Seeds of hope: How nature inspires scientists to confront climate change

(Rose Wong For The Washington Post)

Sarah Kaplan, one of The Post’s climate reporters, introduces a series of short essays from climate scientists and conservationists where their hope comes from. She begins with her own inspiration:

If hope had a color, it would be the pale green of a newly sprouted seed. It would smell of pollen and damp earth. Its shape would be the swanlike arc of a stem stretching toward the sun.

Every morning of this difficult spring, I have tumbled out of bed and immediately gone to check on the vegetable seedlings growing on my windowsill. Before checking my email or reading the news, I stop to gently moisten their potting soil and coo over each pair of soft new leaves. Only then do I feel ready to face reality: a brutal war and resurgent covid, a warming planet that accelerates toward disaster with each ton of carbon people emit.

I give my seedlings what they need to thrive; in return, they give me hope. Using the same process that has kept Earth habitable for the past 2 billion years, they create new life from little more than air, water and sunshine. Their existence is a scientific marvel, an ordinary miracle and a promise that brighter days will come.

For Earth Day, The Washington Post’s climate team asked 11 scientists and conservationists where their hope comes from. What aspects of nature give them the strength to confront our perilously hot present? What plants, animals and landscapes are they inspired to save?

Their reflections are odes to nature’s beauty and resilience, even as it comes under threat from deforestation, pollution and climate change.

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They are also reminders of humanity’s own capacity for transformation. People have helped forests recover and endangered birds rebound in the past. We still have a chance to create a safer and more sustainable future.

Hope Flanagan, Seneca, community outreach and culture teacher at Dream of Wild Health

As humans, we are a thread in the fabric of life here on Mother Earth. When we tug at that thread, we alter all of it. When we remember that Mother Earth is alive, that the soil is alive and that the plants are just as alive as we are — that is when we begin to heal. The plants, insects and animals were here long before us, so they are our elders. Our responsibility is to observe and learn from our elders how to live in harmony on this Earth.

An ancient people with a modern climate plan

In my work with Dream of Wild Health, I have been in connection with Dakota communities monitoring plant populations in relationship to climate change. We have seen a southern variety of wild rice make its way north to Prairie Island Reservation and Shakopee Reservation. Because of this, the muskrat and little four-leggeds were able to return to eat the rice in the small pothole ponds. Shakopee Reservation hosted what may be the first reservation-wide bird census in the United States this past January. They were able to document that the return of wild rice to that area allowed for the return of northern harrier and rough-legged hawks. The wild rice is a great source of food, not just for the humans, but for the animals, the birds and the insects.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist, writer, and co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab

At 5 years old, I first saw a tropical reef through the floor of a glass-bottom boat. Right there and then, I fell in love with the ocean. It was as if my crayons had come to life, cruising below me in the forms of green and turquoise parrotfish, blue wrasses, yellow tangs. The aquamarine water and all it held were pure magic. I looked up at my mother, mind blown — could this vibrant underwater world be real? Also, could this be my job?

This was Key West, Fla., in the summer of 1985. That reef (and every one I have seen since) was already a shadow of its former self — pummeled by overfishing, pollution and climate change. There should have been fish larger than me and massive boulder corals. Twenty years later, when I enrolled in graduate school to study how we might live in harmony with coral reefs, it was as much learning history as it was learning ecology.

As the daughter of a Jamaican man with a salty soul, I have always felt a poetic pull, an obligation to try to help restore the ocean’s ecological abundance. To me, ocean conservation is in part about cultural preservation. And, from offshore wind energy to regenerative ocean farming, the ocean brims with climate solutions.

Sidney Novoa, director of GIS and technology for conservation at Conservación Amazónica

The emergence of the pandemic challenged all of us who work in conservation. It forced us to distance ourselves from the reasons we get up every day: the natural world, the people who live in harmony with nature and all those who have hope for a sustainable future. But the continued efforts of local communities and Indigenous people in the Andean Amazon, with help from international organizations like Conservación Amazónica, give me hope.

A megafire raged for 3 months. No one’s on the hook for its emissions.

The image shows Quechua-speaking women from the Juan Velasco Alvarado community in Peru participating in a project to restore ecosystem services provided by the rainforest, such as regulating the flow of water and pulling carbon out of the air. The equal participation of women in activities traditionally dominated by men is especially important. Their involvement and participation ensure the protection and care of degraded ecosystems so they can transmit to their children the importance of caring for “Mother Earth.”

Friederike Otto, climatologist at Imperial College London

I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I do not mean lush forests and pretty countryside, but the nothingness of spruce monocultures and pesticide-drunk grains of Northern Germany. Of course, there was some wildlife — crows and mice are pretty sturdy. But wilderness was something out of books, where mythical creatures such as cormorants and wolves roamed alongside dragons and unicorns. The cormorant, a bird of wisdom and magic in a story I particularly liked, was my hero. I was vaguely aware that the birds were actual creatures of the past, but they had been hunted close to national extinction. So to me, a cormorant seemed as real as a unicorn.

Goodbye to the ‘Lord God bird’: U.S. declares extinctions of 23 species

Not anymore. Decades of conservation programs have not only saved cormorants from extinction but allowed them to thrive again. Where I now live in the United Kingdom, even in London, they are a daily sight. Still, when they sit on a crane, or some debris poking out of the waters of the Thames, drying their wings in the sun, they look like dragons to me and remind me that magic is real. We just need to remember that we have the agency to change things — if we dare to do it.

Catherine Nakalembe, food security researcher at University of Maryland and NASA Harvest

I first truly appreciated and fell in love with acacia trees during my fieldwork in Karamoja, in northeastern Uganda. They are quite magnificent. In dryland savannas, the trees spot the landscape, which makes for the most amazing photographs. I am particularly obsessed with one specific acacia tree, an umbrella thorn near Pupu village in Rupa Sub-county. I check on it from time to time on Google Earth. I have taken so many photographs of it in so many conditions — on days after it had rained and flooded, on very hot days when it offered much-needed shelter from the afternoon sun.

