September 19, 2011 | General

Climate Change Connections: Purple Points

BioCycle September 2011, Vol. 52, No. 9, p. 60
Sally Brown
I switched hair cutters. I used to go to the ritzy one a few blocks from the house. Instead I decided to go to Rudy’s. No appointment, different prices for buzz cuts and you pay extra if you want a shampoo. I was intimidated at first because I think that one requirement for getting a job there is to have extensive body art, aka tattoos.
I went in, and a very nice teenager with a cupcake tattoo on her arm and pigtails directed me to her chair. It turns out that this “teenager” has a daughter who is 14 and a son who is 12. And I have a nice haircut. I went into foreign territory, to a world where seemingly, a different language is spoken and I came out not only unscathed, but with more money in my pocket and the realization that surface appearances can be deceiving.
Living in Seattle, I can be very comfortable talking about climate change to anyone I meet. Although we rarely have blue skies, we have a politically very blue, generally very environmentally sensitive, population. But if I drive more than 60 miles in any direction not only is there a potential for the sky to turn blue but an increasing likelihood for the political leanings of the population to turn red. More often than not, this includes a broad brush denial of human-induced climate change.
This was brought home to me during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. I was there as a new board member for the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). We were tasked with talking to congressional staffers on the importance of soils. Our handout package included a copy of the SSSA Grand Challenges. The big picture challenges are: Human and Ecosystem Health, Waste Treatment and Water Quality, Food and Energy Security, and Climate Change. I would imagine that you are able to make connections between those grand challenges and topics discussed in this column without too much prodding. I would also suggest that the challenges themselves are all interrelated and can all be seen to impact climate change.

Chuck Rice was a member of our delegation. Chuck, a professor at Kansas State University, is the current president of the Soil Science Society, and is also a lead author of the Agriculture chapter for the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He was an author on the previous assessment, the one that won the Nobel Prize along with Al Gore. When you go into his office at Kansas State, the certificate from that prize is hanging on the wall. It is clearly a challenge for him to go visit the elected representatives from his home state and not be able to talk directly about climate change.
But Kansas is in the middle of one of the worst droughts on record. Whether or not you consider it to be indicative of climate change or think that human influence on the climate is a factor, the reality is that this drought is wreaking havoc on the crops. And agriculture is very big business in Kansas. Chuck’s research this year has shown that corn grown in no till soils is still alive, while the corn in conventionally managed fields has burnt to a crisp. No-till also increases soil carbon reserves, which also helps to combat climate change. My research, along with many others, has shown that adding organics to soils increases soil water holding capacity and also increases soil carbon which, when combined with no till, is even more effective.
Managing soils, ideally with the added benefit of organic amendments, is a powerful tool to combat the effects of climate change in Kansas. Although we couldn’t say exactly that to the representatives we were visiting, we could and did say that the drought situation in Kansas was something to really pay attention to and that proper management of soils was a way to alleviate some of the associated pain. While the words “climate change” were not spoken, the basic message remained intact.
Many of the tools for addressing climate change, particularly when using residuals management as your lens, are beneficial for a wide range of issues important across the political spectrum. Job creation (composting instead of landfilling), energy security (dedicated anaerobic digestion), food security (use of organics in community gardens and commercial agriculture), energy efficiency (sustainable storm water management), and resource conservation (recycling fertilizers in residuals) are just a few examples. It is important to realize that what is beneficial for climate change is very often beneficial for us in general – even if climate change weren’t a looming crisis.

I would suggest we call these purple points, blending the red and the blue. Chuck can be credited as my inspiration for this. The colors for K State are purple and white and that man is always wearing something purple to honor his school. Chuck recently posted a link on the web to an article from CNN that highlighted how individuals in politically conservative states are starting or running climate friendly businesses. They are not using those words in their marketing, but still communicate in a way that people are able to recognize a good thing without associating it with something that they have a hard time accepting is real. Appropriate management of residuals is a key to at least two of these businesses. One is an anaerobic digester project in Texas and another is recycling food waste in Georgia.
The moral of my haircut story is to be both careful in your choice of words and brave. Venture into new territory and work to stress commonalities rather than shying away as a result of perceived differences. It worked for my haircut and it can work for the environment, wherever you happen to live.

Sally Brown, Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington. edu.

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