Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Big Blue: Don't Spill on Me

The blue whale is the largest animal to ever live on earth. As an endangered species, she serves to highlight the crisis of the world's oceans. Last week, my recently acquired used pick-up served to ferry the world's only full-scale replica from the NC mountains to the Sea Party Coalition's rally in DC last week their kick-off for making ocean health a campaign issue in the upcoming 2016 election. The key focus is stopping oil drilling and sonar exploration off the Atlantic seaboard (President Obama's recent directive through the EPA to halt Arctic drilling, which was a twin goal, narrowed the focus. Thank you, Mr. President.) The press conference was on the Mall in front of the reflecting pool, with the 85-foot whale as backdrop, joined by sundry sea brethren in costume. While only about 60 people attended, the quality of both the speakers and audience was high.

It was a practically windless day, which was really important, since the inflated whale is like a huge balloon, primed for airborne. It was very warm, in the mid to upper seventies, a record for DC on November 4. My friend Michael Fishbach, director of the Great Whale Conservancy, oversaw the protracted set-up process, which was made much easier by the Capitol Police allowing me to drive the truck on footpaths around the reflecting pool to the precise spot we wanted the whale. It weights well over 300 pounds, and we were shorthanded at the beginning of the morning. After offloading the whale and the ballast tubes that support it, the generator for inflating it, and the sandbags for holding it down should a sudden breeze descend, the inflation process went smoothly, since the balance of our crew arrived shortly afterwards, joined by interested bystanders and guests for the event. It was a stunningly beautiful day.

Three congressmen spoke, two Republican and one Democrat. Sam Farr (D) of Monterey, CA is a longtime oceans champ, and pointed to the success of turning the situation off Monterey around after the collapse of their fisheries due to overuse. His theme of the greater value of ocean tourism to collapsed fisheries and degraded oceans and beaches was echoed throughout the morning. In Monterey's case, the fisheries, carefully controlled, are finally coming back, along with the continuing boom in ocean-related tourism.

The other two congressmen (R), Curt Clawson from Florida's 19th district, and the rehabilitated playboy Mark Sanford of SC, stressed the economics as well. They reminded the audience that there were more jobs and money in ocean tourism than in oil exploration and development, no matter what the strikes. But they have their work cut out for them in persuading their colleagues on the red side of the aisle to join them in saying NO to offshore oil exploration. We in NC know the slippery slope that opens precariously when one tries to be “fair” and let industry “at least do the preliminary studies.” This has put us in a dangerous situation in terms of explorations for fracking natural gas deposits of dubious merit in south-central NC. But it is certainly encouraging that two congressmen from the mostly-pristine beaches along the southern Atlantic Coast have come out early for a five year ban on any offshore exploration.

NC Senator Burr attended coastal community hearings about proposed drilling shortly before the Sea Party press conference. Neither he nor the five NC congressional reps I invited came last Wednesday. One staffer, for Mark Meadows in my home 11th district, did meet with me, but said the congressman was non-commital on the issue. Burr has yet to take a stand, which may be a significant one for him, since he is up for re-election in 2016. The NC coastal plain is strongly Republican, and many of the frontline coastal communities are opposed to any drilling.

The three congressmen were followed by an impressive crew of scientists, activists, and journalists. The South Atlantic was represented a by a spirited crew of women from South Carolina low country who represented SODA, Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. They were spearheaded by a very forceful woman, Peg Howell, aka “Company Man,” from the time that she was the head of a Chevron rig in the Gulf. As a geologist and experienced “oilman,” she was able to refute all the industry claims for the benefits of offshore drilling. Wilmington's Bonnie Monteleone, aka “plastic woman,” spoke of how ubiquitous plastic was in the ocean, at every level and of all sizes. Fittingly, she called it the “first oil spill.” She will soon accompany the first woman (or person) to attempt to swim the Atlantic (!), taking samples all the way, in a 76' boat. She was a ball of fire, really exciting the audience in a rousing speech.

