Town of Geneva Climate Smart Coordinator Jacob Fox answers your questions about recycling, composting, lawn care, etc.
Today’s question: How do we solve climate change?
This question brought me quite a bit of stress between the years 2012 and 2016. I like to consider these years the first years I became fully aware of a changing climate and the causes/consequences. I was a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, reading book after book about how our environment is in pretty bad shape and only getting worse. I learned about poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, mass extinctions, poisoned inner city neighborhoods, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and more scary realizations that we are learning about every year.
Climate Change seemed like this large boulder rolling down the hill, inevitably going to wreck the environment, and make my adult years a struggle against fires, hurricanes, disease, dust bowls, poisoned water, polluted air, etc. I felt helpless, but I knew I wanted to help in some way. I heard that there were great scientists who were coming up with these amazing technocratic inventions that would “suck carbon out of the sky,” essentially reverse-engineering a tree; or they would mine some rock dust called olivine and sprinkle it across the ocean, and some way that would help our oceans from acidifying.
These highly publicized and very well funded projects actually just disheartened me. First of all, it seemed like the barrier to participate in solving climate change was blocked by years more of school, a PhD, and at least $500 million in funding.
I began searching for a grassroots and holistic solution to climate change. Not only did I find a great solution, but it also results in a world that I think we would all enjoy more, a world with abundant and amazing food! The solution I am describing is getting quite famous in the press right and is called “Carbon Farming.”
It is a “nature-based” solution where farmers and other land owners are financially rewarded for their ability to improve and sustain healthy soil, which is ideal for holding and filtering water, cycling air, growing abundant food, among other ecosystem functions. Carbon farming is a short and catchy name, but I like to include the entire suite of benefits in calling the incentive system a “Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES).” This system would pay farmers for improving soil health, constructing/maintaining farm ponds/wetlands, planting pollinator patches, planting trees, reducing/stopping chemical use, reducing/stopping tillage, etc.
Currently we pay farmers to grow crops such as corn. From 1995 to 2020, the U.S. government subsidized farmers $116.6 billion to plant corn. Now I would have to write another whole column about where all that corn goes, but it’s not about the corn, it’s about the subsidies. If we are going to give subsidies at all, we should give them for actions that benefit everyone and not just an individual’s immediate cash flow. We need subsidies that will encourage farmers to plant things and farm in ways that improve the ecosystem services of their lands. This in practice could mean a farmer planting fruit/nut trees instead of corn or even between the corn rows. These trees will yield after 7-10 years. For many people that is too long for a financial return. However, every year those trees are in the ground they are holding soil and nutrients from running off into the lake. Every year that field is saved from tilling is a significant reducing of nutrients flowing to the lake. Our water quality is worth a lot when you consider the money we spend on water treatment facilities and flood damage.
The solution of improving soil health is the most “low-hanging fruit” solution to climate change that is out there. Some people will say healthy soil won’t solve climate change, but I say prove me wrong. We are quick to discount soil as a solution because it is not as pretty or shiny as a carbon capture machine. There are policy discussions about a PES type of system in New York and nationwide. There are many ways it can play out, depending on who is funding these systems and what the expected outcomes are. I am not saying every carbon farming or PES model will work, but I believe it is the best shot we have.
Take a second and just imagine with me a future world where there is not existential environmental threats, and where we are rediscovering old foods that were replaced by corn/soy crops. Shout out to the humble Paw Paw, and other seemingly forgotten perennials that hold water, foster biodiversity, and protect from erosion.