A Global Response to Climate Change (English and Chinese)

by John D. Liu

China has one fifth of the world’s population, has maintained double digit economic growth for most of the last 3 decades, and is preparing to become the largest single national economy in the world. Because of its increasing international clout, its growing emissions and the desire to apportion blame, China has been criticized for contributing to our world’s growing environmental challenges including sometimes being blamed for an outsize portion of human impact on climate change. China certainly does have the responsibility to be environmentally responsible to its people, to all people everywhere and to the planet. But China is not alone in this responsibility and it is unfair to single China out without analyzing how other countries are responding to this crisis. This is a truly global issue and it must be dealt with by international consensus and knowledge led action. I would go further to suggest that although the outcome will only be known in the future, in some ways China is beginning to demonstrate some of the characteristics of leadership in this matter.


Globally the scientific community has reached consensus that human activity, has caused and is causing, disruption to the natural ecosystem, with extensive, predictable and increasingly catastrophic results. Currently, the focus is on the impact of carbon disequilibrium on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate. This is most often expressed as the wanton emission of CO2 and other gases that cause the “Greenhouse Effect”, (where sunlight can penetrate but heat is trapped in the atmosphere). Many international panels have helped to define the situation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore shared the Nobel Prize forewarning about the danger posed by human induced climate change. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment presented an even more comprehensive study that documents human impact on the Earth’s Ecosystem including but not limited to atmospheric disruption. The Stern Report to the UK Government charted the linkages between ecology and the economy. All these reports are unanimous that without a paradigm shift humanity faces an uncertain future at best. The worst case is so bad it is difficult to contemplate or describe. There are some models that lead to conditions where human life would no longer be viable and the human species goes extinct.

全球的科學界均已達成共識,認為人類活動對於自然生態已經造成了嚴重的破壞,這個情況若不斷持續下去,將會為地球帶來大規模且可預期的連續災難。現在大家關注的焦點都是在碳失衡對地球大氣和氣候的影響,例如任意排放二氧化碳和其他廢氣所造成的「溫室效應」現象(當陽光可以穿過過大氣層,但熱氣卻無法散發的現象)。由聯合國國際氣象組織(WMO)及聯合國環境署(UNEP)所共同成立的全球氣候變遷權威機構IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)和美國前副總統高爾,因發表人類活動所造成氣候變遷的危險而共同獲頒諾貝爾獎。聯合國的千年生態系統評估報告(Millennium Ecosystem Assessment)清楚地解釋並記錄了人類活動對地球生態的種種的影響,包括大氣層的破壞等。這些報告都一致地同意,若人類不做突破性的改變,我們所面臨的將是一個未知的未來。這是最好的狀況。最糟的情況糟到我們不能也不敢想像。有一些模擬實驗顯示屆時人類將無法生存,甚至慘遭物種滅絕。

That such massive ecosystem degradation exists attests to the selfish and wasteful behavior of the billions of people on Earth. Yet the guilt and the consequences have not been equally felt. The world is fairly evenly divided into those who have acquired large amounts of the earth’s wealth and those who are denied access to it. So although humanity is extracting benefits from the earth at astonishing rates we have also created a social and economic system that is terribly unfair. The poverty and disparity and the ecological damage are deeply interrelated.



No amount of words can do justice to this situation because it is not theoretical but physical. In order to overcome our impacts and restore equilibrium to natural systems we will have to “physically” restore the systems to functionality. Given the fact that our behaviors are what has caused the dysfunction this will require what the Stern Report called “Major non-marginal change”. We who are alive today are challenged to understand this and to address it. How well we do this will determine what the future will be like. Will we respond to the challenge? How are we to respond? Will we be able to change our behaviors to end the negative impacts? Will we be able to stretch our imaginations sufficiently to envision a way forward to a sustainable future?

任何的言語都不足以改變這樣不公平的現象,因為這情況的的確確存在。為了改變我們所造成的影響並重建自然生態系統的平衡,我們必須身體力行,回復生態系統的功能。人類的行為就是造成生態系統失能的原因,我們需要付出英國史登報告(the Stern Report)所稱的「重大的非邊緣化轉變」來扭轉現況。我們真的回應這樣的挑戰嗎?我們應如何回應?我們可以改變行為以終止這樣的負面影響嗎?我們能夠找出一條通往永續未來的道路嗎?


