Which will be first? Starvation or overheating?
Tom Rehm, October 5, 2021
Biases: Carbon fee and dividend policy (H.R. 2307), regenerative agriculture, nuclear energy
First my mea culpa on both sides of the starvation/overheating coin.
On December 1, 2016, someone started a discussion on AIChE Engage, the webpage of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers that hosts discussions. The post that day was a reachout to other chemical engineers on the idea of developing a course for ChE university curricula on global warming. Prior to that day, as I was on the doorstep of 66 years of age, I had never given a thought to global warming. I also hadn’t given a thought about threats to our food supplies, both on land and at sea. On December 1, 2016, I began learning about global warming. It would take me almost three more years to learn about the starvation bit.
In September 2019, I learned about regenerative agriculture from Megan Parks, a young chemical engineer in the AIChE South Texas Section. In 2019, I was the Chair of the local section of chemical engineers in the greater Houston Texas area, the AIChE South Texas Section.
Megan is vice president and a co-founder of Grassroots Carbon. Sometime earlier in 2019 I began sparring with her father, Rick Strait, also a chemical engineer, about climate solutions. Most of that friendly debate was my insistence that nuclear energy must be a major part of the solutions mix.
Rick said I should meet Megan. She told me about damage that has been done over the past 100+ years to our soils from mechanized farming. She told me about the promise of regenerative agriculture in sequestering carbon. Wow.
Who knew about regenerative agriculture? I sure didn’t. I grew up on a small cattle and soybean farm in Arkansas. I remember my Dad plowing and discing our 40 acres of soybean fields every spring so he could seed them for another growing season. Everybody did the same to their soybean fields, and cotton fields, in our area. That’s how farming is done around there!
Nine years ago, a report by the World Economic Forum concluded that 40% of soil used for agriculture was either degraded or seriously degraded, and that we may only have about 60 years of topsoil left. [Recalculate … 51 years left]
We could starve before we overheat.
As I learned about the destruction of our soils, I recalled digging for worms in the ‘50s and ‘60s for fishing. I never went into any of our soybean fields to dig for worms. I was out in those fields every summer hoeing weeds out of the rows of soybeans so I instinctively knew the soil had no life in it, and definitely no worms. I always dug worms from a cattle pasture filled with all sorts of tasty grasses, maybe a few weeds, and of course a steady supply of bovine fertilizer.
I have become convinced that there is life, and plenty of sequestered carbon, in soils managed through regenerative agriculture. This is an important means of sequestering carbon. We must promote regenerative agriculture.
Sometime over the last five years, as I learned belatedly about global warming and its devastating effects, I also learned about the devastation of coral reefs and other parts of the ocean ecosystems. In May 2019, my wife and I took our only cruise. One stop was at Cozumel. We decided to do a clear-bottomed boat tour of the coral reefs. We didn’t see much color and we didn’t see many fish. I took loads of videos on that tour with my iPhone pressed against the polymethylmethacrylate. Later in 2019 I chaired a climate solutions session at the Southwest Process Technology Conference. A geophysicist overheard me tell that story and said I was mistaken, “I’ve scuba dived around those coral reefs. They are just fine.” Granted, I’m not a coral reef expert and I could be mistaken. Regardless something is going on. In March 2021, Nature published the article, “Protecting the ocean delivers a comprehensive solution for climate, fishing and biodiversity.”
Synergies between resolving our food supply chain and global warming
We have two problems:
The planet is warming and if we don’t do something about it, we humans will overheat to the point where a lot of us will have to move from where we now live, either due to rising seas, loss of biodiversity, or that it’s simply too damn hot for humans to live where we are now.
We are gradually degrading our agricultural soils and our oceans to the point where it’s going to get harder and harder to produce the food that we humans need to survive. I won’t be here in 60 years but I’ve got ten grandkids who will be.
As I learned about global warming, I became concerned about them as James Hansen has about his grandkids, “Storms of My Grandchildren.” Those grandkids of his and mine have at least two great challenges which require attention, overheating and starvation.
Amazingly, resolution of global warming can contribute to resolving our global food supply.
Scientists have estimated that soils could sequester an additional 4-5 billion tons of CO2 per year if best management practices were used in farming.
There our means to increase the quantity of phytoplankton in our oceans which will improve food security as phytoplankton is important as the base of ocean food chains. Also, phytoplankton converts CO2 to oxygen, a wonderful side benefit.
That exhausts my knowledge of the subject. An old dog can learn new tricks. This old dog has learned a lot since December 2016, and again since September 2019. None of us will ever know enough to figure out how to resolve global warming on our own or even within comfortable small sequestered climate-concerned silos. It is an impossibility. We all need to share knowledge with each other and increase our networks dramatically. (And yes, even the 200,000 members of the Citizens Climate Lobby and the 60,000 members of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers are small sequestered silos. We must do a better job of collaboration.)
I look forward to reading your opinion pieces at our website, and I look forward to you joining our initiative.