Albert Einstein is rumored to once have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” As a society we tend to focus on the less-than-five-minute solution without spending enough time determining the question. When it comes to climate change it seems we’ve settled into a singular theme; specifically how do we stop doing the things that damage the environment? We should absolutely be asking this, to be clear. The drawback, however, is that limited questions lend themselves to limited answers. In the quest for our five-minute solution we may be overlooking pieces of a much larger question. With this in mind, I’d like to examine one chronically under-considered question—that is, how will we reverse the damage we have already caused?
If we somehow managed to cease all CO2 emissions across the globe today it would not be enough to stop climate change from continuing to worsen over the next few hundred years, according to reports by the NOAA. Realistically, we would also need to draw carbon already emitted into the atmosphere back down to the earth. Otherwise our efforts are tantamount to reducing the rate at which air escapes an already half-flat tire; of course we need to plug the leak, but how far do we really expect to get if we can’t re-inflate the darn thing?
Not only do we have the tools to do this, quite literally at our feet, but recent studies have also found it may be easier to draw carbon back to the earth than it would be to significantly reduce our emissions globally. For instance, findings by Rodale Institute suggest we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions if even a portion of the agriculture industry starting using sustainable and regenerative practices.
To understand this, consider that carbon naturally exists in all living things. Humans do not create carbon, we’re just experts at moving it around. This becomes problematic when we start displacing excessive amounts of carbon—by doing things like burning fossil fuels—then preventing the soil from absorbing that carbon. We impede carbon absorption when we disrupt the process of photosynthesis through large-scale practices such as those used in industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture was born out of necessity around the time the Earth’s population exploded from one billion people to more than seven billion. Today, it accounts for 20 to 30 percent of manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is more than all emissions worldwide from burning fossil fuels. It is also characterized by monoculture, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, deforestation, and “confined animal feeding operations” or CAFOs, all of which affect soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This is not to say we can simply do away with industrial agriculture. On the contrary, we are likely to starve if we cannot produce food in mass quantities. Rather, we should aim to reform the industry’s harmful processes and utilize widely available and inexpensive techniques such as holistic management, permaculture design, no-till crop production, and proper management of livestock. In response to claims that altering the current industry processes could lead to food insecurity, an IFOAM report shows that regenerative farming yields are equal to industrial yields in pleasant weather and superior during droughts and flooding.
Our Earth came equipped with three natural carbon sinks: the atmosphere, the oceans, and the humus-sphere. We know now that two of the three are effectively maxed-out. Luckily for us, the last sink standing—the one made up of remnants of decaying organic material that is essential to soil fertility—is capable of containing the amount of carbon required to actually reverse climate change. All we need to do is get out of the way.
The question of stopping climate change and the question of reversing climate change are not mutually exclusive, but by asking the latter we provide an alternate perspective and open ourselves up to different possibilities. All the while we’ve been looking up to the atmosphere wondering how do we stop, and an answer—albeit it to a slightly different question—has been right underneath us. Perhaps things will start looking up when we start looking down.