Refocusing the Climate Change Conversation: A Conversation about Environmental Restoration

The following is a session transcript of a conversation hosted as part of our Online Global Conference originally aired on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. One of the most important things we can do about climate change is talk about it, but that isn’t always easy! Between scientific complexities, surging anxieties, and societal divides, it’s hard to know how to talk about it effectively. We sit down with environmental leaders to explore how refocusing the conversation will help us make these discussions more productive. 

Presenters: Philippe Lazaro, Communications Manager

 Joshua Kyallo, Vice President of International Programs

Chris Armitage, Global Evergreening Alliance

 

 

(Philippe Lazaro): Hi, I’m Philippe, and I am the communications manager for Planet With Purpose. What that means is I do a lot of talking around the topic of climate change, between the latest IPCC report, a summer full of natural disasters and the upcoming S.O.P 26 Global Summit.

It’s something that’s on a lot of people’s minds. For a lot of us, this causes anxiety, and devastation even. Even though it may not feel like it, there is also a case for hope, and we’re going to get into that within the topic of climate change.

There are so many different facets and angles to cover. We can talk about the data, the statistics, and the science. We can talk about the solutions that are out there and how we could implement them. I personally love to look at communities that are up close to the climate crisis to see how they’re dealing with climate change, and what they’re doing to adapt and to mitigate its effects. There’s climate anxiety, which is a big topic. Faith and climate are another thing I like talking about, especially through the work I do at Plant With Purpose. For now, I want to share about how my thinking around climate change has evolved over time and  over years of exposure to what it looks like up close. Especially over the past five years, as I’ve been working with Plant With Purpose. As I’ve gotten to know some of the communities that are most affected by the consequences of climate change, and meeting people who feel its effects, the more I realize that it really matters how we’re talking about it and focusing our conversations. The topic alone can trigger such a wide range of feelings.

Some people might instantly be reminded of some fierce debate or combative discussion they’ve had and just enter a very defensive or argumentative space. Others might just find the whole topic a bit abstract. There are a lot of numbers and projections that don’t make a lot of sense from here and now in daily life.

By refocusing the climate conversation, we can remove this from being a debate, to being in a deep conversation about how we can best love and serve our most vulnerable neighbors.

We can make the climate feel less like this abstract concept and more like a dynamic, tangible thing that you and I engage with every single day. We can go from this being a conversation that stirs up a lot of dread and panic, to one that brings a passion for the solutions that are available. Even a sense of enthusiasm for what people all around the world are working on together. Of course, this is a conversation best had with other people. So, I’ve invited a couple of guests to be part of this. We’ll be talking to one of my newest teammates, at Plant With Purpose, Josh Kyallo, about his own background and encounters with climate change.

I’ll be talking to Chris Armitage about some of their solutions. He is the CEO of Global EverGreening Alliance, a network that Plant With Purpose is proudly a part of. We’re talking about nature based solutions and how they respond to our climate needs. Finally, we’ll be hearing from somebody I look up to a lot in this conversation, Katharine Hayhoe. I think she has some words that apply to this topic really well. 

The first area I’d like to refocus our climate conversation to, is on the people most affected. I think we need to make a much greater effort to amplify the lived experiences of people most affected by climate change. Those who are living on the front lines of the climate crisis. What does that mean? Who are these people? Aren’t we all affected by climate change when you really think about it? Especially in the sense that we all share the same planet. However, the people who bear the harshest effect, and most immediately, are in lower income countries. Particularly in rural areas where lives and livelihoods are really dependent on agriculture. Women are more severely impacted. We have another section highlighting that dynamic. These are the kinds of places where Plant With Purpose works. That’s why I thought we should bring in our new Vice President of international programs, Josh Kayllo.

Josh is new to the Plant With Purpose family, but he’s not new to this topic or this conversation. He’s worked in these communities and settings for a long time. He himself has grown up in a community just like the ones we work in.

Josh, could you introduce yourself and share a little bit about your background, how you came to Plant With Purpose,  and how maybe some of your experiences relate to the environment or climate. 

