An elevator discussion on climate

NOTE: In an elevator, at a conference on climate change. Each paragraph represents a different speaker.

Well folks, that movie made it clear. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere.

It's grim. But I'm not buying the emissions reduction solution, as obvious as it might seem. According to the IPCC, even with zero emissions (hah!), it will take way too long for atmospheric carbon dioxide to subside to safe levels, and we lose the cooling aerosol effects immediately. So we've got to take out the legacy load.

Isn't there a technology for capturing carbon out of the atmosphere?

Well, maybe. But it takes lots of energy and capital expenditure to collect and concentrate a trace gas into a huge, somewhat hazardous, disposal problem. Who is going to do this, or pay to have it done? "Not me, said the horse."

What about trees? Don't they capture carbon?

Some say the Amazon will burn. There is already too much human and climatic pressure on trees and forests for them to absorb and hold the excess.

What a huge, insoluble problem we've got! And look at the multiple styles of denial, hopelessness, survivalism, and insanity it is generating! (Not to mention the passenger miles to these conferences.) Anyway, here's my floor. G'bye.

Instead of trying to wipe out the problem, let's add to it: There is too much carbon in the atmosphere, and not enough in soils.

Great, now we have two problems instead of one! An excess, and a scarcity.

Challenge scenario

scenario for Soil Carbon Challenge (this is a projected future possibility; it hasn't happened yet)

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an unusual partnership between 54 nonprofit organizations and associations across the globe, many of whom have been competing with each other in advocating strategies for stewardship of land and resources. The activity of the Challenge is monitoring rather than advocacy of particular methods. Its purpose is to recognize land managers who do an outstanding job of turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon, achieve positive change through monitoring, and tell the story of soil organic matter.

In January 2011 the 29-member Competition Committee for the Soil Carbon Challenge met to finalize rules and protocols. Committee member Wayne Beck admitted, "This isn't about science, at least in the sense we've become accustomed to. It's about systems that can enhance the living world. There's lots of people out there who are throwing mud against a wall, to see what sticks. We're going to help them gauge their soil organic matter. But a scientist will try to predict what sticks, and then tell us why some of it didn't stick, or why some that did stick should not have."

Can policy build soil carbon? Part 2 of 2

(Part 1 of this post)

To summarize: the lack of organic matter in our soils isn't a problem, to be fixed with a solution. It's an opportunity, with divergent solutions. Yet our policy systems tend to select for convergent and standardized solutions, which are difficult to implement because of power struggles and escalating fears, or are too compromised by a "best practices" format to be most effective in a variety of situations. And if they do get implemented, they depend on large appropriations that may not always materialize.

Approved, implementable, and effective strategies and actions get scarcer and scarcer as the need for them gets more and more urgent. In the face of grave threats, the sense of freedom and possibility shrinks to a point. Is this what we want? It is a situation we have contributed to.

Challenging these dynamics, important as it is, won't be enough. Giving the "right" answers to the wrong questions is a steady job, but boring. A different selection system, with different selective forces, is needed. One that asks not what to do about global warming pollution, for example, but asks how the carbon cycle functions in this or that place, and what are the possibilities for enhancing it. For example, what are the possibilities, in a variety of situations, for turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter?

Prize competitions are a proven strategy for exploring, pushing the boundaries, and telling the story of what is possible. They can help change the questions, which can help shift leadership from top-level experts to successful local practitioners.

Can policy build soil carbon? Part 1 of 2

The problem with carbon is that it's not a problem. It's a cycle, encompassing the fields and pastures where your breakfast came from, your every breath and thought. It’s a network, linking together the metabolisms, life histories, and deaths of all the biosphere’s organisms--which are autonomous, mostly single-celled, and made largely of carbon.

There is too much carbon in the atmosphere, and humans are responsible. The cues are all there to see this as a problem, and an environmental problem at that. Such a recognition can be unconscious and instantaneous. The self-evident solution is to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Within its frame of reference, the diagnosis is true--fossil fuel burning is bad, it's pollution, and ought to be slowed or stopped. But the diagnosis is useless. It will keep the problem unsolved.

It sets up a power struggle over who owns the issue, who frames it. There is widespread and stubborn resistance to the environmental framing and its embedded solution. This resistance is not about peer-reviewed science or data. It's about fear--of scarcity, of loss of choices, of being controlled by liberal do-gooders and dysfunctional international agreements.