Michael Stocker from the Ocean Conservancy is an expert on sonar and its effects on marine populations. His account of the overwhelming damage that sonic guns have on aquatic animals, especially cetaceans, was very difficult to take in. I knew it was bad, but blasts every three minutes, 24 hours a day, makes it clear that we are looking at ecocide. Some of the Sea Party's sponsor organizations are in talks with the Navy about their use of this technology. To have the oil industry pile on even more of this maniacal activity is unthinkable. Stocker had the sound man play a background tape of cetacean communications, eerily beautiful music, overtaken towards the end by sonic booms. The message got through, as the crowd hushed a long moment before applauding him. But we are the choir. It was good to have the minority staffer of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee present to guide us in how an NGO could communicate more successfully with the Navy and its hierarchical structure. This is what I mean by audience quality.

Many others testified, including stalwart Greenpeace and the American Surfing Society, who have sponsored a surfboard bearing thousands of signatures against Atlantic drilling, now making its was to the Capitol. Michael Fishbach spoke of the challenges faced by the remnant 10,000 blue whales, who are barely holding their own after a drastic decrease in their once-abundant numbers. He also spoke of the importance of these magnificent creatures to ocean ecology, based upon their ability to “bioengineer” their food source, krill, through whale feces, which work as a “whale pump” to bring nutrients needed by the krill from lower depths to the surface.

Richard Cizik, a deeply spiritual, scientifically grounded and intelligent political observer, spoke of his personal epiphany many years go which led him to earthcare. I first learned of Richard when his interview with Terry Gross on NPR caused him to be fired as the VP for political communications of the Evangelical Alliance, and have heard him speak at events sponsored by the Interfaith Moral Action Committee, IMAC. He felt like an old friend, and we had a good talk. He spoke eloquently of the imperative to earth stewardship in a time when we are overwhelming the remnant of God's Garden.

And Bill McKibben was there. He arrived early and stayed late, leaving to help boost his friend Bernie Sanders' event taking place on the other side of the Capitol. He spoke only briefly, but made the key point that it's not just for the sea critters and the tourists that we shouldn't drill off the Atlantic Coast. The truth is that we need to leave fossil fuel “where the good Lord put it and intended it to stay” because we can't resist burning it when extracted, adding to the intolerable CO2 burden of the planet.

In concluding remarks, David Helvarg, director of Bluefront, the Sea Party sponsor, joined other speakers in reckoning this battle winnable. I think he is right, because it already has bipartisan support, and the target area is the South Atlantic, which is largely Republican. This may be one of the few issues on which partisans can agree. But action will probably wait for the new government that will be seated in January 2017. The folks I met November 4 will not rest until we win this one.

Sunday, November 01, 2015


Soil as Carbon Sink

My last post acknowledged the dramatic shift in Gaia's order caused by the advent of the Anthropocene, the newly-named geological period in which Homo sapiens has become what Brian Swimme calls a “planetary power.” I began this series of posts by examining some of the proposals for geo-engineering in the face of momentous climate change, particularly emphasizing the advantages of limiting incoming solar radiation, versus the much costlier methods of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

I received responses from two people I highly respect, each of them questioning my analysis. The first pointed out that I had overlooked the potential of carbon sequestration in soils, something I was aware of, but indeed overlooked in my emphasis on the high-tech quality of anthropocentric mediation of a typically anthropocene problem. The gentleman linked me with the Rodale Institute's study, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change”, which I had seen but not read.

I will return to that study, but lay out the topic with the aid of a characteristically comprehensive review of the subject by Judith Schwartz, “Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?”, in Yale's Environment 360. Schwartz summarizes many key studies, stating at the outset that 50-70% of the world's original soil carbon stock has been lost, almost all oxidized as CO2. The essential job is to restore this carbon by recovering degraded lands, primarily long-grass prairies, but also wetlands and of course forests. The most promising sites for restoration include the former NA prairie, the North China Plain, and the parched interior of Australia. This would be a triple-win, sequestering CO2, boosting soil productivity (restoring dirt to actual soil), and increasing resilience to floods and drought.

The methods by which this could be achieved include cover cropping, no-till or minimal till (strip-till) agriculture, and agro-forestry, where croplands, trees, and ruminant animals would be integrated into one interrelated system. Some of the key principles wold be mulching rather than burning, largescale use of biochar, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses.

Schwartz quotes liberally from an interview with biogeochemist Thomas Goreau, who makes the key point that current efforts to slow the climate change train are focused on CO2 sources, whereas we need to look equally at its destination – where CO2 can and should go. Goreau says that degraded, deforested land could create biochar for housing soil carbon by using the on-site weeds for pyrolysis.

