Ranchers can fight global climate change, one acre at a time
If you are worried about climate change, these are not the best of times. The decision by the U.S. Senate to postpone climate legislation and the failure of last year's Copenhagen summit to produce tangible progress on limiting greenhouse gases means that Business-As-Usual still rules the world.
The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen to 390 parts per million -- 40 ppm above what many scientists consider the level necessary to keep the climate stable for human life. And it is rising at 2 ppm per year, far faster than at any time in the Earth's climate history.
What do we do? Some see salvation in high technology, including the "capture" of CO2 at its source followed by its storage underground, or the "scrubbing" of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by hundred of thousands of filtering machines the size of boxcars.
These technologies exist more in theory than reality, and even if they were practical, as well as safe, they are many years away from deployment. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is happening now. Which leads to a novel idea: What about trying low technology?
As I see it, the only real way that large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere can start today is if we encourage plant photosynthesis and land-based carbon storage activities. In other words, we need to start growing more grass.
There are only four natural carbon sinks on Earth: the atmosphere, the oceans, the forests and other perennial vegetation, and the soil. The atmospheric sink is overflowing with CO2, and the oceans are fast filling up, becoming alarmingly acidic as a result. Forests are being cut down or burned up, which just releases stored CO2 back to the atmosphere. That leaves us with the dirt beneath our feet.
The potential for CO2 storage in soils is three times greater than the atmosphere. And since two-thirds of the Earth's landmass is covered with grass, the potential impact on the climate could be huge.
NASA's James Hansen, the nation's leading climatologist, postulates that 50 ppm of CO2 could be pulled down and stored in the soil over the next 50 years. How? By employing the low technology of green plants, which transform atmospheric carbon into soil organic compounds that provide numerous benefits for humans and ecosystems alike.
In my experience in the arid Southwest, there are several strategies that can increase or maintain the carbon content of grass-dominated ecosystems. They include a switch to planned grazing systems using livestock as a land-management tool, particularly on degraded soils; the restoration of degraded riparian and wetland zones; and the removal of woody vegetation, with grass encouraged to grow in its stead where appropriate. Strategies to prevent carbon losses include conserving open space and sparing land from development and other land-use changes, using organic, no-till farming practices, and finally, managing land for long-term ecological and economic resilience.
Fortunately, these are approaches that have been carefully tested by practitioners, agencies and landowners over the past decade or two. Individually, these strategies have proven to be both practical and profitable.
The time has come to bundle them together into one economic and ecological whole, which I call a carbon ranch. The goal of a carbon ranch is to reduce atmospheric CO2 while providing substantial benefits for all living things, including local food production, improved ecosystems, restored wildlife habitat, rural economic development and the strengthening of cultural traditions -- especially among young people.
A carbon ranch also aims to reduce the amount of fossil fuels it uses as well as the amount of greenhouse gases it produces. And if the ranch can produce local renewable energy in addition to local food -- so much the better! In other words, one answer to the climate crisis is not to eat less red meat, as is commonly asserted, but to obtain as much of your meat as possible from a carbon ranch.
Of course, implementing a carbon ranch will be a big challenge, especially economically, though things could happen faster if early adopters were rewarded by governments for taking the leap into carbon ranching now, while the marketplace is still developing.
Meanwhile, maintaining Business-As-Usual on a warming planet is not an option. While we wait for policy-makers to quit procrastinating and do something, we can begin to fight climate change on the ground ... one acre at a time.
Courtney White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe, New Mexico.