The Key to the Environmental Crisis Is Beneath Our Feet

The Green New Deal resolution that was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in February hit a wall in the Senate, where it was called unrealistic and unaffordable. In a Washington Post article titled “The Green New Deal Sets Us Up for Failure. We Need a Better Approach,” former Colorado governor and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper framed the problem like this:

The resolution sets unachievable goals. We do not yet have the technology needed to reach “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” in 10 years. That’s why many wind and solar companies don’t support it. There is no clean substitute for jet fuel. Electric vehicles are growing quickly, yet are still in their infancy. Manufacturing industries such as steel and chemicals, which account for almost as much carbon emissions as transportation, are even harder to decarbonize.

Amid this technological innovation, we need to ensure that energy is not only clean but also affordable. Millions of Americans struggle with “energy poverty.” Too often, low-income Americans must choose between paying for medicine and having their heat shut off. …

If climate change policy becomes synonymous in the U.S. psyche with higher utility bills, rising taxes and lost jobs, we will have missed our shot.

The problem may be that a transition to 100% renewables is the wrong target. Reversing climate change need not mean emptying our pockets and tightening our belts. It is possible to sequester carbon and restore our collapsing ecosystem using the financial resources we already have, and it can be done while at the same time improving the quality of our food, water, air and general health.

The Larger Problem – and the Solution – Is in the Soil

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest environmental polluters are not big fossil fuel companies. They are big agribusiness and factory farming, with six powerful food industry giants – Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Dean Foods, Dow AgroSciences, Tyson and Monsanto (now merged with Bayer) – playing a major role. Oil-dependent farming, industrial livestock operations, the clearing of carbon-storing fields and forests, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the combustion of fuel to process and distribute food are estimated to be responsible for as much as one-half of human-caused pollution. Climate change, while partly a consequence of the excessive relocation of carbon and other elements from the earth into the atmosphere, is more fundamentally just one symptom of overall ecosystem distress from centuries of over-tilling, over-grazing, over-burning, over-hunting, over-fishing and deforestation.

Big Ag’s toxin-laden, nutrient-poor food is also a major contributor to the U.S. obesity epidemic and many other diseases. Yet these are the industries getting the largest subsidies from U.S. taxpayers, to the tune of more than $20 billion annually. We don’t hear about this for the same reason that they get the subsidies – they have massively funded lobbies capable of bribing their way into special treatment.

The story we do hear, as Judith Schwartz observes in The Guardian, is, “Climate change is global warming caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. We stop climate change by making the transition to renewable energy.” Schwartz does not discount this part of the story but points to several problems with it:

One is the uncomfortable fact that even if, by some miracle, we could immediately cut emissions to zero, due to inertia in the system it would take more than a century for CO2 levels to drop to 350 parts per million, which is considered the safe threshold. Plus, here’s what we don’t talk about when we talk about climate: we can all go solar and drive electric cars and still have the problems – the unprecedented heat waves, the wacky weather – that we now associate with CO2-driven climate change.

But that hasn’t stopped investors, who see the climate crisis as simply another profit opportunity. According to a study by Morgan Stanley analysts reported in Forbes in October, halting global warming and reducing net carbon emissions to zero would take an investment of $50 trillion over the next three decades, including $14 trillion for renewables; $11 trillion to build the factories, batteries and infrastructure necessary for a widespread switch to electric vehicles; $2.5 trillion for carbon capture and storage; $20 trillion to provide clean hydrogen fuel for power, cars and other industries, and $2.7 trillion for biofuels. The article goes on to highlight the investment opportunities presented by these challenges by recommending various big companies expected to lead the transition, including  Exxon, Chevron, BP, General Electric, Shell and similar corporate giants – many of them the very companies blamed by Green New Deal advocates for the crisis.

A Truly Green New Deal

There is a much cheaper and faster way to sequester carbon from the atmosphere that doesn’t rely on these corporate giants to transition us to 100% renewables. Additionally, it can be done while at the same time reducing the chronic diseases that impose an even heavier cost on citizens and governments. Our most powerful partner is nature itself, which over hundreds of millions of years has evolved the most efficient carbon sequestration system on the planet. As David Perry writes on the World Economic Forum website:

This solution leverages a natural process that every plant undergoes, powered by a source that is always available, costs little to nothing to run and does not cause further pollution. This power source is the sun, and the process is photosynthesis.

