Writers, Scientists, and Climate Experts Discuss How to Save the World from Climate Change

Should we have fewer kids? Improve our farming techniques? Reform the energy market? Or just get better at helping one another?

David Benjamin Sherry, Indigo Wells, Oregon, 2012, traditional color darkroom photograph

This article appears in the May Issue of VICE Magazine.

All photos by David Benjamin Sherry, from his monograph Earth Changes, published by Mörel Books this spring. Images courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York City.

Alan Weisman, writer

Every four days, we add a million more people to the planet. In the past century, our numbers quadrupled—the most abnormal population spurt, apart from microbial blooms, in biological history. Yet to us, born in the midst of it, all this sprawl, traffic, and crowding seem normal.

They're not. Since the Earth doesn't grow, our exploding presence effectively scuttles our rosy dreams of sustainability. Overpopulation isn't just another environmental problem: It's the one that underlies all others. Without so many humans using so much more stuff with each new generation, expelling waste and CO2 that don't go away, there wouldn't even be environmental problems—nor an Anthropocene.

Fortunately, it's the easiest (and cheapest) problem to solve, both technically and socially—and without resorting to anything so drastic as China's reviled one-child policy. And doing so will bring unexpected economic dividends, ease injustice, and counter climate change faster than anything else we know.

For most of human history, like any other species, we did what came naturally: made copies of ourselves—including extras, because in nature, infant mortality is extremely high. Until 1800, barely half our offspring survived to have offspring themselves.

But then we began doing something unnatural, albeit miraculous, starting with a vaccine against smallpox, which had annually knocked us back by the millions. Next came more vaccines, antiseptics, pasteurized milk, and control of plague-bearing insects. Suddenly, far fewer babies died, and people lived much longer.

Then, in the 20th century, we discovered how to grow more plant life than nature ever could. The invention of artificial nitrogen fertilizer, followed by Green Revolution crops genetically bred to produce much more grain per stalk, meant that rather than die of famine, people lived to beget more people, who in turn begat even more.

This food explosion was chemically forced, however. Derived from fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizer fouls soil and water and emits potent greenhouse gases. Lacking defenses against natural predators and disease, laboratory-bred crops require herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide. We now know the downside of these toxins to ecosystems, and to ourselves. But with 7.3 billion-and-counting to feed, we're stuck with them.

There are also social downsides. The Green Revolution was first implemented in India and Pakistan. Not coincidentally, India's population will soon surpass China's. Currently, 188 million Pakistanis crowd into a country the size of Texas, population 26 million. By midcentury, Pakistan could reach 395 million—far more than the US population today—but will still be the size of Texas. And it's a nuclear power.

Just after its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Pakistan's neighbor Iran charged every fertile female to get pregnant, to help build a 20-million-man army to fight off invading Iraqis. The country's birthrate soon soared to the highest ever. Lacking Iraq's sophisticated, NATO-supplied weaponry, Iran used waves of soldiers to stalemate the enemy for eight years. But after the truce, Iran's budget chief realized that all the males born during the war would eventually need jobs, and chances for providing them shrank with each new birth. He warned the Supreme Leader of the instability of a nation filled with frustrated, angry, unemployed young men—like Pakistan, for example.

The Ayatollah issued a fatwa, stating: "When wisdom dictates that you do not need more children, a vasectomy is permissible." Medical teams traveled the country, offering everything from condoms to tubal ligations, all free—but all voluntary. Every couple could decide how many children they wanted. The only obligation was premarital counseling, where they learned what it would cost to feed, raise, and educate a child.

Crucially, Iran urged girls to stay in school, as women generally postpone childbearing while studying. In countries rich or poor, female education proves to be the best contraceptive of all. Educated women have useful, interesting things to do with their lives and a means to support their families. But it's tricky with, say, seven kids, so worldwide, most women who complete secondary school have two children or fewer. With 60 percent of its university students now female, Iran dropped to a zero-growth replacement rate—where couples average two children, just replacing themselves—a year earlier than China.

