Climate Researchers on the Most Hopeful Things They’ve Seen Yet

It's not all doom and gloom in our ongoing environmental crisis.

04 January 2022, 8:45am

As our planet continues to cook, it can be hard to find positive stories about the climate crisis. Floods in Canada are so bad, farmers on jetskis need to rescue cows. People are reporting dead birds on the ground after major heatwaves. Polar bears are going extinct.  And people are drowning in their basements in flash floods. We can’t seem to escape the funeral gong of depressing climate headline after headline.

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But climate scientists and experts in related fields on the front lines of this bleak information dump have to find nuggets of hope to continue their research (and also try to save the world, no biggie). 

Every morning they wake up, acknowledge that we are absolutely fucked and still continue on with their work. We already asked climate scientists what the most shocking things they’ve seen are, but what gives them hope? In the spirit of New Year positivity, VICE spoke to five researchers to find out.

‘In an interval of eight years, we reduced deforestation by more than 80 percent in the Amazon’

What gives me the most hope about the Amazon – which is my work, especially deforestation and forest degradation – is that we’ve been in much worse situations before and had reduced deforestation. 

I have seen deforestation increasing in the Amazon for the past few years: in 2021, we saw 13,000 square kilometres being lost. However, in the early 2000s, deforestation was above 20,000 square kilometres per year and we managed to decrease to less than 4,000 square kilometres being lost per year by 2012. 

So, in an interval of eight years, we reduced deforestation by more than 80 percent in the Amazon. It’s evidence that past actions did work – as a scientist, I hang on to the evidence.

Of course, it’s not going to happen in the blink of an eye, there needs to be both political will and pressure from civil society and corporate market-based solutions to decrease deforestation. It’s not easy and it’s expensive. However, it can be done and has been done. Quite often, deforestation is treated as one of these unsolvable problems but it’s not. 

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— Dr Erika Berenguer, Senior Research Associate at the Ecosystems Lab in the University of Oxford and a Visiting Research Associate at Lancaster University

An indigenous Amazon delegate looks on during COP26. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

‘Mountains are not changing as much as other parts of our planet’

I’ve been studying mountains for 27 years and was a lead author on the 2019 IPCC special report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate; we had a chapter on high mountain areas. What’s wonderful is that the mountains are not changing as much as other parts of our planet, such as the oceans and poles. 

One example is that we can find alpine plants that are 500 years old or more and they’re not woody. They don’t look old in the way we think of a big old craggy tree; almost all of their craggy growth is below ground. And then all you see above ground are little green leafy bits and flowers for some of the most extreme mountain environments. 

Recently, they’ve had a bunch of tough years, from the heat dome which gave us more rain this summer in Colorado than I’ve seen in years, to big dumps of snow and more often dry years characteristic of the 20-year megadrought across the US Southwest. 

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These plants are still able to grow a tonne in a good year when good years arrive and pile on the flowers.

I consider mountains to be a refuge on our planet. So one of the things that struck me as I worked on that report was why we aren’t talking about mountains more as a refuge, when they are one of the most biodiverse regions of our planet.

— Dr Heidi Steltzer, Coordinator for the Environmental Science Degree Program and Professor of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College 

‘Coral reefs are remarkable ecosystems and under the right conditions, are resilient’

I’m a coral reef conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). My research is about how coral reefs are going to survive climate change; I’ve been studying coral reefs for over 15 years. A big part of my job is working with our WCS field teams around the world for coordinated underwater monitoring of the health of coral reefs, their coral communities and reef fish – that tells us a lot about the resilience of a coral reef.

In 2019, I joined WCS Fiji scientists on the island of Ovalau and we really weren’t expecting to see much. Three years earlier, the island had taken a direct hit from Cyclone Winston, the most intense tropical cyclone in the southern hemisphere and [the coral reefs we were surveying] were reduced to rubble. But suddenly, we were in the water and the reef was crackling with life.

We saw small corals that were two or three years old that had recruited and grown after the cyclone. There were schools of small blue and yellow parrotfish darting around and they were cropping the algae so that the corals had a chance to grow into these huge adult colonies that used to be there. It was remarkable how quickly these reefs had recovered and were able to, in turn, rebuild this crucial coastal protection against future storms.

Another reason for hope is that local management has played an important role in this recovery. In Fiji, local iTaukei communities hold customary fishing rights to make decisions about how to use and set aside their marine resources. We think this management has helped contribute to the recovery of these coral reefs. What gives me hope is that coral reefs are remarkable ecosystems and, under the right conditions, are resilient.

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Of course, climate change and rising temperatures are the top threat to coral reefs, like many ecosystems. At WCS, we’re focusing our conservation efforts on finding climate refuges or “cool spots” in the ocean. By working with local communities to reduce the top local pressures in these climate refuges, we can really give coral reefs a fighting chance in the face of climate change.

— Dr Emily Darling, a coral reef scientist and Director of Coral Reef Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Children swimming off an embankment in Ovalau, Fiji. Photo: Dmitry Malov / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The average temperature change in part of the North Atlantic Ocean is showing a cooling trend’

One thing that I've read up on was that actually, the average temperature change in part of the North Atlantic Ocean is showing a cooling trend, rather than a warming one – but it’s only a tiny little patch. It probably has something to do with the weakening of the Gulf Stream, which is part of the AMOC (a large system of ocean currents), and normally moves warm water from America northwards. 

If the whole circulation stops, and that is well possible as a result of climate change and more melting of polar ice, that can have the opposite effects to the warming that we’re experiencing as a result of greenhouse gases in the incoming radiation from the sun. We can model what would happen to some extent, but we just don’t know what would happen in this area. 

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So rather than a vision of just a warming planet, maybe some of this warming will be initially counteracted by other processes and as a result, [oceanic] temperature [in this region] may stay more stable than we’re expecting it to. Of course, a total shutdown of the AMOC conveyor belt will cause many further problems and the cooling effect seems to be very regional. However, how this will all work out is definitely something we just don't understand well enough right now, so that North Atlantic sea surface temperature anomaly gives me a tiny bit of hope.

— Dr Fleur Visser, senior lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Worcester 

‘There is a huge push towards forest conservation led by Indigenous communities’

One thing that’s giving me hope – it might seem late and it might seem not good enough – is that there is a huge push and move towards forest conservation being participatory and being led by Indigenous or local communities who have lived in those regions for a long time. 

There are lots of studies coming out now showing that Indigenous conservation is better than formal conservation, and that biodiversity is better in regions where local communities have stewarded those regions. These regions also tend to absorb more carbon.

For example, it’s not all perfect but in Northern America and Canada, the government is giving back control for Indigenous communities to steward the land in the way that their Indigenous law would follow, rather than US or Canadian conservation law. This kind of work is also being done in the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon.

This is happening less so in Africa, which is why I’m trying to do my work there. There, there are a lot of participatory projects, but not so many community-led or indigenous-led projects. My PhD is looking at how you can understand the role of technology within forest conservation, using acoustics and indigenous knowledge, so [my research] is very much focused on biodiversity, which is an equal and intersecting crisis with the climate crisis. 

— Joycelyn Longdon, founder of Climate in Colour and PhD student with the University of Cambridge’s Artificial Intelligence for Environmental Risk (AI4ER) programme

@thediyora

Tagged:

Environment, climate change, deforestation, indigenous people, indigenous activism, climate crisis

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