Archive | October 2012

Giving Carbon Credit, Part 3: Notes from David Orr presentation at the 2012 Prairie Festival

Giving Carbon Credit A brief series on the elemental substance of life Much is justifiably made about carbon and its impact on climate. But how much do you know about the much larger role carbon plays on our planet? You are what you think, and you are what you eat, and carbon is central to both. Carbon takes many forms, cycles through the environment, and is an integral part of our planet, especially the biosphere where all of our planet’s lifeforms live. Like the very air we breathe and the water we drink, carbon wears so many hats and takes on so many forms in our lives and in the life of this planet. The following short series of essays explores the myriad forms, movements and transformations of carbon through our planet and will provide additional resources if you want to find out more on your own.

Notes from David Orr’s Prairie Festival Presentation

September 30, 2012

  1. Climate Destabilization
    1. As CO2 has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 394 ppm, the earth has become a new place for humanity. The increase has been to the tune of 2 or more ppm/year and while this doesn’t seem like all that much, there is a lag time in its effects.
    2. There is approximately a 30 year lag between the time the CO2 is released into the atmosphere before the full effects of that release is felt
    3. David Archer tells us that the carbon released by humanity today will take centuries, even millennia to be reabsorbed.
    4. Geo-engineering solutions to reflect away sunlight or sequester atmospheric CO2 back into geological formations are inadequate in scale and/or cost too much in collateral damage to be able to reverse the greenhouse effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
    5. Currently, 2 degrees Celsius of global atmospheric warming (combined sea and land average) is locked in, even though we have only witnessed only almost 0.9 degrees increased temperature gain. This is of considerable concern since the severity of the impacts we are seeing today were predicted not to show up so quickly, so what will 2 degrees look like?
    6. There is good evidence that without immediate, large scale reductions of greenhouse gas emissions (primarily CO2), the global temperature average could plausibly increase 4 degrees Celsius, not 2. The Royal Academies of Science produced a journal devoted to exploring what that would look like, and it’s not pretty.
  2. Reactions to changes
    1. Denialists will gradually fade away with increasing evidence provided by reality, but they can delay taking action, which is a serious issue.
    2. For people to really change, we have to feel it before we act.
    3. The evidence can be very alarming, but it’s important to not ignore it or shut down, rather using it to emotionally give us the energy to transform our society to a low carbon future.
    4. If you’re optimistic, you don’t know enough. If you’re paralyzed, then that’s a sin and you don’t want to go there. You need to be realistic but hopeful.
    5. Bill McKibben in his Rolling Stonearticle, does a good job of outlining the challenge
      1. There is currently $3 trillion of our economy is tied up in the fossil fuel industry (natural gas, coal, oil). There is an additional $20 trillion in fossil fuel “assets” that are accessible for extraction, sale and consumption. [Bill McKibben’s article states that 565 gigatonnes of carbon released will bring us 2 degrees of change. The $20 trillion of marketable fossil fuel assets represents 2795 gigatonnes of carbon, or 5 times as much as would increase the global temperature 2 degrees].
        1. What to do with these assets? Fossil fuels are bankable assets that nobody is going to willingly walk away from. “Stranded assets”
        2. If you DO walk away from these assets too quickly, the amounts of loans, financial investments tied up in them collapse, and the entire economy could collapse.
        3. If you DON’T walk away from these assets quickly enough, the effects of climate change could destroy nations.
        4. Therefore, the challenge is how to DO IT RIGHT: finding a way to transfer assets from the fossil fuel industry into new low/no carbon ways to provide energy to run our society in ways that don’t disrupt the economy so we can get through.
    6. What is the government’s role? Problem: our government is broken, so the challenge is to make it become functional on this level again.
    7. President’s Climate Action Program
      1. Provided at beginning of the Obama administration as a type of roadmap to turn the corner on energy policies during the first 100 days of his administration. This was largely not implemented.
      2. It has now been updated and there is now a 2012 version.
    8. Oberlin Project: you have to act to develop a systems model to build a sustainable community.
      1. Rebuild downtown
        1. Oberlin is part of the Rust Belt
        2. Start with one block and retrofit it to meet latest LEED Platinum standards for sustainability
          1. Solar power
          2. zero carbon discharge
        3. Expand out from there to make entire downtown district sustainable.
      2. Get to carbon neutrality
        1. solar, renewables
        2. Oberlin is part of the Climate Positive Development Plan which is part of the larger Clinton Initiative to move toward carbon neutral city designs.
      3. Get to 70% local food reliance (food grown locally)
        1. Open local food processing center
        2. Document how local food recharges the local economy
      4. Get local consortium of educational institutions to incorporate sustainable design and maintenance of this kind of community into their curricula.
      5. Go Viral
        1. Opening Denver and Washington DC centers
        2. Have lined up $60 million in investment, $100 million to go.
        3. 1-to-6 or 7 ratio of public-private investment.
      6. Teams
        1. Interdisciplinary trouble-shooting assembled to help all of this unfold
          1. Educators, Law, Economic development specialists, community organizers, etc.
  3. How to pull things together
    1. Full Spectrum Sustainability
      1. Example: Local Foods Economy
        1. Need educational resources to train folks how to grow local food, create viable CSAs, small businesses, marketing, etc.
        2. Need banking community buy-in to finance investments
        3. Need marketing expertise to sell the concept, showcase successes, etc.
    2. Mass appeal
      1. The science and sunshine movement needs to learn from the tea party experience
      2. The more immediate the goals, the less ideologically they are perceived and therefore less threatening.
      3. Medium term goals are also good for long term viability that are easier to stay ideologically neutral.
    3. Depolarizing politics
      1. Take government off your back should mean keep them out of your bedroom, not leave corporations alone.
      2. Expand the concept of debt to include ecological debt
      3. Expand the right to life debate around abortion to preventing poverty, preventing war, preventing ecological destruction.
      4. Expand discussion of what our forefathers wanted as expressed in the US Constitution.
        1. We don’t know for sure how they would feel about a lot of modern society, but we DO know that they disapproved the tyranny of plutocracy. How else can you describe a country where 400 wealthiest individuals have more wealth than the 150 million poorest citizens?
        2. We DO know that they would be abhorred with our trashing the planet and would disapprove the kind of short term calculus that sacrifices our future for short term gain.
          1. Prosperity is mentioned once in the Constitution. Nowhere does it approve of prosperity that limits/sacrifices our future prosperity.
            1. Rights should be extended to all life and life to be.
        3. Corporations are not mentioned in the US Constitution. Interpreting them as having personhood is a misinterpretation of the 4th and 5thAmendments
          1. Corporations cannot be protected as a person in that they are clearly an abstraction and have no corporeal reality.
          2. They are given superhuman properties not subject to corporeal limitations such as mortality.

