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The climate mainstream has ignored soil sinks, which can reverse global warming via photosynthesis. Time to build soils, full speed ahead!


Description

Summary

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate would use a CoLab prize to mount a public challenge to scientists and activists: pursue, as a highest priority, the potential of photosynthetic soil carbon sequestration in all planning and action to reverse global warming. 

Primarily based in the physical sciences, climate scientists generally do not yet recognize what life scientists have long known: the power of life has molded almost every aspect of the physical earth, including the climate.  Wise human management of the biosphere can undo the eco-mess we have created and regenerate a planet that we can live on.

While reducing emissions is critically important, the fact is we have lost far more carbon to the atmosphere from soil disruption since the beginning of agriculture than we have by burning gas, coal and oil.  We can take it out of the atmosphere and rapidly and safely put it back into the ground where it belongs.

We know now that the most effective approach to reducing atmospheric carbon is to capture it with green plants, which, along with animals, insects, fungi and micro-organisms, bury it deep in soils in carbon-rich molecules which are stable for centuries or longer. In the process, because complex organic carbon molecules retain many times their weight in water, we restore vibrant life to billions of acres of parched, desertified areas that were once healthy forests or grasslands.

Emissions reductions, while absolutely necessary, are by no means sufficient to address climate change, and show no signs of abating soon despite 25 years of widespread efforts.  A critical step in climate reversal by eco-restoration is to bring it front and center in the mainstream climate conversation.  For if we don't talk about it, we won't think about it and we certainly won't do it.  At this point in time, with positive feedbacks already in play we’re seeing only a tame preview of what’s to come.  Soil carbon sequestration is essential to any meaningful climate strategy.


What actions do you propose?

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (BLC) is proposing a critical step in the process of global eco-restoration: changing the mindset of the current mainstream climate movement.  Restoration of ecosystems and increased soil carbon storage are our only hope for reversing global warming in time to avert disastrous impacts, but both are missing from current policy.

About us: BLC was established in 2013 by grassroots climate activists and scientists, driven by the urgency of addressing root causes of both global environmental degradation and climate change. Our mission is to act as an organizational catalyst for groups worldwide in a coordinated effort to capture carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and sequester it in soils, as nature has been doing since time immemorial. Such action has the potential to restore billions of acres of degraded land and to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial carbon levels.

Broadening the mainstream climate conversation to include natural biological sequestration of carbon in soils is a necessary first step toward action to restore degraded lands. BLC has already taken notable steps, even as a new and minimally funded organization, and is already playing a key role in changing the conversation. We have announced the first annual Biodiversity for a Livable Climate Conference, “Restoring Ecosystems, Reversing Global Warming,” to be held November 21-23, 2014 at Tufts University, co-sponsored by the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy and The Center for the Environment. The Soil-Age e-list, managed by BLC staff, is a global platform for coalition building and the exchange of scientific research and policy ideas. BLC members were quoted in a recent Boston Globe article calling attention to the role of soil carbon sequestration in fighting climate change.  BLC staff and Advisory Board are co-authors of a chapter on holistic management's potential for reversing global warming in book entitled Geotherapy, by Thomas Goreau, forthcoming by CRC Press in Fall 2014. On June 25, 2014, Advisory Board member Professor Richard Teague of Texas A&M testified about the importance of soil carbon sequestration at a congressional hearing of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation (testimony starts at 30:07), during which Congressman Raul Grijalva cited our Geotherapy paper and BLC by name.

Other actions we are planning include a short video that highlights the failure of the current emissions-only approach and the potential of biological carbon sequestration.  Such a video would anchor a media campaign that also includes Op-Eds to such outlets as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and so forth. 

We will promote the video and other outreach at our upcoming conference, as well as via the traditional climate networks such as 350.org, Think Progress, etc. We will challenge people such as Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, Al Gore and Jim Hansen to engage in an in-depth discussion both on the ineffectiveness of the emissions-reductions-only approach to addressing climate and the potential of soil restoration through the power of photosynthesis to return to pre-industrial atmospheric carbon levels.

The context for this work is the extensive evidence that global warming is not just a carbon molecule problem, and that biology is a primary determinant force in the world of atmospheric dynamics.  These possibilities are actively ignored by leaders of the climate movement, and it's past time for a new and more hopeful vision.  

It is astonishing and unnerving that prominent scientists and activists - despite repeated invitations - refuse even to have such a conversation.  This is not to say that such people haven't done extraordinary work, much of it necessary - they have and we are all to be grateful.  But like emissions reductions, mainstream climate science to date has been seriously insufficient in addressing the practical realities of climate.

We need to move forward and expand our view of the way nature and its climate work - let us call this proposal an effort at "Omissions Reductions." What has been omitted thus far is the key to a successful response to a rapidly deteriorating life-support system.

The purpose of the proposed actions, accordingly, is to bring this discussion to public and policymaker attention through social media, online ads, public media reporting, crowdfunding, word of mouth, activist and environmental organizations. Some of these outlets are free and will report on our work once the importance of the controversy is generally recognized.  In the meanwhile targeted campaigns in selected venues will be initiated.

A goal of the media campaign is a change in perspective on both the problem and potential solutions. We want to see soil carbon sequestration addressed on the cover of every climate activist website.  For example  350.org should specifically discuss how we will actually get back to 350 (or much lower), and in a time frame that will avert the otherwise "locked in" warming of legacy CO2.

