Tamara Shapiro Ledley, Juliette Rooney-Varga, and Frank Niepold
The scientific community has made the urgent need to mitigate climate change clear and, with the ratification of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international community has formally accepted ambitious mitigation goals. However, a wide gap remains between the aspirational emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement and the real-world pledges and actions of nations that are party to it. Closing that emissions gap can only be achieved if a similarly wide gap between scientific and societal understanding of climate change is also closed.
Several fundamental aspects of climate change make clear both the need for education and the opportunity it offers. First, addressing climate change will require action at all levels of society, including individuals, organizations, businesses, local, state, and national governments, and international bodies. It cannot be addressed by a few individuals with privileged access to information, but rather requires transfer of knowledge, both intellectually and affectively, to decision-makers and their constituents at all levels. Second, education is needed because, in the case of climate change, learning from experience is learning too late. The delay between decisions that cause climate change and their full societal impact can range from decades to millennia. As a result, learning from education, rather than experience, is necessary to avoid those impacts.
Climate change and sustainability represent complex, dynamic systems that demand a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking takes a holistic, long-term perspective that focuses on relationships between interacting parts, and how those relationships generate behavior over time. System dynamics includes formal mapping and modeling of systems, to improve understanding of the behavior of complex systems as well as how they respond to human or other interventions. Systems approaches are increasingly seen as critical to climate change education, as the human and natural systems involved in climate change epitomize a complex, dynamic problem that crosses disciplines and societal sectors.
A systems thinking approach can also be used to examine the potential for education to serve as a vehicle for societal change. In particular, education can enable society to benefit from climate change science by transferring scientific knowledge across societal sectors. Education plays a central role in several processes that can accelerate social change and climate change mitigation. Effective climate change education increases the number of informed and engaged citizens, building social will or pressure to shape policy, and building a workforce for a low-carbon economy. Indeed, several climate change education efforts to date have delivered gains in climate and energy knowledge, affect, and/or motivation. However, society still faces challenges in coordinating initiatives across audiences, managing and leveraging resources, and making effective investments at a scale that is commensurate with the climate change challenge. Education is needed to promote informed decision-making at all levels of society.
Aijun Ding, Xin Huang, and Congbin Fu
Air pollution is one of the grand environmental challenges in developing countries, especially those with high population density like China. High concentrations of primary and secondary trace gases and particulate matter (PM) are frequently observed in the industrialized and urbanized regions, causing negative effects on the health of humans, plants, and the ecosystem.
Meteorological conditions are among the most important factors influencing day-to-day air quality. Synoptic weather and boundary layer dynamics control the dispersion capacity and transport of air pollutants, while the main meteorological parameters, such as air temperature, radiation, and relative humidity, influence the chemical transformation of secondary air pollutants at the same time. Intense air pollution, especially high concentration of radiatively important aerosols, can substantially influence meteorological parameters, boundary layer dynamics, synoptic weather, and even regional climate through their strong radiative effects.
As one of the main monsoon regions, with the most intense human activities in the world, East Asia is a region experiencing complex air pollution, with sources from anthropogenic fossil fuel combustion, biomass burning, dust storms, and biogenic emissions. A mixture of these different plumes can cause substantial two-way interactions and feedbacks in the formation of air pollutants under various weather conditions. Improving the understanding of such interactions needs more field measurements using integrated multiprocess measurement platforms, as well as more efforts in developing numerical models, especially for those with online coupled processes. All these efforts are very important for policymaking from the perspectives of environmental protection and mitigation of climate change.
Arid environments cover about one third of the Earth’s surface, comprising the most extensive of the terrestrial biomes. Deserts show considerable individual variation in climate, geomorphic surface expression, and biogeography. Climatically, deserts range from dry interior environments, with large temperature ranges, to humid and relatively cool coastal environments, with small temperature ranges. What all deserts share in common is a consistent deficit of precipitation relative to water loss by evaporation, implying that the biological availability of water is very low. Deserts develop because of climatic (persistent high-pressure cells), topographic (mountain ranges that cause rain shadow effects), and oceanographic (cold currents) factors that limit the amount of rain or snowfall that a region receives. Most global deserts are subtropical in distribution.
