HBO’s Ice On Fire is a vicious wake-up call to the sleeping million around the world. It sends the message that climate change is here, now and we must take action today, not to save our children or to ensure a viable planet for some far off future generation, but to fight to save our planet for ourselves.
Global warming comes from a handful of so-called greenhouse gases that serve as a proverbial blanket, insulating the planet and keeping more heat in. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are two of the most common and the two that humanity is contributing to the most. CO2 and methane have many sources, including humans and cows, but they become problematic when they are pulled up from underground and introduced into the surface carbon cycle.
The surface of the planet, including the atmosphere, regularly exchanges carbon from the surface into the atmosphere and back again. Humans participate in the process as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2. On the other side of the equation, plants get all hot and bothered by CO2, pulling that in and exhaling oxygen. This is but one example of the complexity of the surface carbon cycle, with carbon being pulled into the soil, into the ocean as a part of numerous other subsystems. “The carbon cycle affects the fabric of life,” Ice On Fire host Leonardo Dicaprio said.
Ice On Fire documents the ways in which CO2 and methane can become problematic and how they are contributing to the changing of the climate as a result of human activities. You see, we found a way to extract carbon from long buried repositories underground in the form of fossil fuels. In the last 50 years, humanity has really perfected the extraction of these sources, and that’s when it really started to become a problem.
The Insulation We Don’t Need
You see, gas from underground is comprised of primarily methane, and after isolating it, methane is what makes up the majority of the gas that is piped into homes and businesses around the world. What we have learned and what the Ice On Fire team documents, is how we are essentially just really bad at extracting it well, storing it, and burning it without letting a ton of methane leak out all over the supply chain. Methane is relatively cheap, which is why more attention isn’t paid to tightening up these leaks in the supply chain, but it is unfortunately amazing when it comes to insulating our planet. In fact, it’s 20 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2 is. Said another way, leaking methane into the atmosphere is really bad for an already warming planet.
These leaks are so bad in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States that the methane leaks can actually be seen from space. No joke.
CO2 isn’t doing much better. It may be less effective as a greenhouse gas, but we have more than made up for that shortcoming by getting really good at pushing it out into the atmosphere. You see, CO2 is found in combustion emissions. When we get in the car to head to the store in our gasoline or diesel vehicle, we are all of the sudden a part of the problem. Turning on the lights or letting the AC run consumes electricity likely generated by burning coal or gas. This has resulted in a drastic increase in CO2 levels over the last 100 years that is directly attributable to human behavior. “The spike that we now see compared to most geologic history, I call it an explosion,” Pieter Tans, chief of the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network said. “It’s like instantaneous on a geologic timescale.”
Looking back to other periods when the earth saw sharp increases in the amount of carbon paints a depressing picture of what we can expect if this continues. “Every time there has been a massive increase in carbon, the web of life weakens and sometimes collapses,” Ice On Fire host Leonardo Dicaprio said. 250 million years ago, a sharp increase in atmospheric carbon concentrations were linked with the Permian Mass Extinction which resulted in 95% of all life being wiped out.
In the intervening years, atmospheric carbon levels have continued to iterate as natural cycles released and sequestered massive amounts of carbon in various forms. It is one of these forms of carbon storage that humanity continues to tap into, far beneath the earth, that is causing the current crisis. Fossil fuels are stored up carbon from ages ago that have since been stored underground, resulting in the cooler climate that we now enjoy.
What can be done about the current trajectory that currently sees atmospheric carbon levels increasing 2 parts per million (ppm) per year? “There are only two things you can do about the atmosphere,” Paul Hawken, author of Drawdown, said. “You can either stop putting greenhouse gases up there or you can bring CO2 back down. That’s it.” The basic actions that must be taken are not complicated. It’s the scale that’s daunting. Every human on the planet is causing emissions, and it is the most developed countries where we see far higher than average per capita emissions.
Locking Away The Carbon
“Not only do we need to stop emitting carbon at the current levels by switching to renewable energy, but it is also critical to pull carbon out of the atmosphere,” DiCaprio said. “Climate change can be reversed if we act now.” At present, carbon sequestration is being actively researched, but there are very few prospects for a solution that is affordable and easily achievable. Prospects range from recycling carbon, to more strategic crop selection, to planting mushrooms and more.
