January 25, 2011 | General

Climate Change Connections: Real Solutions Fill The Vacuum

BioCycle January 2011, Vol. 52, No. 1, p. 51
Sally Brown

I wrote my first draft of this column a few months back. I had just returned from my last meeting as a member of the National Academy of Science (NAS) Committee on Soil Science. The column described the very different attitudes towards climate change that I saw within the scientific community at the committee meeting versus the general public and some elected officials – a dual reality. The column was very depressing and we decided not to run it right before the holidays.
Since that time, something happened that has given me a new perspective on this topic, a perspective that has the potential to provide a positive approach. It has to do with my thinning hair. Don’t laugh. I don’t have male pattern baldness, at least not yet. I still have plenty of hair. But I’ve always had tons of hair and now, I am pretty sure that I have less hair and I am not happy about it.
I am a scientist, not a physicist or a mathematician, but still a respected soil scientist with a PhD and peer-reviewed publications. So as a scientist, I started looking on line and found that it is very common for women of a certain age to lose hair, likely due to changes in hormone balance. Likely the best approach for me is to get over it and think about more important things. However, I love having thick hair. So instead of the scientific approach, I called my friend Leslie who is an expert on esoteric beauty products. She told me about this special Greek herbal shampoo for women with thinning hair. I found it on-line, just $22 for 8 ounces with one testimonial that it helped thicken hair in just three shampoos. That is not scientifically possible. Not deterred, I bought it with one click. Many shampoos later, I can report that it smells really nice, I am happy with my purchase and there is no apparent difference in the thickness of my hair.
The point of telling you about my hair is that sometimes, particularly when not provided with clear and viable solutions, people will chose to ignore science that provides irrefutable evidence for problems such as climate change.
The scientists working on climate change are taking it very seriously. Within the Soil Science committee, for example, things are moving quickly. The committee is working with the international soils community to develop an international protocol on soil carbon sequestration. It is recognized that such a protocol is forthcoming and will be much more powerful if it is a product of an international undertaking.
Also at the meeting, the NAS lead on a major effort on climate change came to talk about his groups’ final publications. These cover the science, adaptation, mitigation, and responses relating to climate change. The reports note that, in addition to the development of new technologies, all available technologies need to be put into practice now to minimize impacts associated with climate change. The reports are available both on line and as hard copies (http://americas
During our meeting it also came out that within the government infrastructure, planning is underway on how to cope with political unrest expected to result from imminent droughts and food shortages that will occur as a result of climate change. This is a topic that national security agencies are spending a lot of time on. After talking about this in the meeting, I was recently able to read about it in the New York Times (see Week In Review, 12/12/10). In other words, within a certain community – the community that has the scientific or political tools – climate change is a terrifying threat that is getting a lot of attention and even some action.

Now let’s step outside this community to the world of elected officials and the general public. The other universe. Climate change in this world is maybe real, maybe not so real. In fact, just last year, John Boehner, our new speaker of the House of Representatives said, “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know when they do what they do you’ve got more carbon dioxide.” So there.
Some folks, however, are learning how to navigate on behalf of the climate in this other universe. Activists in Kansas, funded in part by the Land Institute, were able to instigate change by talking about energy efficiency. They used terms like “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity.” They achieved significant reductions in fossil fuel use in Kansas by reaching out to patriotic causes and providing a clear path to action including wind power, weatherizing homes and energy conservation. The idea that this would also result in cost savings also resonated. Kansas is perhaps the most conservative state out there (Oklahoma is close). In the Midwest, less than half of the people believe that the evidence is solid for climate change.
What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with my thinning hair?
My thinning hair is (to me) a disturbing concern that I have no good tools to deal with. Without any realistic options, I was more than happy to turn to a feel good remedy that let me believe I was doing something. With the current state of our country’s economy, people are terrified about losing homes and jobs. They are worried about a bleak future for their children. Many are too busy worrying about the car breaking down to be concerned about gas mileage. These are much bigger and more frightening issues than thinning hair.

It would be a wonderful thing if our elected officials would realize that fighting climate change is the patriotic, energy efficient, earth friendly and viable path-to-prosperity thing to do. I bet that people would be more than happy to be given a battle to fight that would help to make them stronger. But many politicians don’t seem to be doing this. This is a vacuum, and organics managers can play a part in filling that vacuum.
You don’t have to say “Fight global warming with organics.” But you can use compost to build community gardens in inner cities. The gardens help insure healthy diets for families and provide an extra source of income. They have even been shown to reduce crime. And community gardens help fight climate change. How? 1) Using compost sequesters carbon; 2) Growing food locally and thus not transporting it great distances requires much less fossil fuel; and 3) Diverting feedstocks needed to make the compost from landfills where they would likely produce and release methane.
You can: Build or expand anaerobic digestion facilities. This provides communities with a sustainable waste management infrastructure that will create jobs and result in lower energy bills. In Kristianstad, Sweden, expanded use of organics for biogas production, and use of that biogas for heating, has reduced the bill for heating municipal buildings to $3.2 million/year from $7 million/ year. And this helps fight climate change.
You can: Expand use of organics in the urban infrastructure. Green roofs, bioswales and rain gardens are just a few examples. A greener city is a cooler and more livable city. Green infrastructure lowers costs of things like storm water management in comparison to conventional engineered systems. This approach also lowers costs of landfilling organics. And it helps fight climate change.
Right now we live in a place where many of our elected officials are opting for the Greek herbal shampoo approach to combat climate change. This provides a vacuum that organics managers can help to fill. Not with pleasant smelling fluff (like my shampoo) but with real solutions. These are solutions that can provide real answers for climate change in the process of solving many other problems.

Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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