess CO2 from the atmosphere is one of our most precious weapons in the fight against climate change. In recent years, tremendous efforts have been made by countries – both forested and not – to protect these carbon sinks. Rainforest protection was even determined as a key imperative in the recent Paris climate accords. But what happens, then, if plants around the planet become less capable of absorbing that excess CO2?
The sad truth is that we are facing this very reality. You’ve probably heard of the El Nino Southern Oscillation or El Nino effect before. El Ninos cause a change in sea surface temperatures and in the overlying air pressure, which in turn results in climatic changes like droughts. You probably also know that the El Nino is a naturally occurring cycle that, although its exact causes are not clearly understood, can be expected to occur every 2-7 years. So, no, the continued incidence of the El Nino Southern Oscillation itself does not bear testament to the existence of Climate Change. The fact that El Ninos are occurring more frequently, and are increasing in severity, does (*1). And the droughts being caused by these harsher El Ninos are weakening the ability of plants to absorb CO2 (*2).
The predicament we are now in is that, although global carbon emissions are almost plateauing, last year we still saw atmospheric CO2 concentrations surge to their highest level in 800,000 years (*3). And, according to The Guardian, “the last time Earth experienced similar CO2 concentration rates was during the Pliocene era when the sea level was up to 20m higher than now” (*2). Despite the world’s best efforts – including the Kyoto Protocol, Paris climate treaty, and the global collaboration of scientists in the IPCC – we failed to account for this feedback loop in the natural world. Once the world’s vegetation has had its fill of greenhouse gases, where do the rest of our emissions go?
There is no doubt that there exist a myriad of other natural systems and factors at play for which even the most sophisticated models cannot account. At current rates, we are likely to far exceed the targets for atmospheric CO2 levels set in the Paris climate talks (*2). But, what’s even more worrisome is that we cannot fully predict how the earth’s systems will react to the changes in its chemistry that have already occurred. Our trees are becoming saturated with our excess emissions, and so are our oceans. Instead of waiting to find out how well human beings can adapt to another Pliocene epoch, we have to start making drastic changes to the way we are going about our business. For starters, nations must honor the commitments they have made to themselves and to the world in the Paris accords. But, that likely will still not be enough. We are relying on nations and states to go above and beyond what they have pledged to do. Only then, with the best efforts of every nation in the world, can we start to think about, not just halting, but reversing the trajectory of the path we’ve created for ourselves.