Lead Scientist and Founder of The Crowther Lab Talks Climate Change (And How We Can Act!)

 The climate crisis cannot be ignored. Every Friday, Milk will be focusing on solutions and stories from the environment’s biggest supporters; through essays, photo stories, updates on the latest technologies, and tips to combat the climate crisis, we’ve got you covered. This week we speak with Prof. Dr. Thomas Crowther, lead scientist and founder of Zurich’s The Crowther Lab.

Prof. Thomas Crowther, you’re an ecologist, and you’re working on solutions to climate change. Did you know you’d be working on this colossal problem when you chose ecology?

No. I just wanted to help biodiversity. I love biodiversity. So I just wanted to interact with animals and see how they worked. I wanted to work on climate change in order to save biodiversity. In the process, I realized it was the other way around. We need biodiversity to help us with climate change. 

Why do you care about biodiversity?

Life is the most magical thing that has ever existed. It’s almost impossible to define what life is, let alone how it emerged and diversified across the world. It is what separates our planet from the rest of the known universe. 

Do you consider yourself an “environmentalist”?

Yes, I do, but I’m a scientist first, and this has made me appreciate the value of nature in both tangible and intangible ways. The environmentalist in me loves natural ecosystems for their pure beauty. And the scientist recognizes the need to preserve and restore nature to literally support life on earth.

Your work focuses on “global-scale ecological systems that regulate the Earth’s climate.” Has humanity really passed the “point of no return” in reversing the effects of climate change?

We have in many ways. For example, we will never regain the millions of species that have been lost. But there are so many things we can still achieve and ultimately we can still slow or maybe even stop the warming trend to minimize future damage.

Since we can’t predict the future, how can we predict our ability to fix mistakes of the past?

With an ever greater understanding of our planet, we have a greater understanding of what we can do. If we harnessed the immense energy that people have around climate change, then there’s almost no limit on what we could achieve as a society. 

Your most recent work tells us that global reforestation is one of the best [carbon dioxide] drawdown solutions. Do you believe we can actually do it? Reforest the globe? What about the insane rate of deforestation and wildfires? Can we reforest faster than we’re losing forest cover?

First, it’s important to remember we’re only trying to restore the natural forests. We should not plant trees where they would not naturally exist. So it’s not the entire globe. I absolutely believe that we can reduce the extent of forest losses that we have at the moment and increase the gains. If we achieve this, we can turn the tide in the opposite direction. 

What are the other [viable] solutions to mitigating climate change? 

There are thousands of technological solutions that can help industries to reduce their carbon emissions. The advance of these technologies over the last decade may be our most optimistic sign. The renewable energies are an absolutely essential component to this. Then there are various forms of direct carbon capture and utilization that can be essential for drawing carbon down from the atmosphere. And there are so many natural solutions. Forests are only one part of the puzzle. Managing our soils effectively in both natural and agricultural systems plays a crucial role.

What role do you feel governments have to play? 

We need systems that incentive climate action. As an example, we have the technology for direct carbon capture, but those companies need to be paid for the service they’re providing. And at the moment, without a global carbon market, there is no reliable incentive system. The same also goes for emissions cuts and the restoration of natural ecosystems. Governments need to encourage everyone to do all they can.

What about indigenous wisdom? Since Indigenous people aim to live in balance with natural ecosystems. 

The ability of indigenous people to live in balance with the natural ecosystems should be a shining light for the rest of us. Our society can only remain if we develop a sustainable future.

Do you believe we, as a global mishmash of humans, we can have a more symbiotic relationship with the earth?

I would like to think we could. And I suppose that’s the basic idea that’s guiding much of our [Crowther Lab’s] research. In order to achieve that symbiosis, we need a global restoration movement.

If the whole world was reading this, what would you say to them?

We must not let the scale of this challenge get us down. Inaction is our biggest threat. If we get behind a mission to stop climate change, there’s nothing we can’t achieve. We may be the first society facing the threat of climate change, but that necessarily means we’re the first society that has the chance to save the world against it. 

And lastly, can you share a recommendation (for our US readers) for staying up-to-date on “real” news about earth’s ecosystems and our changing climate?

Check out our website! But there is amazing work going on at at NASA, Global Resource Watch and many others.

Images courtesy of Crowther Labs. 

Stay tuned to Milk for more climate action tips.

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