My “Maybe we’re not doomed!” light bulb moment(s)

I have been thinking about climate issues for a long time.

I was in 6th grade on the first Earth Day in 1970. I think there was a lot of talk about pollution, but mostly I remember my classmate Ron wearing a dust mask all day long and attracting a lot of attention from girls.

In the 1970s through the 1990s, I had a front-row seat to the fluorocarbon-ozone drama. My father, a chemist working for a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) manufacturer, was deeply involved in efforts by an international consortium of CFC manufacturers to get the science right, to define the problem and the goal clearly, to set a timeline for meeting the goal (cease all CFC production by 1996), and, ultimately, to beat the deadline by two years. From this experience I learned that 1) industries can care a great deal about the unintended consequences of their activities and 2) a bunch of dedicated scientists, given a clear goal and adequate support, can do amazing things.

The problem of climate change always felt different to me. CFC manufacturers were scientists at heart; fossil fuel companies seem like business people at heart, seeking profits from extracted resources and willingly spreading disinformation to increase those profits. Even knowing that momentum will drive our transition to 100% renewable energy faster than we imagine, the future looked bleak. Talk of limiting global warming to 2ºC, or 1.5ºC if we are ambitious and lucky, offered little comfort. With extreme weather events and unrest driven by climate refugees already happening at temperatures well short of those levels, how could we think that those are acceptable goals?

Still, it felt important to do what I could. Insulate my house. Change light bulbs. Buy 100% renewable electricity. Get a plug-in hybrid car, so at least some of my driving is wind-powered. Eat a plant-based diet. Give a presentation at my Quaker Meeting on carbon footprints. Replace the light bulbs there too. While appreciating that every little bit matters, I knew it wasn’t enough. It would take hundreds or even thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to pre-industrial levels even if we magically switched the whole planet to 100% renewable energy today; how could I feel hope that humanity would avoid climate disaster?

My first light bulb moment came reading Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope is not a feeling; it involves being clear about what we hope for and then playing our role in the process of bringing that about. I have found this framework an empowering antidote to pessimism and despair. Active Hope encourages the long view — transcending self-centered attachment to specific results in our lifetimes, remembering that important achievements like the abolition of slavery and the victories of the civil rights movement came about through the efforts of people who had no expectation that the goals they were working toward would happen in their lifetimes.

And yet…the climate crisis is urgent. We must work toward goals on a time scale measured in decades. But what goals?

My next light bulb moment came reading The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson. 17 pages in I was stunned by this statement:

“[with] good land management practices…[enough] carbon can be sequestered annually in the world’s soils [to] reduc[e] the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 3 ppm [parts per million] every year.”

Reduce the concentration of CO2? With land management practices that are available now? I had never heard anyone talk about removing atmospheric CO2 before. By my math, lowering atmospheric CO2 by 3 ppm/year would get us back to pre-industrial levels in a little over 30 years. But how much land would it take? Ohlson answers (p. 233):

“The rates of biomass production we are currently observing…have the capability to capture enough CO2…to offset all anthropogenic CO2 emissions on less than 11 percent of world cropland. Over twice this amount of land is fallow at any time worldwide.”

For the first time, I felt hope that it might be possible for climate disaster to be averted. I soon found the September 2018 World Resources Institute (WRI) Forum on Carbon Removal as a Climate Solution. There I had my next light bulb moment, learning that soil sequestration is one of many approaches to removing CO2 from the atmosphere that are in active development. Several of these approaches could scale up quickly and need urgent investment. Watching the video of the 1–1/2 hour forum is well worth it.

From the WRI forum I learned about organizations like Carbon180, NORI and the Healthy Climate Alliance. All are a wealth of information on possibilities for restoring a healthy climate through removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. How much better it feels to strive to restore the pre-industrial climate rather than strive to avoid global warming above 2ºC!

As exciting as it was to learn about these approaches to climate restoration, things still didn’t seem focused enough. I remembered from the fluorocarbon-ozone issue how important it was to have a specific, time-limited goal. What goal could serve the same focusing function for climate restoration efforts? What goal could be easily grasped by philanthropists, politicians and the general public, generating needed support?

The answer came in my latest light bulb moment, listening to a Nori podcast. There I heard the goal of leaving our children a healthy climate by achieving 300 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 by 2050. Clear, concise, specific — a goal as exciting and focusing as Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade.

When confronted with disaster, people become confused and reach out for organizing narratives about what to do. The right narrative, at the right time, can change history. Climate change is the disaster of our time. Climate restoration, specifically 300 x 2050, may just be the narrative the world needs right now.

Jeff Soulen is a member of humanity who knows that the planet will be fine without us, but prefers that we find a way to survive. He lives in Maryland, USA.