Dr. James Hansen & Biochar

Dr Hansen

This week I attended a presentation that Dr. James Hansen gave to a packed house at a local community college. As with most things I’ve heard or read from the likes of Dr. Hansen or Al Gore or Bill McGibben, I have mixed emotions. Yes, I am happy they are all issuing the clarion call for action on climate change. Without a doubt this type of thing is sorely needed and I am thankful that high profile people like this are willing to dedicate so much of their energy to education and outreach.

But I would hazard a guess that these messages are rarely heard by the eco-non-literati and most of the eco-literati that I know already understand the basic facts underlying of the impending crisis. Hearing more of the nitty gritty from climate scientists about how bleak our future is likely to be, can get a tad depressing which is hardly the best motivator for most humans.  Hearing more about existing, viable ways to decarbonize at the individual, community, national and global scale would seem like a much better use of airtime. Several of the questions asked during the Q&A part of the program support this notion as  they were focused on ‘what can we do or what gives you hope’.

Knowing that Dr. Hanson has spoken positively about biochar in the past, I was curious to see if he was going to bring it up, but as he was concluding his presentation, nary a mention (frustrated sigh). But then when answering the very first question, he brought up how he and his eldest granddaughter have been experimenting with biochar on his small farm in Pennsylvania. Hallelujah! But then the brakes seemed to come out. There seemed to be some hesitancy around his conclusions about the role biochar could play in climate change mitigation. He seemed to conclude that it’ll be very difficult to get significant amounts of biochar into the ground. While I definitely don’t disagree with that conclusion,  every other decarbonization pathway that I have ever heard of will also be very, very difficult. And expensive. And in some cases dangerous.

Most scientists are understandably cautious and like to have a deep understanding of something before they recommend it. Their scientific integrity depends on this type of deep understanding. Interestingly though, more and more climate change scientists are venturing outside of their comfort zone to urge action on climate change – often this action is of the political variety or via protesting certain actions which are obviously going to exacerbate climate change. However, to misquote one of my favorite Wendall Berry quotes “Protesting is necessary, but not enough”. Perhaps it is also time to start giving people more information and tools on the best options available now for rebalancing carbon, one of which is surely biochar.  Or perhaps, as my colleague HPS recommended, its time to get Dr. Hansen a Kon-Tiki kiln so he can see that making 1 ton of biochar a day doesn’t really need to be that hard or that expensive!

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