Thursday, September 25, 2014

Climate Change Takes Broadway

" It’s doubtful that there will be a treaty,” said one senior Obama administration official" .

In November 1987, when Senators Al Gore and Tim Wirth held their first hearings on climate change, almost no-one but the scientific witnesses came. The senators adjourned the meeting until the following summer and reconvened in the midst of a sweltering heatwave that was frying the Great Plains and stopping barge traffic on the Mississippi. The second time, the witnesses testified to popping flashbulbs and headlines screamed, "The Heat is On!" and "Global Warming Has Begun!"

Flash forward a quarter century to 2014. The United Nations has been struggling to ink some kind of treaty to limit carbon emissions since launching the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon knows he has a hard deadline coming up in Paris in 2015 but the recent preparatory meetings in Copenhagen, Durban, Doha, and Warsaw have not been going well and COP20 next December in Lima promises more of the same deadlock.

The general public and climate science seem to be solidly together in finding the situation extremely urgent. Ban sees he has a possible opening to shift political will now, in the summer of 2014, after watching an unbroken string of hottest months on record.

An unprecedented number of world leaders attended the Tuesday Summit, including 100 heads of government. They are outnumbered 8-to-1 by well-heeled, UN-credentialed delegates from business and finance, making the atmosphere much like that of, say, the halls of Congress. Instead of Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness there are King Coal, Frackers and the men from Halliburton. What happens next is a mix of the tired public relations theater from the past 19 conferences — grand pledges to do something at some increasingly distant date while doubling down on the toxicity of Earth's atmosphere in the immediate future — without the slightest hint of any awareness of a present hazard.

Let us be clear. This is really, really the eleventh hour. It may even be the thirteenth, which is to say our train already left the station and we were not aboard. The train might have left the station before 1980.

In April, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that their best science shows that to limit global warming to 2°C would require reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of 40 to 70 percent by 2050.  Ban pledged the UN’s own operations would be ‘climate neutral’ by 2020.
The Obama Administration pointed with pride to its commitment to source 20% of federal government energy consumption (not including military) from renewables by 2020. It made unchallenged claims to having reduced methane emissions 11% despite accelerating US dependence on natural gas wells and pipelines that are known to emit enormous amounts of methane, almost entirely unmonitored.

Meanwhile, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hit a high in 2013 that has not been seen on this planet since 18 million years before hominids appeared. And it continues to increase, day in, day out. It is even increasing the rate of increase.

Scientists are now observing the beginnings of a shift to where oceans and vegetation no longer absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere and instead become pumps.

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research calculates that industrialized nations need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 10 percent per year starting now.  Of course, this is “incompatible with economic growth,” as Anderson acknowledges. The only hope of maintaining economic growth while cutting emissions at such a pace is to rapidly decouple GDP from CO2, something few at the UN are talking about, except for a few island nations who pledge to be 100% renewable energy-based by the end of this decade.

But as Richard Heinberg says, "Ultimately, climate change is not the only reason perpetual economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet. The world faces a suite of ecological problems related to water, soil, and biodiversity, all stemming from past growth, and all seemingly requiring reduction in human consumption levels for their solution."

Yet, despite all these signs and portents, and even though the European Union, much of Africa, and island countries are pushing for a binding treaty with deep emissions cuts, the Big Polluters (BP) have formed a solid block. The US, China, India, Canada and Australia speak with one voice. They are not just saying "No," but "Hell no!"

“It’s doubtful that there will be a treaty,” said one senior Obama administration official not authorized to speak for the record.

Ban, knowing where his bread was buttered, reiterated, "We must work together to mobilize money and move markets. Let us invest in climate solutions available to us today. Economists have shown this comes at minimal extra cost while the benefits to our people and our planet are monumental. We need all public finance institutions to step up to the challenge. And we need to bring private finance from the sidelines."

