Reversing Global Warming: The Carbon Underground
Since leading NASA scientist James Hansen warned in 2008 that we need to reduce the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) in order to preserve life on Earth, little has been done to get us there. It’s getting late. If we’re going to preserve a livable Earth, we, the global grassroots, must do more than mitigate global warming. We must reverse it. How? Hint number one: not by politely asking out-of-control corporations and politicians to please stop destroying the planet.
Hint number two: not by pinning our hopes for survival and climate stability on hi-tech, unproven and dangerous “solutions” such as genetic engineering, geoengineering, or carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants.
Hint number three: not by naively believing that soon (or soon enough) ordinary consumers all over the planet will spontaneously abandon their cars, air travel, air conditioning, central heating, and fossil fuel-based diets and lifestyles just in time to prevent atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from moving past the tipping point of 450 ppm or more of CO2 to the catastrophic point of no return.
We can reverse climate change by sequestering several hundred billion tons of excess CO2 using the “tools” we already have at hand: regenerative, organic, farming, ranching and land use.
We can make this world-changing transition by mobilizing a vast green corps of farmers, ranchers, gardeners, consumers, climate activists and conservationists to begin the monumental task of moving the Carbon Behemoth safely back underground.
Thousands of farmers, ranchers and researchers worldwide are demonstrating that, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and qualitatively ramping up plant photosynthesis—the capacity of plants, trees, and grasses to move CO2 from the atmosphere through their roots into the soil—on billions of acres of farmland, rangeland and forest, we can sequester enough CO2 to restabilize the climate.
We’re talking about mobilizing the global grassroots as active participants, producers and conscious consumers to implement and promote, on a mass scale, the tried and true, low-tech, beneficial practices that naturally sequester enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in the soil.
These traditional, regenerative practices include no-till organic farming, planned rotational grazing (carbon ranching), composting of organic wastes, the use of cover crops, planting trees, and preserving and restoring forests, wetlands, riparian zones, grasslands, peat bogs and biodiversity.
As Courtney White, author of Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country (2014: Chelsea Green) puts it:
If land that is bare, degraded, tilled, or monocropped can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral and nutrient cycles, and covered year-round with a diversity of green plants with deep roots, then the added amount of atmospheric CO2 that can be stored in the soil is potentially high.
Globally… soils contain about three times the amount of carbon that’s stored in vegetation and twice the amount stored in the atmosphere. Since two-thirds of the earth’s land mass is grassland, additional CO2 storage in the soil via better management practices, even on a small scale, could have a huge impact.
Regenerative agriculture: creating soil
Noted food writer Michael Pollan, in his introduction to White’s book, explains the basic concepts of plant photosynthesis and the benefits of regenerative agriculture:
Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon-sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40%—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes —the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.
Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands are properly managed, according to White—that process at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us…
This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its ”root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up.
Our life-or-death task
If you are unfamiliar with the enormous impact of industrial food and farming and non-sustainable forest practices on global warming (chemical and energy-intensive, GMO, industrial food and farming practices generate 35% of global greenhouse gas pollution, while deforestation, often agriculture-driven, generates another 20%) and the concept of natural carbon sequestration through regenerative land use, take a look at the comprehensive 2013 scientific study Wake Up Before It’s Too Late, published by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
And if you need a strong dose of good news, to counteract the typical gloom and doom message around the climate crisis, read the 2014 Rodale Institute study on regenerative organic practices (see references, next page).
Given that hundreds of billions of tons of carbon originally sequestered in agricultural soils are now blanketing the atmosphere and cooking the planet, our life-or-death task is to move this massive “legacy load” of CO2 back underground, as soon as possible. This Great Sequestration will buy us the time we need to reduce fossil fuel use by 80-90% or more and reverse global warming.
Taking down factory farms and industrial agriculture
Of course moving several hundred gigatons of CO2 back underground and reversing global warming will not be easy. Getting back to 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere will require nothing less than a global food and farming revolution: shutting down factory farms, boycotting genetically engineered foods, including factory-farmed meat and animal products, and putting billions of intensively confined farm animals back on the land, grazing, where they belong.
Restabilizing the climate means putting an end to gigantic GMO soybean and palm oil plantations and industrial timber operations. It means preserving tropical forests, and planting and nurturing hundreds of billions of native trees in deforested urban and rural areas.
Reversing global warming means putting an end to the energy-intensive, chemical-intensive, genetically engineered industrial food and farming system that is destroying public health, torturing animals, polluting the water, overgrazing pastures and rangelands, driving family farmers off the land and destroying biodiversity, as well as pumping billions of tons of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and black soot into the air.
Reversing climate change also means stopping industrial agriculture from continuing to dump billions of pounds of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the already heavily tilled, compacted and eroded land —practices that destroy the Earth’s natural ability to sequester vast amounts of carbon. These unsustainable farming, ranching and land use practices, according to Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal, have already caused the release of 25-70% (hundreds of billions of tons) of all the carbon originally sequestered in agricultural soils.
But as molecular biologist David Johnson of New Mexico State University has recently shown in a scientific study for Sandia Labs, by implementing regenerative organic practices, “the rates of biomass production we are currently observing in this system have the capability to capture enough CO2 (50 tons of CO2/acre) to offset all anthropogenic [originating from human activity] CO2 emissions on less than 11% of world cropland. Over twice this amount of land is fallow at any time worldwide.” Portland, Oregon journalist Kristin Ohlsen reports this in her book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet (2014: Rodale Books).
