The Paris Climate Conference Finally Signaled Consensus on Global Warming--That Was Last Year

The Paris Climate Conference Finally Signaled Consensus on Global Warming--That Was Last Year

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Sequestering the farm

In Washington, D.C., the nation's leaders continue tussling over popular issues like immigration, taxes, healthcare, abortion, guns and foreign affairs.

Climate change activists wish they would be thinking more about soil. That's because stopping greenhouse gas emissions alone will not stop climate change. The carbon dioxide emitted through centuries of industrial activity will continue to drive warming unless it is removed from the air and put somewhere.

"There are only three places carbon can go," Brillinger said. "It can go into the atmosphere, where we don't want it, into the ocean, where we also don't want it because it causes acidification, or into soil and woody plants where we do want it. Carbon is the backbone of all forests and is a critical nutrient of soil."

But most of the Earth's soil carbon has been lost to the atmosphere, causing a spike in atmospheric carbon. In the 1700s, the Earth's atmosphere contained less than 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide, according to scientists. Now, we are at more than 400 and counting. Climate experts generally agree that the atmospheric carbon level must be reduced to 350 or less if we are to keep at bay the most disastrous possible impacts of warming.

This is why farmers and the soil they work will be so important in mitigating climate change. By employing certain practices and abandoning other ones, farmers and ranchers can turn acreage into valuable carbon sinks — a general agricultural approach often referred to as "carbon farming."

Conventional agriculture practices tend to emit carbon dioxide. Regular tilling of the soil, for example, causes soil carbon to bond with oxygen and float away as carbon dioxide. Tilling also causes erosion, as do deforestation and overgrazing. With erosion, soil carbon enters waterways, creating carbonic acid — the direct culprit in ocean acidification. Researchers have estimated that unsustainable farming practices have caused as much as 80 percent of the world's soil carbon to turn into carbon dioxide.

By carbon farming, those who produce the world's food can simultaneously turn their land into precious carbon sinks. The basic tenets of carbon farming include growing trees as windbreaks and focusing on perennial crops, like fruit trees and certain specialty grain varieties, which demand less tilling and disturbance of the soil.

Eric Toensmeier, a senior fellow with the climate advocacy group Project Drawdown and the author of The Carbon Farming Solution, says many other countries are far ahead of the United States in both recognizing the importance of soil as a place to store carbon and funding programs that help conventional farmers shift toward carbon farming practices. France, for instance, initiated a sophisticated program in 2011 that calls for increasing soil carbon worldwide by 0.4 percent every year. Healthy soil can contain 10 percent carbon or more, and France's program has the potential over time to decelerate the increase in atmospheric carbon levels.

Toensmeier is optimistic about the progress being made in the United States, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds programs that support environmentally friendly farming practices that protect watersheds or enhance wildlife habitat, largely through planting perennial grasses and trees.

"And it turns out a lot of the practices they're paying farmers to do to protect water quality or slow erosion also happen to sequester carbon," Toensmeier said.

He says it appears obvious that the federal government is establishing a system by which they will eventually pay farmers directly to sequester carbon. Such a direct faceoff with climate change, however, may be a few years away still.

Climate activists may even need to wait until 2021.

"First we need a president who acknowledges that climate change exists," Toensmeier said.

National politics and city reform

Climate reform advocates still talk about Bernie Sanders' fiery attack on fracking as a source of global warming in the May primary debate with Hillary Clinton.

"If we don't get our act together, this planet could be 5 to 10 degrees warmer by the end of this century," Sanders said then. "Cataclysmic problems for this planet. This is a national crisis."

Sanders was not exaggerating. The Earth has already warmed by 1.7 degrees since 1880, and it's getting hotter. Even with the advances made in Paris, the world remains on track to be 6.1 degrees warmer by 2100 than it was in pre-industrial times, according to a United Nations emissions report released in early November. The authors of another paper published in January in the journal Nature predicted temperatures will rise as much as 10 degrees.

