Lessons brought back from Brazil on how to tackle global warming – The Local Ne.ws
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by Anna Gibbs
When I was in third grade, I started to worry about global warming. We had learned in class that over an acre of rainforest was cut down every second, that ice floes were melting so fast that polar bears had nowhere to rest their heads at night. I had never seen a rainforest or a polar bear, but everyone was talking about the need to take action so that the next generation could someday see these things.
I became that annoying kid who reminded their classmates to recycle at lunch. I used to sneak out of bed at night and turn off my night light to save electricity. I thought that doing so would translate into saving a polar bear. But as I grew older, I increasingly fell into the habits of daily routine. Turning up the heat during a cold New England day and buying my daily chai latte in a non-reusable cup were just normal parts of my day. They no longer seemed to have any bearing on the outcome of polar bears. They were simply the costs of a normally lived life.
It’s fair to say that these individual activities don’t break the scale. But it is the collective overuse of our resources — the millions of plastic coffee cups — that adds up.
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When I was young, I thought that the mere fact that I cared about the environment was enough. A big part of growing up was realizing that my beliefs don’t matter unless I’m acting on them. However, it’s tough to know how to act on them. I can’t change the collective, and I also can’t see any positive change from the environmental choices I do make. What does it matter if I drive instead of bike this one time?
That fact is that global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018. In October of that year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that if we want to limit harm caused by global warming, we need to keep the earth’s warming below two degrees Celsius by 2100. And to achieve that, we’d have to eliminate carbon emissions by 2021. Given that we’re still emitting about 40 gigatons annually, that goal clearly won’t be achieved this year.
As we watched the burning of the Amazon, then Australia, then California, I tried to imagine the fires. The land burned in the way that something happens to everyone else except for you. It was the polar bears all over again, this constant long-distance empathy. I couldn’t compel myself to click on the fundraising links because I knew that donating a few dollars wasn’t going to put out the fires. Was there a way to actually make any impact?
I decided to go to the rainforest.
In November 2019, I traveled to a reforestation nonprofit called Amigos de Iracambi in southern Brazil, where only 7% of the lesser-known Atlantic rainforest still stands. As my taxi driver drove me down the winding roads to the nonprofit’s center, I was struck by the vibrancy of the landscape. I was amazed by the patches of tropical trees, my first look at a foreign ecosystem. Once I became used to the newness, however, I began to see the vast amounts of negative space, the lush pastures where trees should be. The forest had been fragmented.
Yet everywhere I looked, I felt like I was inside the nature documentaries I watched as a child: tadpoles swimming in the deep grooves of leaves, a rat-like possum with glittering eyes in the trees, pinwheel-shaped leaves scattered under my feet. This is what we have been trying to save, and it’s real.
Iracambi’s volunteers travel from around the world to have the chance to plant a tree. Like me, they want to get their hands literally dirty; they want to see themselves changing the earth. In the mornings, we spent hours cracking open seed pods and identifying the seeds in large reference books.
In the afternoons, we swam in waterfalls. I had to remind myself that part of saving the environment is finding joy in it, making time to love it. I sat on a rock next to a poisonous spider; blue butterflies flew overhead, and the water was muddy with the rains from upstream.
Before dinner, we planted the shelled seeds in the nursery, where they would grow into saplings and then be planted at local farms nearby. Most tree saplings will die in the pastures; they are often suffocated by the invasive grasses that feed the cows. To combat this, Iracambi monitors the trees as part of their reforestation work.
Volunteering comes with a cost. For instance, my seat alone on the flight from Boston to Rio dumped over a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I could only hope that my planted trees might someday offset the costs. But I also knew that I needed to ask the question eating at me up north in the suburbs: How can one individual person make any dent in this global problem? What can I do that doesn’t feel like shouting into a void of inevitable demise?
One evening at Iracambi, I sat on the center’s porch with the nonprofit’s founder, Binka. Binka was telling us stories about her life as a concert pianist before she became an NGO president. Nearby, her bulldog, Thor, hassled the resident guinea fowl named Highlander, who squawked mildly. Baby spiders congregated along the edges of the porch.
I told Binka I felt good about the work I was doing on the ground. But what could I do when I returned to my life in New England?
Binka described a 2019 study conducted by Crowther lab in Switzerland that mapped the entire world for areas that could support tree planting. They found 900 million hectares of unused land that could be reforested. They also determined that the six top polluting countries, including the U.S. and Brazil, have enough land for new forests to absorb 100 gigatons of carbon.
“It’s absolutely been conclusively proven that the quickest way to absorb carbon is to plant forests,” Binka said. “This is something people can do. Don’t wait for governments to do it. Plant a tree in your backyard in Massachusetts. If you can’t plant a tree, pay somebody else to plant a tree for you. We have ten years in which to do it, and if we don’t do it in ten years, we’re basically screwed.”
She laughed then. “A window box, you know. Anything you plant will work.”
It’s important to remind ourselves that we can affect change from many different directions. Yes, we will need to exert pressure on businesses and policy makers to create large-scale change. But that doesn’t mean that the small, everyday choices — bringing a reusable cup, not eating meat one day a week — aren’t important, or that they don’t add up, even if we can’t see the change in front of us.
Iracambi’s motto is based on a legend that goes as follows: A forest has been overtaken by fire. All the animals are fleeing the flames — except for the hummingbird, who flies straight towards the fire with a few drops of water. “What are you doing?” cried the eagle. “You can’t put out that fire alone. You’re just a tiny bird.” And the hummingbird replied: “You’re right. I can’t put out the fire alone. But I can do my part.”
Anna Gibbs of Ipswich is a science writer.