A plant takes carbon dioxide out of the air and, with the help of sunlight and water, converts it to sugars. Every bit of that plant – stems, leaves, roots – is made from carbon that was once in our atmosphere. Some of this carbon goes into the soil as roots. The roots, then, release sugars to feed soil microbes. These microbes perform their own chemical processes to convert carbon into even more stable forms.

Perry observes that before farmland was cultivated, it had soil carbon levels of from 3% to 7%. Today, those levels are roughly 1% carbon. If every acre of farmland globally were returned to a soil carbon level of just 3%, 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide would be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil – equal to the amount of carbon that has been drawn into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. The size of the potential solution matches the size of the problem.

So how can we increase the carbon content of soil? Through “regenerative” farming practices, says Perry, including planting cover crops, no-till farming, rotating crops, reducing chemicals and fertilizers, and managed grazing (combining trees, forage plants and livestock together as an integrated system, a technique called “silvopasture”). These practices have been demonstrated to drive carbon into the soil and keep it there, resulting in carbon-enriched soils that are healthier and more resilient to extreme weather conditions and show improved water permeability, preventing the rainwater runoff that contributes to rising sea levels and rising temperatures. Evaporation from degraded, exposed soil has been shown to cause 1,600% more heat annually than all the world’s powerhouses combined. Regenerative farming methods also produce increased microbial diversity, higher yields, reduced input requirements, more nutritious harvests and increased farm profits.

These highly favorable results were confirmed by Paul Hawken and his team in the project that was the subject of his best-selling 2016 book, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” The project involved evaluating the 100 most promising solutions to the environmental crisis for cost and effectiveness. The results surprised the researchers themselves. The best-performing sector was not “Transport” or “Materials” or “Buildings and Cities” or even “Electricity Generation.” It was the sector called “Food,” including how we grow our food, market it and use it. Of the top 30 solutions, 12 were various forms of regenerative agriculture, including silvopasture, tropical staple trees, conservation agriculture, tree intercropping, managed grazing, farmland restoration and multistrata agroforestry.

How to Fund It All

If regenerative farming increases farmers’ bottom lines, why aren’t they already doing it? For one thing, the benefits of the approach are not well known. But even if they were, farmers would have a hard time making the switch. As noted in a Rolling Stone article titled “How Big Agriculture Is Preventing Farmers From Combating the Climate Crisis”:

[I]implementing these practices requires an economic flexibility most farmers don’t have, and which is almost impossible to achieve within a government-backed system designed to preserve a large-scale, corporate-farming monoculture based around commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which often cost smaller farmers more money to grow than they can make selling.

Farmers are locked into a system that is destroying their farmlands and the planet, because a handful of giant agribusinesses have captured Congress and the regulators. One proposed solution is to transfer the $20 billion in subsidies that now go mainly to Big Ag into a fund to compensate small farmers who transition to regenerative practices. We also need to enforce the antitrust laws and break up the biggest agribusinesses, something for which legislation is now pending in Congress.

At the grassroots level, we can vote with our pocketbooks by demanding truly nutritious foods. New technology is in development that can help with this grassroots approach by validating how nutrient-dense our foods really are. One such device, developed by Dan Kittredge and team, is a hand-held consumer spectrometer called a Bionutrient Meter, which tests nutrient density at point of purchase. The goal is to bring transparency to the marketplace, empowering consumers to choose their foods based on demonstrated nutrient quality, providing economic incentives to growers and grocers to drive regenerative practices across the system. Other new technology measures nutrient density in the soil, allowing farmers to be compensated in proportion to their verified success in carbon sequestration and soil regeneration.