Ice On Fire highlights biochar as a potentially scalable solution for carbon sequestration. Biochar is a form of charcoal that is created by subjecting biomass to high temperatures without the presence of oxygen. The process is known as pyrolysis and results in a carbon-dense biochar that can then be blended back into the soil, where it provides a carbon-rich environment for many thousands of years. It is the combination of the low tech process required to produce biochar and its longevity in the soil that has many people pushing into biochar.
Organic farming could be another lever that humanity can pull on to lock away more carbon. Kate Scow, a Soil Microbiologist at UC Davis, said, “In organic systems, you may be putting as much as 8 times as much carbon into the soil as in conventional systems.” Modern factory farms take synthetic fertilizers and use those to put nutrients into the ground, but with organic systems, the carbon comes from other plant life and ends up putting more carbon back into the soil as a result. That is a beautiful symbiosis and yet another reason to drop foods from the diet that are produced with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
We Have The Solutions
Climate change requires immediate action. People from every country around the world need to band together to reduce their own carbon footprints and to hold each other accountable along the way. That’s what the Paris Agreement was all about.
The beautiful thing is that we already have the solutions needed to combat climate change. Zero emission vehicles are being produced all around the world. They are being adopted as 2-, 3-, and 4-wheeled vehicles with solar panels to power them. Millions around the world are switching to organic food for their diets and spreading tons of biochar into the soil around their homes. Wind turbines that can power thousands of homes are being installed almost as fast as they can be built, but we need to do more. We can do more.
Janyne Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, comes across as the perpetual optimist in the film. “It really gives us an opportunity to really behave differently on this planet,” she said. “We’ve seen what we can do at our worst and now the question is: If we were to consciously be a part of the healing, it’ll unleash, I think, our creativity.”
Of course, she’s quick to point out that as clear as the path forward might be, it is by no means a guaranteed outcome. If anything, our default mindset of seeing, working, and thinking locally, for ourselves, will bite us in the rear.
“If we were to see ourselves as helpers who could help the helpers heal this planet, that is so much better than seeing ourselves as disruptive toddlers with matches.”
Leaving the land for the sea, the film joins up with Bren Smith of the Thimble Island Ocean Farm in the Long Island Sound. A fisherman for decades, he saw firsthand how abundant the ocean’s bounty was and at the same time, how fragile it was. “You can build up an economy and a culture over hundreds of years, but if you don’t protect the resources, an ecosystem collapse can wipe it out in a matter of years,” he said. “Issues like overfishing, like climate change, they’re not environmental issues for a lot of us that work on the ocean, they’re economic issues. I mean, there’s going to be no food, no jobs and a dead planet.”
Bren moved out of commercial fishing and now works on a farm that sinks its seeds down, not into the land, but into the ocean. He sees massive potential to leverage the fertile ocean to raise crops, to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and to feed the world. That’s the kind of action we need. When we find a problem, instead of wasting time blaming someone else or complaining about lost jobs, we can take action. Stuck in traffic? Start working on the next generation light rail plan for your city. Tired of living in an urban jungle with no greenery? Turn your yard into an urban farm to feed and educate your family and your neighborhood.
For myself and my family, we will do more. We will tell the gas company to shove it and leave their pipe at the curb. We have electrified our vehicles and are pushing to even reduce that down to one car and a host of electric bikes. We will electrify our new home and power it with locally produced freedom electrons produced from a rooftop solar system. We will store our excess power in on-site energy storage and are implementing a host of additional energy saving solutions. Drain water heat recover systems, spray-in insulation, home gardens, and locally grown fruit are just a few.
My mind is constantly whirring and buzzing with the next new possibility and my hope is that Ice On Fire will provide both the impetus and the seeds that you can take out into your lives. It is only through the collective action of the informed, the motivated, the doers, that we can avoid the worst effects of climate change because it is already here.
You can watch Ice On Fire for free today on the official website by entering your email address. Head over there now and get informed about climate change and inspired to fix it right now. Seriously, go.
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