System leverage

Skeptics of anthropogenic global warming often attribute the power to change climate to solar output (astrophysics).

Most climate activists place the power for change with fossil fuel emissions (technology). But more are now recognizing that changing technology, such as emissions reductions, lacks near-term leverage on the whole system and on atmospheric carbon. Being proactive won't help much, because the system is too narrowly defined.

Reflecting more solar energy into space, or air capture of carbon using technology, is attractive to some because it corresponds to a widespread technical orientation, as well as frustration or impatience with the social, political, and leverage issues around emissions reductions. But these "geoengineering" possibilities are consistently accused of being band-aids. They do not address the causes of climate change, or the buildup of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases.

The earth system, such as the biological carbon cycle, has been invisible or inscrutable as a source of change. But many are beginning to see the influence or potential influence of soil carbon or peat carbon, and forest carbon, and the tremendous power of carbon cycling.

We do not influence the biological carbon cycle as directly as we influence coal burning, but our influence is strong and immediate--though not as predictable and mechanical as international agreements, markets, or policy approaches seem to demand. The remaining divisions in science, for example into biological and physical sciences, haven't helped us understand the power of carbon cycling.

But the biological carbon cycle, and the biosphere's work that drives it, could multiply our leverage on atmospheric carbon, which in turn leverages solar radiation. Soil carbon also offers a cornucopia of other benefits to water, soil fertility, and community issues, and it's something that rich and poor alike can do for themselves as well as for the climate system. It's worth facing up to the need for transforming policy approaches, leadership, and decision making.

This is a "middle way" between deniers of anthropogenic global warming, and those who press emissions reductions as the only solution. The Soil Carbon Challenge is a clear step in this direction.