Half the world's countries—places as culturally distinct as Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, and Bangladesh—are now near or, like today's Iran, well below replacement rate. Italy has among the world's highest percentage of women with advanced degrees, and the Catholic country's birth rate is among the lowest. The distinguished Vienna Institute of Demography calculates that if female education were universal, we would add a billion fewer people than our projected 2.5 billion increase by midcentury.

But even educated women need contraceptives. Fortunately, unlike massive-scale zero-emission energy, that's technology we already have. Providing access to contraception worldwide would cost just $8.1 billion annually—what the US spent monthly on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Within two to three generations, all those empowered females would help us transition to a sustainable population and a more equitable world, one where economic prosperity isn't defined by constant, reckless growth. (When fewer workers are born, they're more valuable, so wages rise, redistributing profits.)

Since fewer people means less chemically pumped food, the world will also be healthier—and, critically, more biodiverse. Today, nearly half the Earth's landmass is devoted to feeding one species: ours. Fewer people means more space for other species we're currently pushing off the planet—until we lose one that, too late, we realize we needed.

Then our population will plummet permanently.

Alan Weisman is the author of The World Without Us and Countdown.

David Benjamin Sherry, Ubehebe Crater, Cottonwood Mountains, Death Valley, California, 2013, traditional color darkroom photograph

Michael Pollan, food and agriculture expert

As told to Wes Enzinna

Right now the Department of Agriculture hands out subsidies to farmers for every bushel of corn or wheat or rice they can grow. What if we instead gave them subsidies for every increment of carbon they sequester in their soil? Approximately one third of the carbon now in the atmosphere was formerly sequestered in soil in the form of organic matter, but since we began plowing and deforesting, we've been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere. The food system as a whole—that includes agriculture, food processing, and food transportation—contributes somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization. Fertilizer is one of the biggest culprits, for two reasons: It's made from fossil fuels, and when you spread it on fields and it gets wet, it turns into nitrous oxide, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

But there are ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere and, through photosynthesis, turn it into sugars to build their own bodies—roots, stems, branches, leaves. What is less well known is that plants take up to 40 percent of the sugars they create from carbon and leak it into the soil through their roots. The plants do this to feed microbes in the soil in exchange for other nutrients. These microbes eat the sugar, which enters the microbial food chain and is eventually stored in the soil as carbon.

Managing soils to hold more carbon could hold the key to rolling back at least some of the effects of climate change. If we could increase the carbon in soil by just a few percentage points, it would make a huge difference—to climate change but also to the resilience of agriculture. When you build more soil carbon, you also increase fertility and water-holding capacity, so soil with lots of carbon in it can better withstand drought, which is obviously another effect of climate change. You have the benefit of enhancing food production at the same time as you're sequestering carbon. So this is a form of geoengineering that has little risk and a great many benefits.

The question, then, is how we can accelerate this carbon-building process. In California, the Marin Carbon Project has experimented with spreading compost on grazing land, which kick-starts the microbial process, probably by inoculating the soil with microbes. The plants grow more, you get more grass, and those grasses start feeding the microbes in this virtuous circle, leading to more microbes and more grass—and, if you're grazing livestock, more food. The result is that you start sequestering carbon in large quantities, year after year. A single application of compost only an inch thick will lead to increasing levels of soil carbon for at least six years; that's as long as they've tracked it. San Francisco could mitigate most of the carbon it emits by spreading compost on all the land it owns.

We need to create incentives for our ranchers and farmers to manage their lands to maximize carbon sequestration. You could offer incentives for farmers to use cover crops—growing something green on their fields all the time. Because when fields are left black, they're prone to erosion and they lose a lot of carbon. There's a collaboration going on in Santa Fe called the Quivira Coalition, where a man named Courtney White is working with ranchers to develop protocols for rotational grazing that will help sequester carbon. Many of the ranchers he works with don't even believe in climate change, but they see enough benefits in these practices to get on board anyway. The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has experimented with various forms of no-till farming for row crops. When one crop is done you knock it down with a roller, it dies, and then you plant your new crop right in that bed of decaying plant matter. The result is more carbon in the soil, more moisture, fewer weeds, and improved fertility.

There are ways we can organize our agriculture so that it will heal the planet and feed us and help roll back climate change. This begins with shifting our food system from its reliance on oil, which is the central fact of industrial agriculture (not just machinery but pesticides and fertilizers are all oil-based technologies), and moving it back to a reliance on solar energy: photosynthesis. But we're only at the beginning of this whole conversion.