The Opportunity within the Challenge


Africa seems to have become linked with poverty in public collective consciousness worldwide. One hears a great deal about poverty and Africa, but very little about African wealth. Many people in Africa and other continents just “know” that Africa is poor and many believe there is nothing that can be done about it. But is this impression fair? And if not, what are the factors that determine whether Africa is wealthy or poor? If we knew this, might there be a strategy that could direct positive physical action toward addressing the underlying causes of poverty? As certain trends converge, such as: climate change, population growth, biodiversity loss, desertification, and fresh water stress, Africa may be seen to represent the place that is most affected by these problems. But Africa therefore is also the place with the largest potential on the planet to address these issues.


As I have traveled, filmed and studied in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya, I have been extremely surprised at how wealthy Africa could be. So why isn’t it? At its most fundamental level the question of whether Africa is poor or wealthy seems to me to hinge on ecosystem function. Basically this means, whether there is tree cover on the mountains and grass cover on the savannahs, whether the rainfall infiltrates and is retained where it falls, and whether carbon and other nutrients are naturally recycled in the biomass and soil organic matter, or not. Naturally there are other considerations but they can be shown to be secondary to these fundamental determinants.


I first observed this phenomenon in China’s Loess Plateau where the situation is amazingly similar. Having lived in China for most of the last 3 decades and having observed as “The Middle Kingdom” emerged from the poverty that plagued it for a century, I have personally seen that poverty and ecological degradation are linked. I have also seen that things don’t have to just get worse. If you employ enlightened principles, policies and practices then things can and do get much better. I wouldn’t suggest that China has no problems but China is a good example that fundamental change is possible and that it is possible to end poverty.


My research has also shown that ensuring functional ecosystems is not simply in the interest of the poor people who live in degraded areas. Given what we now know of climate change and the interconnectedness of global ecosystems it is logical to conclude that the future for everyone on Earth will be determined by functional ecosystems on a planetary scale. Using current criteria to view Africa, the situation seems very bad indeed. But if people worldwide valued ecosystem functions and decided to collectively restore degraded ecosystems wherever they were, then the local people who did the work and who must continuously protect the restored ecosystems, could be rewarded for their service to humanity and future of the planet. Looking at Africa from this perspective the situation is far from hopeless. This makes Africa one of the most important places for the future and its people among the most useful and needed in the world.


As one travels through the Ethiopian Highlands in the dry season, the abundance of water is not foremost on the mind. For most of the year, people and animals travel long distances to get water. Everywhere, lines of women and children carrying yellow plastic containers are walking either to or from a water source, or waiting in line for their turn to access the trickle coming out of a pipe, or to dip their pale in a shallow dirty stream. For many of these people, getting water, together with gathering fuel wood, can take up most of the day. This has been going on for such a long time that people have determined that this is natural and inevitable. In this world of scratching out a living, things just get worse. We badly need to tell the truth about this situation. This type of labor is an anachronism, it is pointless and destructive, as long as we allow this to continue there will be no way to restore ecosystem function.


There is a keen awareness by everyone here that the rainy season and the dry season are very, very different. What is less understood is that over wide areas in Africa and elsewhere worldwide, the extreme dryness during the dry season is not a natural phenomenon or that it can be reversed. What has happened here is that human activities have put pressure on fragile ecosystems, disrupting the natural infiltration and retention of water. Our impact began by reducing or removing the vegetation cover that had developed over evolutionary time. Without each generation of vegetation (biomass) laying down its body to nurture the next, there is little or no organic matter (necromass) in the soils. The plant root systems that penetrated and broke up compacted soils are no longer there. Microbes and fungus that lived among roots and fed on the soil organic matter are lost. Nutrients in the soil and soil stability are visibly reduced, just look at the brown color of the streams carrying away the soil and its fertility.


