Farmers on the front lines of #ClimateChange #auspol 

Though we first met Richard Wiles when he was executive director at the Environmental Working Group (which he co-founded), he’s also a major player in the ongoing effort to better understand the future’s hotter, less stable climate (also see our deep-dive with Mark Hertsgaard on the subject). 

Wiles’s current organization, Climate Central, is on the front lines of the climate battlefield, authoring countless papers, special reports, and graphics, and informing critical news stories on climate issues—and how best to handle them. 

Richard’s refreshingly frank assessments on climate change stand out in this space, where the focus on opaque numbers can make the issue feel less urgent than it actually is. 

Below, he paints the picture of what climate change will look like in real terms and presents a new idea about how we might slow it down (hint: actual trees are involved).
A Q&A with Richard Wiles
If we continue on the same path or anything resembling the current emissions path, what will the United States look like in 50 years?

The first thing to know is that parts of South Florida will be gone.

 Even with reduced emissions, or a dramatic lowering of emissions, the most prized real estate in South Florida, where thousands of people live, will be routinely underwater, period. You can move up the coastline and look at different low-lying, coastal cities: Charleston, South Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; and coastal cities in Maryland and North Carolina, and they’re not just going to face major issues of sea level rise, but also major issues with storm surge during hurricanes.

 Even if we limit change to 2 degrees Celsius, which is the goal agreed to at the Paris climate summit in 2015, every major coastal city will see a huge impact (and it’s worth noting that without significant additional commitments by major polluting nations this goal is not particularly likely to be achieved).
“Even if we limit change to 2 degrees Celsius, which is the goal agreed to at the Paris climate summit in 2015, every major coastal city will see a huge impact.”

We’ll also have less snowpack in the West, where it’s critical for water supplies. And earlier snowmelt means drier forests, which then tend to be set up for big wildfires. When it rains, a greater percentage of rainfall will come in these huge downpours. So we’ll get more 2in, 3in, 4in, 5in, 12in rains like what we saw in Houston, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Missouri this year. These out-of-control episodes of 14 inches of rain in 24 hours. So you’re going to see a lot more localized flooding and all the damage that comes with that. Everything will need to be redesigned, from sewage treatment plants to roadways, to people’s homes, in order to handle these gigantic downpours. Hurricanes will be stronger and more intense. Whether there will be more of them or whether they make landfall and hit harder, nobody knows. But it is clear that a greater percentage of the hurricanes that do happen will be big old monster storms.
The next thing you’re going to see for sure is heat. This is the one that nobody really talks about much because it’s kind of boring—it’s just heat. But, in the United States, particularly along the Gulf Coast and in the Southwest, we’re going to see an increase in the number of so-called danger days, where it’s really hazardous to be outside for a long period of time. In Florida, for example, danger days are going to go from 25 days a year to about 140 days a year in 2050. And it’s the same story with Texas, Louisiana, all along the Gulf Coast, and in the Southwest as well. There’s not as much humidity in the Southwest, but the heat is just going to be completely over the top there. We’ll see radical increases in the number of days above 100 or 110 in places like Phoenix and Tuscon. Even places in Southern California that aren’t on the coast will be seriously affected. And in addition to the quality of life issue, that level of heat is truly going to make outdoor work—construction, agriculture, infrastructure like highway-building— in many places impossible for portions of the year.