As a civilization we're still locked into this zero-sum idea of our relationship with the natural world, so we assume that for us to get what we need, whether it's food or energy or even entertainment, nature has to be diminished. But this isn't necessarily the case. Carbon farming is one of the most hopeful things going on right now in climate-change research. This system, in which plants are secreting sugars into the soil, relies on the sun—photosynthesis—rather than fossil fuels. It demonstrates that there are non-zero-sum ways we can feed ourselves and heal the Earth. That's the big change we have to make: toward a sustainable food system where grass collects solar energy and deposits carbon in the soil and feeds plants and animals that we then eat. The conversation is gathering support. I'm hopeful that a constituency to invest in this work is building. We can see where we need to go—now we just need to build the political momentum needed to get there.

Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and other books.

David Benjamin Sherry, Rocky Hill, Big Bend, Texas, 2013, traditional color darkroom photograph

Ken Caldeira, climate scientist

The most important thing that humans can do right now is initiate a major research program to understand how we can develop social systems that encourage people to put aside short-term personal gain in favor of long-term social and environmental benefits. Or perhaps we can develop social systems that align short-term self-interest with long-term societal and environmental interests.

In some countries such as Italy, when a bus arrives, people clamor around the entrance struggling to be among the first to get in. In other countries such as the United Kingdom, people form an orderly queue waiting for the bus. What forces cause people to stand at the end of the queue? How does a country transform from one that does not queue to one that does?

One possibility is that people recognize that it is in their long-term self-interest to live in a society where everyone queues, so they queue to help create or sustain that society. It might also be that people get on the end of the queue because their fellow citizens would abuse them if they attempted to cut in front. In other words, negative consequences result in the maintenance of a system that serves the public good.

Our environmental (and political) problems largely stem from people acting in their own narrow short-term self-interest instead of the general long-term public good. The central question facing us is how to transform societies composed of self-interested people into societies composed of people who act to further the public good.

Ken Caldeira is an atmospheric scientist in the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology.

David Benjamin Sherry, Saguaro Field, Tucson, Arizona, 2013, traditional color darkroom photograph

Naomi Oreskes, climate historian

As told to Ryan Grim

People deny climate change because they don't like its implications, which play out in a number of different realms. The ones I've been particularly focused on are the implications for free-market capitalism and the fear that climate change is being used as an excuse to justify massive expansion of the government, interventions of government in the marketplace, and even international governance. There's even an episode of Jesse Ventura's TV show, Conspiracy Theory, about Maurice Strong, one of the negotiators of the first United Nations framework on climate change back in the early 1990s. Lots of climate-change deniers refer to this framework and claim that climate change is all just a UN plot. Others say that climate change takes away individual liberty and infringes on the free market.

My response is, "Fair enough. Let's talk about what the smallest government solutions would look like. And let's also talk about the character of the marketplace for energy." For me, this is the most crucial part, because the bottom line is that the energy market is not a free market. So people can argue that they're protecting all the political and social and economic freedom that they think goes with free-market capitalism, but the reality is that the fossil-fuel industry is subsidized in all kinds of different ways. So here are three simple solutions to make the energy market a genuine free market and allow renewable energy to compete:

1. Instate a carbon tax. It's an old idea: put a tax on carbon so the price we pay in the marketplace reflects carbon's true cost. One of the easiest ways to do it is put a tax on the mine shaft. When you mine coal, the government extracts a tax. When you pump gas, you tax the wellhead. That obviously impacts consumer products. The more that products use fossil fuels, the more they tend to cost. That would give us a price incentive to move away from fossil-fuel-based energy toward renewable and efficient energy.

2. Stop direct subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry. Besides the huge indirect subsidy that comes from the fact that the industry doesn't pay for polluting the atmosphere, there are lots of direct subsidies. There are all kinds of tax credits and allowances, some going back to the early history of the oil and gas industries in the 1910s. Why are we subsidizing the richest and most successful industry in the history of mankind? If we want free markets, let's make free markets. Let's have them compete on a level playing field and see what technologies win if we don't subsidize oil and gas.

