Green New Deal News

Op-Ed: A Big Solution to Climate Change Is Just Beneath Our Feet

By Autumn Ness

Healthy, living soil sequesters carbon. It literally pulls it out of the air, and stores it in the ground.  And in this day and age, where atmospheric carbon levels are wreaking havoc on our planet, anything that puts carbon in the ground and keeps it there buys us time to implement bigger solutions.

So what does this mean for you? Many of us are walking around with a sense of impending climate change doom, while government tries to figure out how to get big industry to reinvent the way basically everything functions. Building infrastructure for renewable energy, tightening regulations on industrial carbon emissions, and getting carbon-zero airplanes in the air are all important solutions that are going to take more time than we have. In the meantime, we are literally standing on potential carbon sequestration zones, that if activated will buy us more time.   Your front yard, your backyard garden, the neighborhood park, the green strips along roadsides, farmland in and around our community – the more land we activate, the more time it buys us.

And here’s the good news: Turning the ground below our feet into an emergency carbon sink system is pretty darn cheap. All it requires is that we stop using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that disrupt the carbon-capturing systems that naturally exist in healthy, organic soil – a return to compost and cover cropping. Influential climate scientist James Hansen argues that land-management practices are one of the few affordable options available today for drawing down carbon.

This is so important that a Climate Stewardship Act (S. 2452) has been introduced in the US Senate that focuses largely on the intersection of organic land management and climate solutions. It would fund various programs whose primary purpose is to incentivize farmers and other land managers to implement practices that are effective at enhancing carbon sequestration – things like building soil health by cover cropping, grassing waterways, and using compost instead of synthetic fertilizer inputs.

On a recent trip to Washington DC I spoke with Senator Cory Booker’s climate team and a handful of other congressional offices about climate change and land management. According to a House Committee on Agriculture senior staffer, “In the last six months there has been a watershed shift in the conversation related to soil health and climate change.” Our team noticed  that the current trending conversation on Capitol Hill is about how pesticide- and fertilizer-heavy practices contribute to climate change, how organic practices sequester carbon, and how we can facilitate transitions to organic practices. Realistically, I got the sense that it’s not so much because they care a lot about climate change and ecosystem health, but more because they are concerned about how much climate change-instigated disaster will cost the federal government, and their inability to pay for it. They are basically looking for the fast, cheap way out.  

Unfortunately, Capitol Hill is in gridlock under the thumb of a Trump-led administration and a GOP-led Senate. The stark reality is that all of this work on bold legislation that addresses energy and industrial carbon emissions won’t go anywhere until at least after the 2020 elections.

Here’s where we come in: We can start working on soil health and carbon sequestration zones now, locally, all over our neighborhoods, counties, and the state. We don’t need Trump, a Republican-led Senate, or a stalemate congress to start the process. We can do it ourselves.  

In fact, climate solution leaders in Washington DC expressed real, desperate hope that states and counties will have these conversations locally and enact solutions, incentive programs, and system overhauls so that in 2021 they have more data and success stories to propel even faster action on the federal level. Federally, they have their hands tied, and are begging for action and support on the local level.

As an added bonus, healthy soil and the organic matter inside retain water better, making the land resistant to drought, and more stable in the kind of big storm events that are increasing with climate change, sending less sediment runoff into our streams and ocean.

So, let’s get started.  Currently, there are initiatives in Maui, Hawai’i and Kaua’i counties to curb or prohibit the use of pesticides on county owned lands. Hawai’i Green New Deal legislation, including incentives for practices that build carbon-sequestering soil, will be central to the 2020 Hawai’i State Legislative session, which starts in January.  Imagine county and state parks and roadways where the practice of managing invasive weeds by spraying them with toxic herbicides has been replaced by native plant corridors planted by community members, creating pollinator-friendly habitat while pulling carbon out of the air. Imagine synthetic fertilizers replaced by locally produced compost. With the flick of a pen, we can turn food waste, which produces about one-fifth of the country’s methane gas emissions when left to decompose in a dump, into a soil building resource that can actually aid in removing carbon from our atmosphere. One man’s methane producing trash is another man’s climate change solution treasure.

Imagine the open areas in our yards, neighborhoods, schools, and farmlands being the spaces where we grow solutions to climate change, with our very own hands.

Autumn Ness is a community organizer who works on better regulating pesticide heavy industrial agriculture and land management systems, while supporting a return to regenerative systems. She works on county, state and federal policies around soil health, farming, land and water rights, and building better food systems. She is currently the Hawai’i Organic Land Management Program Director for Beyond Pesticides, a national organization that works to protect public health, and the environment through science, education and grassroots community-based action.