Martin Luther King said that there is such a thing as being too late. There is still time, but just enough time.

If the truth raises anxiety, it is a healthy type of anxiety that can be directed toward the improvement of our land and peoples. Believing in the reality of climate change is such a motivator.

Giving Carbon Credit Part 2: Carbon notes from the Prairie Festival 2012

Giving Carbon Credit A brief series on the elemental substance of life Much is justifiably made about carbon and its impact on climate. But how much do you know about the much larger role carbon plays on our planet? You are what you think, and you are what you eat, and carbon is central to both. Carbon takes many forms, cycles through the environment, and is an integral part of our planet, especially the biosphere where all of our planet’s lifeforms live. Like the very air we breathe and the water we drink, carbon wears so many hats and takes on so many forms in our lives and in the life of this planet. The following short series of essays explores the myriad forms, movements and transformations of carbon through our planet and will provide additional resources if you want to find out more on your own. Check out earlier parts of this series by clicking on the “Essays” tab at the top of Kaw Valley Almanac.

Carbon Notes from the Prairie Festival 2012

There’s a nice piece about the Land Institute’s Prairie Festival that took place September 28-30:

The pics are great and the article, while well written, barely scratched the surface of what was discussed. So here are some of my notes that I jotted down during some of the talks, that I thought might be of interest to all. Some is more of the same, some is new; these speakers are high quality and the information they presented is reliable from what I know, but when in doubt, look for corroboration. In this spirit of information sharing, I invite others who attend events of common interest to share what they took home, including links for more information–Ken Lassman

Michelle Mack, Land Institute alumnus and faculty at the University of Florida:
I. The Climate-Carbon connection
-while the global temp has gone up 0.8 degrees Celsius, the arctic areas have risen much faster: 3.4 degrees C annually and 7 degrees warmer in the winter.
-melting arctic sea ice has opened up traditional barriers that have restricted animal migration and limited resource exploitation.
-with disappearance of the sea ice, the Earth is losing its air conditioner.
-weather events are increasing in severity, frequency and areal coverage planet-wide.
-primary cause: greenhouse gases, primarily CO2, which has increased in atmosphere from 280 to 396ppm, or 220 gigatonnes* of formerly-buried carbon injected into the atmosphere since industrialization. -currently we’re injecting 8.4 gigatonnes/year. of that: 54% is reabsorbed by natural systems (26% by oceans, 29% by plants in tropical, temperate and boreal forests). The other 46% is retained in the atmosphere, leading to the steady rise in CO2, triggering climate change.
-Alert: the changing climate is reducing forests’ ability to absorb carbon, in some cases, changing them from net sinks (able to absorb carbon) into net emitters

II. Fire and Ice Feedbacks

-Terminology: classic term of “negative feedback” confuses some, so to clarify the relationship between climate and boreal forests, “negative feedback” will be called “stabilizing,” “cooling” or “self regulating” feedback. Example: increased CO2 leads to increased growth as a result of more available CO2, absorbing more CO2, which helps stabilize or reduce the amount of CO2, helping to cool the atmosphere.

