John Berger, SOLVING THE CLIMATE CRISIS
Can we achieve 100% clean power by 2030?
This is a transcript of a podcast interview for Writer's Voice with Francesca Rheannon with John Berger talking about his inspiring new book, Solving the Climate Crisis: Frontier Reports from the Race to Save the Earth.
It would be economically efficient and technologically possible to produce all of our power and all of our energy needs through clean power sources. It's basically as simple as that…As soon as we're no longer burning 36.5 billion barrels of oil and 8 billion metric tons of coal and 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas and also paying to ship that stuff all around the world, imagine the savings. It will be savings in the trillions of dollars in our energy bills, and we'll be producing tens of millions of jobs…while in terms of co-benefits, we're gonna be protecting the environment, safeguarding public health, and improving our quality of life overall. — John J. Berger
Oil Deals Over Climate: Controversy Surrounds Annual UN Climate Talks in Dubai
Next week, the annual UN Climate Talks are taking place in Abu Dhabi, capital of the Petro State, the United Arab Republics. It'll be the largest such conference of parties, or COP, so far.
But forgive the cynicism, it's also likely to be the most corrupt. As they say, fish rots from the head, and the head of this COP, its president, is Sultan Al-Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil.
According to the BBC, the UAE plans to use its role as the host of the climate talks as a chance to strike oil and gas deals with other countries, deals that would blow right through our fast-depleting global carbon budget. (That's the amount we can still emit before passing the point of no return on climate.) Leaked briefing documents reveal the plans for making the deals, but the UAE is denying the report.
Climate Hopes in the Shadow of Scandal: Finding Inspiration in John Berger's Book
The annual COP seemed to be where climate hopes go to die. But John Berger's book, Solving the Climate Crisis, makes clear that there's still ample room for hope.
A practical roadmap for effective climate action, his book is full of inspiring advances in clean power, energy efficiency, and other means of climate protection that will create millions of new jobs and substantial economic benefits for all of us.
About the Author
John Berger is an environmental science and policy specialist, prize-winning author, and journalist.
Francesca: John Berger, welcome to Writers' Voice.
John Berger: It's my pleasure to be here.
You know, the climate news is so dire that it really is not just intellectually satisfying, but profoundly emotionally satisfying. To read a book like yours, Solving the Climate Crisis, Frontier Reports from the Race to Save the Earth, you begin the book with a “Trump-voting Texas tightwad.” He's the mayor of a small Texas city, Dale Ross, who you call an “accidental climate saver.” Tell us about him and why you started the book with his story.
I started the book with the story of Dale Ross, whom I met in 2017 at a climate conference, I think, in Las Vegas.
And at that time, he had just become an environmental superstar, even though he was a very conservative Republican, and probably still is. He managed to get Georgetown, Texas to adopt solar power and to get 100% of Georgetown's electricity from, I believe, three solar power plants. This managed to basically turn him into an environmental superstar. And he was notable because he was Republican and because Texas is a red state and Georgetown was quite conservative.
So the question arises, how come Georgetown adopted clean power? It was purely for economic reasons. And subsequently, there was a little bit of backsliding that I also described in the book. But initially, it was because the natural gas companies would offer a fixed price contract for 20 or 25 years, and the conventional sources of power would provide like a seven-year power contract to get power from natural gas or coal power plants.
And Dale Ross had an accounting background and wanted to provide energy security and economic advantages to Georgetown, and the community went for it.
However, they subsequently overestimated their power needs. And during the term of their long-term contract, natural gas prices fell. So it wasn't so economically advantageous for a few years, but eventually, natural gas prices, which are very volatile, went back up. And now I think they're glad that they went for solar power.
One of the things that happened was that some large corporations invested millions of dollars in Georgetown as a result of that favorable environmental publicity. So they got hundreds of new jobs, millions of dollars of new investment, and they produced a great deal of solar energy.
The solar energy, however, today is used to defray fossil fuel combustion somewhere else because Georgetown gets clean energy or renewable energy credits for its clean power and sells them for about $2.7 million. And then they turn the electricity over to the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas. And therefore it gets mixed in, as it were, with ERCOT's general electrical grid power, which is 80% fossil and only 20% clean power.