My guess is that I love these trees because they are so picturesque, but also because they continue to survive year after year in some of the toughest environmental conditions. They are more than just trees within these ecosystems. Communities see that and protect them.

Deedee Soto, pollinator conservation planner and biologist at the Xerces Society

I just think back to my experiences when I was working at Mount St. Helens. When most folks described the aftermath of the 1980 eruption there, they described it as a moonscape. “This isn’t going to come back in hundreds of years, or maybe ever.”

But I was working there 40 years later, and you can see how an ecosystem can come back. To me, it’s a hopeful example. If you let things run their course, nature will come back and fix itself. And there are ways that we can help speed those things along, too.

Carlos Nobre, climate scientist at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies

The Amazon rainforest — the largest on Earth — once covered about 6.5 million square kilometers. However, the “development” model implemented by most Amazonian countries saw the magnificent trees as enemies and cut and burned them only to serve as fertilizers for livestock pastures on the poor tropical soil. Studies indicate that the Amazon rainforest is now very close to a tipping point where between 50 and 70 percent of the forest will be converted into open, degraded ecosystems, releasing more than 300 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

But the forest can recover. Livestock in the Amazon is of very low productivity, and most pastures degrade in less than a decade, leading cattle ranchers to abandon their farms. In most of these areas, a very agile process of regeneration of the rainforest begins. Initially, species of secondary forests emerge that grow very rapidly, protecting the soil from heavy rains, erosion and the spread of fires. Over the course of decades, these trees are replaced by primary forest species, gradually rebuilding an ecosystem that is almost as biodiverse and stores almost as much carbon as the original rainforest.

The tropical forest has evolved for millions of years by regenerating itself. It is mandatory that we let the Amazon rainforest act in this way right now and forever.

Claudia Tebaldi, climate scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

I used to live in Boulder, Colo., where wildlife is never very far away. Almost daily, one would get sight of a deer, a coyote, an osprey, maybe a snake. Sometimes sights would be more dramatic. A mama bear with cubs, a bobcat, a mountain lion. Sadly, such animals appear in built-up neighborhoods ever more commonly, on the far side of a busy road separating them from open space.

Experiencing this almost-daily reminder of the strain we humans put on the natural environment prompted me to shed the anthropocentric view, to tread lightly, to always try to leave a place better than it was when I found it.

Katharine Wilkinson, author, podcast host and executive director of the All We Can Save Project

“I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree,” Joyce Kilmer wrote in 1913. His couplets charmed the American public with such staying power that a generation after his death in World War I, a VFW Post petitioned Washington to “set aside a fitting area of trees to stand for all time as a living memorial.” The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, in Graham County, N.C., was dedicated in the summer of 1936. Its 3,800 acres narrowly escaped the timber-it-all heyday of the early 20th century, when saws ripped through Appalachian elders. Today, poplars dominate this 400-year-old canopy. Their columns form a rare eastern cathedral of lavish green and dappled light, figure-eighted by two loop trails hinged in imperfect infinity.

This tree has stood for 500 years. Will it be cut down for $17,500?

During a visit to the Kilmer forest last summer, I paused to read the patinated memorial plaque, pressed into a lichen-splattered boulder. It felt precious and improbable: the arguably rubbish poem, the popular embrace, the fallen soldier, the enjoining veterans and do-something feds, the old growth — all of it co-creating this scarce chance to glimpse forest past. Enveloped in arboreal splendor, I delighted and despaired in the same breath. Leaning back into a wide trunk, I ached for today’s wider forest loss, by saw and from climate change, and for my own frustrated smallness. Could poetry help us now to offer the living world a lifeline?

Nguyen Hanh Quyen, geospatial analyst at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center

Pristine forest areas across the world have disappeared over the last 30 years, especially in Southeast Asia and South America, where developing countries struggle to balance economic development with forest conservation. In the Mekong region of Southeast Asia, where I live and work, I believe that forests can be protected by better management.

How satellites can help hold countries accountable for climate promises

Strong political will, coupled with community participation and aided by technology, can help us conserve and revive the green lungs of our planet. Satellite data and geospatial information can support decision-makers to make better plans and act on conserving nature, like “eyes in the sky.” They allow scientists and officials to detect deforestation in near real time.

When I look at the little ants on the ground, I realize that in front of nature, we are all very small and vulnerable. Therefore, protecting our Earth, living in harmony with nature, is the only way to protect ourselves and our future generations. As scientist and nature writer Rachel Carson has said: “In nature, nothing exists alone.”

Joanie Kleypas, marine ecologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research

Six years ago, I spent a sabbatical at the University of Costa Rica, and with dynamic groups of students and professors, we began propagating the local coral species in an underwater nursery in Golfo Dulce on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. One of the species, a once-common type of coral called Pocillopora, was nearly gone from this bay. Sedimentation from deforestation decades ago was the likely cause of its demise, and despite Costa Rica’s improvements in reforestation, it was doubtful that the species could recover on its own.

The race to rescue Florida’s diseased corals

Well, in just a few years, we grew thousands of Pocillopora colonies from inch-long fragments collected from a mere 20 colonies found in the wild. They grew into robust colonies and are now transplanted at restoration sites around the gulf and are so far proving to be resilient through heat waves and red tides.

We know our little project is barely a start, and we are constantly reminded of how little we know in helping these fellow Earthlings find a path to survival. We are on a steep learning curve with these corals and the reefs they build, but it’s what we don’t know that leads us to discovery and holds the hope of finding that path.

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