Today the dominant view of global warming is that it’s a technical problem. The burning of fossil fuels — often regarded as the lifeblood of modern economies — puts greenhouse gases into the air, mainly carbon dioxide, trapping more solar energy, which heats the planet and alters weather patterns. Methane and nitrous oxide also contribute. The solution is defined as reducing greenhouse gas emissions (pollution). The political, social, and moral campaign is directed at technological change, and at using our technology less.
But if everyone stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, global warming will continue for decades. We don’t have an economical technology for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Limiting ourselves to technology-focused solutions doesn’t give us much leverage. It gives us an agenda of "let’s wreck the world slower."
There is another side to global warming, one that existing scientific panels are ill-equipped to recognize and that existing institutions are ill-equipped to act on. Global warming is not just an atmospheric pollution problem caused by fossil fuel burning. It is also the result of changes in basic biospheric processes. Let’s look at some examples.
Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning represent less than 3% of the net annual flow of carbon into the atmosphere. The other 97% also results from combustion reactions — respiration, decay of organic compounds, and burning of biomass. These reactions emit carbon and yield energy.
The left hand bar below represents the flow out of the atmosphere. This is driven by the photosynthesis of green plants, which is the opposite reaction: consuming solar energy, plants take in carbon, and store both carbon and energy in complex organic compounds.
The difference between the two flows is less than 3%, which makes the fossil-fuel contribution loom large in the ongoing accumulation of atmospheric carbon.
There is also a guilt factor. Fossil carbon is a human add-on to the "natural" cycle of carbon from plants to atmosphere and back again.
But as a wealth of new findings are showing, the rest of the carbon cycle is also controlled or influenced by our decisions. Our human circle of influence is a good deal larger than our concerns over fossil fuels and deforestation.
Because humans exercise such dominion over plant growth, decay, and fire, most of these carbon flows represent our human desire to survive, and to prosper. They are our habits, and may be difficult to change. But they are also our decisions.
For thousands of years, way before we discovered fossil fuels, people have been burning and oxidizing carbon compounds that were formed by photosynthesis. Cutting down and burning trees, or burning grass, brush, or crop residue are obvious examples, and still popular.
Less obvious but more significant is the release of stable soil carbon to the atmosphere through plowing and other forms of soil exposure, whereby aerobic microbes rapidly oxidize or "burn" the carbon compounds. Today our soils still contain twice the carbon that the atmosphere does, and these historic and prehistoric losses of soil carbon to the atmosphere can only be guessed at. And it’s ongoing. Tillage continues worldwide, productive grassland turns to dusty desert, and millions of tons of soil carbon are oxidized into the atmosphere.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Quite a few farmers and graziers have accomplished some spectacular and rapid reversals of this soil carbon loss, at little additional cost. That’s right, reversals. In some cases this is a byproduct of their search for sustainability, for maintaining or increasing production while decreasing their dependence on fossil-fuel inputs such as fertilizers, chemicals, and tillage. Unlike vegetation (even trees), the carbon in soil organic matter is fairly stable, lasting more than a generation on average.
These approaches increase photosynthesis while slowing decay or respiration. No, this isn’t a secret technology. It’s management, enhancing and working with biospheric processes instead of going to war against them. It’s not abandoning all technology and modern knowledge, going back to some mythical past. It’s new knowledge, based on mimicking natural patterns.
Let me repeat that — with good management, it’s possible to take carbon out of the air, rapidly and cheaply. But good documentation is scarce, because in our technology-focused society these achievements, and the tremendous opportunities they represent, are seldom recognized. Instead, we regard land use as a fixed category, and don’t pay attention to how it is managed. Researchers familiar with conventional and industrial agriculture tend to underestimate the soil carbon opportunity.
Many are hoping for some kind of technology to capture carbon out of flue gases or out of the air. So far, it’s not practical or economical. Reversing combustion requires energy, and any recovered carbon or carbon dioxide becomes a disposal problem. But with good management, photosynthesis can turn atmospheric carbon into valuable soil organic matter, using free solar energy.
