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  • Writer's pictureBrooke Bowen

Saving The World, Plants in Crime, and a Seedling Ballet

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

“Aspens...spreading across the mountains since before humans left Africa, giving way to second homes. She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold; trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking aspen leaves, which side will lose by winning.”


1. Accelerating Solutions to Climate Change

This may be one of the most insightful discussions on climate change solutions. We have the tools to save the world, that is not the problem.

Ayanna Johnson on the TED stage, Credit: Ryan Lash / TED

The Milken Institute held their annual Global Conference last week (virtually) and I was jazzed to see that Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson was a panelist on a session titled Risks and Rewards: Accelerating Climate Change Solutions. Dr. Johnson is a steady voice in the fight for climate change understanding and action, and a champion of the ocean “as a hero, not a victim” in this fight. She was joined by John Kasich, Former Governor of Ohio, Gina McCarthy, President and CEO, NRDC; Former Administrator, US Environmental Protection Agency, Nat Simons, Co-Director, Sea Change Foundation, and Sheldon Whitehouse, US Senator of Rhode Island. The session was moderated by Alex Witt, an Anchor & Correspondent of NBC News.

Each panelist offered their solutions to the ominous global threat of climate change and explained what they see as the biggest challenge to their efforts.

Here are some key take-aways from the session (although I encourage everyone to watch because the passionate and informative portion by Senator Whitehouse about 13 minutes in needs to go viral).

1. Meaningful progress on climate change solutions will only be done with the participation of both public and private sectors.

The private sector is focused on protecting profits and the government is (or should be) focused on protecting people. Senator Whitehouse provides a fascinating and frankly terrifying explanation on why the US Government can’t put into practice any legislation supporting Climate Change action. He explains that we aren’t going to fix climate change without the help of the government. And a major way the government determines which of the major issues to focus attention on is via lobbyists. Corporate America isn’t showing up for climate justice. Even with all their hip earth-friendly marketing, they aren’t really asking our government to do anything when it comes to climate change. But you know who is? The Fossil Fuel lobbyists. And they’re asking the US Congress to keep those massive $600 BILLION annual fossil fuel subsidies coming (the IMF sourced this number). Globally this number is in the trillions.

Gina McCarthy is urging both the private and public sectors to turn their efforts towards the creation of a Clean Energy Economy and explained that “Climate change isn’t about a single answer or a single resource. It is a systemic issue.” It isn’t just a planet problem, it’s a people problem. The effects of global warming hit black, brown, indigenous, and economically challenged communities harder than their white and/or wealthy counterparts.

2. Women need to be included in all conversations about climate change.

There is ample data to back this up, as Dr. Johnson discusses in the session and also in her new book, All We Can Save. Women have an aversion to taking on outsized risk and opposing it on others, female legislators more strongly support environmentally beneficial legislation and stricter laws on this topic than men and at a national level, and higher political and social status for woman correlates with lower carbon emissions and greater creation of protected areas.

3. Social science shows us that when children speak to their parents about fears of their future, it sways their parents thinking.

Dr. Johnson confirms that this is the most likely opportunity to sway climate change deniers, which make up about 10% of the US population.

John Kasich, Former Governor of Ohio, along with John Kerry and Arnold Schwartenager, co-founded World War Zero with the goal of building a consensus around Climate Change in congress. WWZ’s tagline is “Defeating climate change isn’t something to fight over— it’s something to fight for.” Kasich urges this idea that climate change needs to be a unified, non-partisan, all hands on deck effort. Getting the general public to see this as THE major issue of the times is his mission.

4. We will move to low-carbon lifestyles, but at the current rate we will not do it fast enough to matter.

Nat Simons explains that the fossil fuel and traditional energy industries need a catalyst to turn their business towards green energy solutions at a faster rate than it is currently progressing. Simons believes philanthropy is a big part of this catalyst, along with advocacy and individual human action against companies that don’t make the move.