So the benefit would have been greater had Georgetown just continued to use clean power itself and not sold its renewable energy credits, which, as I mentioned, allows somebody else elsewhere to go on burning, polluting fossil fuel.
You know, it's such an instructive story because it really illustrates, as your book really does, the nuances, the sheer complexity of how to make the transition that we must make as fast as possible if we're to avert catastrophic climate change.
I mean, I think we're already in a lot of catastrophes, but we ain't seen nothing yet, and we really don't wanna see what's coming down the pike if we don't make this transition. So what is exciting, really, are the range of solutions that already are here and are certainly in the pipeline.
There are three main methods, of course, of tackling the issue. There's energy efficiency, there's a transition off fossil fuels to clean energy, and then there is carbon drawdown, and your book delves into each one of these plus more.
Let's tackle efficiency first. You call it the world's biggest energy source. What do you mean by that?
Well, I mean that we are using energy very, very inefficiently throughout the economy. That's our default. And we have a tremendous motherload of unexploited clean energy simply by not wasting electricity, not wasting fossil fuel, and avoiding the generation of greenhouse gases in the process of generating power and heat more efficiently.
Our building sector, for example, could probably save half of the energy that we're now using.
And when you move from a combustion technology, which through what's known as Carnot efficiency, loses two thirds of the energy in the fuel as waste heat and only produces about a third of the energy as useful electric power, you're saving on total energy usage. Electricity, in other words, is more inherently efficient than combusting fuels and setting them on fire.
So if we transform our building sector from heating with natural gas, for example, to heating with geothermal heat pumps or heating with air source heat pumps, and we convert our appliances from gas stoves to electric induction stovetops, for example, and we thoroughly insulate the building stock, in addition, if we put clean energy generating technology on the rooftop in the form of solar panels, then we can vastly reduce the carbon footprint of the building sector.
And in so doing, we can produce millions and millions of good jobs that can pay a respectable wages and that can't be outsourced to China or anywhere else in the world because the buildings are here.
We have 105 million residential buildings and about 6 million commercial buildings, but we're moving extremely slowly in making these buildings not only energy efficient in the ways that I mentioned, but also transitioning them to rely totally on clean electric power instead of, for example, using oil for heating or using the grid power, which might be generated by a mixture of burning coal and natural gas, along with some renewables.
If we can, for example, pass federal legislation that establishes that all new buildings will have to receive their power from clean energy sources, that would be a big step in the right direction.
And it would also inherently make those buildings more energy efficient because the renewable power sources by and large, like wind and solar power, or even power from the waves, all of that produces electricity.
So as I mentioned, it's inherently more efficient.
We can also gain a great deal of efficiency in the transportation sector by moving to electric vehicles, meaning cars, buses, trucks, and our battery technology is now getting so good that we can even have electric semi-tractor trailers.
So we have tremendous potential for saving energy and also moving every sector of the economy to rely on clean power. There's nothing that we really can't do with clean power that we're now doing with fossil fuels.
All of the technology exists, and in probably 98% of all of the cases, it's already commercial.
And we can make decisions to scale up and do more research and development on that small fraction of the technologies that still need technological advancement.
For example, in heavy duty fuel cells that could be capable of powering an ocean-going cargo vessel or a jet plane on a transatlantic flight. We can today already power small aircraft with electric technology that currently exists. It can do short hops, small passenger loads, and we can run all kinds of small boats and ferries electrically today.
So even I was focusing on those modes of transportation because they are on the more difficult to electrify end of the spectrum. But we have lots of low-hanging fruit.
And one of the things that Amory Lovins, whom I consider to be the world's leading energy expert, likes to say is that the nice thing about energy efficiency and the low-hanging fruit is that if you pick that low-hanging fruit, it tends to grow back and create more opportunities for harvesting energy efficiency.
So you talk about efficiency actually in two ways, which I think is interesting. I mean, there's the classic energy efficiency where we ramp up our insulation, we deal with the building envelope. But the other one is electrification.
I mean, in New York State, we passed last year the All-New Electric Buildings Act. And it is about new buildings, saying that all new buildings, more or less, there are two phases of it. But by 2027, all new buildings need to have electric sources. And electricity is just inherently more efficient.
