Guest Opinions

We can address climate change while we grow plenty of food for Earth’s population

Hottest day records happen twice as often as coldest day ones in U.S.

Americans have been twice as likely to experience record-breaking heat than record-setting cold, Associated Press data analysis shows. It counted the times daily hot temperature records were tied or broken compared to daily cold records.
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Americans have been twice as likely to experience record-breaking heat than record-setting cold, Associated Press data analysis shows. It counted the times daily hot temperature records were tied or broken compared to daily cold records.

For two weeks I’ve been scratching my head over the remarkable claim by former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Bob Bakes in the June 11 Statesman that the Earth must get hotter and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to prevent mass starvation in 2100. It’s a message contrary to everything science has been saying and instinct seems to be telling us.

Yet Bakes’ urgent argument should be honored and explored. He is expressing fear for and care of the unborn, and those far away in time and space, something beautiful and rare.

Bakes’ concern is a long-familiar one: that population will outpace the planet’s ability to feed itself, raised most famously by Thomas Malthus in 1798 and Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” However, thanks in good measure to The Green Revolution, which massively increased production of wheat and rice in the last century, and other advancements, the world is now feeding nearly 7.7 billion people, although “just barely,” as Bakes noted.

The question is whether a warmer or a slightly cooler world would best feed 9 billion in 2050 and 11 billion in 2100.

Bakes’ proposition is based on the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – 400 parts per million – being, as he writes, “miniscule,” and that more CO2, not less, would accelerate the growth of plants and avoid starvation. This looks like a dangerous assumption. Four hundred parts per million may appear small, but there’s not been that much CO2 in the atmosphere in 14 million years. It’s been above 315 ppm only since 1958, a short time to gauge the consequences.

Bakes cites the rapid growth of vegetation after the Little Ice Age ended 200 years ago as evidence that another such increase (by as much as 4-8 degrees by 2100, according to many scientists) will replicate the first one. That does not follow. What we’re learning would seem to foretell the opposite: Water is running low worldwide; bees, butterflies and other pollinators are disappearing; insects are going extinct; and oceans are steadily declining. The poles are warming rapidly, and temperatures have shot up in places as distant as the Artic and India, where it was 123 degrees recently.

Growing grain near the Arctic where no one lives will not offset the melting of glaciers in Southern Asia, which water rivers that feed billions.

Bakes reminds us that carbon is fundamental to all life through photosynthesis and that modern agriculture runs on carbon. Reciting obvious truths begs the question: Precisely what amount of carbon should be in the atmosphere and how much returned to the earth? The carbon cycle has made the planet inhabitable, but what if it already is out of balance?

For Bakes, population growth and starvation are the great threats, not climate. Yet this may be a false choice. What is best for climate may also address food supply, as we shall see.

Faced with such questions in 2013, a successful entrepreneur and author named Paul Hawken assembled 1,200 scientists, economists and elders and asked them to identify 100 ways humans could protect the Earth from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (as had occurred when Ronald Reagan was president). Four years later they completed the study, published a book and started a movement called Drawdown.

The Drawdown goal is simple but difficult: In the next 20 years, cause the volume of CO2 entering the atmosphere to go negative. By drawing more carbon back to the planet we can become safe again.

A principal means of doing so is through the carbon cycle, that virtuous circle Bakes describes, which could bring carbon back into balance.

The study ranks 100 strategies, but let us consider just some of the top 20. No. 6 is Population Planning. No. 5 is Educating Girls around the world, because educated women have fewer children and grow more food. No. 3 is reducing food waste, since one-third of the food grown is thrown away or rots in fields or on docks, mostly in poor countries. No. 4 is eating a plant-rich diet.

See where this is going? Ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere also can address population and provide more food. In fact, of the top 20 strategies, 12 relate to growing food, preserving forests, grazing animals, conserving and regenerating soil, and growing staples in tropical forests. Most of the rest relate to energy and are what you would expect: more onshore wind, solar farms, rooftop solar, geothermal and nuclear.

So here’s another realization: Idaho is already making progress in energy, with more wind turbines, a solar farm east of Boise, more geothermal and an ultra-safe nuclear power plant proposed for Eastern Idaho. Soon, none of our electricity will come from the most dangerous fuel of all, coal.

The beauty of the climate-population-food challenge is that it’s so complex, everyone can find some way to contribute. We don’t even have to believe climate change is real to get behind protecting temperate forests (like we have in Idaho) or putting solar on our roofs (which improve home value by 3 percent), for example.

Whether for food or climate, locally or beyond, we could choose the welfare of all humanity, a noble enterprise encouraged by many spiritual traditions. Which leads to a closing thought.

The great question is always, how to get to scale and precisely what to commit to. So: Remember tithing? Giving one-tenth of one’s annual abundance is rooted in the Old Testament and recommended by many Christian faiths, as well as by Islam, where a similar principle is call Zagat.

Whether you are religious or nonaffiliated, spiritual or secular, consider taking tithing seriously by supporting one or more of the 100 strategies. Climate? Population? Food security? Do something. You can’t go wrong.

Jerry Brady is a former newspaper publisher living in Boise who writes the monthly Compassionate Business column for the Statesman. To connect to the drawdown movement locally, email Mark Masarik at mtmasarik@q.com.

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