Just to put a friendly face on this, the BP group adopted the strategy proposed by Hillary Clinton at Copenhagen in 2009: privatize the problem to corporations and put up voluntary pledges to pay them to do something about this problem. That is the Clinton way. If you wondered why 800 business and financial lobbyists would attend UN meetings, this is why. In Cancun she offered $100 million annually by 2020 "from public and private sources" for a "Green Climate Fund." In New York the pledges were:


Some of the backroom debates were whether this fund could be used for developing coal and fracked gas. Canada and the US were in favor. Europeans were aghast. UK's David Cameron said, “We are investing in all forms of lower carbon energy including shale gas and nuclear, with the first new nuclear plant coming on stream for a generation.” Sweden pledged to divest $100 million from its public pension fund by the end of 2015 and invest in carbon polluters (including shale gas and nuclear) no more.

 “It’s a tug-of-war right now,” said Ronny Jumeau from the island nation of Seychelles and spokesman for a group of 43 small island nations. “We refuse to accept that someone says it cannot be legally binding and everybody has to live with it because they’re so powerful.” Island nations struggle with impacts to their freshwater supplies, fisheries, and agriculture as super storms and sea-level rise threatens to put many of them underwater.

“The voluntary stuff will never be enough,” Jumeau says. “We are still headed to destruction.”

There were a few positive outcomes from the meeting in New York.

The New York Declaration on Forests received 130 signatories, including the governments of the US, UK, Germany, Indonesia and the Congo, as well as companies, civil society and indigenous peoples. It will cut the rate of deforestation in half by 2020 and end it by 2030. It will reforest more than 350 million hectares, an area greater than the size of India. The declaration was backed by commitments from food companies, including palm oil giants, to deforestation-free sourcing policies. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts joined 19 other major food companies to make zero-deforestation pledges.

In Britain, Greenpeace activists staged their own great train robbery, flagging down and taking over a coal train en route to one of England's dirtiest power stations, run by French energy giant EDF. The activists used industry-standard emergency signals to siderail the 400-metre-long, 1500-tonne coal train. Dozens of fully-trained Greenpeace activists climbed onto the open coal wagons and started packing coal into sacks labeled “return to sender," addressed to Vladimir Putin. The UK paid £1 billion to Russian coal oligarchs last year.

On Sunday 350,000 people showed up to march in Manhattan, the largest protest yet on climate change. While there were no actual demands, it was a momentum builder in that it drew together many very diverse constituencies and some that had never come out before. Obviously no amount of protest is likely to change the direction climate negotiations are taking or suddenly shift the political landscape, but it is having an effect at the margin. New York was the first climate summit in which divestment of stranded assets in the fossil industries was pledged by a UN member country (Sweden).

What would an actual arrest of our extinction trajectory look like? In that fictitious world, the one in which imaginary homo sapiens survive the earliest horrors of the Anthropocene, develop a steady state economy, degrow their numbers and reverse catastrophic warming, everyone gardens. Forests overtake deserts. That is the key to unlocking the solution to the human-caused climate dilemma; a key we discovered in our research following Climate in Crisis in 1990 and leading up to the publication of The Biochar Solution in 2010. With a shift to carbon-sequestering, regrarian agriculture, the balance between soil, atmosphere and ocean is restored. The ocean ecosystem revives, with Blue Whales breeching majestically in what had previously been gyres of microplastic residues. The carbon content of soils goes from less than one percent back to 5, 10, and then 15 percent. Varieties of win-win gift economies based on perennial harvests once again outnumber extractive, flow-through, winners-and-losers militarist/capitalist economies.

Of course none of this is possible if no agreement can be reached to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or adhere to the strictures of world conferences on population (1954, 1965, 1974, 1984, 1994), or for that matter, to adopt Odums' "prosperous way down" as a roadmap.

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I am not the only one.
— John Lennon

When all other roads lead to, at the least, near term human extinction, and at the worst, extinction of all life on Earth, our flight of wild eyed utopian fantasy is not unrealistic. It is the only sane choice.