Heat pumps are like 300 to 500% efficient, whereas the highest efficiency you can get from fossil fuels is about 85%, if it comes to a gas boiler, maybe a little bit more. But not more than 100%, that's for sure.
So now let's actually talk about a building that you discuss in the book, John Berger, in Solving the Climate Crisis. And that building is the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which just seems like an almost miraculous example. It's called a living building, or you call it a living building. Tell us how it operates and how it shows that efficiency can be one of the biggest energy sources we have.
Well, the building itself uses only about 17% of the energy that a conventional office building of a similar size and square footage would consume. And it's done in the case of the Bullitt Center by very careful design and the use of solar energy on the roof to produce a great deal more electricity than the building itself uses.
And there are also geothermal heat pumps that heat the floor with radiant heating. The windows and other internal energy circulation, air conditioning or ventilation is all computer controlled.
The entire building is very responsive to its external environment. The building envelope is almost like a skin with sensors and things are done automatically, windows open and close, heat turns on and off.
The building not only produces all its own electricity, but it also handles all of its own waste product and it gathers all of its own water from rainfall.
So it's an amazing organism as it were, that solves a great many problems and avoids creating waste, also uses non-toxic materials and is one of only about 10 buildings in the world that fully meets all of the criteria to become a certified living building, which is a formal certification process that structures can go through.
So it's quite remarkable in all those respects and what is even more remarkable is this is done at a small increment to the cost of building a conventional six-story office building. And it's also done in Seattle, which is very cloudy.
So there was a great deal of skepticism among conventional builders and developers that this was even possible, but Dennis Hayes, who conceived of the idea and who's the president of the Bullitt Foundation, thought that it would be possible, consulted numerous experts in the field of solar energy and then assembled a very collaborative process, I believe from the University of Washington, where they had designed charrettes and they involved dozens of people in brainstorming ways to save energy and to avoid using toxic materials.
Moreover, the building is built to last a couple of centuries as opposed to a conventional building, which may last 50 to 100 years.
So it has a great many advantages, minimizing energy waste, producing clean energy.
And if this type of design were mass-produced, as it were, then the cost would be basically comparable or less than the cost of producing contemporary buildings which rely on grid power and rely on exporting their wastes to the wastewater treatment system.
Much cheaper to run, though, already.
Yes, it is. I don't remember the figures off the top of the head about the running costs, but the beauty of a clean energy building is that it tends to be more comfortable for the occupants.
They also rely on natural lighting to a larger extent.
So people who experience these buildings either as an office worker or in a residence report that it's a great deal more comfortable and workers tend to be more productive in structures like this. So that's another co-benefit of this type of a building.
So this is buildings, which are super important. I know in New York State, they're 40% of the carbon pollution, I think the largest sector.
Let's talk a little bit about power. You are not in favor of nuclear power, but you say that new renewable power is now cheaper than fossil power for 2/3rds of the people on Earth who use 85% of the world's energy.
So that's already remarkable. I mean, it's already cheaper than the other ways of doing things. And we're talking here about wind, solar, and batteries mainly, although hydropower, of course, must be in the mix.
You talk in the book, Solving the Climate Crisis, about Mark Jacobson at Stanford. He has calculated that we could actually make the switch to 100% clean energy by 2030. Tell us about his predictions.
100% Clean Energy by 2030
Well, I'd say these are forecasts rather than predictions, and they're forecasts of technological capability. And he's not predicting that these outcomes will be realized.
But what he's done is he's shown through very careful modeling exercises that there are no insurmountable constraints to producing all of our energy through clean power.
And it's not just like solar and wind and hydropower, but it's also geothermal power for heat and using various types of storage technologies.
So Mark looked at all of the cost factors, all of the resource constraints, and implementation times, and he developed a model that enabled him to analyze the energy needs of individual states in the United States, and also something like 130 other countries throughout the world.
And in no case did he find that it would be necessary to build out new nuclear power plants or rely heavily on biomass power or carbon capture and storage as a way of decarbonizing the atmosphere.
He showed basically that it would be economically efficient and technologically possible to produce all of our power and all of our energy needs through clean power sources. It's basically as simple as that.