As you might guess from the diagram, photosynthesis captures far more energy than all the world’s mechanical power. Even in the industrialized U.S., with all our spinning shafts and gas rings, and with all our plowing, paving, burning, and herbicide spraying, those ridiculously inefficient green plants capture more energy.
The Farm Bill is likely the biggest energy policy we have. It pays farmers to refuse the free gift of solar energy by subsidizing short-season annual row crops such as corn and soybeans, and a style of agriculture that keeps mostly bare ground between plants and between crops. Nebraska and Iowa look impressively green in July and August, but much of the rest of the year they are brown, with few perennial plants growing. Soil is America’s biggest export, far surpassing empty shipping containers even. Much of our agricultural "production" is really consumption.
Instead of free solar energy, the Farm Bill encourages the heavy use of fossil energy in agriculture, again by favoring high-yielding monocultures dependent on nitrogen extracted from the atmosphere by fossil fuels, plus herbicides and pesticides. This nitrogen (usually anhydrous ammonia) contributes to the "burning" of soil organic matter, compounding the debt.
It doesn’t have to be this way. People have figured out how to raise excellent food using mostly solar energy while building soil — but this isn’t at all popular with fossil carbon lobbyists, or with their many influential friends.
Among greenhouse gases, water vapor is the gorilla. There’s more of it, and it traps lots more heat. Yet the world’s soils, even in their currently dried-out state, hold five times as much water as the atmosphere.
With the loss of sponge-like organic matter, soils lose much of their ability to absorb and retain water. With a magnifier, compare a bit of onion skin to a grain of sand. It’s like the difference between a balloon and a brick. You can wet a brick, but you can put a quart in a balloon. Add lots and lots of zeroes.
If the drying of the continents keeps more heat-trapping water vapor airborne, our current rather top-down and linear climate models don’t account for it. Large-scale land clearing and tillage, along with the continued desertification of rangeland soils, lets an invisible Columbia River’s worth of water evaporate skyward from the soils of the American Southwest. Our federal policy either ignores this, or doesn’t care.
Legal protections or land idleness won’t fix this situation, at least not on a timescale that matters to us or our descendants. What has proven to get more water in the soil in these environments is intensive grazing, carefully managed.
We’ve got to reduce fossil fuels. In their new book Break Through, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have pointed out how transforming both our energy systems and efficiency is a huge opportunity to create millions of good jobs and revitalize our industrial base, and to move toward a positive future rather than merely try and avoid a negative one.
But to really address the problem, we will need to look beyond technology to the way we manage land. We do not have, nor will we be able to afford, technological replacements for photosynthesis, for water cycling, or for the majority of carbon cycling — all of which support and sustain our life.
Transforming human land management is also a tremendous opportunity. It promises engagement, revitalization of rural economies, a better grounded food system, and enhanced human and environmental health. Taking full advantage of this opportunity will involve new paradigms and a new politics.
If we regard nature as a kingdom or category separate from humanity, the human is often seen as a habitual criminal who can be counted on to vandalize nature for personal gain. Many prosperous developed countries have adopted a policing role intended to protect nature from the human criminal.
Though it may be a necessary stage of development or a process of maturity, this cops and robbers game offers little opportunity for creating the kind of land management we need on our working landscapes. For this we need to move in the opposite direction — toward the results we need rather than just punishing what we don’t want. This means incentives and opportunity for the farmer, the villager, the grazier, the peasant to enhance these basic biospheric processes. By tying incentives to results, rather than practices, we could empower people to come up with their own creative, locally adapted, low-cost methods.
The land management we need, and that provides such an opportunity for addressing both desertification and global warming, brings with it a new paradigm, a new understanding of the foundation or center of gravity of what we regard as nature.
This paper is a draft of the first chapter of a forthcoming short book about the opportunities inherent in global warming. See http://managingwholes.net for updates and links to related projects and materials.