Granted, $20 billion is unlikely to be enough to finance the critically needed transition from destructive to regenerative agriculture, but Congress can supplement this fund by tapping the deep pocket of the central bank. In the last decade, the Fed has demonstrated that its pool of financial liquidity is potentially limitless, but the chief beneficiaries of its largess have been big banks and their wealthy clients. We need a form of quantitative easing that actually serves the local productive economy. That might require modifying the Federal Reserve Act, but Congress has modified it before. The only real limit on new money creation is consumer price inflation, and there is room for a great deal more money to be pumped into the productive local economy before that ceiling is hit than is circulating in it now. For a detailed analysis of this issue, see my earlier articles here and here and latest book, “Banking on the People.”

The bottom line is that saving the planet from environmental destruction is not only achievable, but that by focusing on regenerative agriculture and tapping up the central bank for funding, the climate crisis can be addressed without raising taxes and while restoring our collective health.

____________________________

This article was first posted on Truthdig. com. Ellen Brown chairs the Public Banking Institute and has written thirteen books, including her latest, Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age She also co-hosts a radio program on PRN.FM called “It’s Our Money.” Her 300+ blog articles are posted at EllenBrown.com.

23 Responses

  1. You are factually incorrect in the following way: The IPCC recommends we cut emissions by 45% in 10 years ( 2030 ). Since most of our emissions come from transportation and electricity generation we can achieve this goal. We already have technology for electric cars and solar, wind, water, for electricity generation. If we would just implement those two solutions we would have our 45% reduction by 2030. Yes, the farmers need to stop using fertilizer and use cover crops like clover and beans to return nitrogen into the soil. That is another solution where the technology already exists. We just have to insist that it is done.

  2. Please share this article and all your banking info with Andrew Yang!

  3. Reblogged this on The Most Revolutionary Act and commented:
    The problem may be that a transition to 100% renewables is the wrong target. Reversing climate change need not mean emptying our pockets and tightening our belts. It is possible to sequester carbon and restore our collapsing ecosystem using the financial resources we already have, and it can be done while at the same time improving the quality of our food, water, air and general health.

  4. While I really love almost all of your concepts, you are completely off the mark here. Climate change is not science, it is religion,. It is utter nonsense. So finding a “solution” for it is equally delusional.

    I couldn’t get past paragraph 3.

    Ellen, you have a lot to contribute. Your intellect and instincts are superior. Do not cheapen them with this idiocy. We are entering a cold period, a solar minimum. It’s not getting warmer, Ellen, it’s getting colder. Wake up..

    • I don’t think I mentioned global warming. I have to tread carefully around issues of “climate science,” since public banking has supporters on all sides. There is little debate that we have an ecological crisis — species are disappearing at a disastrous pace, and pollution and toxicity are rampant in the oceans, air, soil, food, etc. My point was to stress that Big Ag is a major overlooked culprit, and that we can reverse its effects with regenerative agriculture, effectively and affordably.

      • Almost all species loss are subspecies of birds on remote Pacific Islands. The average CO2 level for the 19th century was 360 ppm, and there were to year round spikes to 550 ppm in 1825 and 1942. The current level is 410 ppm. We are adding between 2 and 2 and a half molecules of CO2 to every 1 million molecules of the atmosphere every year. In contrast, water vapor makes up ~3.6% of the atmosphere, or 36,000 ppm. In the last 40 years weather balloon and NASA satellite data show a 1% drop in the water vapor level, that would equal ~360 ppm water vapor. The computer models used by climate alarmists insist that a rise in the CO2 level should cause a rise in water vapor, not a drop. That drop in water vapor causes 16 times the cooling effect of any addition in CO2. The absorption spectrum of CO2 is completely blanketed by that of water vapor. The forcing factor for CO2 on water vapor is logarithmic, not linear. That means to raise the temperature by 1 degree, we must raise the CO2 level to over 800 ppm. To raise the temperature an additional 1 degree, we must raise the CO2 level to 1600 ppm, and for another 1 degree, 3200 ppm,and so on. If we took every economically available source of CO2 on the planet and burned it all at once, we just might double the level to 800 ppm, but it would fall back to normal in 16 years. We know that from radiocarbon measurements after the ban on testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere.

