I teach four sections of 10th grade Earth and Space Science this year at a public charter school where I have been teaching for eleven years. I feel like the luckiest teacher on the planet. We get to learn about my darling planet and it’s place in the universe for a whole school year. We started the year learning about water’s role on Earth as our monsoons waned, and then we investigated carbon’s role in Earth systems. One can understand much of what is going on here on Earth these days by keying in to water and carbon.
As we engaged in activities, labs and reading to help us to develop a quantitative model of the carbon cycle, I couldn’t wait to show my students the movie Kiss the Ground. The movie (available on Netflix) has been out for just a year. I clearly remember watching it for the first time last fall and it felt like having big strong ropes of my thinking tied together in a powerful and positive aha moment. It was a call to action, a bunch of good news, and the impetus for this blog.
The movie gives my students a surprising piece of new knowledge: carbon in the atmosphere can quite easily be put into the soil, where it will restore the Earth rather than cook it. Instead of the grim resignation I have often seen in students after they begin to understand the mechanisms of climate change, I see my students this year energized, interested, and newly hopeful about the future.
Carbon cycles among Earth’s systems in myriad ways, and is both the basis of all life on the planet and the stuff getting too plentiful in our atmosphere, heating up our world. Plants take carbon from the air, in the form of carbon dioxide, and dazzle it with a bit of electromagnetic radiation and water and voila! The carbon gets built into sugars to grow and run the plant. Out pops water and oxygen molecules – ta da, habitable Earth. We animals chomp the carbony plants, and both plants and animals die sooner or later, feeding the soil and the microorganisms. Ah! The microorganisms exhale and much of our carbon floats back into the atmosphere. That’s the carbon cycle. It’s all about balance.
You see, we evolved well after photosynthesizing organisms first filled the atmosphere with 21% oxygen, and well after they teemed up with fungi to colonize land and make Earth’s first soil. The oxygen, the ozone layer, the plants and the soil all needed to be here before we could exist. Plants are our creators in that sense. Together with plants we animals have stabilized and destabilized the climate many times over Earth’s history. The key to cooling the climate down is to let plants pull lots more carbon out of the atmosphere and to stash more and more of it in the form of organic matter into the soil, making us richer, healthier, cooler and happier.
We keep unbalancing the carbon cycle by taking ancient carbon in the form of coal, oil, and gas out of deep storage way underground, and burning it, releasing it as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s been big business for a couple of centuries now, and of course we need to be winding that down. But another thing we do has been big business for a lot longer – plowing up the land to grow crops. And plowing slowly kills the vast ecology of microorganisms and fungi in the soil, causing the carbon in the soil to be gradually lost to the atmosphere. The dead soil – now dirt – no longer no longer absorbs water and no amount of chemical fertilizer can replace the lost fertility. Wind and water quickly erode the dry dirt. Many civilizations have fallen after ruining their soil this way. We are on that road. But reversing course can be much quicker and more rewarding than we ever thought.
Thanks to the proposal brought to COP18, the Paris Climate Summit, by the French Minister of Agriculture, Stephane Le Foll, we now know that if we raise the carbon content of agricultural soils worldwide by 0.4 percent (four parts in a thousand) or more per year, we would draw down as much carbon from the atmosphere per year as we put into it. This would effectively buy us time to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, and give us the power to stop and even reverse climate change. We should urge the US to sign on to this agreement at this winter’s climate talks in Glasgow (COP26).
Even better, the work of increasing soil carbon is not hard, not expensive, and quickly creates massive benefits. The only problem is, hardly any of the 7.9 billion humans on the planet have any inkling about how to go about it, or how urgent it is, or how much fun.
Simple principles can get you started and guide your work forever: cover the soil with mulch and/or living plants, minimize or stop tillage, shape the land to allow water to infiltrate, and promote diversity and/or crop rotation. Do this and your soil will come alive, gain and store carbon, and feed and cool you. Don’t worry about getting everyone on board – we can get started and accomplish a lot, and that will get more and more people interested.
Opportunity knocks. There are plenty of us humans are out here standing on Earth’s surface getting really scared and bummed out about climate change. We know we are not acting fast enough but we don’t know what to do. And for all of us, it is good news to know that you can personally, physically sequester carbon in the soil. Through your efforts on any ground you have any control over (yard, patio, farm, wood lot, business, vacation home, whatever), you can begin to sequester carbon now, and you can keep doing it for the rest of your life. You can continually influence and teach other people as they notice what you are doing – and they will. Your awareness of the carbon cycle and how to put things to rights will affect your purchases over your lifetime, and possibly your political or policy choices. All of this will add up. You personally will help reverse climate change. Well, you and the plants and fungi and microorganisms.
If you haven’t watched Kiss the Ground, watch it as soon as possible. End the constant sense of doom many of us have been experiencing, as we notice the forest fires, the climate refugees, the heat and floods, the storms and plagues and all manner of disruption all getting worse. Kiss the Ground will give you a big gulp of can do, and you can use all that energy to get started.