(Josh Kyallo): My name is Josh Kayllo and I have just joined Plant With Purpose. I was born and raised in Kenya, that’s where I grew up. I’m a mason of rural farmers, so I learned farming and tree planting at the age of 10. That’s been our lifestyle. I’m still a farmer when I go back to Africa from time to time.

I’ve been in international development, I’ve really focused my entire career over the last over 28 years on addressing sustainable development. Particularly to address poverty alleviation around the world. I’ve served more than 10 non-profits. I have been very particular about the issue of both climate change, as well as poverty and the connection with poverty alleviation. That’s my pathway to Plant With Purpose. I am very interested in the nexus that connects poverty alleviation with environmental restoration and spiritual renewal.

(Philippe): For rural families that rely on farming for survival, what does the daily experience of climate change look like? 

(Josh): We approximate about 85 percent of the population in Africa lives in rural areas, and more than 75 percent relies on agriculture. Agriculture is the backbone of most economies in the developing world. In this case, it was about sub-Saharan Africa specifically. For a farmer like me and a child of rural farming communities, that’s a way of life.

It’s really the only economic source of sustenance. Growing up, I learned how to farm with changes in the weather. Changes in climate do have a serious impact on communities and families in multiple ways. Number one is families rely on agriculture. Especially if they’re all on steep hillsides, they’re dealing with soil erosion that reduces productivity, increases poverty, and damages the ecosystem. What we have seen is the more the environment gets damaged, the more the climate impacts the rural communities, and the more that is needed for fuel.

For example, burning of charcoal to provide fuel for basic survival, even cooking. Therefore, it’s like a vicious cycle.  There is agriculture for survival. There is the cutting down trees for fuel and to sell, just for survival.

I’ve become increasingly aware that it is very important to work to restore that system. There is a core relationship between a healthy ecosystem, reforestation, best practices, and better practices. The practices in agriculture keep the environment much more healthy because of the symbiotic relationship and coexisting with the environment.

The two are related. I think that the future of this world depends on how well we take care of our universe. Addressing climate change is really a call to that. 

(Philippe): Refocusing the climate conversation on these communities in particular has helped me better see how climate action is just part of the picture. Especially when it comes to loving my neighbor in order to live in alignment with my values, and with my faith. I need to take their struggles and their daily challenges seriously. It’s made me uninterested in being someone who just debates the topic of climate change.

I want to do something other than just win arguments when something like climate is affecting people’s lives so severely. I want to be deeply invested in solutions. Now I’ve noticed something kind of interesting. I read a lot of reports about attitudes and beliefs when it comes to climate change. I think a popular one categorizes people based on how concerned they are about the climate crisis. If you look at places like the US, or a lot of Western European countries, you’ll see that around 60 percent of people are concerned or highly concerned when it comes to climate change. If you look at countries with more agriculture based livelihoods, and rural lower income populations (places like where Plant With Purpose works) the number starts to look more like 90.

In these settings, how are people talking about climate change? What’s it like when people share their lived experiences with each other? 

(Josh): The awareness that rates you’re quoting of over 90 percent is right and increasing and ever growing. I think thanks to the sort of work Plant With Purpose is doing, is even demonstrating more and more that a lot more needs to be done to create awareness. But also respond to climate change and address economic impact, and environmental impact resulting from that.

The first time I learned about climate changes was with my own father, who has since passed on. He taught me at a very early age to plant trees and the importance of planting trees, even in the midst of practicing agriculture.

As a young child, I didn’t understand what that means. But over the years because of the work that I’ve been involved in. I have seen tremendous increases in knowledge and understanding of the relationship between the environment that we live in, the activities that we practice, and the impact of climate change. 

(Philippe:) I think a lot of the conversation about climate change in the US gets caught up in whether or not you should feel guilty for doing this thing or that thing. Or maybe it doesn’t line up with the rest of your beliefs, political and cultural.

How do you think our conversations can be better? How would they be different if the first thing we thought about when we thought of climate change was the impact it had on a kid who has to miss a meal because of a climate induced famine. 

(Josh:) Climate change has a direct impact on communities. For most of them, it’s really strong, frankly, it’s a matter of life and death. They can see and we can see, the impact that deforestation has made in weakening the ecosystem, and making it impossible for us to have agricultural production.