There is a large range of geomorphic surfaces, including sand sheets and sand seas (ergs), stone pavements, bedrock outcrops, dry lakebeds, and alluvial fans. Vegetation cover is generally sparse, but may be enhanced in areas of groundwater seepage or along river courses. The limited vegetation cover affects fluvial and slope processes and results in an enhanced role for the wind. While the majority of streams in deserts are ephemeral features, both intermittent and perennial rivers develop in response to snowmelt in nearby mountains or runoff from distant, more well-watered regions. Most drainage is endoreic, meaning that it flows internally into closed basins and does not reach the sea, being disposed of by seepage and evaporation.
The early study of deserts was largely descriptive. More process-based studies commenced with the study of North American deserts in the mid- to late-1800s. Since the late 20th century, research has expanded into many areas of the world, with notable contributions coming from China, but our knowledge of deserts is still more compete in regions such as North America, Australia, Israel, and southern Africa, where access and funding have been more consistently secure. The widespread availability of high-quality remotely sensed images has contributed to the spread of study into new global field areas. The temporal framework for research has also improved, benefiting from improvements in geochronological techniques. Geochronological controls are vital to desert research because most arid regions have experienced significant climatic changes. Deserts have not only expanded or contracted in size, but have experienced changes in the dominant geomorphic processes and biogeographic environment. Contemporary scientific work has also benefited from improvements in technology, notably in surveying techniques, and from the use of quantitative modeling.
Sumit Sharma, Liliana Nunez, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan
Atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs) are widespread pollution clouds that can at times span an entire continent or an ocean basin. ABCs extend vertically from the ground upward to as high as 3 km, and they consist of both aerosols and gases. ABCs consist of anthropogenic aerosols such as sulfates, nitrates, organics, and black carbon and natural dust aerosols. Gaseous pollutants that contribute to the formation of ABCs are NOx (nitrogen oxides), SOx (sulfur oxides), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), CO (carbon monoxide), CH4 (methane), and O3 (ozone). The brownish color of the cloud (which is visible when looking at the horizon) is due to absorption of solar radiation at short wavelengths (green, blue, and UV) by organic and black carbon aerosols as well as by NOx. While the local nature of ABCs around polluted cities has been known since the early 1900s, the widespread transoceanic and transcontinental nature of ABCs as well as their large-scale effects on climate, hydrological cycle, and agriculture were discovered inadvertently by The Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX), an international experiment conducted in the 1990s over the Indian Ocean. A major discovery of INDOEX was that ABCs caused drastic dimming at the surface. The magnitude of the dimming was as large as 10–20% (based on a monthly average) over vast areas of land and ocean regions. The dimming was shown to be accompanied by significant atmospheric absorption of solar radiation by black and brown carbon (a form of organic carbon). Black and brown carbon, ozone and methane contribute as much as 40% to anthropogenic radiative forcing. The dimming by sulfates, nitrates, and carbonaceous (black and organic carbon) species has been shown to disrupt and weaken the monsoon circulation over southern Asia. In addition, the ozone in ABCs leads to a significant decrease in agriculture yields (by as much as 20–40%) in the polluted regions. Most significantly, the aerosols (in ABCs) near the ground lead to about 4 million premature mortalities every year. Technological and regulatory measures are available to mitigate most of the pollution resulting from ABCs. The importance of ABCs to global environmental problems led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to form the
Human activities in the Anthropocene are influencing the twin processes of biodiversity generation and loss in complex ways that threaten the maintenance of biodiversity levels that underpin human well-being. Yet many scientists and practitioners still present a simplistic view of biodiversity as a static stock rather than one determined by a dynamic interplay of feedback processes that are affected by anthropogenic drivers. Biodiversity describes the variety of life on Earth, from the genes within an organism to the ecosystem level. However, this article focuses on variation among living organisms, both within and between species. Within species, biodiversity is reflected in genetic, and consequent phenotypic, variations among individuals. Genetic diversity is generated by germ line mutations, genetic recombination during sexual reproduction, and immigration of new genotypes into populations. Across species, biodiversity is reflected in the number of different species present and also, by some metrics, in the evenness of their relative abundance. At this level, biodiversity is generated by processes of speciation and immigration of new species into an area. Anthropogenic drivers affect all these biodiversity generation processes, while the levels of genetic diversity can feed back and affect the level of species diversity, and vice versa. Therefore, biodiversity maintenance is a complex balance of processes and the biodiversity levels at any point in time may not be at equilibrium.