Photographic evaluation of typical lands in the Northern Highland regions of Ethiopia reveal a very high degree of degradation over vast areas. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) rate the area as very severely degraded with a few areas that are only rated severely degraded. The widespread assumption is that the Ethiopian Highlands are arid or semiarid lands. But is this assumption true? The scientific definition of arid or semi-arid is that the “Evapotranspiration” rate or the rate at which moisture is lost due to a mixture of evaporation and respiration is greater than the rainfall. In discussions with scientists studying Natural Resources at Bahir Dar University, I learned that much of the highland region near Bahir Dar gets approximately 1,800 millimeters of rainfall per year. This is a great abundance of water, equal to what is needed by the great Rain Forests of the world.

透過攝影我們發現衣索比亞北部高地區有大面積的土地遭到嚴重的破壞。聯合國糧農組織將該地區評為遭到非常嚴重的破壞,只有少數地區是評為嚴重破壞。大多數人都認為衣索比亞的高地是屬於乾燥或半乾燥地區,但事實的確是如此嗎?就科學上的定義來說,乾燥或半乾燥指的是蒸散率或濕氣因為蒸發或呼吸而流失的速率大於降雨率。經過與衣索比亞的首都巴哈達大學(Bahir Dar University)研究自然資源的科學家探討過後,我才知道原來首都附近大部分的高地區每年約有1800公釐的降雨量。照理來說,這樣的地方水源應相當充足,和雨林區所需的雨量相當。

Indeed, where the land remains more or less unchanged, such as on the islands in Lake Tana, the natural habitat is a diverse forest of large trees including cordia, cedar, ficus, acacia, forest coffee and other indigenous trees and bushes. These relatively natural ecosystems have coexisted with churches and monasteries and a population in the thousands for many centuries, showing that the presence of humans does not necessarily have to degrade the environment. In the forests on the islands in Lake Tana there is never a thought that this might be an arid or semi-arid area. Even in the dry season there is soil moisture and relative humidity in the air.


Beyond such special protected places like the islands in Lake Tana, much of the landscape appears to be desert or near desert, especially in the long dry season. There is no mystery about the causes, the reasons are continuously on display, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. Trees and brush are cut continuously for fuel wood. Animal manure is collected and burned. Biomass burning from these sources represents 94 % of the energy used in Ethiopia. Primitive plowing consistently exposes the soil to the sun, wind and rain. Goats, sheep and cattle, together with their herders, wander aimlessly, compacting the soil with their hooves as they search for the last grasses and bushes to eat, pulling the plants out by the roots further exposing the soils and further reducing vegetation. These are the behaviors that have caused the decline and collapse of numerous civilizations throughout human history. That sub-Saharan Africa in particular is experiencing poverty and famine is predictable and measurable. If these fundamental causes are not dealt with there is no way to rehabilitate the environment or improve the economy. Africa needs a paradigm shift that will alter the ecology, economy and the psychology in one moment. From that moment on Africa would be launched on a new development trajectory, one that leads to sustainable ecosystems and Africans would then have all the opportunities of life open before them.

除了像塔納湖(Lake Tana)上的島嶼這樣被特別保護的區域之外,當地大部分的地形都是沙漠或接近沙漠,特別是遇當到長時間的乾旱期。原因不是個謎,而且日復一日、年復一年的上演,代代相傳。當地人砍伐樹木做燃木並收集、燃燒動物糞肥;衣索比亞94%的能源都來自於此。原始的犁田方法使得土地不斷地遭太陽曝曬或風吹雨淋。畜牧人漫無目的地放牧牛羊,找尋最後一點綠草或樹叢食用。牛羊將這些植物連根拔起食用,不但進一步將土壤暴露在外還帶走了植披。這些行為就是導致歷史上無數人類文明毀滅的主因。撒哈拉沙漠以南非洲地區的貧困情況及飢荒,其實都是有跡可尋的。如果這些基本的起因無法獲得改善,則要修復生態環境及改善當地經濟是不可能的事。非洲地區需要的是在生態、經濟和當地人心理做出重大的變革。屆時,非洲將可展開全新的旅程,邁向永續生態的未來,當地人的生活可以有全新的風貌。