It's a question of our having the political will to recognize what a dire situation we're in and to make the determination that we're gonna do whatever is possible, boldly and bravely, as quickly as we possibly can, and put the money up front that needs to be spent to invest in these systems, because we know that they are going to pay off enormously in the future.
As soon as we're no longer burning 36 and a half billion barrels of oil and 8 billion metric tons of coal and 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and also paying to ship that stuff all around the world, imagine the savings.
It will be savings in the trillions of dollars in our energy bills, and we'll be producing tens of millions of jobs to realize the kind of vision that Mark Jacobson has, while in terms of co-benefits, we're gonna be protecting the environment, safeguarding public health, and improving our quality of life overall.
Yeah, that's great. And before we talk about the cost, because I think that is also just a fascinating part of this book, Solving the Climate Crisis, you mentioned the political will. Well, one reason we lack the sufficient political will so far, and hopefully that will change, is because of fossil fuel and nuclear industry talking points. They claim that wind and solar are too intermittent, unreliable, and too costly. Another big one is they say the electric grid isn't ready.
What's your response?
Well, I should have mentioned in describing Mark Jacobson's work that he's also done studies on the intermittency of power.
And of course, it's a myth that conventional power is entirely without interruption, because for example, nuclear power plants need to go down for refueling, and they take a large chunk of power out of service at one time, whereas renewable power sources tend to be more decentralized.
Well, we now know that storage is not only practical, it's becoming more and more affordable, and we already have affordable ways of storing large amounts of energy.
Pumped storage doesn't require batteries, and there are other forms of mechanical storage that enable us to backstop a renewable energy source.
And by the way, hydropower is also available on demand, and can also be used for meeting base load power needs, provided that the climate doesn't become so disrupted that rain doesn't fall, and the river doesn't, or the reservoir doesn't have enough water in it to operate.
But in terms of the fossil fuel industry, essentially, they have been willing to mislead the public to sow doubt and provide misinformation about the climate crisis, going through a whole litany of misinformation, changing the story over time.
But scientists have known for decades and decades that we are altering the climate by the burning of fossil fuel and the release of greenhouse gases.
But meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has tried to sow fear about the economic consequences of reducing fossil fuel, which I think Mark Jacobson's work has pretty well laid to rest.
They are an implacable foe. They will never voluntarily reduce their own profits if they can avoid it. That would be like expecting them to commit hara kiri. So we're not gonna secure the cooperation of the fossil fuel industry voluntarily. You can't, for example, negotiate with them. They have to be defeated legislatively, judicially, financially, economically, and of course, to make all that possible, politically
And they are an implacable foe. They will never voluntarily reduce their own profits if they can avoid it. That would be like expecting them to commit hara kiri.
So we're not gonna secure the cooperation of the fossil fuel industry voluntarily. You can't, for example, negotiate with them. They have to be defeated legislatively, judicially, financially, economically, and of course, to make all that possible, politically.
Creating the Political Will
And that's gonna require a lot of struggle and the creation of a popular mass movement of stakeholders who are powerful enough to defeat the fossil fuel industry by passing legislation that's going to progressively shrink their markets and put smart energy policies in place and defund some of the perks that the fossil fuel industry gets.
We also have to really regulate the banking industry. While we are struggling to reduce the flow of carbon by making things more efficient as carbon is burned in automotive engines, for example, we're basically seeing the banking industry fund the continued expansion of fossil fuel production.
So we're focused almost entirely on reducing greenhouse gases at the tailpipe, but we're not looking closely enough and hard enough at terminating the funding to increase supplies of fossil fuels. We need to work on both ends of this process in order to decarbonize the economy.
You have some really great ideas of how to work in the government area and the policy area. You basically say that it is going to take big government and a lot of the states are doing things, but the kind of speed and scale that we need to accomplish can only really come from the federal government.
So let's leap ahead to talk a little bit about how to pay for this the kind of transition you talk about and then I'd like to return to some of the exciting technological advances. But first of all let's just talk a little bit about how do we pay for this — this is the big question.
Financing Climate Protection
Okay well, I want to start that discussion by pointing out that we have a tremendous financial capacity to pay for things that the powers that be decide are high priorities.
For example at the time of the Great Recession in 2008 we came up with trillions of dollars in federal funding in order to prevent the economy from cratering and again in the COVID crisis we came up with a trillion and a half dollars in the space of a year or two.