That directly impacts the ability of families to feed their children, and to even get a single meal on the table. It impacts the ability of families to be able to earn an income to absorb shocks that result from climate change, the economic setbacks that they suffer from that.

There is a direct real time relationship between changes in climate and the ability of communities and families to survive. While the rest of the world is making it such a huge political issue of more dimensional considerations, they are making, for whatever reason, for the communities that Plant With Purpose works with it is simple. They see it in real time. They see it in real space, and it impacts them directly. There’s not a big conversation to be had for them to say, “yes unless we are able to reverse this environmental damage our livelihoods are at stake. Our future is at stake. Our ability to feed our families is compromised and our lives are jeopardized.”

It’s that simple. The moment you get to that level, you realize that we all, as a global community, need to come back to basics and say we need to cut to the chase and get to the issue. We need to address climate change.

(Philippe:) I think it’s important to emphasize in places like the communities where Plant With Purpose works. People are more vulnerable to climate change, but they’re not helpless. A lot of the most exciting, impactful work I see happening against climate change is being led at a local level by communities like our partnering communities.

What are some of the ways you’ve seen locally led climate action, and what are some things we can learn from that? 

(Josh): The committees that we work with are committed driven solutions. We call them Purpose Groups. They’re able to generate income. We approximate, at least at any given period of hardship, they have 2.5 months worth of revenue or savings that can help tied them over during difficult periods. 

We are seeing clean water where the ecosystem is better protected. We are seeing improved soil through their actions, and cooler climates. We are seeing that there are greater, more responsible practices in agriculture and greater awareness. Overall, with Plant With Purpose’s approach, there is greater reversal of damage to the environment, and greater practical steps in addressing climate change.

Communities are the center on the driver’s seat in taking action. The more we can put resources and support in the hands of communities, the faster we can be able to address climate change in a sustainable practical way. This also includes addressing rural poverty, which is what Plant With Purpose is all about.

(Philippe): Thank you very much, Josh. I’m excited to get to work with you. The next big focus I wanted to highlight was the importance of focusing on solutions. We have this unhealthy relationship with how we frame problems.

Sometimes when there’s a crisis, we just start wondering how it fits the context of what I believe? How do I win the arguments that are likely to result and how do I prove that I’m right? We forget that a crisis is a better approach.

There’s an opportunity for problem solving and for coming up with a creative solution that makes things better. Honestly, if I win a debate with somebody, it doesn’t do much good. We just go home and nothing gets better.

If we’re solutions minded, we can change the questions we’re asking. We stop looking for what’s wrong with the way our opponent sees the world and we start looking for building blocks that can propel us forward. Now, of course, there’s always going to be room for discussion and dialogue about how to make these things better.

However, if the goal is a solution instead of being right, I think it will be way more productive. So that’s why I’m bringing on somebody who knows a lot about climate solutions. Chris Armitage, the CEO of the Global EverGreening Alliance.

(Chris Armitage:) The idea behind the alliance was bringing organizations together from the organization’s own perspective. The alliance was actually created by all of these organizations coming together, trying to find a solution to a much more effective and impactful collaboration at scale.

We’re looking at ways in which different organizations could complement the particular skills, experiences, and learnings of their peers and competitors by working more effectively together. Now, one thing I find exciting about climate solutions overall is that it’s a very broad basket.

There are things that are exciting. There are climate solutions that range from things in technology, engineering capabilities, and even things in the city planning specter. I think the kinds of solutions that you and I are most engaged in through Plant With Purpose and Global Evergreen Alliance are what many would call nature based solutions.

Can you explain how simply letting nature do what it does can greatly decrease our atmospheric carbon? 

(Chris Armitage): Well, I think there’s been a lot of discussion in recent times about developing technologies or even machines that can draw atmospheric carbon down in a form that we can control somehow.

In fact, one of the greatest machines to draw down atmospheric carbon are plants. The trees and plants that we work with in agricultural, pastoral and forest landscapes draw down an enormous amount of carbon dioxide simply to grow, to live. It’s really working with those systems. What we have also found is that the landscapes that have a lot more carbon in the landscape are generally much more productive for agricultural purposes and for pastoral systems.