Fortunately India just launched a rocket to Mars that did not go through the sterilization protocols used by NASA. If the wild-eyed scenario fails, perhaps a tiny bit of our genetic progress will be saved there.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flash! Tiny Fern Saves Planet from Catastrophic Warming

"The magic of this tiny little water plant, like that of present day permaculture plans for food forests and re-treeing the Sahara, lies in its capability to suck enough a carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere to cool the planet while supplying us both food and breathing space."

As world leaders prepare to gather at the United Nations in New York to mount a defense to Climate Change — as though in a science fiction story where we, the Earth, are preparing to fight off an alien invasion — we are going to hop into our Wavelength Acceleration Bidirectional Asynchronous Controller and set the dial back 49 million years, to the middle of the Eocene Epoch, in search of a secret weapon we heard might just stop the climate juggernaut in its tracks.

Stepping out of the WABAC Machine and looking around we survey a very different planet.

In the early Eocene our familiar continents were scrambled from their present positions. The Arctic sea was inland, almost entirely cut off from the one great ocean, communicating by a long river through present-day Turkey. This meant that ocean mixing — and deep water currents such as the Gulf Stream — did not occur then as it does now.

As the WABAC has deposited us at the present-day North Pole, we rub on our sunblock and venture out through palm trees to the edge of a deep lake covered with a dense green mat of waterfern with lovely, shimmering, purplish-rose tints in the full sun. Below the roots of this fern, trailing downward from its lower surfaces, we detect a stratified water column, going very deep.

With atmospheric carbon above 3500 ppm, the Eocene is about as hot as one could expect Earth to go before it just gives up and becomes a second Venus. High temperatures and winds bring high evaporation, and high carbon deposition increases the density and acidity of the ocean such that a freshwater layer forms on the surface above the much denser saltwater.

River water entering this freshwater layer is rich in minerals, such as phosphorus, which spawn the growth of azolla — today we call it mosquito fern, Azolla filiculoides, Azolla japonica or Azolla mexicana.

In optimum conditions, the foliage becomes so dense it can prevent mosquito larva from developing and hatching, hence the common name. You can find it garden centers because it has become a popular addition to water gardens and ponds. Besides its lovely hue, it forms such a solid mat that it discourages algae growth, feeds fish, scavenges nitrates and helps keep waters clear.

The Eocene was a very warm period — crocodiles at the poles, wherever those were at the time — because concentrations of greenhouse gases were very high. In these favorable conditions, with ample warmth and abundant fertilizer, the azolla bloom doubled its biomass every two to three days. Had that exponential growth curve persisted long enough, the azolla would have theoretically outweighed the weight of Earth (an impossibility) in a matter of decades.

But, following the fate of all exponential growth curves, the azolla was arrested by resource limits — mainly phosphorus — and its own negative feedback.

As they sank to the stagnant sea floor, the dead azolla leaves and roots were incorporated into the sediment; the resulting drawdown of carbon dioxide helped transform our world from the "greenhouse Earth" Eocene to the "icehouse Earth" it has been ever since.

Like it or not, with all the baggage industrial civilization carries, we could get there again. Our emergent Anthropocene unpleasantness is entirely avoidable. We just have to step up photosynthesis. Compared to expensive, unreliable, harebrained schemes to put mirrors into space to block the sun or salt the atmosphere with sulfur, re-greening Garden Earth is safe, clean and too cheap to meter. It also gives us food and oxygen.

The magic of this tiny little water plant, like that of present day permaculture plans for food forests and re-treeing the Sahara, lies in its capability to suck enough carbon and nitrogen out of the atmosphere to cool the planet while supplying us both food and breathing space. It can allow us to return our home to the more hospitable Holocene conditions in which mammals developed a larger cerebral cortex and then monumental civilizations.