The science says we need to cut our emissions in half by 2030. This needs to be a World War II style effort, a massive collective engagement and mobilization. Dr. Johnson notes that the Green New Deal is aptly named - this work needs to match the governmental efforts made to recover from the Great Depression.

5. The Ocean will be a hero in the fight for climate stabilization, if we let it.

On the same day that this webinar was held, the US Congress introduced the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, which would prohibit new oil and gas drilling, encourage new offshore wind energy production, and protect 30% of our ocean by 2030. Most of New England could be powered by offshore wind energy. Dr. Johnson encourages everyone to see the ocean as a hero instead of the current framing as a victim of climate change. (This woman is awesome and you can hear more of her ocean love on the Ologies podcast).

The work needs to be shared between private companies, non-profits, individuals, and the government, through societal and individual behavioral changes, legislative policies, philanthropy, and technological innovation. All of it matters. What will determine the future of the planet is how quickly we can mobilize each of these entities to start marching (or should I say running) in the same direction.


2. An Unlikely Expert Witness

Leaning Lindbergh Baby Ladder, Courtesy of the NJ Archives

Forensic botanists have long used plant parts to help solve crimes and catch killers. A grain of pine pollen on a blanket helped catch the killer of a young girl in 2015. The distinct seeds of the Blue Palo Verde tree (Parkinsonia florida) proved a murderer’s whereabouts in a 1993 case. Perhaps the most famous use of forensic botany was also the first. Using the microscopic shards of a broken wooden ladder, Arthur Koehler, a wood expert at the United States Forest Products Laboratory, determined the exact provenance of the ladder found leaning into the window of the famous crime scene of the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping of 1932.

Last month, a group of 7 scientists published an article that would take botanical forensics to the next level. The article, titled “Plants to Remotely Detect Human Decomposition?” posits that bodies dumped after a crime could be found more swiftly with the help of trees.

It’s widely understood that trees, with the help of mycorrhizal networks, absorb a wide array of nutrients from the soil. In one of my favorite RadioLab episodes, science writer, Jennifer Frazer, explains that trees even absorb the nutrients from carcasses of animals that seep into the soil. In Alaska’s rainforests, scientists have tracked nitrogen specific to Salmon in much of the old growth trees. In some trees, 75% of their nitrogen comes from fish!

"Salmon Tree" Artwork from the blog of Suzanna Wright

This same process of nitrogen release in a decaying body occurs with human remains. When trees absorb this nitrogen, the resulting emissions from the tree’s leaves likely contain specific indicators. These spectral responses, the authors of the recent article propose, could act as Xs on a map if viewed aerially, say with a remote sensing drone.

The current hurdle in this research is the fact that other large mammals also die in the places people go missing. So, the key is to find metabolic indicators specific to the breakdown of human bodies that might show up in leaf emissions or change the plant’s appearance in some way. Unlike wild animals, humans ingest food preservatives, chemicals, and non-natural substances. Article co-writer Neal Stewart Jr., a professor of plant sciences at the University of Tennessee, explains that "if we had a specific person who went missing who was, let's say, a heavy smoker, they could have a chemical profile that could trigger some sort of unique plant response making them easier to locate.”

Stewart and colleagues are researching the relationship between plants and human decomposition at the University of Tennessee's "body farm". Officially known as the Anthropology Research Facility, the team is examining the soil immediately surrounding humans remains and how the change in nutrient concentrations of the soil manifests in the nearby plants.

This is exciting research, finding a way to allow these silent witnesses to speak.


3. Attempted Murder of a Beloved Oak

Two of my favorite things in one place: Phoebe Judge podcasts and old ass trees. One of the chart-topping podcasts, Criminal, explores the bizarre world of true crime. One episode is about the attempted murder of a 500 year old Southern Live Oak.

You can listen to the 24 minute episode here.


4. A Seedling Ballet

Found another badass time lapse of seedling movement. The video is incredibly well-made; the artist incorporated 7841 photos and added this stirring music that results in an evocative plant ballet. Love that triumphant sprout at 1:35.


5. This.

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