        I’m sorry if I’m throwing all this information at you, but at some point it needs to be realized that man made climate change is flat out nonsense. It’s being pushed by NGO’s run by the very same private bankers that caused the financial crash in 2008. Now, think about the financial bubble being created in Carbon offsets, they went from 8 Eurocents to 25 Euros and will rise with every new increase in Carbon Taxes and regulations. At the same time farmers are protesting new regulations in Belgium and the Yellow Vest movement in France shows no signs of abating. As the return on investments in the conventional economy are driven down by carbon regulations and the return on investments in carbon offsets is goosed upward, more pension funds and speculators will flock into cap and trade, the offsets market will become a larger and larger bubble in the financial world. Why do you think the wealthiest people in the world are the most insistent that a climate catastrophe is imminent. At some point the peasant revolt will end carbon taxes and regulations, it’s either that or starve to death. When that day comes the value of carbon offsets will fall from +25 Euros to zero with the stroke of a pen. It could be worse than when Credit Default Swaps caused the 08 crash. That’s the real reason they want to jail climate deniers, why Macron says he’s as immovable as Jupiter.

        • Sadly, climate change (more like climate cataclysm) is all too real. Just look around us. This is NOT normal! Australia is on fire, as was California until recently, and there is a “storm of the century” every year or two it seems. Last year was the hottest on record. And polar ice caps are melting and sea levels are already rising, as many countries are already learning the hard way. And the true effects of CO2-induced climate forcing also need to include feedback loops to properly quantify them, by the way.

          • Yes, and the polar bears are gone and snow is a thing of the past–sad but true. But don’t look up in the sky! Pan-global chemtrail spraying has nothing to do with “climate change”.

          • You are only seeing these massive wildfires where Green policies have been implemented preventing controlled burns and firebreaks. The 1930’s are still the hottest decade on record, the raw data behind claims to the contrary is never released until it’s been smoothed and filtered by the climate modelers. There are no storms happening any worse that those recorded throughout history, and as mentioned, the climate models have failed. All predictions of catastrophe have not come true, none, the record over at least the last half century is 0 of 42. As mentioned, we are only adding between 2 and 3 molecules of CO2 to every 1,000,000 of the atmosphere per year. For those 3 molecules to raise the temperature would be a miracle of chemistry, and there would have to be a multitude of all positive feedback loops with zero negative feedback loops to have even the slightest hope in hell. It’s been a lot warmer over the last 2000 years without modern industry and people thrived every single time.

  5. Ellen – It’s quite helpful that you are pointing out the carbon sink capacity deficit in our agricultural soils and that regenerative agriculture methods can transform the soil and restore this capacity. I don’t understand why you are suggesting that the politics to get that done will be easier than the politics of limiting greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

    In your article you seem to be confusing concepts – and I am surprised that you are doing that because usually you make clear arguments. You talk about the heat emissions from poorly managed soil – and that is an important consideration, but heat emissions are far different from greenhouse gas emissions – and the latter is required in order to stop the cycle of disturbance of natural processes. Also, you say that the current politics focuses only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, but you neglect to expand on that. A big part of limiting the use of those fuels involves energy conservation – and that will be necessary regardless the energy fuel source. As you note, if we continue to engage in production processes that generate excessive waste, we will continue polluting in ways that threaten ecosystems and living organisms. Were we able to achieve fully renewable generation of electricity, we still need to conserve our energy use so that we don’t have to have energy generating technology everywhere. These technologies, like almost all human technologies, will have their own sets of negative consequences for planetary and ecosystem dynamics. This is the great lesson of the 20th century – the technologies that we develop to manipulate our natural environment have consequences for living organism and living systems.

    We now generate 40B tons of CO2 annually through the burning of fossil fuels. We cannot sink anywhere near enough of that in soil fast enough. I would love to discuss this with you further.