The federal government has the money it can do this type of funding if it decides to do so but fortunately it's not really necessary for the federal government to bear the entire burden.
The federal government needs to responsibly make some policy changes that will encourage the private sector to unleash a flood of capital which is to a large extent sitting on the sidelines because of institutional blockages and because spending for the clean transition has a certain amount of risk that some of the more traditional forms of investing don't have.
But if the government puts up for every hundred dollars of investment from the private sector I'm just kind of making this up in terms of the number of dollars they would have to provide maybe it would be three percent or five percent to provide an interest rate buy-down so that the private sector would be willing to invest because they would be getting a higher rate of return on that investment to compensate them for their perceived higher risk.
But the government, instead of having to come up with the hundred dollars, only has to come up with maybe the three or five percent increment to make the interest rate a little bit juicier.
The other way that the government can insulate the private sector from risk is by providing risk guarantees. They basically guarantee a loan so that they will make good if the borrower defaults. It turns out that when the government does this typically there is a very low rate of default but the fear factor is diffused and so the investment goes forward.
So my sense is that we could pretty comfortably fund we wouldn't even have to have the government provide the two percent or three percent of GDP that a clean transition would cost according to major economic studies. They could provide far less by strategically using loan guarantees.
At the same time they will need to stimulate certain risky sectors of the economy by providing some loans some grants directly to people who are risk takers working in kind of cutting edge technology to advance solar wind and other renewables and to advance the application of energy efficiency technology.
All of this, although it exists and is commercial, can be made more efficient and can be improved and every time somebody wants to depart from the existing conventional moves, more risk is introduced so government needs to be capable and willing to reduce that risk.
We should have a clean energy bank nationwide and we should also have clean energy bonds to help finance the clean transition so that money could be borrowed at a relatively low interest rate.
Currently I think about 38% of the bonds that are sold in the United States are treasury bonds. We ought to make sure that these bonds become clean energy bonds and that we devote ourselves to funding the clean energy transition using the government's power to lend and also to to lower risk.
Those are just a couple of ideas.
Well, you know in New York State we have a bill this year to make the polluters pay. There's a big push to do that. It's called the Climate Superfund Act. What do you think of making the fossil fuel companies pay for the wrecking of our communities?
I think that again this is something that it makes sense conceptually but would be extraordinarily difficult to implement without a very intense political struggle.
I think that when people ask what what can we do about the climate crisis it's such a complex crisis. We obviously need to gain the political power to implement these types of measures which will definitely put a brake on the fossil fuel industry.
In terms of other policies, we do need a national carbon tax with compensatory mechanisms to make sure that it does not unduly impact low and middle-income people.
The entire tax system needs to be looked at from the standpoint of how can we promote the clean energy transition.
We have to do some profound systemic changes in this country and in the world. It's a little bit as if we have a raging fire now in our house, using that as a climate analogy.
The way I see this whole problem and if it seems like a digression I think you'll see in a moment that it's really not. We have to do some profound systemic changes in this country and in the world. It's a little bit as if we have a raging fire now in our house using that as a climate analogy.
Up until now, we wanted to continue with business as usual and basically ignore that problem or, in some cases, throw a few glasses of water on the fire. We would be distracted really by all of the multitude of distractions that we have available to us in society. We can turn on the TV and we can watch an NFL game or a Taylor Swift concert but so far we haven't been ready to recognize this as the catastrophic global emergency that it is and call the fire department.
Declaring a Climate Emergency
One way to call the fire department would be that we declare a national climate emergency and then that would make additional powers available to the administration in order to implement some of the no-brainer types of policies and technologies that are necessary in order to very rapidly make a transition to clean energy.
Mark Jacobson's work again shows that we're capable of making this transition long before 2050 but we have to make a societal decision that this is an enormous unprecedented existential crisis that we're facing and therefore we have to begin to treat this as a bona fide emergency and get everybody involved in the solution and call for all hands on deck, as opposed to trying perpetually to continue with business as usual and expecting the problem, in the case of a fire, to go away while we continue to put gasoline on it every year by pumping more and more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Sequestering Carbon: Carbon Ranching, Marine Carbon
I couldn't agree with you more but I think one of the ways that we do build the political will to do what we need to do is to show places where it's already being done and one of the most exciting chapters for me in this book was the one on reinventing agriculture.
