Mossy Chaos copy

The Value of Carbon Capture and Sequestration as an Ecosystem Service

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

Mossy Chaos copy
Evidence of chloroplasts doing their job of carbon capture and sequestration in service of the exquisite plants in the Olympic Range of Washington. (Photo courtesy of S. Mulkey)

“Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s lifecycle.”
Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) speaking in the House on Earth Day 2009

 “Essentially these communities of organisms are our life support system.” Hal Mooney, Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology, Stanford University, 2011


Over thirty years of industry-sponsored disinformation has compounded the public’s lack of scientific understanding of how our planet works. I recall the time in 2007 when I visited Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s office in Washington to speak on behalf of a doomed energy bill. A few minutes into my pitch, I realized that the young staffers dutifully taking notes did not understand that plants can affect the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere because they remove CO2 from the air. I was happy to explain photosynthesis and point out that every molecule of carbon in our bodies had been taken from the atmosphere by a plant before it entered the food web.

Public understanding of the profound disruption of the carbon balance of Earth should be as commonplace as our knowledge of influenza or how to drive a car. But, it is hardly fair to blame the public for scientific illiteracy when scientists use opaque jargon and doublespeak. Continue reading “The Value of Carbon Capture and Sequestration as an Ecosystem Service”

The integrity of ecosystems

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

“An essential paradox of wilderness conservation is that we seek to preserve what must change.”  — Steward Pickett and P.S. White 1985

“We must focus our attention on the rates at which changes occur, understanding that certain changes are natural, desirable, and acceptable, while others are not.”  — Daniel Botkin 1990


We have arrived at a point in history when it is clear that we have the responsibility for the survival of countless species of plants and animals. Continue reading “The integrity of ecosystems”

What qualifies as scientific authority?

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH)

“…this 97% [of climate scientists accepting human-caused global warming], that doesn’t mean anything.” Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)

“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Stephen Colbert, satirist

studies_consensussource Skeptical Science 
Continue reading “What qualifies as scientific authority?”

Higher education in the environmental century

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

 “….what we’re doing today with greenhouse gas emissions — which is just a moment when you look at the geophysical timescales — has consequences for decades, centuries, millennia.” —Ricarda Winkelmann, Climate Scientist, Potsdam Institute, 2016

“Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring its natural systems, eradicating poverty, stabilizing population and climate, and, above all, restoring hope.”Lester Brown, Environmental Analyst, 2008

Planetary Boundaries (Image credit: Azote Images/Stockholm Resilience Centre; Wikimedia Commons) Planetary boundaries according to Rockström et al. 2009 (doi:10.1038/461472a) and Steffen et al. 2015 (doi:10.1126/science.1259855). The green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.

Two overarching imperatives have come together to provide the framework for my lifework. The first of these is the long emergency driven by the existential threats of climate change and biosphere transformation. As a scientist, I have felt compelled to make my academic life relevant to these threats, which are illustrated above as safety margins for human activities. My research on the ecology of tropical forests has been meaningful in this context, but in early 2000, I became increasingly aware that higher education is broadly failing to prepare generations of students to face the unfolding crises of the environmental century. Thus, the second imperative is the need to transform higher education to provide students and professionals with the understanding to respond to profound disruptions of our biosphere and civilization. This represents a new paradigm of relevance for higher education, and increasingly students are asking how they can be a part of a meaningful response to these challenges. Continue reading “Higher education in the environmental century”

Carbon capture and sequestration the old fashioned way

Last week the mainstream media and many of the social media outlets hailed the experiment in Iceland that has demonstrated the ability to capture CO2 from the air and turn it into rock. The Guardian proclaimed “CO2 turned into stone in Iceland in climate change breakthrough” and the journal Science headlined “Inject baby, inject!”. A similar, highly engineered coal-fired power plant operating in Canada has struggled to show cost effectiveness. Science saluted the technology in Iceland as a breakthrough that if scaled up could rapidly sequester large quantities of climate-warming CO2.

Oh, really now? Continue reading “Carbon capture and sequestration the old fashioned way”

Global management of the biosphere is not optional

From The Carbon Farming Solution

We are now heading down a centuries-long path toward increasing the productivity of our natural capital – the resource systems upon which we depend to live – instead of our human capital. – Paul Hawken

The signs of accelerating global climate change are manifold. Evidence comes from reports of breathtakingly high temperatures transforming the Arctic, reports that the rate of sea level rise is effectively double estimates from only last year, ongoing wildfires of enormous scale, massive coral death worldwide, and oxygen depletion of the world’s oceans. The list is numbing, overwhelming, and for those of us who understand the science, it is evidence that climate change represents the greatest challenge in the history of our species. We are at a crossroads in our evolution. Continue reading “Global management of the biosphere is not optional”