Climate Chaos and the Deserts

A satellite view of a yellow and green landDescription automatically generated

Sahara satellite image by NASA WorldWind. Public Domain.

The planet is shifting

Deserts have a biocrust that acts like our skin. The “skin” of the desert soils is “essential to life in dry places.” This “biocrust” is a mixture of fungi, blue-green algae, lichens, mosses, and a variety of other microbes. All together, these microorganisms keep water and create food for themselves and other microbes. Rising temperatures, however, destroys the skin-biocrust of desert soils, thus precipitating the spread of deserts. This is a large global harm as the biocrust-skin of the desert soils makes up 12 percent of all land on the planet. Its health is essential to the integrity of the health of the Earth. Climate chaos is making the deserts hostile to life.

I watched a few episodes of a PBS documentary, Evolution Earth. Clearly, it’s true that, In the hottest places on Earth, the natural world is pushed to do extraordinary things. Rising temperatures, even in tiny amounts, make a big difference in the life of wild animals, availability of water and food.

“The entire planet is shifting,” said Campbell-Staton, the documentary producer. “The climate is changing at an incredible 170 times faster than it should be. We can’t always see it. The entire tree of life is whispering to us.”

Despite the whispering or screaming of nature, and the visible tragedy, humans pretend they don’t see the results of their work / development / business, etc. The insightful PBS documentary brings to light how destructive human practices have been to the natural world. For example, “90% of all global fish stocks are over-fished or completely depleted.” This emergency changes the seas and the oceans. Humans are the new dinosaurs. Marine animals change or perish. For example, the hunting strategy of sea lions is new. They used to eat sardines. Now they corral “a new prey… something 300 times bigger– Franklin’s tuna.”

This tragedy in South Australia takes a different form. In the last several years, South Australia experienced extreme weather that baked the land. No rain touched the dry land for about five and a half years. Water holes emptied and declined in number. A local observer said: “The birds were dying round the water holes. Kangaroo dying at the water holes.” Even the ancient red gum trees were “scorched to death.”

In the Gobi Desert of Mongolia droughts and bad weather made the lives of animals and people miserable. “For many,” the documentary producer Campbell-Staton says, “battling the unpredictable elements is becoming too much. It’s leading to a mass exodus from the dry steppes. In 30 years, 20% of Mongolians have left their traditional lands. Mongolia has experienced some of the most dramatic climate shifts anywhere in the world.”

There’s sand in my teeth

The Sahara desert is no better than other deserts in the embodiment and display of the ferocity of global warming. Yet people affected by the searing heat of this colossal desert are fighting back. Amali Tower, a woman in southern Morocco, spoke about the effects of the overheated world surrounding her. She said the refugee crisis in 20 Sahel countries is getting out of hand. She complained that the desert is overwhelming, taking over everything. “We can all see the desert encroaching and intruding, she said. “You see it. You feel it. You even taste it. There’s sand in my teeth. This is as visceral and as front-line as it gets in terms of climate change. I can barely keep a conversation going. How does one exist in this? There are a handful of families that are still here because they don’t want to leave. The few people that remain have told us how impossible it is to live here and how impossible it was to fight. People gave up. They gave up, and they left permanently. The climate crisis is a migration crisis.

Last year alone, more than 3 times as many people were displaced by weather-related events than conflict or violence.”

The documentary producer, Campbell-Staton, added that “90% of the refugees today come from climate-vulnerable countries. This is something that is happening now.” She agreed with the Moroccan woman Amali that climate change is “eroding the tapestry of an entire population. This is cultural loss– that oral history that’s lost, the indigenous knowledge that’s not passed on.”

One Palm tree at a time

Amali considers cultural knowledge the answer to the violence of the moving desert. “The people have a secret,” she says. “Around the world, populations have lived for thousands of years in some of the harshest climates on the planet. They have historical, indigenous knowledge. That knowledge contains solutions… the people of Morocco are using the wisdom from nature, passed down by their grandparents, to fight back. One palm tree at a time, they’re starting to hold back the desert… the palm trees harnessed underground water to nurture a small oasis into what you see now… and what they learned is just as important today — planting palm trees helps keep the sand at bay and the oasis alive. Once established, date palms like this create shade and stop evaporation. They even suck the water table up, benefiting other crops. The vegetation combines to create a microclimate that cools the whole oasis. It’s a kind of virtuous circle. Most importantly, they form a barrier to the desert wind, preventing soil erosion and desertification. These trees can become a self-sustaining source of food, income, livelihood, identity for this population that is losing all of those things.

That means that feeds a family. That sustains a community. That provides a livelihood, and that fights back the elements of climate change. One of the first things I realized is, you hear birds. You see butterflies.

You see wildlife.”

The great green wall

How true and how beautiful that even in the distressing fact of the anthropogenic climate calamity, nature returns with the blessings of life. “On the southern edge of the Sahara,” says Campbell-Staton, “11 countries are engaged in a mammoth undertaking. Their aim is to build an expansive 5,000-mile-long great green wall from Djibouti to Senegal. 18% of the wall is already complete, with over 49 million acres of land already restored. It’s really just an incredibly beautiful story of resilience and adaptation. We have a choice over here of sure encroaching desert… and we have a choice over here of a verdant farm. With local solutions, with indigenous knowledge, with resilience, with innovation, we can fight back. The effects of heat on this planet are increasingly part of all our lives.

We need to reclaim nature’s power to hold back the desert.”

More than resilience

Resilience and cultural knowledge are virtues and precious assets. They have limits, however. They cannot defeat the climate monster continuously fed by greenhouse gases. The deserts will become devouring monsters and the temperature boiling. So, the lesson of these stories of resilience is this: We must bring the reign of fossil fuels to an end. Dethroning a King is never peaceful. The King has been King because of the support by countless advisors, supporters, and servants. Threatened, as the petroleum and gas and coal King is, he is certain to call upon all his retinue to rise up in arms to maintain his kingdom.

That’s what we see in America of 2023. Quiet before the storm. Business as usual. Millions of petroleum cars and trucks defiling the atmosphere. Red ceramic roofs and green lawns decorate and crown the tall, beautiful buildings, until the forthcoming earthquake of real transition to a zero-carbon energy future. The question is, are we ready with solar and wind technologies and enormous democratic support for building this new polis on the hill?

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.