These are the landscapes that allow better water infiltration, that hold the water in the soils more effectively, and that carry more nutrients in the soils. There’s this great symbiosis between systems that maximize carbon storage in the landscape and draw it down from the atmosphere through plants; and the needs of humans to more sustainably grow their food. Also, to increase the reliability and the resilience of those farming systems to the impacts of climate change. One thing that amazes me about nature based solutions and tree planting in particular is that it’s so simple. Trees, for all the good that they do, are fairly inexpensive.

I think one question that comes to mind is: Why? Why haven’t we done more of this? Why haven’t we restored every rainforest and then some? The answer is that we’re used to what we’ve been taught. A lot of the solutions are counterintuitive.

So they’re very logical when you look at the actual practices, the problems that we’re trying to address, and the way in which these systems can help us address those problems. But when we look at what we’ve been told for generations, they’re not the things that our parents or grandparents might have taught us if we lived on the land. This is a big problem. We need to be supporting people to adjust their thinking, to look at changing mindsets around how we work in a much more sustainable way.

In fact, the practices that are sequestering a lot of carbon into the landscape are really addressing the problem, both from an adaptation and mitigation perspective, the solutions that the people many generations ago used to undertake.

These practices are actually old, and in many cases indigenous approaches, but they’ve been overtaken by European farming systems, by commercial applications to forest management. They’re maximizing the profit, but not looking at the really long term impacts and the sustainability of the industry and the planet as a whole.

A lot of what we’re doing now is integrating trees into farming systems. We’re integrating trees and perennials into pastoral systems, and regenerating forests in a sustainable way where they can be direct benefits to humans from the forests.

Not only this, but we’re also protecting, restoring, and maintaining those forests for the flora and fauna, for the biodiversity outcomes and, of course, for climate change mitigation. At the same time, giving the communities that depend on these natural resources the best possible access solutions is minded as a great counterbalance to all the climate anxiety that so many people feel these days. 

Look, I think it’s human to be stressed out when it comes to climate change. I also think it’s very healthy to lament the disruption we’ve brought about to creation. I do think when you properly lament, it gets you to the point where you’re ready to move past cynicism and towards action.

I think there are ways that simply being fatalistic and resigned to the destruction of climate change is just as bad as ignoring it altogether. I think one thing that holds people back from certain solutions is maybe a fear of how much they might cost. But from what I’ve seen in a lot of the numbers I’ve looked at, it ends up being far more economically advantageous to invest in things like forest restoration because of all the benefits that they provide. Can you share with me a little bit about how you’ve seen that dynamic at work?

As an approach rediscovered in Niger by a man by the name of Tony Renato called “farmer managed natural regeneration”. It was basically looking at, or noticing that in these landscapes that were quickly becoming deserts with the encroachment of the Sahara into Niger, in some of the the poorest, the most food insecure parts of the country where it was being absolutely ravaged periodically by severe drought and famines, that there were these small patches of ground cover all across the desert landscape. He discovered that they weren’t actually ground cover at all. They were hundreds and hundreds of small shoots of stumps from trees that had been cut down generations ago, decades ago… But they were still alive. The root systems out of the ground were still alive across these landscapes. By closing the streets, determining the strongest and most viable shoots, protecting them, and sustainably managing them in a very short period of time, they could regrow into trees.

These trees were by chance leguminous. African acacias, the most common species in Niger where this was happening, was called for Adobe or later. So an amazing tree. It’s got what they call reverse phenology, so that in the peak of the dry season, when the crops are parched and there’s no water, they have a full canopy of leaves and they allow dappled light to filter through to the crops. This allows for the crops and the grains to grow more fully and protect them from the harsh climate. But in the growing season, they lose their lives.

They allow for all of the sunlight to go through. Their leaves are full of nitrogen and a lot of nutrients that the crops actually need to prosper. So they found that by protecting and managing, they’re regrowing these trees within and around the crops across enormous areas of Niger.

Now, I know it’s confirmed there’s been more than seven million hectares restored using this technique. I’ve heard claims of it being more than 10 million hectares now. This is an enormous number of very small scale farmers that have adopted this practice.

