Lessons from the loess plateau in China

Filmmaker John Liu has documented the World Bank's $500 million loess plateau watershed rehabilitation project since it began in 1995. He has made at least two compelling films about the project, including a 22-minute version was shown at the recent Copenhagen climate conference, and a more detailed 52-minute version.

Watch the films here: http://eemp.squarespace.com/film-channel/

Unscrambling the egg: self-motivated organisms and the work of the biosphere

It is often said that you can't unscramble an egg. An egg has a wholeness or integrity, a poised arrangement of membranes and layers. You cannot reverse the breaking, mixing, and cooking, even with the most advanced technology and equipment.

But a hen can. Feed her a scrambled egg or two, and she can lay a new, whole egg. It may not be instant, but expensive technology is not required. If the egg is fertile, it can become a new hen, who can unscramble more eggs, and so on.

It's important to remember the relationship here, and who has the power. The hen wants to eat it, and produce a new egg, for reasons that are hers, not ours. Like all the biosphere's organisms, she is self-motivated. Trying to force her may cause problems for both her and us. If we want the egg unscrambled, we invite her.

We've got a scrambled egg situation on a global scale: biodiversity loss, extensive land degradation, water shortages, acidifying oceans, and too much heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere. But we've framed it in such a way that the hen isn't even in the picture.

Of all these large problems, it was perhaps inevitable that carbon in the atmosphere took center stage in the 1970s and after. The data about rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were clear. Physical sciences were dominant in climate questions, and the scope and variability of the biological carbon cycle were only beginning to emerge.

That transparent carbon dioxide gas absorbed and emitted long-wave radiation, thus trapping heat, had been discovered in the 1800s. By the 1960s it was clear that atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing steadily. But it took another generation, as well as a massive and varied accumulation of evidence, before most scientists and the public began to accept the possibility that climate could change as a result of human activities, and that fossil fuel burning was the main driver.

System leverage

Skeptics of anthropogenic global warming often attribute the power to change climate to solar output (astrophysics).

Most climate activists place the power for change with fossil fuel emissions (technology). But more are now recognizing that changing technology, such as emissions reductions, lacks near-term leverage on the whole system and on atmospheric carbon. Being proactive won't help much, because the system is too narrowly defined.

Reflecting more solar energy into space, or air capture of carbon using technology, is attractive to some because it corresponds to a widespread technical orientation, as well as frustration or impatience with the social, political, and leverage issues around emissions reductions. But these "geoengineering" possibilities are consistently accused of being band-aids. They do not address the causes of climate change, or the buildup of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases.

The earth system, such as the biological carbon cycle, has been invisible or inscrutable as a source of change. But many are beginning to see the influence or potential influence of soil carbon or peat carbon, and forest carbon, and the tremendous power of carbon cycling.

We do not influence the biological carbon cycle as directly as we influence coal burning, but our influence is strong and immediate--though not as predictable and mechanical as international agreements, markets, or policy approaches seem to demand. The remaining divisions in science, for example into biological and physical sciences, haven't helped us understand the power of carbon cycling.

Wichita, Kansas funds $100 acre for grass plantings in watershed

The City of Wichita, Kansas is now paying farmers in one of its watershed areas $100 an acre to put in grass. This is an incentive handled by the Cheney Lake Watershed to improve water quality for the city by working with watershed landowners.

This is yet another example of local policy leadership on water cycling, and an example of ecosystem services payments where cost and benefit are nearby. The article quoted below is by Lisa French.


"Like most farmers, David Friesen has a few acres of cropland that are always difficult to farm. In David’s case, his field near the Ninnescah River has a tendency to stay wet. Getting a crop planted and harvesting the crop are both a challenge. With a new program offered by the Cheney Lake Watershed, David is going to be paid $100/acre to seed a little more than 5 acres to Eastern gamagrass for hay or grazing. As David says, “It looks like it’s a no-brainer.”

