After Paris: The Soil Story

January 6, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

After eighteen years with the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit I cofounded to support an emerging radical center among ranchers, conservationists, scientists and public land managers, I am moving on to new adventures. My goal now is to explore and explain the Age of Consequences – this unprecedented moment in time – and share what I learn and see along the way with the urgent hope that we are improving the world for our children, not diminishing it. I’ll be sharing what I discover in books, essays, this blog and on my Facebook page:


Now comes the hard part.

At COP21 last month, I had the honor of being part of a delegation from Regeneration International (RI) that went to Paris to make a case for soil carbon as a mitigation strategy for climate change and I’m happy to report that our effort exceeded expectations! First, I’d like to add my thoughts to the stack of analysis about the Agreement itself, struck by 197 nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to put a brake to climate change. Whether this effort is ultimately successful remains to be seen, of course, but for the moment, let’s enjoy a rare bit of good news. Here’s a dispatch I wrote the day after the deal was done:

  • There’s hope. This is so important. We’ve been staring despair in the face for so long I pretty much gave up thinking there would be any progress. The failure of the UN process to generate any meaningful action in twenty-one years led many of us to fear the worse from these now-or-never talks in Paris. Against the odds, however, a deal happened. This is a good thing. There are lots of problems with the Agreement and I’m certain it’ll be attacked by critics on the left and the right, but for the moment let’s bask in the simple signal it sends: our demise isn’t inevitable. I look at this issue through the eyes of my children and their friends: without the Agreement they would have abandoned hope. If Paris had failed what were the chances for collective action ever? Where would hope have come from? Congress? Wall Street? Silicon Valley? For myself, at middle age, it’s a different issue – I won’t live long enough to see the full brunt of climate change take effect. But my children and their cohort will and for them to be motivated to tackle the challenges bearing down they have to feel hopeful. Failure would have crushed their spirits, not to put too fine a point on it. The Agreement, despite its flaws, keeps the flame alive.
  • The deal sends an important positive signal to the marketplace. This was the subject of a lot of discussion in the media prior to the deal and I think many people consider it the critical element in the accord. Nearly 200 governments have said officially “the end of fossil fuels is on the horizon” and that’s a very big development. How Wall Street and the other markets respond is an open question, of course. They may very well NOT respond – the inertia and profitability of Business-as-Usual being what it is. On the other hand, it might be time to buy stock in solar companies! Consider the alternative: without an Agreement the markets would have had zero motivation to respond and without markets there would be no practical way to accomplish climate goals. Now, the signal has been sent.
  • The Agreement validates the science of climate change. This is huge. Most of the media focused on the target of keeping global warming to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels – not to mention Agreement’s much more difficult 1.5 degree goal – but I think the more important news is that the governments of 197 sovereign nations endorsed the science in a highly public way. Data won and politics lost, finally! Deniers and their allied Confusionists are officially marginalized now. That doesn’t mean they’ll slow down their efforts or stop their charades, particularly in Congress, but any semblance of legitimacy has now been stripped away. I have no doubt they’ll bluster and object and pout and act all self-righteous, but at the end of the day they have to understand that they’re on the wrong side the science. It’s official!
  • How the fossil fuel industry reacts will be very telling. Will they fight the Agreement tooth-and-nail or will they read the market signals and begin to move toward renewables? They have the power and the money to block progress if they want, effectively sinking the chances of implementing the Paris Agreement, or at least slowing it down enough it make it meaningless. It’s an open question.
  • It was a great moment for soil carbon. Earlier in the week, a very important endorsement of soil carbon as a mitigation strategy for climate change was signed by various governments, led by the French, and a whole bunch of NGOs. Andre Leu, the President of IFOAM, an umbrella organization of organic farms, called this development the “biggest game-changer in the history of agriculture.” That’s because it signaled the arrival of regenerative agriculture as an answer to our troubles, not simply a fringe activity or another way of feeding rich people. Andre thinks this is a huge opportunity for soil carbon as a result. “We need to stop talking about it now,” he told me, “and start doing the things that put more carbon into our soils.” This represents a big breakthrough. Five years ago, our argument that we should be increasing soil carbon (aka the “carbon ranch”) was WAY OUT there in left field. Now all that’s changed. Here are two reports about the soil carbon breakthrough:

Here’s a photo I took of the Eiffel Tower an hour after the deal was done: Image Removed

The details of the Agreement aside, what’s important about Paris is how it divides history cleanly in two. Before Paris meant making our case. Scientists had steadfastly made the case for physical reality of global warming and the deleterious consequences of our inaction for life on Earth. Activists had vigorously made a case for keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Leaders from low-lying island nations argued for swift and steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in order to save their homes. Indigenous people and others in developing nations made a powerful case for climate justice – the fair and equitable distribution of the costs and consequences of climate change. And world leaders (some anyway) made the case for acting sooner rather than later.

After Paris means implementation.

Take soil carbon. Before Paris, the soil’s potential to sequester large amounts of atmospheric CO2 was largely unknown or underappreciated. In fact, agriculture, especially meat production, was considered by many climate activists to be a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, not a possible sink – and thus a problem, not a solution. Thanks to a great deal of hard work, however, by a lot of people this perception has changed substantially. I’m talking about regenerative agriculture, of course, such as organic farming or holistic planned grazing, which have proven to be carbon friendly. Part of this change has been due to the work of Regeneration International, which came together in 2014 during the big climate rally in New York City with the message that soil carbon can reverse climate change. Leaders expected it to take three years for this message to be endorsed – but it took only one!

This breakthrough means it’s no longer about making a case for soil carbon – now things need to happen on the ground. Here is a short list of action items that I wrote down during a RI brainstorming workshop at a youth hostel in Paris. We need to:

  • Create more ‘safe spaces’ for farmers and ranchers to change their management
  • Be braver – be willing to speak loudly and take on entrenched Status Quo interests
  • Empower local people
  • Link climate solutions to poverty abatement
  • Encourage more biodiversity on land
  • Change the movement’s meme (to something catchy)
  • Make our work more than just about food and agriculture
  • Push the urgency message
  • Redirect subsidies from activities that degenerate to ones that regenerate

The good news is that there are many low-cost, easy-to-implement solutions that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity plants that we can implement now. We don’t have to invent anything new. These innovative ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. They’re mostly low-tech, relying on sunlight, green plants, animals, compost, beavers, creeks, and more, and are up and running around the planet. Scaling them up will be the hard part, but at least we know what works – and that’s a big step!

Hopefully, with the Paris Agreement and other accords now official money will begin to flow to regenerative agricultural projects. Not only does money talk – it walks too. Implementing practices that sequester carbon in soils will require all kinds of money, including government funds, private capital, and philanthropy, to make a difference. Will that happen? Let’s hope so. In my experience, without financial incentives for farmers and ranchers to change their management, Business-as-Usual will prevail. There are early adopters out there who are willing to take a risk with an innovative practice, but the rest need strong incentives to change (desperation is one, money another). For many in agriculture, asking them to change management is like asking them to change religions!

It’s not just farming and ranching, After Paris means overturning the Status Quo on many levels or else the Agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Will we do it? An early signal was not encouraging. Shortly after the handshakes and pats-on-the-back were over at COP21, the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed an omnibus spending bill for the government that lifted the 40-year ban on oil exports, which many analysts say will increase fossil fuel production and use, not decrease it as the Agreement requires. Obama and the Democrats danced around this ominous change in policy, making the usual excuses, but the bottom line of this development is clear: the Status Quo continues.

For our children’s sake, After Paris means this sort of behavior and excuse-making can’t go on for much longer.

Here is a photo I took of chips from a glacier in Greenland that were moved to Paris to melt as a type of ticking clock:

Image Removed

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Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing... Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, carbon sequestration strategies, COP21 agreement, regenerative agriculture, soil carbon