Last weekend the president of the Maldives held an unusual cabinet meeting. Underwater. The president asked his ministers to learn scuba diving for their unusual in-the-sea meeting, where they used hand signals and wrote on slates to communicate in an aquatic environment. The Maldives ministers called for rapid greenhouse gas reduction to a concentration of 350 parts per million. Here at the Rodale Institute we're working to answer that call by researching regenerative agriculture techniques to meet that goal. The Maldives' ministers are joined in their demand by thousands of groups and leaders across the world, from the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Thousands of groups around the world are echoing his call this Saturday, October 24 as an international day of climate action.
Myriad innovative events around the world are raising awareness of the number 350. Why? Because scientists around the world, including James Hansen, America's leading climatologist, have calculated that 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere. To scale back to 350 ppm from our current level of 386 ppm means permanently reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. We need to stop emitting greenhouse gases, and also start pulling them out of the atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture offers the most cost-effective way to do this.
Scientific evidence shows that organic grain farms can pull 2 short tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per acre per year--without decreasing yield. By using cover crops, organic soil amendments and crop rotations, we've seen fields at our research farm sequester carbon at less cost and faster than any other existing technology. These agricultural techniques excel not only at sequestering carbon, but they also produce higher yields in dry and wet years. If all farmable fields in the world accumulated as much carbon as fast as the organic fields at Rodale Institute, we could store 40 percent of the world's annual global greenhouse gas emissions in the soil.
Why is it so urgent to return our global CO2 levels to 350 parts per million? Before the industrial era of coal-burning power plants, the atmospheric level was about 270 parts per million. Twenty years ago, when scientists first discovered global climate change, they believed that we could safely double CO2 levels to about 550 parts per million and retain enough of our current climate to survive.
As evidence of dramatically changing climate began to mount, and the reports of dramatic climate impact from melting icecaps to withering, long-term droughts from many continents started to indicate a global climate catastrophe, scientists started changing their estimations. The evidence began to show that this advanced phase of climate change is not a gradual transition. Temperatures will not simply gradually increase along with atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Current evidence shows that increased CO2 will cause abrupt, non-linear shifts in our climate system. We won't be able to go from 2 degrees of warming to 2.5 degrees to 3 degrees. It seems like we might more likely go from 2 to 2.5 to 5 or 6 degrees. Why?
As global temperatures increase, we are very likely to see "tipping points," where the climate-system shifts from one stable situation to another stable situation. For example, the arctic ice caps are not melting gradually. The more ice melts in the arctic, the more ocean surface is exposed to the sky. While ice reflects heat into the atmosphere, the ocean stores the heat. Once we reach a certain level of Arctic ice melt, there will likely be enough exposed, heat-absorbing ocean surface to cause the rest of the melt--even without the temperature increase that we might expect to be necessary.
So back when scientists thought 450 or 550 was a safe limit, they were predicting that the Arctic ice caps would melt in the summer in the period 2080 to 2120. Today, the evidence suggests that they will melt completely by about 2013. No one knows what an ice-free Arctic will do to our climate system.
We do know that regenerative agriculture is the unique advanced biological technology that can build healthy soils and healthy food while it helps to create a healthy planet. Go to Demand Organic and 350.org to find the action nearest you.
We know that your decision to buy organic food and advocate for organic agriculture will support farmers who are pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, mitigating global climate change. In order to get to 350 we're going to need healthy soil to make healthy people on a healthy planet.
More on Global Climate Change and 350.org
Maldives Government Holds Parliament Under Water in Protest
Readers, Send Us Your International Day of Climate Action Photos!