It now looks like a natural parkland, but it’s actually the crops that are being sustainably managed in Niger. This is restoration that can be seen from space. It’s enormous in scale. The farmers that are adopting these practices are producing, in many cases, 300 percent more grains.

When the droughts have hit Niger over the last couple of decades, these farmers that adopted these practices were still able to produce viable yields from their crops. However, their neighbors were seeking food assistance. These farmers are actually selling grain to the World Food Program.

(Philippe): I’m curious how you’ve come to understand the relationships between different nature based solutions perhaps between forestry and healing the soil, or protecting water health. Where does that leave us as hopeful solutionists?

(Chris): There are so many different co benefits and different ways of bringing these systems together to solve so many challenges. So many ways to provide such a diverse range of solutions in a really complementary way, rather than focusing on one and saying this is the right approach. I prefer to focus on each of those and say, “where does this have application, and where can this deliver the greatest benefit?”

How does it complement all of the other solutions that we’re working with when we’re working at a landscape level? How do we maximize the scale and the impact that we’re having? How do we provide the benefits that communities need to support them to progress out of poverty and to use these nature based solutions to create better lives and better futures for everybody?

(Philippe): There’s one more area I want to talk about refocusing, and it has to do with hope. Now, you’re probably thinking I’m about to start talking about how we can go from feeling hopeless to hopeful, how we can go from climate anxiety to climate hope. Listen, I think those are great transitions to make. If you can go on that journey, please, I think a lot of us do need hope right now. That’s not the area of refocus I plan to talk about.

Instead, I’m talking about how we can go from just looking for hope, to understanding the concept of hope and action going together. I’ve spoken a lot about hope in the past. If you heard our Plant With Purpose podcast, “Grassroots”, we have episodes on the topic.

I’ve written about the topic extensively, and talked about reasons to have hope. I’ve talked about hope from a faith perspective. As a Christian, how we know that death and destruction don’t get the last word. Yet as I’ve had more and more conversations with other people, I’m realizing that people are all over the place when it comes to this topic of hope and particularly hope for the climate. I’ve met so many people who are in the solution space, who are experts, leading voices that I really look up to. They are just very exhausted talking about hope. It took me a while to figure that out, because, personally speaking, hope is one of my biggest values. When it comes to a topic like climate change, who couldn’t use more hope? The more I’ve spent time in these conversations, the more I realized what was exhausting to people is the fact that everyone keeps asking them why they should feel hopeful. Can you give me a reason to feel hopeful? Where’s the hope? There wasn’t enough equal enthusiasm. There weren’t similar questions being asked to indicate our willingness to act to take action.

That goes hand in hand with that hope. There’s someone in particular who I would have loved to have a conversation with on this topic, somebody who I have had conversations with on this topic, and that is Dr. Katharine Hayhoe.

You may know her. She’s one of the leading voices in climate science. She’s also a committed Christian and understands this from a very similar perspective. She understands all the nuances and complications. She is a bit busy right now, considering she just released a book called “Saving Us”.

It’s a fantastic book. I just finished it, and I highly recommend you pick it up. Fortunately, I do have a clip of her speaking on this topic at Oxford, and I think this little bit is worth sharing with you.

(Katahrine Hayhoe): How do you find hope? I can tell you absolutely can find hope if you look for it. Where do we find hope? We don’t find hope in science. That’s not what’s designed to give us. We can find hope in two ways.

One is looking to other people. Do you know how much good there is going on in this world if we look for it? The second thing, personally, and this is very personal, what gives me hope is my faith. That is the purpose of my faith. The idea that there is more, that there is the possibility for change if we care about almost anything that most of us do. That’s why you care about climate change. The only reason that we really should care about climate change is because it affects everything else we already care about.

It’s a human issue. So everyone who’s human has all the values they already need to care about it. If they are a human who does not care about it, the only reason is because we haven’t been able to connect the dots.

(Philippe): Katharine Hayhoe also has a fantastic article that recently went live for Time Magazine. It’s kind of one of those articles where you feel like the headline says it all. I don’t want to say that, because I think the rest of the article is fantastic. I want you to read that too, but it essentially says that when it comes to climate change, we’ve got to act so we can feel hopeful, not just the other way around. 