I think that modern people in many cultures around the world often imagine that we are political or economic beings and sometimes would like to forget that we are mammals, living in symbiosis with other life forms. But we are born, live and die like other creatures and we are governed by the same natural laws. During the rainy season if the rain does not infiltrate and is not retained, then during the dry season the land and the air will be very dry. When this is repeated, year after year, generation after generation, this desiccated state seems to become the norm. But from a scientific perspective any measurements that determine places with high rainfall to be “Arid” or “Semi-Arid” could be suspected of observing and measuring dysfunction. In other words, without vegetation cover and natural infiltration and retention of water their figures are correct. But if you were to measure functionality in places like this a very different result would accrue. From a scientific perspective it would seem to be of paramount importance to know whether reversing the trends toward de-vegetation and ecosystem dysfunction would still lead to arid and semi-arid designations for these areas.


There is evidence that the Ethiopian highlands were mainly forested and that the destruction of these forests has been relatively recent. The President of Ethiopia, His Excellency Girma Wolde-Giorgis speaking at the Launch of Ethiopia’s new Sustainable Land Management Platform, stated that as a young navigator he flew across an almost fully forested country and has been continuously saddened as the once great forests have been consistently cut down. The cutting of trees and the loss of natural habitats were the beginning of a series of human interventions to extract wealth and benefit from nature. But human extraction has been traditionally a linear system. Extract, use and throw away … only to return to extract some more. This eventually leads to ecosystem collapse, when all the resources have been extracted. This progression has been repeated time and time again. History shows us the ruins of once mighty civilizations that are but memories because they allowed their ecosystems to collapse.


Near Mekelle in Tigray Northern Ethiopia, I was able to see and document the efforts of the Ethiopian Government in collaboration with the WFP Meret Programme and the German Technical Assistance Agency GTZ in restoring ecological function in degraded watersheds. In this region, unlike the Bahir Dar region, there is only between 200 and 600 millimeters of rainfall per year. When the rains do come they can be both heavy and unpredictable. While this seems comparatively low in relation to the 1800 millimeters near Lake Tana, the new restoration and conservation efforts are proving that it can be sufficient, when the principles governing its infiltration and retention are understood.

在靠近Mekelle的北衣索比亞,我目睹並拍攝下衣索比亞政府、WFP Meret Programme、與德國技術合作公司所合作的集水區生態修復計畫。不同於首都巴哈達的是,這裡的年降雨量只有200-600公釐,而且降雨方式又大又急,無法預測。雖然與塔納湖的1800公釐年降雨量相比之下偏少,但在生態修復工程的保育結果奏效後,雨水得以滲入並蓄積在土壤裡,當地的降雨量其實綽綽有餘。

What the work near Mekelle is showing is that it is possible through physical and biological intervention to restore hydrological function to a watershed even in low and erratic rainfall conditions. In one sub-watershed I visited a motivated farmer had made a very large number of interventions. Dozens of structures have been built for water retention. Directing rainfall through these new structures and combining this with biological inputs such as grasses that stabilize the soil during rainfall and retain soil moisture in the dry season, have made it possible for farmers to easily access water for their crops throughout the year. By slowing the runoff, the 200 to 600 millimeters of rainfall each year do not run off in a flood but are infiltrated and retained within the watershed to serve the needs of the plants and the people in the valley. Recovery has been amazingly fast. The new water harvesting interventions, coupled with a controlled grazing policy, have allowed the water table to rise to within 1.5 meters of the surface in the lower parts of the watershed after only 2 seasons. This one valley has become green again in only a few years and with the water table raised irrigation has increased farmers yield. When perennial crops and multistory cropping are used this region can both massively increase productivity and income for the people and restore and maintain ecosystem function, meaning that at least for this one valley the future is sustainable. This follows findings in China’s Loess Plateau that have shown that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems including returning ecosystem function that has been lost over large areas and long periods of time.


The implications of what we have seen are profound. This type of intervention needs to be studied carefully, fully understood and implemented at scale, everywhere in Ethiopia and everywhere the same problem is faced. If, as it seems, it is possible to restore hydrological function in low rainfall areas by recharging the ground water what would happen if this were done in areas with high rainfall? Infiltrating and retaining rainfall, recharging the ground water, and restoring the vegetation cover causes increases in soil moisture, relative humidity, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Although Africa and poverty have been linked for some time, Africa is fundamentally wealthy. The wealth comes from the water and the vegetation. The paradox remains because we have either not understood this or we have not acted on it.