Ridiculing, belittling, or ignoring such fears doesn't make them disappear. It nourishes them. Likewise, the fears of climate change--sea level rise, drought, famine, booms and busts of plants and animals, economic collapse, refugees--will gain urgency and strength under denial or lack of action.

These are not the dynamics of change. They are the dynamics of a pendulum, where motion in one direction guarantees motion in the other, and which can only be stable when it is hanging straight down, after all energy is dissipated.

Canadian Cattleman's Association cowboy guide to greenhouse gas sinks and sources

Lee Pengilly in Canada has written a wonderful "cowboy" guide to greenhouse gas sinks and sources, published by the Canadian Cattleman's Association. Includes a simple monitoring guide for water cycling, nutrient cycling, energy flow, and succession.

Download below (right click, save as). Here is a sample from the "Kyoto Cowboy" poem that ends the document.


Here is a logo for the Soil Carbon Coalition. Click it to play it again. The UNanimated version (for most use) will be the final state of the animation.

Turning air into dirt: Using atmospheric carbon and solar energy to grow the water-holding soils that can feed the world

Our best opportunity for an effective, near-term, and broadly inclusive strategy to address climate change lies beneath our feet. The soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere and forests combined. Though human actions and decisions control them, these enormous flows of carbon in and out of the soil are invisible, and largely outside our awareness and intention.

We can take advantage of this opportunity if we can see it. What follows is not a pet theory or idle speculation. It is based on years of on-site reporting on farms and ranches on several continents.

Technology alone, or guilt over technology, won't fix climate change. Fossil-fuel burning contributes only about 3.4% of the annual global flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Deforestation or land use change, about 0.75%.[1]

Though just a sliver relative to the big picture, these emissions contribute to the likelihood of dangerous climate change. They're bad. But what might happen if we reduce them, or stop them?

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that "both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the time scales required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere."[2] Furthermore, "complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century."[3] In other words, with the stiffest reductions imaginable, it may take generations to get atmospheric concentrations down to what climate scientist James Hansen calls safe levels—350 parts per million.

Burning fossil fuels and forests also generates aerosols or fine particles that reflect solar radiation back into space, with significant cooling effects.[4] Loss of these short-lived aerosols would likely result in immediate warming.

FAO recognizes carbon farming

At the recent soil carbon conferences (West Lafayette, Indiana, and Orange, New South Wales), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recognized conservation agriculture as a way to sequester carbon in the soil, and recommended that soil carbon be included in the Kyoto treaty as a tradable offset.

Here are two pdf files from the conferences (right click and save link as to download).

The Soil Carbon Challenge or World Carbon Cup

Seeing the carbon/climate problem differently: why we need a soil carbon challenge

1. Technology alone, or guilt over technology, won't fix climate change. Fossil fuel emissions are only 3.4% of the annual flux of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (Lal 2008). Even with instantaneous and complete elimination of these emissions, it may take generations for atmospheric carbon dioxide to decline to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls safe levels (IPCC 2007a, 2007b).

Reducing fossil-fuel emissions may be a necessary part of long-term climate stability. But in the near term, emissions reductions would have little leverage on the factors of concern for IPCC scientists: positive radiative forcing driven principally by atmospheric carbon dioxide.

2. Taking responsibility means seeing the problem differently. The problem with carbon is that it's not a problem. It's a biologically driven cycle. It's a network of self-motivated creatures, most of them microscopic, powered by chemical energy from sunlight, who grow, strive, eat, multiply, respire, and die.

Most of our climate change ideas come from physical science. But biology runs the vast majority of the carbon cycle. Green plants take carbon from the atmosphere using solar energy and make the sugars and carbohydrates that fuel life and growth, and power every action, feeling, and thought. Most of this carbon is returned back into the atmosphere by oxidation, which releases energy: respiration, decay, and fire.

Fossil fuel deposits are the result of photosynthesis exceeding oxidation over a geological time scale. Soil organic matter—carbon compounds that are the residue of past life, the present habitat for underground biodiversity, and the substrate for future life—also stores a solar surplus, but on a shorter time scale.

From the oil age to the soil age

A recent PowerPoint presentation by Abe Collins, attached below this article, outlines the soil carbon opportunity, the role of carbon farming, and policy directions to realize the opportunity. Right click and choose "Save link (or target) as" to download it.


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