Now, a lot of you might notice recently the IPCC released a report highlighting the challenge of climate change right now. It was a very sobering report. I think a lot of people were just taken aback. Some folks have called it a code red for humanity. Those feelings are absolutely valid and fair. But shortly afterwards, I started to think about why that wasn’t it for me.

Why weren’t those the only feelings I had based on that report? For me, a lot of it is that the conversation around the climate now also reminds me of people like the communities I’ve met in Tanzania, in Mexico, Thailand, and Haiti, who are also dedicated to dealing with this problem.

It reminds me of people like Josh, people like my Plant With Purpose colleagues, people who I’ve met more broadly who are heavily invested in climate solutions, people like Chris. It makes me remember that this isn’t something we’re facing alone.

It’s just one example of how the more active I’ve gotten, the more I’ve engaged these solutions, and the more hopeful I’ve gotten as well. It’s not just an empty hope. It’s not just trying to feel better, but it’s a legitimate belief that the outcomes aren’t fixed and disaster doesn’t have to be inevitable.

There are a couple common attitudes I see, particularly in the American Christian community, that aren’t always helpful when it comes to understanding how hope and action go together. First of all, one thing I see is shame or guilt around feelings of sadness or anxiety when it comes to climate change. People think that just because we are Christians and believe that there is a great future and hope and that God is in control in the long run, that it means that we can’t feel sadness or anxiety as we witness destruction in the present.

I often see scripture misapplied to make people feel guilty for experiencing these reactions. Honestly, I think that these are just expressions of the empathy and compassion God designed us to feel towards each other and towards creation. As somebody I’ve learned a lot from, Renee Worksman has put it, oftentimes climate anxiety is just an expression of love for all of creation. That is a value that’s absolutely in line with my faith. We also know that biblically, lament is part of the process, and it can be a very healthy and sometimes necessary catalyst for us to take action.

Another attitude I see sometimes is that to have hope or to have faith in spite of a climate crisis often looks like just kind of throwing your hands up and saying, well, this is all in God’s hands and on paper. Those things are true. It is in God’s hands. But so often we see a phrase like that to the exclusion of our own role. God has designed for us that He’s called us, too, that we have the privilege and opportunity of serving.

I love the verse of First Timothy 4:10, where it talks about how this is why we labor and strive. It’s because we have put our hope in the living God and the savior of people, especially those who believe.

So basically, we act because of hope and we can have hope because of action. These things go hand in hand. To do so is not to take anything away from God ultimately being in control or the fact that we believe in God’s win over death. In the end, it’s that we get to participate alongside in the process. Why would we not want to do that, right alongside the savior? 

A really big thank you to our guests for taking the time to arrange this conversation, I sure hope it’s been meaningful. We all have different starting points on this journey. I think a willingness to keep growing and to adapt the way we face these topics and see things is necessary for what we’re facing. To quickly go over where we’ve been when talking or thinking about climate: Don’t forget who’s most affected by this crisis. That helps me remember. It’s not about me. It’s not about making a point. It’s about making an actual meaningful difference in real people’s lives. Some of the most vulnerable people, and also future generations. We also don’t have to just fret over the problem. We can get excited about the solutions. One thing I love about working at Plant With Purpose is that it’s allowed me to gain a really in-depth understanding of the myriad of solutions that are out there, from land management to reforestation to regenerative agriculture. There are so many other solutions out there, but going deep on, even just a few of them has provided me with a really sustaining sense of wonder. 

Finally, we want to make sure that the way we talk about hope and action are intertwined. Hope comes alive through action. These things don’t stand apart from each other. Thank you so much for watching. Addressing climate change is one of the things Plant With Purpose actively does through our programs, and through our communication. We work in eight countries around the world who are helping to reverse climate change by strengthening the carbon sinks you find in forests, and you see in the soil. All while seeing how that also reduces poverty and the harmful practices that contribute to the problem. We’re also helping rural, vulnerable communities become climate resilient. So follow along for more at plantwithpurpose.org and go there to learn more about us.

Again, I’m Philippe.. Thank you so much. Take care.

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