Can you explain more about the heat issue? What will that physically be like to experience?
One of the things that people really need to think about is (and it might be the most compelling, single way to think about how climate change is like a death spiral) is that the hotter it gets, the greater the demand for air conditioning. And it is going to get a lot hotter, especially the extremes: Yes, the average temperature is going to go up, but more importantly you’re going to get many more extremely hot days. So, if you go to a place like India, there are probably 300 million people (about 20 percent of the population) that want and will get (and deserve) air conditioning in the next ten or twenty years, and that’s like powering AC for the entire United States today. How are they going to power that up? They’re mostly going to power that up with coal. So the more air conditioning demand you have, the more demand for electricity you have, and the majority of that electricity is going to come from fossil fuels even with unprecedented ramp-ups in renewables. For the next couple of decades at least. And that is going to accelerate climate change, making it even hotter, upping the demand for more air conditioning. So you see the problem.
What are the consequences of global warming when it comes to disease? Could we see an increased range of disease-carrying mosquitoes, or the release of something that’s been trapped in the ice?
No one really knows. What we do know is that warming temperatures are increasing the range and the number of days that are prime breeding and survival days for many disease vectors, like mosquitos that transmit Zika and West Nile, or the ticks that carry Lyme disease. In some places we are headed toward a year-round mosquito season—not a good thing. But what’s worse is that we really have no idea what we are doing. We are warming the planet at least 10 times faster than it has ever warmed in the past 800,0000 years. Could this rapid warming create ideal conditions for a sudden, massive disease outbreak? Theoretically, yes, it could. Is it likely? No, it is probably not very likely. Can we be sure about that? No, we can’t, which to me is a very scary thing.
What if we stopped polluting today? What change are we already locked into?
Even if we stop polluting today, like, if the whole world turned off all fossil fuel emissions today, you’re still looking at several feet of sea level rise. What’s probably more relevant, since we can’t turn off all fossil fuel emissions today, is that even if we took aggressive action to curb climate change, we will be putting multiple gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, for many, many, decades to come.

So what, realistically, can we do in the face of all this doom and gloom?
The real bottom line is that there’s only one way to deal with this, and that is through massive policy intervention. It could be an elegant, simple thing, like taxing carbon a lot, and we’re done. Or it could be extremely complicated, like the Clean Power Plan. But it needs to be powerful and significant. Electric cars and efficient light bulbs are great, but they can’t make change at scale unless something forces the current polluting cars and power sources off the market. There aren’t enough Teslas in the world right now to really make a difference, and what people forget about Teslas is that they’re only as good as the power source (if the electricity you’re using to power them comes from fossil fuels, for example).
If everyone committed to the agreement made in Paris, global emissions would be 6 gigatons a year less in 2030 than they are projected to be if we didn’t have any commitment. So from about 60 gigs a year to 54 a year in 2030. This is an increase from where we are now, and while everyone is all proud of themselves for reducing emissions by 2030, and, you know, making sure that they don’t go up, which is where we’re headed, being at 54 gigatons in 2030 won’t get it done—we need to be at, like, 30. So there’s just a gigantic gap between what we’ve committed to and what needs to happen to keep the world anywhere close to two degrees, and we already know (see question 1) that two degrees is still a situation that sucks.
Are there any reasonable ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere?

There’s one thing out there that could help a lot and it’s called carbon negative, or negative emissions. To be clear, we’re not talking about geoengineering where you put shiny dust into the stratosphere that deflects sunlight away, or crazy satellites with mirrors, or sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere to absorb ultraviolet rays. None of that science fiction BS. Carbon negative is basically taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it somewhere safe and permanent. You can do in a number of different ways, like accelerated weathering of rock, or giant carbon-sucking vacuum cleaners (which haven’t been proven at scale), or you can use photosynthesis: Trees, crops, and perennial grasses, our best option by far.
How would it work?
Let’s pretend the world got its act together and committed to drastic action to stop global warming. You need three things, done simultaneously and aggressively. One, radical reductions in fossil-fuel emissions. Two, dramatic acceleration in the deployment of renewables. And three, large-scale implementation of negative emissions strategies.
With negative emissions, we could tip the scale toward real reductions in net carbon emissions, relatively quickly at legitimate scale, by pulling multiple gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere and putting them in the ground or in plants and trees. Think of it as a massive global effort to get carbon out of the atmosphere—through, basically, more vegetation and improved farming systems. It’s as simple as that. We could restore hundreds of millions of degraded hectares of agricultural land, or just degraded land in general, all around the world. There’s no fancy technology, no science fiction.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s obvious that windmills and solar panels will not get us there fast enough. Not even close.”
Of course, there are big questions, like where it should be done, what plants should be used, and which forests and plants are the most efficient carbon absorbers; and we would need to make sure we don’t compete with water, energy, and food supplies. But despite those questions, which are serious, we know that there’s plenty of land that could be used in this way, and there’s a path forward here that’s not super difficult. It’s not really on anybody’s radar screen, because it’s not very sexy or glamorous. It’s just planting and restoring lands in a way that efficiently takes up carbon—but, it is sitting there in plain sight as a powerful option, and it should be a much bigger part of the conversation: When you add negative emissions to the equation you can legitimately have some kind of realistic hope that we might not just go flying off a cliff. Because if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s obvious that windmills and solar panels will not get us there fast enough. Not even close.