"The Cheney Lake Watershed is now offering one-time incentive payments of $100/acre, funded by the City of Wichita, for crop acres seeded to permanent vegetation. The species used depend on the producer’s goals, soil types, and site condition. Eligible land must have five years of cropping history and must be located within the watershed east of Highway 14. Land in this area is more likely to contribute sediment to Cheney Reservoir than other areas of the watershed.

Performance criteria missing from US climate bill

Tim LaSalle at Rodale posted a nice piece in Treehugger pointing out the lack of performance criteria or monitoring in the US climate bill, and the high importance of monitoring.

"The best way to tell if a farmer’s fields are sequestering carbon is to measure annual changes in soil carbon."


Vote for grasslands at the Manchester Guardian, to raise awareness

Tony Lovell and Bruce Ward from Australia made a presentation about grassland carbon to the Manchester Report, a project of the Guardian newspaper in the UK. They report that it was enthusiastically received, and was new information to many.

The Manchester report is running a poll for the top 10 solutions to climate change. You can vote here before July 23, and no registration is necessary:


Podcast with agroinnovations.com

Frank Aragona of Agroinnovations.com interviewed me for a podcast earlier this month about policy and soil carbon. Thanks Frank for helping get the word out!

Allan Savory on climate change

Last year Allan Savory wrote the paper attached below, A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change, which clarifies the importance of biosphere processes to our situation, and to any improvement. To download, right click and select Save Target As, or Ctrl-click on a Mac.

"Only through uniting and diverting all the resources required to deal with climate change and land degradation can we avert unimaginable tragedy. We have all the money we need. All we cannot buy is time."

Can policy build soil carbon? Part 2 of 2

(Part 1 of this post)

To summarize: the lack of organic matter in our soils isn't a problem, to be fixed with a solution. It's an opportunity, with divergent solutions. Yet our policy systems tend to select for convergent and standardized solutions, which are difficult to implement because of power struggles and escalating fears, or are too compromised by a "best practices" format to be most effective in a variety of situations. And if they do get implemented, they depend on large appropriations that may not always materialize.

Approved, implementable, and effective strategies and actions get scarcer and scarcer as the need for them gets more and more urgent. In the face of grave threats, the sense of freedom and possibility shrinks to a point. Is this what we want? It is a situation we have contributed to.

Challenging these dynamics, important as it is, won't be enough. Giving the "right" answers to the wrong questions is a steady job, but boring. A different selection system, with different selective forces, is needed. One that asks not what to do about global warming pollution, for example, but asks how the carbon cycle functions in this or that place, and what are the possibilities for enhancing it. For example, what are the possibilities, in a variety of situations, for turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter?

Prize competitions are a proven strategy for exploring, pushing the boundaries, and telling the story of what is possible. They can help change the questions, which can help shift leadership from top-level experts to successful local practitioners.

Can policy build soil carbon? Part 1 of 2

The problem with carbon is that it's not a problem. It's a cycle, encompassing the fields and pastures where your breakfast came from, your every breath and thought. It’s a network, linking together the metabolisms, life histories, and deaths of all the biosphere’s organisms--which are autonomous, mostly single-celled, and made largely of carbon.

There is too much carbon in the atmosphere, and humans are responsible. The cues are all there to see this as a problem, and an environmental problem at that. Such a recognition can be unconscious and instantaneous. The self-evident solution is to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Within its frame of reference, the diagnosis is true--fossil fuel burning is bad, it's pollution, and ought to be slowed or stopped. But the diagnosis is useless. It will keep the problem unsolved.

It sets up a power struggle over who owns the issue, who frames it. There is widespread and stubborn resistance to the environmental framing and its embedded solution. This resistance is not about peer-reviewed science or data. It's about fear--of scarcity, of loss of choices, of being controlled by liberal do-gooders and dysfunctional international agreements.

Ridiculing, belittling, or ignoring such fears doesn't make them disappear. It nourishes them. Likewise, the fears of climate change--sea level rise, drought, famine, booms and busts of plants and animals, economic collapse, refugees--will gain urgency and strength under denial or lack of action.

These are not the dynamics of change. They are the dynamics of a pendulum, where motion in one direction guarantees motion in the other, and which can only be stable when it is hanging straight down, after all energy is dissipated.


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