-an example of positive feedback/destabilizing/vicious cycle type of feedback: increased CO2 warms the atmosphere so much that the increased temperatures and resulting lower humidities dry out plants, reducing their ability to grow, reducing their ability to absorb CO2. If they die and decompose, they even release CO2, so the CO2 increases even more.

The role of fire in boreal forests

-historically “carbon neutral,” meaning the CO2 released by burning is offset by vegetational growth, which absorbs CO2. Burning has been a natural part of the ecosystem with a fire burning any given spot every 100 years or so, caused primarily by lightning storms.

-recently, due to increased frequency, areal coverage and intensity, resulting in burning deeper into the peat and moss, forests have sometimes gone from net sinks or “carbon neutral” players in the carbon cycle to net carbon emitters.

-there is hope: where coniferous forests are burned and the mosses/peats are consumed, they are replaced by hardwood forests, which prefer rockier, more mineral-rich soils. Since hardwoods grow faster than conifers, they can create more biomass more quickly, increasing the tonnes/acre of CO2 absorbed when compared with coniferous ecosystems. Combine with a higher albedo (it reflects more light than the darker conifers) and more fire-resistant composition, the hardwood replacement can flip a woodland back into a net carbon sink.

The role of fire in tundra ecosystems

-there has been an unprecedented increase in the frequency, intensity and areal coverage of fires in tundra ecosystems as well.

-fire is not a natural part of the tundra ecosystem—it degrades it.

-traditional cultures do not have a historic memory of tundra fires and soil sampling does not reveal a record of tundra fires in the past 5-7,000 years.

-bunch grasses grow in clumps, or “tussocks” which do bounce back after a fire. But the surrounding moss/peat build-up that is burned in the fire releases 2 kilograms of carbon per square meter.

-the carbon released from one large tundra fire turned the entire planetary tundra ecosystem from a net carbon sink to a net emitter in one summer!


-The story of boreal tundras and fire is not complete until you look at what is underneath it: permafrost. When a tundra burns, it turns black, increasing its ability to absorb heat. This, combined with warmer weather, accelerates melting of the permafrost.

-Permafrost stores huge amounts of carbon: best estimates indicate 1374 Gigatonnes, or more than what the other forested soils store on the rest of the planet combined.

-We are witnessing accelerated ice melt under boreal tundras. The huge concern of climatologists is that this could result in the release of approximately 100 Gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year. Remember, humans are releasing 8.4 Gigatonnes. Needless to say this would be much more than what existing natural sinks could absorb.

-Not only does melting permafrost have the capacity to release huge amounts of carbon, it destabilizes the entire landscape, resulting in what is called “thermal karst” topography. This is a landscape of sinkholes, unstable ground that shifts buildings, roads and everything else. This is a huge burden on any human habitation, including traditional cultures.

The role of agriculture in the future

-It’s probable that there will be a 3-6 degree Celsius increase in combined land-sea global temperatures by 2100.

-This translates to a poleward shift of weather and climate patterns. Hadley cells** could expand northward, spreading desert climate northward into what is currently productive agricultural regions, including places like Kansas.

-Current estimates are that there will be a 10% decrease in dryland precipitation with every degree increase in global temps.

-There is a real possibility of droughts that last a decade or longer—perhaps even a century.

-Perennial crops such as what the Land Institute is working on can obviously help confer resilience to the agricultural ecosystems, improve soil health, and buffer from the extremes on the microclimate scale, not only helping plants, but also soil life.

-Can produce a kinder, gentler type of agriculture that might be able to better adapt to northward migration into what are now boreal ecosystems.

*A gigatonne is a billion metric tonnes, or 109 tonnes. What’s a tonne? It’s 1000 kilograms, or 2204.6 lbs, slightly more than a US or “short” ton. A simple way to convert Gigatons to US tons can be found here:,+US%5D

So 220 Gigatons of carbon translates to 242.5 billion tons (US) of carbon. That’s a LOT of carbon! But wait: a tonne of carbon translates to 3.67 tonnes of CO2, because carbon dioxide has two oxygen atoms (atomic weight 16) for every atom of carbon (atomic weight 14). That’s why a gallon of gasoline produces 20 lbs of CO2!

**Hadley cells are zonal atmospheric circulation patterns, characterized by low pressure around the equator, then as you go north (in the northern hemisphere) easterly prevailing winds, transitioning to a primarily high pressure/dry/desert zone around 30 degrees north, prevailing westerlies north of that up to about 60 degrees north, where there is another low pressure zone, followed by prevailing easterlies in the polar arctic. Check out a pretty good video depiction here: The concern is that with increased global temps, the prevailing desert zone currently located around 30 degrees north (think northern Mexico, the Sahara desert) will shift northward. With Kansas and much of the productive agricultural are of North America located only 5-10 degrees north, this could be a real problem!