How is this different than carbon sequestration, which we’ve heard about in the past?
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) typically refers to capturing carbon from fossil fuel emissions and physically pumping the carbon back underground, in gas form. CCS may have a role in some carbon negative systems, but when applied to fossil fuel emissions CCS is not carbon negative. Not to mention that it costs way too much, and to date doesn’t actually work at scale. What negative emissions strategies do is literally take carbon out of the atmosphere using plants and trees—efficient natural systems that do this much more elegantly than humans can. It’s not about technology, or putting fancy gizmos on power plants.
How would this differ from the old-fashioned carbon offsets we’ve historically been able to purchase online?
The policy setup is totally different. Offsets have historically been a largely unverified license to pollute, as long as someone, somewhere, theoretically offsets that pollution by not doing something bad, say cutting down a forest, that they may not have been going to do anyway. And too often, the pollution we are allowing with offsets falls on poor communities who didn’t have any say in the bargain. Carbon negative would not be anybody’s permission to pollute. It has to be fundamentally disconnected from ongoing, aggressive action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
Is anyone doing carbon negative projects successfully? Even at a small scale right now?
There are, and part of the reason for that is there are a million versions of what this could look like. Carbon negative could involve rotational grazing (which can store a lot of carbon above and below ground in pastures), or no-till farming, or it could be restoring a wetland or a forest or grassland. Those would all probably qualify, though very few of them are being understood that way or measured that way—in general, we make very few measurements of carbon being stored in soil, though it’s just a pretty simple approach. You do a baseline measurement of your carbon, you understand what plants would maximize the potential carbon storage per acre, and you measure the inputs and outputs.
The important thing about this whole idea is scale. Carbon negative is only worth talking about if you’re talking about hundreds of millions of acres of land. And the primary mission for these lands would have to be taking carbon out of the air—it can’t get tied up in other conservation purposes. No one has articulated that vision yet, and we at Climate Central want to do that. We’re going to do that.
What are the next steps to execute carbon negative programs?
First, we need to start talking about it—define it, show people the math and get it floating around in people’s consciousness. Then we need to get the science right. Climate Central is beginning to ask these questions: Where would it work based on water and climate? Which soils would it work on? What are the water and food trade-offs when crops are grown for carbon storage? Which crops, which plants, and which places could get the most carbon in the ground most efficiently? We are just beginning to make the case, lay out the path, identify the key questions, and articulate the vision. But it needs to be done, and it needs to be done quickly.
Currently, if you’re honest at all, our climate situation is so damn bleak, with the new president aiming to roll back the progress that has been made, and climate deniers in charge of the congress. Even so, carbon negative at scale, combined with aggressive emission reductions and deployment of renewables, could give us actual, legitimate hope. This isn’t crazy talk. This is very doable. If we do this aggressively and commit to it, then maybe we have a shot. If not, we have no shot. No shot at 2C, maybe no shot at 3C, maybe no shot at 4C for that matter.
Carbon negative could also provide a path forward that would work across the political spectrum. It could be a powerful program for farmers and ranchers with currently unproductive land; they could become part of a National Carbon Reserve. 

You could create contracts that would allow carbon to be locked up on that land for 100 years, priced per acre. Would farmers do it? 

Yes, they would. I worked on agricultural policy for twenty years. 

I can tell you that if the price is right, farmers will sign up. Is there money in the federal budget for that? Yes. If we had a carbon tax of even the tiniest amount, would it pay for that?

 Yes. So, in the United States, there are 400 million acres of land we could start with. That’s a big chunk of land. It’s really not that tricky. It’s just about whether or not we want to do it.

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