Climate Change Gardening

2023 Climate Change Round-up

Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Pexels.

It’s hard to stay on top of all the news about climate change and hard to stay optimistic when so much of it seems to be doom and gloom. I take hope from the ongoing work of so many scientists and activists, and from the success of previous international treaties. For example, earlier this month, the UN reported that the Ozone layer may be restored in decades. The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, had countries agree to phase out production and use of ozone-depleting substances. If we could agree globally to save the ozone layer, I think we have a shot at a global agreement to save the entire planet from climate change. Here are a few more reports and news snippets of interest to gardeners.

From the NASA website on global climate change. Photo credits: left – Mellimage/, center – Montree Hanlue/, right – NASA.

The New Yorker reviews Three Climate Reports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The good: the Biden Administration released an 83-page “blueprint” for decarbonizing the nation’s transportation systems, which are that country’s largest source of carbon emissions. The bad: the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, estimated that US greenhouse-gas emissions grew by 1.3% in 2022, largely due to an increase in emissions from the transportation sector. This increase, according to the report, “was driven mainly by the demand for jet fuel,” as air travel rebounded from COVID. On the positive side, renewables now produce more electricity than coal in the U.S., and total emissions are still slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. However, the US is falling ever further behind on its commitments. Last summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which authorizes some $400B in spending on clean energy, was a “turning point,” and could produce emissions cuts “as early as this year if the government can fast-track implementation.” Still, the group admonished, the U.S. “needs to significantly increase its efforts.” The ugly is the third report, from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which notes that 2022 was the fifth-warmest year on record globally, and last summer in Europe “was the warmest on record by a clear margin.” In fact, , all of the past eight years have been among the eight hottest. 

A rainbow above the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

Bloomberg offers a rosier perspective behind their paywall in an article by Leslie Kaufman and Laura Millan Lombrana called Six Climate Breakthroughs That Made 2022 a Step Toward Net Zero. They begin by acknowledging the almost incomprehensible damage wrought by climate change, and distressing policy decisions, such as rebounds in coal consumption. But they also note the following signs of hope:

  • The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which is the country’s most aggressive piece of climate legislation ever. Its provisions ensure that for decades to come billions of dollars will roll toward the energy transition, making it easier to deploy renewable energy, build out green technologies and subsidize consumer adoption of sustainable technologies.
  • The European Union started to make good on its pledge to cut emissions by introducing additional costs imposed on imported goods from countries without the EU’s restrictions on planet-warming pollution.
  • Agreement at COP15 helps to protect biodiversity.
  • The big breakthrough at the 2022 climate negotiations (COP27 in Egypt) sees developed countries agreeing to fund loss, damage and energy transition for developing nations.
  • Voters in Brazil ousted Bolsonaro and reinstated Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won the presidency in part by promising to stop deforestation of the Amazon. Pro-climate parties also won big in Australia’s elections.
  • Following the recognition at COP26 in Glasgow of the dangers of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 150 countries have pledged to act to reduce methane emissions.
Prosopis laevigata mesquite near the Chichimeco dam, in Jesús María, Aguascalientes, Mexico. Photo by Luis Alvaz, from Wikipedia.

Climate Change May Favor Nitrogen-Fixing Plants

In Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California-Nevada border, mesquite plants (genus Prosopis) thrive in extreme aridity. While most vegetation types must extract most of their nutrients from fertile soil, mesquites and similar plants receive additional nitrogen from symbiotic bacteria, which enzymatically fix atmospheric nitrogen into an easily absorbed form in exchange for sugars produced during photosynthesis. To determine how arid conditions affect the biodiversity of these types of nitrogen-fixing plants, University of Florida PhD student Josh Doby compared public data on soil, species counts, and aridity from 47 terrestrial sites in the US. Doby and his colleagues initially hypothesized that nitrogen-deficient soils would prompt an increase in nitrogen-fixing plant diversity. The results, however, showed “that aridity is actually the primary driver” of phylogenetic diversity, Doby says. As conditions became drier, the ratio of nitrogen-fixing to non-fixing plant species increased even as overall plant diversity declined. Because these plants have access to atmospheric nitrogen from their symbiotic bacteria, their leaves contain more nitrogen than other plants, and this buffers them against aridity by helping them retain water, says Mark Adams, an ecologist at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia who was not involved in this research. When plants open their stomata to take in carbon dioxide, water escapes, but nitrogen stimulates the production of enzymes that improve the efficiency of carbon uptake, shortening how long plants need to hold their stomata open, Adams explains. “And that’s the secret [of] nitrogen-fixing plants.” Doby’s research is published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.

A dust storm. Photograph: Jason Davies/Severe Weather Australia

‘It was like an apocalyptic movie’: 20 climate photographs that changed the world: The Guardian UK offers recent  images that change how we see our world and how we understand climate change. From the iconic 1968 “Earthrise” photo that is credited with kick-starting the environmental movement to pictures of golfers “playing through” a forest fire in Oregon; a man pushing kids on a satellite dish through floods in Pakistan; and deforestation in the Amazon, these photos bring home the reality of climate change. Note, images of giraffes that died of thirst in Kenya and a starving polar bear are particularly upsetting.

Leaf them be. Photo by R. Last.

After those sobering images from The Guardian, it’s time for some more positive news. A recent Danish studies found that By leaving garden waste alone, Danes could store 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is wonderful news for those of us who already practice ecological gardening because there are so many other advantages to leaving garden waste where it lies. For example, fall leaf litter protects a multitude of over-wintering invertebrates. And of course, leaving the yard waste in place is much less work for us gardeners. Talk about a win-win-win!

Rhodo in Rebecca’s back yard. Photo by R. Last.

Climate crisis prompts RHS to plan for sending rhododendrons north

In an example of assisted plant migration, the Guardian reports that the climate crisis has prompted the Royal Horticultural Society to plan a move of its important collection of rhododendrons from its flagship Wisley garden in Surrey to Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire.

Visual abstract. Effect of climate change–impact menu labels on fast food ordering choices. Credit: JAMA Network Open (2022). DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.48320

In the category of things we can do, pushing for climate labelling just might be a good avenue to explore. A recent Study shows climate impact labels on food sold in fast food restaurants can change buying habits. A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in the U.S. has found that placing labels on foods sold at fast food restaurants informing consumers of the negative impact of the production of such foods on the planet can alter consumer buying habits. In their paper published on JAMA Network Open, the group describes conducting an online survey using a fictional restaurant to learn more about consumer food buying choices.

From The Guardian, a wind farm in Texas. Photograph: Delcia Lopez/AP

Finally, in a lengthy piece in The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit writes that “Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis.” Her article about how to tell the story of climate change (‘If you win the popular imagination, you change the game’: why we need new stories on climate) offers hope for new story-telling and useful tips on how to talk about climate change with your friends.