An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root - mycorrhizal – fungi. Discovered only in 1996, recent research shows that these fruiting, mushroom-like bodies can enable soils they inhabit to absorb 70% more carbon per unit of nitrogen. This confirms the theory of Rudolf Steiner, father of biodynamic gardening, a century ago. Now what seemed quasi-mystical has a firm “scientific” basis. That is, Goethean/Anthroposophic science now has confirmation from the more reductive type.

Schwartz has recently published a book, Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, in which she argues for Holistic Planned Grazing, pioneered in Argentina and Zimbabwe, where livestock grazing is patterned after wild ruminants' co-evolved grazing pattern with traditional grasslands. Animals are moved to prevent overgrazing, and in the process not only is their manure evenly spread, but their trampling aerates the soil, pushing seeds in as well as dead plant matter, so that soil micro-organisms can get to work. Add this method to restoring grasslands by replanting long-rooted indigenous varieties, and you have a recipe for vigorous carbon sequestration in the 20% of the land that is grassland. 
So how much excess carbon can the soils store? The Rodale study extrapolates from plots in four parts of the world to claim from 50% to over 100% of current emissions. Rattan Lal at Ohio State puts the figure at 10-33%. However, researchers in prairie grasses say that this could be increased if one were to extensively replant perennial grasses with root systems from 1 to 5 meters, rather than conventional carbon measurements that go only 15-30 cmm. At the conservative end of the scale, senior scientists Rolf Sommer and Deborah Bossio at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture conclude that soil carbon sequestration has a limited potential when one takes into account the variety of possible sites. At best, they say, we can expect 9% of current emissions the first few decades, with less ability to absorb CO2 over time. But as Bossio says, “Every bit helps.”

More research needs to be done – the field is still new – but clearly the Rodale Institute study is hyped. One of their test plots, in Thailand, is done on an “unreported crop” - hardly a scientifically specified finding. Extrapolating data from this plot, they get 32 gigatons of of CO2/year of sequestered carbon, precisely the amount currently emitted. How convenient.

On a planetary scale, the ocean stores by far the most CO2, and it has absorbed about as much as it can, resulting in ocean acidification that threatens many lime-based species, and the marine foodchain itself. This happens without our engineering anything. With a return to more traditional organic farming, including a hugely increased role for biochar, extensive use of HPG grazing techniques, and an all-out effort to restore perennial prairie grasses, a significant portion of current CO2 emissions could be stored in soils, relieving the beleaguered ocean. And all of this would help feed our growing population in a way that works to regenerate degraded soils.

Along these lines, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas has patiently led a team of researchers who are back-crossing perennial prairie grasses to produce seed kernels big enough to harvest. I heard him in conversation with Wendell Berry at a food and spirituality conference at Duke a few years back, and he was an inspiration.

The advance agenda for the COP 21 gathering in Paris does not indicate that soil carbon storage is being highlighted as a significant strategy to sequester CO2. The focus is on reducing emissions (mitigation) and paying the costs of adaptation for the poor countries already hit by climate change. Hopefully it will emerge from the dark ecological underground as a robust competitor to the technocratic agenda, amplifying the highly compromised REDD forest carbon market mechanism. We all await - with a mixture of eagerness and dread - the results of this key moment in planetary history.

But whatever happens in Paris to move the “demand side” onto the table (i.e CO2's destination, rather than its sources, or “supply”),with agroforestry and silviculture taking the place of unaffordable CCS, world powers will not sit idly by if sequestration lags behind the worrisome rise in levels of emissions. Current national plans to limit emissions put the world on a trajectory to 3 degrees C of warming, which is double the maximum safe level, and would assure a runaway climate system, unless we can find a sink beyond the maxed-out oceans for the relentless stream of CO2. Soil carbon sinks can be optimized, but the research does not make me confident that this will be sufficient to the task.

So I submit that methods to reduce incoming solar radiation are going to remain on the table, hopefully with increasing levels of public discussion, so that all parties are clearly represented, and sober decisions made. At least nobody is still seriously interested (i.e. with their checkbooks ready) in the pipedream of CCS that was long encouraged by fossil fuel companies, so we wouldn't be so concerned about current emissions. You know, just pump it under the ground, or to the bottom of the oceans, and we can forget about it.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]