Tell us about Rancher Brown and carbon ranching.
What was exciting to me was the potential to affordably spread practices that are easy to do that could actually draw down the carbon in our atmosphere by using compost and cover crops and to do it in fairly short order.
I think that the story of Gabe Brown, a rancher in North Dakota, really does encapsulate most of those trends and possibilities.
He was a conventional rancher back around 1995, a young man just starting ranching and unfortunately or from the standpoint of history, fortunately, his spring wheat crop was wiped out by hail and because there hadn't been any hail storms in that part of North Dakota in 30 years, he hadn't carried any hail insurance.
So he went to the bank, the bank extended him some more credit and he planted again and the next year there was another hail storm and also wiped out his crop and this happened a third time and finally the bank said enough, we're not going to extend any further credit.
So he had to find a way to farm without money for the conventional agricultural inputs like fertilizer, like herbicides and other means that allow a farmer to operate without being totally in tune with the soil ecosystem and with the climate.
So Gabe Brown was trying to figure out how to farm in a way that enabled him to prosper and still take care of the environment.
His primary inspiration were the journals of Lewis and Clark which he found in a library in the local community and he realized that the Mandan Indians at the turn of, well I guess it was in the 19th century, were farming with corn and beans and he adopted the idea of combining legumes and other crops together so that his soil would be naturally rejuvenated with nitrogen from the atmosphere.
And he also planted cover crops and he didn't use any tillage, but he did graze the land. And by always keeping roots in the soil, he was able to use the natural processes of photosynthesis to incorporate carbon from the air into the soil and thereby gradually, as those roots died and decomposed, they added carbon to the soil and enriched it. And because the soil builds its own structure and its own — the system in the soil is like a little ecosystem with billions of organisms in every square foot and by putting herbicides and pesticides on the land a lot of the fungi and healthy bacteria that are necessary for soil health were basically being exterminated.
By stopping some of these processes and by nurturing the soil with the proper combination of crops like corn and legumes for example, the wise rancher puts soil at top of mind and builds the soil health and the health of the ecosystem. And in this way Gabe Brown was able to farm efficiently and economically and develop a great many types of crops from the land without expensive inputs.
He didn't have money to buy hay even or twine to tie the bales of hay, so he had to essentially mow his neighbor's ditches that were left unmowed and gather the hay and feed his livestock through the harsh winters.
But gradually the livestock was moved over the land in a managed grazing system so that it would periodically fertilize the land in a sort of concentrated area and then be moved to another part of the pasture.
And, using all of the tools in the regenerative agriculture toolbox, Gabe was able to create in a surprisingly short period of time a very healthy soil. His soils were studied by a soil scientist named John Norman who found that in the top four feet of soil on Gabe Brown's ranch there was 92 tons of carbon that were being stored there on a more or less permanent basis.
At the same time as a result of the proper management of the soil, the soil became more permeable to water, had a higher water storage capacity and was more fertile, the crops were more nutritious and the livestock became healthier.
So ultimately he was able to produce something like 90 different products on his ranch and not only survive the adverse climate conditions but to prosper and become something of an advocate for regenerative agriculture. And he now has a consulting business and travels all over the country.
What he did is a little bit different from what John Wick did in Marin County, California where he discovered that by essentially powdering the land with a thin coating of compost, it would jumpstart the ecosystem and cause the ecosystem to become fertilized by the carbon in that natural compost.
And it wouldn't have to be tilled into the soil. Eventually, microorganisms and other small organisms would work that carbon into the soil and they found that by putting a metric ton of carbon on an acre that would in itself cause the the ecosystem to increase the carbon storage by about a ton a year for anywhere from 30 to 100 years. And this was carefully studied by Dr. Wendy Silver at the University of California to validate John Wick's results, which he got with the help of Jeff Kreck, a soil ecologist and rangeland manager that John Wick worked with.
He founded the the Marine Carbon Project, incidentally, which then has been spreading this technology and insights to other parts of the United States.