It seems to me that a strong case can be made that climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, fresh water stress, poverty and disparity all have the same roots. If we address ecosystem function we will in effect be addressing all of these problems. These global ecological issues also clearly illustrate that the future of the wealthy all over the world and the future of the poor at the edges of large degraded ecosystems will be determined by the same criteria, functional ecosystems on a planetary scale. That being the case, we know what we need to do, we know how to do it, and we know that everyone on Earth will benefit and so has a responsibility to participate. The poor living in degraded ecosystems can provide the labor needed to rehabilitate large areas of land. The wealthy around the world can provide the scientific understanding, the technical capability, the management capacity and the capital needed to restore degraded ecosystems everywhere. Interestingly, it isn’t even expensive and it is certainly less expensive than allowing the situation to continue.


In Kenya, I recently met Dr. René Haller. Dr. Haller is a Swiss agronomist who has lived in Africa for more than 50 years. Working for the Bamburi Cement Co. in Mombassa, René took on the task of rehabilitating the cement quarries after the company had dug out the calcium carbonate deposits, leaving a bare rock floor with saline water just below the surface. By studying the interaction between a tree species (casuarina) and a species of millipedes (epibolus pulchripes) René discovered that he could generate humus on the bedrock. What the teams of people working under René Haller’s direction have achieved is very nearly miraculous. The bare earth of the quarry has been transformed into a nature park that is one of the most beautiful and diverse places I have ever seen. Imagine if the thinking and dedication that has motivated Dr. Haller and his team were applied everywhere.

我最近在肯亞認識了René Haller博士。René Haller博士是一位瑞士的農學家,住在非洲已有超過五十年的時間。René在Bamburi水泥公司任職的期間承接了一項任務,就是修復水泥公司的採石場,這個採石場中所有的碳酸鈣沈積物都被挖掘殆盡,只剩光禿禿的岩床和地表下的鹹水。經由研究一種樹種 (木麻黃casuarian) 和一種節肢動物 (epidlous pulchripes) 的關係,René發現他能夠藉此在岩床上製造腐殖質。在René Haller的領導之下,他的團隊有了驚人的成果。原來土地裸露的採石場居然變成了一個自然公園,那裡也是我所看過最美麗、生物多樣性最豐富的地方之一。試想如果激勵René Haller博士和其團隊的思考方式及努力,可以用在世界上其他的地方,這個世界會有多麼不一樣。

We now know that as long as there is sufficient rainfall and the ability to generate biomass and necromass, it is possible to restore large-scale damaged ecosystems. This has been shown to be true even in low rainfall and saline conditions. In many parts of Africa, the potential of restoration is enormous. This is where we can sequester vast amounts of carbon to offset the wasteful emissions in the developed world. This is where we can ensure the survival of precious wild genetic material. This is where we can address the issue of fresh water stress and desertification. There is no doubt that the degree of difficulty is high. No one doubts that ending poverty and restoring ecosystem function is very, very hard. But we also that it is possible.


Because we know this it becomes the central responsibility of our time. Our decisions and actions now will literally determine what the Earth will look like in the future. It’s our choice whether the Earth for the next generations is a forbidding and dangerous place with expanding deserts or a fully vegetated planet with functional ecosystems. This will certainly determine the quality of life our children and their children will experience, the sustainability of the economy, the future of our political institutions and perhaps even the survival of the species.


Modern genetics has shown that everyone on earth can trace their ancestry back to a common ancestor in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. So in fact, we are all Africans. From an ecological perspective we are all from the Earth. Economically we are ever more closely interlinked. Everyone has a stake in the outcome. We have a long history of greed and self-interest, motivating our actions and this has caused economic disparity and massive ecological damage. Now we have both a compelling rationale and a functional model for returning to the cradle of humanity to seriously address the fundamental causes of poverty and ecosystem dysfunction? Because we know to a large degree what constitutes functionality and what disrupts it on the Earth, it is our choice to have either functional or dysfunctional ecosystems. It’s our choice and the Earth’s Hope.


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