It's worth noting that there have been numerous theories and approaches to social change and innovation.  Some of the organizations involved are resources for this set of Co-Lab proposals.  There are many interesting and noteworthy ideas out there on how minds and cultures evolve, but the bottom line is that none of these efforts has made any apparent difference on the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere or in the ground.  This is an involved discussion in itself, but the bottom line is that no one really knows. An intangible factor, the spirit of the times, is elusive yet decisive.  Nothing will happen if the time isn't right.  Nor will it happen if we aren't ready.  We have no influence on the rightness of the time, only on our readiness.  

There are many signs that the time for another approach to global warming is here - otherwise we will have nowhere to turn.  Fortunately we have biology and the natural world to turn to, and as the new, drought-and-drench driven climate approaches, we are well served to be ready.


Who will take these actions?

For the social change campaign, like-minded individuals and organizations, whose numbers are growing along with funders and scientists to support the efforts.  

For eco-restoration on the ground, we will need farmers, ranchers, scientists, media and funders.


Where will these actions be taken?

For changing minds in the climate movement, mostly in the U.S. and other developed countries.

For eco-restoration, these actions are already taking place on desertified and endangered lands in Africa, Australia, South America, North America, Europe and Asia, in both developing and developed countries. They need to be expanded by orders of magnitude.


How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

When enough land is restored - roughly half of the current desertified global acreage (does not apply to true deserts) - all of current emissions will be sequestered.  The other half will sequester legacy carbon until we return to pre-industrial levels at the potential rate of 2-3 ppm/year.


What are other key benefits?

With eco-restoration we can unite people, organizations and governments, even those who have been fighting and maneuvering for advantage for decades.  Just about everyone will agree that a magnificent stretch of wooded hills or green fields of grasses brimming with life is preferable to those rendered parched, cracked, barren and lifeless due to human misuse.

Eco-restoration also restores biodiversity by once again providing habitats on over 10 billion ruined acres worldwide, cools the earth's surface through evapo-transpiration, revitalizes croplands and results in major increases in food production, and will provide jobs and security for millions of people, especially in the developing world.


What are the proposal’s costs?

The immediate costs are to pay for media and advertising outreach to change the mainstream climate conversation.  

The costs for capturing carbon in soils, since eco-restoration generates so many tangible and intangible benefits, are ultimately negative. There will be startup costs to provide people with training, farm animals and seeds, but these would pale next to the toll imposed by superstorms, massive droughts and other climate catastrophes.  Once land is well on the way to restoration and sustainability there should be no external costs.


Time line

Changing minds on eco-restoration and soil sinks is primarily a short-term effort.  When people mired in the current climate gloom hear about the potential for actually reversing global warming - a possibility rarely discussed - they suddenly find a reason to hope and to act.  In order for many more to be ready to hear such possibilities, we must work to change the climate conversation through social media, online ads, public media outlets, crowdfunding, word of mouth, activist organizations, etc.

We propose a timeline of two years or less to bring soil sinks to the fore of the mainstream climate movement, as well as to other affected constituencies - farmers, ranchers, water departments, shoreline authorities, the list is very long.  We have to go viral here, nature isn't giving us much time.

The actual soil sequestration is already underway on millions of acres but is below the mainstream radar; it needs to be scaled to billions of acres. That will be an ongoing and accelerating process and has to take place in the short and medium term - 2 to 40 years.  There is no long-term timeline: If we don't get it going soon, the proposed "windows of opportunity" that have regularly slammed shut over the past 25 years and magically continued to re-open will be nailed shut for good.


Related proposals

Five Billion Hectares of Hope: Inspiring Action to Address Climate Change

Ecological Design for Geotherapy

Removing Legacy Carbon and Ongoing Emissions by Regenerating Soils Worldwide

 


References

David Beerling, The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History, 2008.

P. Buringh, "Organic Carbon in Soils of the World," in The Role of Terrestrial Vegetation in the Global Carbon Cycle: Measurement by Remote Sensing, G. M. Woodwell, Ed., John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1984, 91-109. 

Thomas Goreau, Geotherapy: Innovative Methods for Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase, CRC Publications, in press.

Rober Hazen, "How Life Transformed the Planet."

Seth J. Itzkan, "Upside (Drawdown) The Potential of Restorative Grazing to Mitigate Global Warming by Increasing Carbon Capture on Grasslands."

Gregory J. Retallack, "Global Cooling by Grassland Soils of the Geological Past and Near Future."

William F. Ruddiman,, "The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago," Climatic Change, 61: 261–293, 2003.

Adam D. Sacks, et al., "Restoring Carbon Dioxide to Pre-Industrial Levels: Re-Establishing the Evolutionary Grassland-Grazer Relationship." 

Allan Savory, "How to fight desertification and reverse climate change," TED Talk, 2013.

Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making, Island Press, 1999.

Judith Schwartz, Cows Save the Planet, Chelsea Green, 2013.

United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Summary for Policymakers," 2013, p 28:  "A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period. Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Due to the long time scales of heat transfer from the ocean surface to depth, ocean warming will continue for centuries. Depending on the scenario, about 15 to 40% of emitted CO2 will remain in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years" (emphasis added).

Peter Westbroek, Life as a Geological Force, 1991.

Additional references available on our website at http://bio4climate.org/resources/.