A major concern for humans is that our activities are driving rapid losses of biodiversity, which outweigh by orders of magnitude the processes of biodiversity generation. A wide range of species and genetic diversity could be necessary for the provision of ecosystem functions and services (e.g., in maintaining the nutrient cycling, plant productivity, pollination, and pest control that underpin crop production). The importance of biodiversity becomes particularly marked over longer time periods, and especially under varying environmental conditions.
In terms of biodiversity losses, there are natural processes that cause roughly continuous, low-level losses, but there is also strong evidence from fossil records for transient events in which exceptionally large loss of biodiversity has occurred. These major extinction episodes are thought to have been caused by various large-scale environmental perturbations, such as volcanic eruptions, sea-level falls, climatic changes, and asteroid impacts. From all these events, biodiversity has shown recovery over subsequent calmer periods, although the composition of higher-level evolutionary taxa can be significantly altered.
In the modern era, biodiversity appears to be undergoing another mass extinction event, driven by large-scale human impacts. The primary mechanisms of biodiversity loss caused by humans vary over time and by geographic region, but they include overexploitation, habitat loss, climate change, pollution (e.g., nitrogen deposition), and the introduction of non-native species. It is worth noting that human activities may also lead to increases in biodiversity in some areas through species introductions and climatic changes, although these overall increases in species richness may come at the cost of loss of native species, and with uncertain effects on ecosystem service delivery. Genetic diversity is also affected by human activities, with many examples of erosion of diversity through crop and livestock breeding or through the decline in abundance of wild species populations. Significant future challenges are to develop better ways to monitor the drivers of biodiversity loss and biodiversity levels themselves, making use of new technologies, and improving coverage across geographic regions and taxonomic scope. Rather than treating biodiversity as a simple stock at equilibrium, developing a deeper understanding of the complex interactions—both between environmental drivers and between genetic and species diversity—is essential to manage and maintain the benefits that biodiversity delivers to humans, as well as to safeguard the intrinsic value of the Earth’s biodiversity for future generations.
Peter Kareiva and Isaac Kareiva
The concept of biodiversity hotspots arose as a science-based framework with which to identify high-priority areas for habitat protection and conservation—often in the form of nature reserves. The basic idea is that with limited funds and competition from humans for land, we should use range maps and distributional data to protect areas that harbor the greatest biodiversity and that have experienced the greatest habitat loss. In its early application, much analysis and scientific debate went into asking the following questions: Should all species be treated equally? Do endemic species matter more? Should the magnitude of threat matter? Does evolutionary uniqueness matter? And if one has good data on one broad group of organisms (e.g., plants or birds), does it suffice to focus on hotspots for a few taxonomic groups and then expect to capture all biodiversity broadly? Early applications also recognized that hotspots could be identified at a variety of spatial scales—from global to continental, to national to regional, to even local. Hence, within each scale, it is possible to identify biodiversity hotspots as targets for conservation.
In the last 10 years, the concept of hotspots has been enriched to address some key critiques, including the problem of ignoring important areas that might have low biodiversity but that certainly were highly valued because of charismatic wild species or critical ecosystem services. Analyses revealed that although the spatial correlation between high-diversity areas and high-ecosystem-service areas is low, it is possible to use quantitative algorithms that achieve both high protection for biodiversity and high protection for ecosystem services without increasing the required area as much as might be expected.
Currently, a great deal of research is aimed at asking about what the impact of climate change on biodiversity hotspots is, as well as to what extent conservation can maintain high biodiversity in the face of climate change. Two important approaches to this are detailed models and statistical assessments that relate species distribution to climate, or alternatively “conserving the stage” for high biodiversity, whereby the stage entails regions with topographies or habitat heterogeneity of the sort that is expected to generate high species richness.
Finally, conservation planning has most recently embraced what is in some sense the inverse of biodiversity hotspots—what we might call conservation wastelands. This approach recognizes that in the Anthropocene epoch, human development and infrastructure are so vast that in addition to using data to identify biodiversity hotspots, we should use data to identify highly degraded habitats and ecosystems. These degraded lands can then become priority development areas—for wind farms, solar energy facilities, oil palm plantations, and so forth. By specifying degraded lands, conservation plans commonly pair maps of biodiversity hotspots with maps of degraded lands that highlight areas for development. By putting the two maps together, it should be possible to achieve much more effective conservation because there will be provision of habitat for species and for economic development—something that can obtain broader political support than simply highlighting biodiversity hotspots.