But don't bury the lead here, because what is so exciting about this is, for example with this, by spreading a half an inch of compost, being able to store carbon, to really use agriculture and by the way ranching, as well, to store carbon, you say they could basically draw down—bring us back to 290 parts per million, basically to pre-industrial levels.
How long would this take, because what we are also learning, by the way, is that once we stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere and start drawing it down, the cooling of the earth begins within three to five years.
This is the new research from Michael Mann, the world-renowned climate scientist, that, instead of having a thousand years of heating baked in, the Earth is going to begin to cool almost right away.
If every farmer spread a half an inch of compost on their row crops, how long would it take to draw down to pre-industrial levels?
I don't think that that's an answerable question, with all due respect, and the reason is, that there are so many variables and so many different types of soils. There are different types of agricultural operations, there are all sorts of institutional obstacles that would interfere with doing this on a global scale. But what we do know is that there are millions and millions of acres of cropland and hundreds of millions — I should say billions — of acres of rangeland and cropland in the world and that if only a small amount of carbon of incremental carbon were added to the soil on these billions of acres year after year, eventually we would be accelerating the drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
How fast it would go, how many years it would take ,it's really beyond speculation to be able to figure that out at this point.
We first would have to have robust programs in place in the United States and in a few states. And this has been demonstrated in a number of locations; we know it works, but soils are different, climate is different, cropping systems are different, ranges are different, so in each case, the variables would be different and you would have a different rate of incorporating carbon dioxide into the soil.
I hope that that unsatisfactory answer is satisfactory; that's the best I think that that we can do with that question.
It's important to also understand that these processes would have to be validated. You would have to do a soil analysis before you began and then you would have to do soil tests as this process unfolded so that you would be able to to assess how much carbon had been actually sequestered from the atmosphere in order to properly compensate farmers for this investment. But what we do know, the investments in regenerative agriculture tend to be much less than any type of mechanical system we could imagine that could mechanically pull carbon out of the atmosphere, because we're using microbes to do it for us, but by the innumerable trillions of microbes, as opposed to having to build machinery that would have to be powered and then filled with various kinds of reagents to try and wring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere where it's at a very low concentration.
So the way to do that effectively is to use natural climate solutions, which are to use agricultural systems to use the rangelands, which are more prevalent than croplands and then to use forests and wetlands and do everything that we can to restore and enhance and revitalize these natural systems to make them as healthy and as vigorous as possible.
Because to the extent that we are able to do so, they will be able to increase their rate of carbon capture and storage in the soil — the scientific name being sequestration of carbon.
And that's so exciting. There is just so much in this book. I really recommend it to my listeners who care about this issue and and want to understand it. And the writing flows so it's not a difficult book to read, but it really is fascinating.
So in the less than a minute we have left, what would be one thing you would like to leave our listeners with that they haven't heard yet that you think is a key idea or concept that they can bring home with them?
That's a tough question, obviously, but I think that we are often made to feel as if we're personally responsible for the climate crisis because willy-nilly we are generating carbon in almost every step we take. Every move we make, we are causing some adverse environmental impact.
We have to protect our democracy, because if we lose the fight to save our democracy, we're going to lose the fight to protect the climate.
The problem is that we have been made to feel personally responsible for the climate crisis. And, rather than being personally responsible and feel guilt about that, we need to turn this around and take the sense of crisis and sense of urgency and organize ourselves politically to make the policy changes that can have far more impact than the individual actions — which are important and we make many important individual decisions — but we cannot take full responsibility for the harm that our economic system and that our systemic dependence on fossil fuels is inflicting on the planet. No personal action is going to undo that unless politically we're able to change the system that is causing this to happen and that system is a reliance on fossil fuels.
So we have to organize that, we have to protect our democracy, because if we lose the fight to save our democracy, we're going to lose the fight to protect the climate.
Yes, and the consequences of that are going to be dire. Well, John Berger, it's just been a privilege to talk with you about this book Solving The Climate Crisis: Frontier Reports From The Race To Save The Earth. We didn't talk about green chemistry or green concrete, a national climate plan; there are just so many ideas in this book we didn't talk about but it is all in the book and I want to thank you so much for writing it and talking with us here about it.
Thank you very much for inviting me. It's been a pleasure talking with you, too.