  6. Capitalism demands infinite growth but we live on a planet of finite resources. There is only so much oil, coal, natural gas. You cannot have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. Wake up people and realize what kind of a mess you are leaving for the children and the grand children. Besides running out of resources, the air – it stinks ! Air pollution causes and makes worse heart disease, lung cancer, ASTHMA, and COPD. Time to move on to better, safer, healthier, forms of energy that generate much less pollution. At this point we should all have learned that once a solar panel is made, it creates electricity for 25 years with zero emissions, zero fuel required, zero transportation requirements, zero maintenance. What a bargain ! Furthermore, we now have the technology in hand to live freely and not be held hostage to fossil fuels by terrorist countries in the middle east. Tell them all to go pound sand !!! Think of the economic stability we can enjoy by switching over to technologies with totally predictable costs and savings which can be forecast out for decades in advance. Oh, yeah ! And then there is climate change, which we can prevent by saying goodbye to fossil fuels and embracing a future with renewable energy technologies.

    • “Capitalism demands infinite growth…” I remain of the opinion that it is the institution of interest, whereby the rich are handed automatic free money, money without work, that is the major flaw and injustice in the system.

  7. You have completely mischaracterized the Green New Deal, both in the Hickenlooper quote and the conflation with the Morgan Stanley analysis. The Green New Deal DOES NOT call for corporate solutions, just the opposite. The GND is NOT limited to the power or transportation sector and has a detailed agenda for agriculture and sequestration. On top of that, some of you statements are scientifically bogus (e.g. runoff contributing to sea level rise). I hardly know here to begin to correct and clarify. Finally, you ignore the issues of management, capability, institutions, and timeframes – how are millions of agricultural (farms) sources going to be educated and capable of the practices you recommend?

  8. This post should come with a READER WARNING: Dangerously misleading analysis.

  9. The sun is the primary driver of climate change, accounting to at least 90% of it. The Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age cannot be attributed to CO2 levels. The early part of the 20th century was far hotter than it is now, with substantially lower CO2 levels. Starting around 1940 with increased industrialization, the earth entered a COOLING phase until 1975. Although things got warmer until 1998, there has been no net change in temperature since then, even though CO2 has steadily increased.

    Longer term, the climate record shows that CO2 LAGS temperature changes by approx. 800 years, due to the enormous heat capacity of the oceans. In other words CO2 is not the CAUSE of global warming, it’s the RESULT of it.

    The only thing that needs to be sequestered is all the hot air coming out of politicians’ mouths. CO2 is necessary for plant growth. The long-term goal of reducing CO2 is not to make the earth cooler, but to depopulate the earth.

  10. Pasturing livestock in a diverse environment may have some positive effects at some small scales, in a few places, but to suggest it as a major environmental method is ridiculous. A healthy forest environment produces forage for BROWSERS not domestic cattle.

    There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture, and in terms of our forest environments it would take centuries for them to recover the loss of soil and diversity that produced them in the first place.

    Crazy ideas like this ignore the extremely complexity of the forest ecology, much of which we have yet to understand.

  11. Ellen, please, we love you and appreciate the tremendous effort you have put into bringing the subject of public banking and true monetary reform to the mainstream, but delving into the whole “man-made global warming” non-crisis is not conducive to the advancement of our cause.

  12. […] towards ecological sustainability, as Andre Vltchek and John Cobb argue?  We’ll reference Ellen’s latest article on the Green New Deal and how to finance it. Ellen says China’s mostly-public banking sector points the way toward […]

  13. First we would have to stop the on going geo engineering.

    https://www.geoengineeringwatch.org/

  14. There are many different people working on this problem all at the same time and so much depends on whose solution you are reading. I wrote 12 versions of a Green New Deal and submitted them to the California Democratic Party….ultimately something different was written up and passed. Recently a committee in U.S. Congress released a document which I have downloaded which is not as complete as the one I wrote but nevertheless has much to boast about. And especially of note there was a final word at the end stating that agriculture had not yet been added but would be ultimately……….If you read Bernie Sanders Green New Deal it is 54 pages and 8,000 words long. That one covers all of the issues.

    But remember, when John F. Kennedy famously said ” We are going to the moon ” and so we did; He did not present a finished document during his speech. The job of the politician is to identify the goals and objectives and then motivate a team of experts to get the job done, making changes as they go.

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