Elisabeth N. Bui
Driving forces for natural soil salinity and alkalinity are climate, rock weathering, ion exchange, and mineral equilibria reactions that ultimately control the chemical composition of soil and water. The major weathering reactions that produce soluble ions are tabled. Where evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation, downward water movement is insufficient to leach solutes out of the soil profile and salts can precipitate. Microbes involved in organic matter mineralization and thus the carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur biogeochemical cycles are also implicated. Seasonal contrast and evaporative concentration during dry periods accelerate short-term oxidation-reduction reactions and local and regional accumulation of carbonate and sulfur minerals. The presence of salts and alkaline conditions, together with the occurrence of drought and seasonal waterlogging, creates some of the most extreme soil environments where only specially adapted organisms are able to survive. Sodic soils are alkaline, rich in sodium carbonates, with an exchange complex dominated by sodium ions. Such sodic soils, when low in other salts, exhibit dispersive behavior, and they are difficult to manage for cropping. Maintaining the productivity of sodic soils requires control of the flocculation-dispersion behavior of the soil. Poor land management can also lead to anthropogenically induced secondary salinity. New developments in physical chemistry are providing insights into ion exchange and how it controls flocculation-dispersion in soil. New water and solute transport models are enabling better options of remediation of saline and/or sodic soils.
Soil salinity has been causing problems for agriculturists for millennia, primarily in irrigated lands. The importance of salinity issues is increasing, since large areas are affected by irrigation-induced salt accumulation. A wide knowledge base has been collected to better understand the major processes of salt accumulation and choose the right method of mitigation. There are two major types of soil salinity that are distinguished because of different properties and mitigation requirements. The first is caused mostly by the large salt concentration and is called saline soil, typically corresponding to Solonchak soils. The second is caused mainly by the dominance of sodium in the soil solution or on the soil exchange complex. This latter type is called “sodic” soil, corresponding to Solonetz soils. Saline soils have homogeneous soil profiles with relatively good soil structure, and their appropriate mitigation measure is leaching. Naturally sodic soils have markedly different horizons and unfavorable physical properties, such as low permeability, swelling, plasticity when wet, and hardness when dry, and their limitation for agriculture is mitigated typically by applying gypsum. Salinity and sodicity need to be chemically quantified before deciding on the proper management strategy. The most complex management and mitigation of salinized irrigated lands involves modern engineering including calculations of irrigation water rates and reclamation materials, provisions for drainage, and drainage disposal. Mapping-oriented soil classification was developed for naturally saline and sodic soils and inherited the first soil categories introduced more than a century ago, such as Solonchak and Solonetz in most of the total of 24 soil classification systems used currently. USDA Soil Taxonomy is one exception, which uses names composed of formative elements.
Confidence in the projected impacts of climate change on agricultural systems has increased substantially since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. In Africa, much work has gone into downscaling global climate models to understand regional impacts, but there remains a dearth of local level understanding of impacts and communities’ capacity to adapt. It is well understood that Africa is vulnerable to climate change, not only because of its high exposure to climate change, but also because many African communities lack the capacity to respond or adapt to the impacts of climate change. Warming trends have already become evident across the continent, and it is likely that the continent’s 2000 mean annual temperature change will exceed +2°C by 2100. Added to this warming trend, changes in precipitation patterns are also of concern: Even if rainfall remains constant, due to increasing temperatures, existing water stress will be amplified, putting even more pressure on agricultural systems, especially in semiarid areas. In general, high temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are likely to reduce cereal crop productivity, and new evidence is emerging that high-value perennial crops will also be negatively impacted by rising temperatures. Pressures from pests, weeds, and diseases are also expected to increase, with detrimental effects on crops and livestock.