“Aren’t you afraid to say this?” Ohlson asked Johnson in a telephone conversation about this staggering assertion. “Aren’t you afraid that saying that will let the oil and gas companies off the hook? As well as people burning down forests and all the rest of us with big carbon footprints?”
Dr. Johnson replied: “I don’t see anything on the horizon that touches the effectiveness of this approach. We’re not going to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions anytime soon, because we depend too much on oil and gas, and the rest of the world wants our lifestyle. The whole idea is to get something that works right now, the world over, to make a significant impact on reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
If industrial agriculture and GMOs are marginalized through mandatory labeling, marketplace pressure and public policy change, if fossil fuel consumption in all sectors is steadily reduced, and regenerative organic practices are put into action globally, with a focus on the 22% of the planet’s soils which are degraded and currently fallow, we will be able to sequester 100% of current annual (35 gigatons) carbon dioxide emissions.
Small farmers can cool the planet
The world’s two and a half billion small and indigenous farmers and rural villagers currently manage to produce 70% of the world’s food on 25% of the world’s land. These subsistence farmers, who have always struggled to survive, now find that climate change, the steady expansion of GMOs and industrial agriculture, and Free Trade agreements, are making their farming and survival much more difficult. But these same small farmers, ranchers, pastoralists and forest dwellers, because they have, in most cases, retained traditional knowledge and practices, including seed saving and animal grazing, are open to adopting even more powerful regenerative organic practices. And these regenerative, climate-friendly, low-tech land-management techniques will also increase yields, reduce rural poverty, conserve water, improve soil health and prevent erosion. Study after study has shown that small agro-ecological farms significantly out-produce industrial farms—while sequestering carbon.
The solution to climate change, desertification and world hunger is literally in the hands of the world’s two-and-a-half billion family farmers —but only if conscious consumers and activists are driving public policy and marketplace on a global scale. This won’t happen unless we focus on economic justice and land-use reform. Investments and public funds, local to international, must be shifted from greenhouse gas-polluting factory farms and chemical-drenched genetically engineered crops to regenerative organic farming techniques that benefit small-scale and sustainable farmers, as well as consumers.
Land grabs and “free trade” agreements orchestrated by industrialized nations and multinational corporations must be stopped.
The point of no return
The U.S. and global climate movement desperately needs a more sophisticated (and international) strategy beyond just pressuring politicians, corporations, banksters and the White House into shutting down coal plants, fracking and the tar sands pipeline. What we need is a holistic Zero Emissions/Maximum Sequestration strategy that can galvanize a grassroots army of hundreds of millions of small farmers and conscious consumers, not only in the U.S., but globally.
A critical mass of the body politic is beginning to understand that global warming and climate chaos pose a serious threat to human survival. What they are lacking, however, is a coherent and empowering understanding of what is actually causing global warming, as well as a practical roadmap of how we—individually, collectively and globally—move away from the dangerous precipice where we find ourselves.
The only remaining significant disagreement among informed climate researchers centers on how long we can survive the still-rising 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere (485 ppm if we include other greenhouse gasess such as methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs and black soot). Current consensus seems to be 15-25 years before we reach a “point of no return” whereby climate change morphs into irreversible climate catastrophe.
Faulty solutions, flawed strategy
The U.S.-based climate action movement, led by 350.org, has done an excellent job of protesting against the coal, oil and gas industries. This high-profile movement has also popularized the notion that fossil fuel consumption must be drastically slashed (by 80-90%) and replaced by renewable forms of energy, and that individuals and institutions must divest from the fossil fuel industry, making sure that 75% of fossil fuels reserves are left in the ground.
But strategic components of 350.org’s roadmap for change are seriously flawed.
First of all, 350.org’s reliance on over-simplified official statistics (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) on what is causing excess greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere (utilities, industry, transportation, and housing) fails to take into account the fact that our industrial food and farming system (production, transportation, processing, waste, and land use), including its impact on deforestation and the soil’s ability to naturally sequester CO2, are the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions.
Our climate dysfunctionality is in large part a function of how we farm and eat. Yet some of the most prominent voices in the climate movement continue to downplay, or ignore entirely, this fact.
Even the most optimistic climate activists admit that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will likely reach 450 ppm in the next several decades before leveling off. The climate movement up until now has offered no real strategy for how we can get from 450 ppm or more to the safe level of 350 ppm.
Even if the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, the European Union and other nations stop all emissions sometime in the next 20 years, we will still have dangerous levels (450 ppm or more of CO2 and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere—levels that will gradually melt the polar icecaps, burn up the Amazon, spawn disastrous storms, floods, and droughts, and destroy agricultural productivity.
This is not just a basic error in analysis and a failure of imagination. It’s a “doom-and-gloom” formula that leaves us with little or no hope.
Instead, educate yourself about regenerative organics and natural carbon sequestration. United, the various movements can become a mighty force for transformation and regeneration.
The hour is late. Let us move as quickly as possible toward a regenerative farming, ranching and land use system capable of reversing global warming.
Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica.
References and resources
United Nations Trade & Environment Review (2013), Wake Up Before It Is Too Late:http://unctad.org/en/pages/ Publication Webflyer.aspx?publicationid=666
Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change (2014): http://rodaleinstitute.org/regenerative-organic-agriculture-and-climate-change/
Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White (2014: Chelsea Green)
The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet by Kristin Ohlsen (2014: Rodale Books)
Organic Consumers Association: The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots non-profit 501(c)3 public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children’s health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics.