The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminded us of what we should all already know: that our lands, which provide everything from the food we eat to the oxygen we breathe, are under siege from climate change and overuse. Just as importantly, we were also reminded that how we steward those lands has profound implications for climate adaptation, our well-being and the future of our planet.
This latest report compiles the best available science on the interactions among land, climate and human activities around the world. And it paints an unmistakable picture of the urgent need for action, if we are to protect wildlife — and ourselves — from the worst consequences of both climate change and land degradation.
The report finds that humans — through our appropriation of land for food, fiber, fuel and other products — are impacting over 70 percent of the earth’s ice-free lands. Moreover, we are causing degradation, through soil loss, desertification and pollution, of roughly a quarter of that land surface. And the warming climate — also caused by our activities — threatens to accelerate this degradation by increasing flooding, drought, erosion, crop losses and permafrost melt.
The land and climate equation works both ways: how we manage and use lands also contributes to emissions. Deforestation and agricultural activities, including methane from rice cultivation and livestock operations and nitrous oxide from fertilizers, account for 23 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The implications for wildlife are dire. Just a few months ago, another global-scale science report estimated that up to 1 million species are now threatened with extinction, an appalling and unprecedented finding. The causes? Habitat loss first and foremost, with climate change as a rapidly advancing threat.
Together, these two reports dramatically underscore the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve and restore our lands, and most crucially, look for opportunities to do both simultaneously. And we must act quickly — every moment we delay increases the threats to biodiversity, as well as to human livelihoods and well-being.
What should we do? The IPCC report offers a number of possible response options and weighs the tradeoffs inherent in these — that is, their likelihood of reducing or increasing not just greenhouse gas emissions but also climate change adaptation, land degradation and desertification, and food security for people. The report recommends better forest management, improved agricultural practices and reduction of food waste as options with the fewest downsides.
Fortunately, the United States already has many of the policy and scientific tools to implement these solutions. Conservation practices funded by the Farm Bill can enhance the sustainability of agriculture operations and help protect and restore habitats.
Congress should greatly expand funding for many of these programs, which would allow many more farmers to participate and broaden conservation gains. And we need to better manage our public lands to ensure that they continue to provide critical ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, clean water and wildlife habitat.
Just as importantly, we need to make sure we avoid damaging or incompatible uses on our lands. The IPCC report cautions that bioenergy, for instance, may improve greenhouse gas emissions, but it fails on virtually every other sustainability measure: In particular, it worsens land degradation and food security.
Ecologically appropriate forest restoration can provide habitat while also absorbing carbon; planting monocultures of commercial tree species does not have the same benefits. We should also expand renewable energy in a way that avoids placing additional pressure on habitats.
Regrettably, the Trump administration is moving in the wrong direction on almost all counts. It has eliminated desperately needed greenhouse gas emissions reduction initiatives and land use planning efforts initiated under former President Barack Obama.
It is pushing new rules to prevent the public from weighing in on damaging logging projects on national forests, without regard to ecosystem values and climate impacts. And the Trump administration’s current pursuit of “energy dominance,” seeking to drill or mine our precious remaining landscapes from the Sagebrush Sea to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is pure folly, a disaster for both lands and the climate, and for the people and wildlife who depend on them.