Much of African agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change lies in the fact that its agricultural systems remain largely rain-fed and underdeveloped, as the majority of Africa’s farmers are small-scale farmers with few financial resources, limited access to infrastructure, and disparate access to information. At the same time, as these systems are highly reliant on their environment, and farmers are dependent on farming for their livelihoods, their diversity, context specificity, and the existence of generations of traditional knowledge offer elements of resilience in the face of climate change. Overall, however, the combination of climatic and nonclimatic drivers and stressors will exacerbate the vulnerability of Africa’s agricultural systems to climate change, but the impacts will not be universally felt. Climate change will impact farmers and their agricultural systems in different ways, and adapting to these impacts will need to be context-specific.
Current adaptation efforts on the continent are increasing across the continent, but it is expected that in the long term these will be insufficient in enabling communities to cope with the changes due to longer-term climate change. African famers are increasingly adopting a variety of conservation and agroecological practices such as agroforestry, contouring, terracing, mulching, and no-till. These practices have the twin benefits of lowering carbon emissions while adapting to climate change as well as broadening the sources of livelihoods for poor farmers, but there are constraints to their widespread adoption. These challenges vary from insecure land tenure to difficulties with knowledge-sharing.
While African agriculture faces exposure to climate change as well as broader socioeconomic and political challenges, many of its diverse agricultural systems remain resilient. As the continent with the highest population growth rate, rapid urbanization trends, and rising GDP in many countries, Africa’s agricultural systems will need to become adaptive to more than just climate change as the uncertainties of the 21st century unfold.
Christiane Runyan and Jeff Stehm
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Eight thousand years ago, forests covered an estimated 47% of Earth’s land surface. In 2015, forests covered roughly 30% of the Earth’s land surface, a cumulative loss over the last 8,000 years of approximately 2.2 billion hectares (ha). Between 1990 and 2015, forest losses occurred at the rate of about 0.13% annually, but this rate appears to be slowing. These losses mostly occur in tropical forests (58%), followed by boreal (27%) and temperate forests (8%). Deforestation is driven by a number of direct and indirect factors and processes that vary across regions and interact in complex ways. The primary driver of deforestation is agricultural expansion (both commercial and subsistence), followed by mining, infrastructure extension, and urban expansion. Indirectly, population and economic growth increase the demand for agricultural and timber products. Global food demand will increase 70% by 2050, requiring a net increase of 70 million ha of arable land under cultivation, with approximately 80% of this expansion occurring in the tropics. Deforestation is affected by other indirect factors such as land tenure uncertainties, poor governance, low capacity of public forestry agencies, and inadequate planning and monitoring. Forest loss has a number of environmental, economic, and social implications. Environmentally, forests provide an expansive range of benefits across local, regional, and global scales, including hydrological benefits (e.g., regulating water supply and river discharge), climate benefits (e.g., precipitation recycling, regulating local and global temperature, and indirectly, by taking up atmospheric CO2 during photosynthesis), biogeochemical benefits (e.g., enhancing nutrient availability and reducing nutrient losses), and by supporting greater biodiversity as well as ecosystem stability and resiliency, to name a few. The loss of forest vegetation may negatively affect important ecosystem processes and services, and may induce bistable ecosystem dynamics. The existence of bistable ecosystem dynamics in some forest ecosystems suggests that these forests are prone to abrupt and irreversible shifts to a stable and often degraded state with no trees. In addition to environmental impacts, the long-term loss of forest resources negatively affects societies. About 8% (450 million) of the world’s population live in forest ecosystems, with an estimated 350 million people entirely dependent on forest ecosystems for their livelihoods. The forest sector, in 2011, contributed an estimated total amount of USD 600 billion to global GDP, or about 0.9% of global GDP. Understanding how to best manage forest resources to preserve their unique qualities is a challenge that will require an integrated and concentrated effort from scientists and policymakers alike. In particular, improving forest management will require being able to more accurately measure and monitor forest resources, identifying the trade-offs between competing objectives, valuing forest goods and services, and equitably balancing costs and benefits. On the policy front, approaches to strengthen land tenure and property rights, reduce corruption, improve the capacity of public agencies, and develop more inclusive governance arrangements are needed. Underlying these management and policy goals is the need to better understand the environmental processes occurring in forests—to improve their management, minimize adverse impacts, and strengthen our models of these systems, because the long-term loss of forest resources affects not only the functioning of ecosystems but also the societies whose health and livelihoods depend upon them.