Do-overs on this scale are rare good fortune. Let us hope, in the unlikely event world leaders at the UN next week opt to go this route, that they and we will learn from our past mistakes and not repeat them the next time around. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Azolla has been deemed a "super-plant" because it can draw down as much as a metric ton of Nitrogen per acre per year (0.25 kg/m²/yr) and 6 tons of Carbon (1.5 kg/m²/yr). Its main limit to growth is the availability of Phosphorus. Each individual plant is 1-2 cm across, green tinged pink, orange or red at the edges, branching freely, and breaking into smaller sections as it grows. It is not tolerant of cold temperatures, and in temperate regions it dies back in winter, surviving by means of submerged buds.

Blooms alone are not enough to have any significant atmospheric chemistry impact; to reverse CO2 and NOx imbalances, the excesses must be sequestered. In the case of the present, this means turning biomass that would, left to its own devices, become atmospheric pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides into water vapor, recalcitrant carbon and fixed nitrogen. We can accomplish that through the magic of biochar.

In the Eocene Azolla Event, the strategy was different. Dead azolla plants had to be buried and the remains made inaccessible to decomposing organisms. The anoxic bottom of the Arctic basin, a result of the stratified water column, permitted just this: the azolla sat in the mud, unrotted, until it was buried by sediment and incorporated into the fossil record. Today that layer is about 8 meters thick, or about one meter for every hundred-thousand years.

As we write this, oil drilling rigs from Russia, Canada and Exxon are plying the Arctic Ocean dragging tethered Geiger meters. Because radioactive isotopes of potassium were absorbed when the azolla plants were alive and are now a component in their clay content, and because their high cation exchange capacity causes them to absorb uranium and thorium, the fossil azolla layer can be detected in the form of a gamma radiation spike.

Calibration with the high-resolution geomagnetic reversal record with Azolla's gamma radiation signature allows the duration of the event to be estimated at 800,000 years. That time frame coincides precisely with a steep decline in carbon dioxide levels, which fell from 3500 ppm in the early Eocene to 650 ppm after this event.

Thanks the azolla bloom, the Arctic cooled from an average sea-surface temperature of 13 °C to today's −9 °C. For perhaps the first time in its history, the planet had ice caps at both poles. This was not good for the Azolla bloom and so it could not continue its weight contest with the planet.

Gathering some of this magic fern from the Eocene Arctic, transporting to present and diseembarking from the WABAC once more at the Ecovillage Training Center, we are seeding azolla into our constructed wetlands, where it will devour the phosphorus made available from the showers and sinks in the Prancing Poet Ecohostel and commence sucking CO2 and N from the atmosphere, making us even more greenhouse-gas negative than we already are. Since it won't tolerate Tennessee winters we will need to bring some into our other kind of greenhouse before the first hard freeze and then reseed our outdoor ponds again next Spring. Is it edible? Can we feed it to animals? What kind of biochar does it make? How does it function in compost? Stay tuned for further developments. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Stranded Ethics

Robert Jay Lifton, author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, wrote an op-ed for The Sunday New York Times called The Climate Swerve, pointing out the sudden shift in awareness towards the existential threat we face from our careless destruction of the atmospheric commons.

In his earlier work on Hiroshima, Lifton observed that such a shift occurred some years after the bombing, when the full extent of its horrors became more widely known. Before then, it was, while unfortunate, morally okay under the rules of war to blow up or incinerate civilian populations, as the allies had been doing beginning with the firebombing of Dresden and then all over Japan. The Bomb's victims' shadows, etched in pavement, and the torments of the hibakusha  did what Picasso's Guernica and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five had failed to do. It transformed mass civilian incinerations into something that was morally reprehensible, auguring the Cold War.

Of course, just because it is now universally considered morally reprehensible does not stop rogue states from mass-slaughtering civilians with radioactive weapons in places like Falujah, Fukushima, Gaza or Doniesk but nonetheless the public is now outraged when it learns of these crimes, and it wasn't as much before. Governments are forced to go to lengths to keep these atrocities secret and to obscure the truth when it is hinted at. Lifton wrote:
"With both nuclear and climate threats, the swerve in awareness has had a crucial ethical component. People came to feel it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and we are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren."