In light of the scientific consensus, conservatives' denial of climate change looks childish at best and dangerous at worst. In low-lying Florida, so vulnerable to the rising sea, an unofficial policy from its Republican leadership has effectively muzzled state employees from even mentioning "climate change" and "global warming" in official reports and communications. Republican senator Ted Cruz suggested NASA focus its research less on climate change and more on space exploration, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Most frightening of all, maybe, is the incoming American president's stance on the matter: Trump said in a 2012 tweet that global warming is a Chinese hoax. In January 2014, during a brief spell of cold weather, he asked via Twitter, "Is our country still spending money on the GLOBAL WARMING HOAX?"

While most of the rest of the world remains poised to advance emissions reductions goals, Trump is aiming in a different direction. The Trump-Pence website vows to "unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves." His webpage concerning energy goals only mentions reducing emissions once, and it makes no mention of climate change or renewable energy.

While meaningful action at the federal level is probably years away, at the local level, progress is coming — even in communities led by Republicans, according to Rose. That, he says, is because local politicians face a level of accountability from which national leaders are often shielded.

"At the city level, mayors have to deliver real results," Rose said. "They have to protect their residents and make wise investments on behalf of their residents. The residents see what they're doing and hold them accountable."

Restructuring and modifying our cities, which are responsible for about half of America's carbon footprint, "will be critical toward dealing with climate change," Rose said.

"On the coast we'll have sea level rise," he said. "Inland, we'll have flooding and heat waves. Heat waves cause more deaths than hurricanes."

Simply integrating nature into city infrastructure is a very low-cost but effective means for countering the changes that are coming, Rose says. Many cities, for example, are planting thousands of street trees. Trees draw in atmospheric carbon as they grow and, through shade and evaporative cooling effects, can significantly reduce surface temperatures by as much as 6 degrees in some circumstances, Rose says.

Laws and policies that take aim at reduced emissions targets can be very efficient tools for generating change across entire communities. However, Kalmus believes it's important that individuals, too, reduce their own emissions through voluntary behavior changes, rather than simply waiting for change to come from leaders and lawmakers.

"If you care about climate change, it will make you happier," he said. "It makes you feel like you're pioneering a new way to live. For others, you're the person who is showing the path and making them realize it's not as crazy as it seems."

Kalmus, who lives in Altadena, California, with his wife and two sons, has radically overhauled his lifestyle to reduce his carbon footprint. Since 2010 he has cut his own emissions by a factor of 10 — from 20 tons per year to just 2, by his own estimates. This personal transformation is the subject of his forthcoming book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, due out in 2017.

Kalmus rides a bike most places, eats mostly locally grown food, raises some of it in his own yard, has stopped eating meat and — one of the most important changes — has all but quit flying places.

He hopes to serve as a model and help spark a transition to an economy that does not depend on constant growth, as ours currently does. One day, he believes, it will be socially unacceptable to burn fossil fuel, just as it's become shunned to waste water in drought-dried California. The oil industry will eventually become obsolete.

"We need to transition to an economy that doesn't depend on unending growth," Kalmus said.

Unless we slow our carbon emissions and our population growth now, depletion of resources, he warns, will catch up with us.

"We need to shift to a steady-state economy and a steady-state population," he said. "Fossil-fueled civilization cannot continue forever."

Though Americans will soon have as president a man who is essentially advocating for climate change, Valk, at the Citizens' Climate Lobby, expects time — and warming — to shift voter perspectives.

"As more and more people are personally affected by climate change, like those recently flooded out in Louisiana and North Carolina, people of all political persuasions will see that acting on climate change is not a matter of partisan preferences, but a matter of survival," he said.

Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist in San Francisco, California. He writes about water, fisheries, agriculture and the environment, and his work has appeared at NPR.org, SmithsonianMag.com, the Sacramento News & Review and Yale E360.

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