How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar?

In a subtext of his Dot Earth blog on the sale of Australian coal to China, Andrew C. Revkin of the NY Times outlined his overall assessment of the global climate crisis and his strategy for stopping it:

“To me, choosing a number — 350, 450 or 550 parts per million [of atmospheric CO2],[or a] 2 or 3 degrees (F. or C.!) [rise in global temperature] — is essentially meaningless for our generation, especially given the trajectories for [CO2] emissions in China and India.

The task on emissions is twofold — to bend the curve of [greenhouse] gas releases using regulations, incentives, education and standards, but (more importantly, to me) also to build the intellectual infrastructure and innovative, globally-collaborative culture that will be required for the next generation to take that curve down toward zero even as humanity’s energy needs continue to rise. …”

The night before reading Revkin’s blog, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Bill McKibben at Oregon State University. McKibben is the author of numerous books on global warming and the founder of an international movement to reduce the ratio of atmospheric CO2 to 350 parts per million (ppm) (The current ratio is 394 ppm and rising about 2ppm per year).

Most recently, he has lead the successful fight to stop or at least delay the construction of Keystone xl pipeline that was to carry tar sands oil from the Canadian border to American refineries along Gulf of Mexico (which would sell the refined oil on the international market). McKibben’s strategy was one of non-violent civil disobedience consisting of a month-long sit in at the White House, where he was joined by thousands of others. “We’ll never have as much money as the fossil fuel industry,” he told the Oregon State audience, “but we do have our bodies.”

Here’s a somewhat altered version of a comment I posted on Revkin’s blog:

How can we stop global warming? Tough call.

I went to a Bill McKibben lecture last night, and he’s certainly picked a number (350 ppm). Based in part on your [Revkin’s] writeup of last week’s International Energy Agency (IEA) report, which, for all practical purposes says we’ll be locked into a 450 ppm scenario in five years (unless the powers that be “drive investment in clean energy” — Ha!), I asked McKibben the following question(s):

“Do you think it’s too late for renewable energy development to slow global warming, and shouldn’t we be focusing on a massive program of biogenic carbon sequestration? Along with a crash program of energy conservation to buy us some time?”

McKibben’s response is that energy conservation and biogenic sequestration would help, but the only real way to stop global warming was to engage in non-violent resistance to force governments to put a very high tax on carbon pollution.

The Future is Now 

I, and apparently you [Revkin] think it’s too late to hold the line to a specific number — certainly to revert to 350 ppm.

But the quandary of your approach is that building intellectual infrastructure and globally-collaborative culture for the next generation assumes that there will be a next generation capable of using those gifts. Look at the havoc already raised by a 350+ ppm-induced 1ºC temperature rise.

Then consider the fact that the historic CO2 emissions curve is going almost straight up — and that 2010 was the worst year on record for carbon pollution.  And the five-year sword of Damocles described the IEA report.

The droughts, famines, floods and general economic chaos induced by the climate crisis threatens to be so disruptive to global civilization that it could be hard for people stay connected, nonetheless collaborate. Scarcity and chaos can lead to wars, which can lead to nuclear discharges, which will put a serious damper on the proliferation of knowledge.

So although I have little hope for McKibben’s overall strategy —  I don’I think civil disobedience can stop global warming in a timely fashion, if at all — I do agree with him that future is NOW.

 We Must Sequester Existing Atmospheric CO2 — ASAP 

There is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere, we’re rapidly adding more, and there is a very real danger that we could trigger a methane release that would cause runaway global warming.

How can we stop global warming? Embark on a crash energy-conservation program to buy ourselves time, and initiate a massive biogenic carbon sequestration program.

What’s biogenic carbon sequestration? Essentially growing terrestrial plants — mostly trees, billions of trees  — to store carbon. As those trees die  — in two to 10 human generations — their stored carbon can be turned into “biochar” (charcoal) and buried in the earth, enhancing soil productivity.

All other approaches to “geoengineering” are fraught with the possibility of dangerous unintended consequences, but nature’s carbon storage machines — plants — can save us from global warming and restore our earthly garden.

And while Revkin and McKIbben’s approaches, along with the accelerated development of renewable energy are all part of the solution, only energy conservation can be implemented cheaply, quickly and reliably, and only biogenic carbon sequestration can restore the earth.

We’ll explore these solutions in upcoming posts on Ecotecture.


Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson (2011 ed.)
The Atlas of Climate Change, Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing (Nov. 2011 ed.)
The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding
Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben
The Biochar Solution, Albert Bates 

Related Posts on Ecotecture:

Is It Too Late For Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming?
Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

One Response to “How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar?”

  1. Steven Earl Salmony Says:

    Dear Philip,

    Thanks for all you are doing. I like this blog a lot.


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