There is something more important in Lifton's essay than the "swerve" that the author is trying so hard to sell as a meme. Almost as a throwaway he uses a phrase that has a much deeper resonance. He calls the ways people regard moral crimes before the swerve "stranded ethics."

Stranded ethics: ethics that governed our collective decisions but have now lost their relevance.

Yes. We need to leave behind the stranded ethics of the 20th century the same way we need to leave in the ground the stranded capital assets of the fossil fuel companies and countries.

Our stranded ethics were based on growth at all costs — the prime directive of capitalism — and damn the environment, damn social justice and fair share, damn the future consequences. What counts, according to obsolete dicta from an industrial age, are share values, net worth, market share, competitiveness, national pride, ethnic pride, war footing and profits über alles.

In the stranded ethics of the past, it is more important to have routine unemployment to support all-volunteer armies than to pay a minimum wage adequate to support a family; it is more important to return value to shareholders than to protect the air and waters surrounding a manufacturing facility; and it is more important to give corporations civil rights than to regulate influence on the regulatory process, such as by making huge donations to sway an election.

Lifton says, "We may well speak of those shareholder-dominated principles as … better left buried but at present … all too active above ground." 
"It is a bit like the old Jack Benny joke, in which an armed robber offers a choice, 'Your money or your life!' And Benny responds, 'I'm thinking it over.'"

To truly inhabit the 21st century we will all share a common epiphany: that we have reached the Age of Limits and the Era of Consequences. We are at or soon approaching that inflection point. Here, now. From that shift it will follow as inexorably as night follows day that the ethics of the past are not just passé, but counterproductive. Anyone clinging to them will be regarded as a fool, a fossil and a social pariah.

So for instance, if you encounter someone who still thinks nuclear power is a good idea, they are still clinging to stranded ethics. If you encounter someone at a wedding telling the bride and groom it would be good to have more than two children, they have stranded ethics. You can be a little more compassionate towards them, especially if they are elderly, because you can appreciate what they are going through, having to change their whole approach to the world and still live with the horrible decisions they made earlier in their lives.

Someone who thinks it is okay to have that third kid, to donate money to a biotech wing at a university, to not compost their kitchen scraps, or to throw away lots of plastic like they didn't know where it is going — has stranded ethics. Eventually peer pressure will catch up with them.

Fishermen who use purse seine nets have stranded ethics. Japanese "whale researchers" have stranded ethics. Rhino horn cocktail consumers have stranded ethics. Very soon regulations and public opprobrium will catch up to them.

Homeowners who lease their back yards to frackers have stranded ethics. Poisoned wells and defaulted rent checks will catch up to them. People who work at car dealerships that only sell urban land cruisers have stranded ethics. The public will simply have stopped buying those behemoths.

Keeping 73 prisoners who have been exonerated of any crime imprisoned for years without trial or right of counsel after being found innocent by judicial review, for years, and then subjecting them to daily torture by shoving oversized and unsanitary plastic tubes down their noses when they protest, even on the day you admit, "We tortured some folks," thinking you were referring to a dozen years earlier and some other administration, not to the hundreds of people you tortured repeatedly that very same day for speaking up in protest, is stranded ethics.

Crimes such as these have well-established mechanisms of justice, that, while painfully slow, have no statute of limitations and apply as equally to Heads of State as to their minions. Toadies who coddle such war criminals as "the least worst alternative" have stranded ethics.

The late Zenmaster, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in Zen Mind Beginners Mind said it is important to understand that Zen is nothing special. Any roshi will say the same. There is no attainment. Just sit. Nothing special.

As the ethics of the 20th century become stranded, the ethics of permaculture will become invisible. Permaculture will become the new normal. It will simply be taken for granted.

Permaculture is nothing special. Acting ethically towards future generations is nothing special. Living today as if there really is going to be a tomorrow is not a fringe activity. Just do it. Already, everyone else is starting to, too.

A version of these remarks was extemporaneously delivered at the opening plenary of the 2014 North American Permaculture Convergence on August 31, 2014. The full plenary can be viewed at





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