Will reducing or stopping carbon dioxide emissions stop global warming? Not according to the IPCC. The Fourth Assessment FAQ, section 10.3, notes that “complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century.” By going cold turkey on fossil fuels, we only get down to about 1985 levels in 92 years. The oceans will continue to heat up.

In other words, we might as well try to drive a big wood screw into hard oak with a hammer. Yet the belief that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will have some leverage on the problem is widespread.

To examine our beliefs, which are often hidden from us, I offer two solutions to global warming. Both will likely work, but they are very different.

1. The Earth Bag. Many elaborate and expensive geoengineering proposals have been made, but here is the most practical.

The earth’s overall temperature depends in part on albedo, or reflectivity to solar radiation. Change this by a few percent, and we change the climate.

We manufacture 5 trillion plastic bags each year. All we need to do is to make them all white and bright, and get them into the dark tropical oceans, where they will reflect huge amounts of solar radiation back into space.

No new infrastructure or technology is required, or massive research budgets. The huge area of floating debris in the Pacific already represents proof of concept. All we need to do is to insist to our bag manufacturers: white and bright. (The generic Earth Bag could also contain a small bubble-wrap capsule for better buoyancy.) For coastal areas, storm sewers are existing pathways for the plastic bags to get to the ocean. Elsewhere, rivers would serve. White styrofoam — chunks as well as packing peanuts — could make a contribution, and UPS already functions as a distribution network.

Some change in social norms would be required. Collecting plastic bags or styrofoam peanuts to a landfill would become deviant behavior. We want them broadcast, especially over our darker landscapes and waters. If the climate began to cool too much, we could fine-tune by making the bags and styrofoam darker.

Unlike large floating rafts that have been proposed, the Earth Bag solution makes use existing technology and existing behavior, and would allow whales and other marine life to surface. Instead of large appropriations to a few corporations, we all get to participate in a solution, without new taxes even.

2. Soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is 58 percent carbon by weight. Even in their presently depleted state, soils contain more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.

Innovators and pioneers of alternative agriculture have discovered rapid ways of increasing soil organic matter at little cost, without material inputs or new technology. If 1.6 percent of the top foot of soil in the world’s crop and grazing lands were to become organic matter, we could be near 300 ppm of atmospheric concentration.

Soil represents the largest and most stable carbon pool that we have the capacity to increase. This enormous opportunity has remained hidden because:

  • it is underground and invisible
  • it is the result of process, and is not a thing or species
  • our agriculture is built around inputs of chemicals and technology, and soil organic matter has long been viewed as irrelevant
  • soil organic matter doesn’t represent an economic opportunity to any major sector
  • soil organic matter is formed fastest in grasslands, which are of less concern to most environmentalists than forests
  • prevailing views of the carbon cycle exaggerate the role of technology and fossil fuels
  • most soil organic matter studies have been done in dysfunctional farm belt conditions, where tillage and chemicals make any increases slow and uninspiring
  • the discovery of how to create soil organic matter rapidly and cheaply was not made by institutions at the centers of power, but by alternative agriculture innovators from the edges.

There would be enormous side benefits to the soil carbon solution: better human nutrition and health, less floods and droughts, less dependence on chemicals and fossil fuels, more biodiversity, better water availability and quality.

However, to implement the soil carbon solution would require a transformation of both beliefs and behaviors worldwide — from agriculture as a technology or input-output business to biological stewardship of basic ecosystem processes and services. Environmentalism could no longer be protectionist and species based, but must become holistic.

Both of these solutions would likely be effective; both would be cheap. Which one addresses causes and which one symptoms? Which would be easier? Which would correspond most closely to our predilections and habits? And which would correspond most closely to our deeply held values and goals?