3. Start enforcing environmental laws. There are all kinds of environmental exemptions for oil and gas. The most egregious is the Clean Water Act exemption, which was put in place during the Bush-Cheney administration and has played a major role in the fracking boom. Before, the industry was going nowhere because of worry about groundwater contamination. When the exemption was put into the Clean Water Act, the industry took off. If I were to drill a well in my own backyard, I'd have to worry about the Clean Water Act. But if a major gas company drills a well, they don't have to worry about it. That's not a free market; that's a massive subsidy. That's socialism for corporations.

People have the false impression that the renewable-energy industry is heavily subsidized but that fossil fuels do their own thing. If you start educating people about the truth, whether they're Democrats who want clean-energy systems or Republicans who believe in free-market principles, they realize it makes no sense. Why should we be subsidizing the richest and most successful industries? The carbon tax is hardest to swallow because Republicans have demonized taxation. Americans have a long history of not liking taxes, but we're seeing movement on that. My friend Bob Inglis has an organization called republicEn that's pushing market-based solutions for climate change. They're Republicans, and they're advocates of a carbon tax. British Columbia has a carbon tax that was put in place by conservatives with the support of the business community. The way they got them on board was to make it revenue-neutral and to cut some corporate and payroll taxes. So you can address problems of overtaxation with revenue neutrality.

Instating a carbon tax, eliminating subsidies, and eliminating environmental exemptions: These measures alone would go a long way toward creating a true free market that would enable renewables to compete on more equal footing.

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science and a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard.

David Benjamin Sherry, Winter Storm in Zion Canyon, Zion, Utah, 2013, traditional color darkroom photograph

David Keith, climate-policy expert

Imagine a doctor refusing to administer chemotherapy to a stage III lung-cancer patient out of fear that it would reduce his incentive to cut his smoking habit from two packs to one pack a day. That, in a nutshell, is the morally obtuse thinking that has undermined humanity's best bet to curb climate change: solar and carbon geoengineering.

The first scientific fact to know about climate change is that carbon is (almost) forever. Suppose I pump out a ton of carbon dioxide by flying across the Atlantic. The additional warming from my trip rises over a few decades and then remains constant for more than a century. A millennium hence, about a fifth of my ton will still be in the atmosphere causing climate change, unless humanity does something to remove it.

Many scientists regard geoengineering as the only viable method to roll back—not just delay—carbon's climate impacts. Solar geoengineering technologies could partially and temporarily reduce climate risks by reflecting some sunlight back to space, imperfectly offsetting the heat-trapping effects of greenhouse gases. Carbon geoengineering technologies could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transfer it back to geologic reservoirs, reversing the geologic footprint humanity causes by extracting coal, gas, and oil.

Solar geoengineering is fast and cheap but also risky and impermanent. Carbon geoengineering, on the other hand, is slow and expensive, but once humanity cuts emissions by switching to carbon-free energy sources like solar or nuclear, it could allow future generations to put the carbon genie back into the bottle.

But geoengineering's vanishingly small role in this year's major climate talks is a classic case of sacrificing scientific approaches at the altar of policy orthodoxy. Policymakers fear the public will only back emissions cuts if they're deemed the sole answer. Even advocates for climate geoengineering present it as a last-ditch response. In the words of science writer Eli Kintisch, geoengineering is "a bad idea whose time has come."

Emissions must be cut, but I fail to understand how the only policy that could plausibly enable a major reduction in climate risks this century is a bad idea. Even if the world succeeds in cooperating on aggressive emissions reductions, the carbon cycle's inertia means that—at least for a long human lifetime—cutting emissions will only stop making the problem worse. Furthermore, nothing about solar geoengineering changes the need to cut emissions. The only pathway to a stable climate is to bring the net emission of greenhouse gases to zero. But a combination of solar geoengineering and reduced emissions would allow the world to reduce climate change over a single human lifetime. To stop sea level rise. To reverse the increase in extreme precipitation and heat waves.

Our descendants could use carbon geoengineering to gradually restore the world's carbon balance. The amount of solar geoengineering needed to stabilize the climate would decrease as carbon was reduced, and the climate could eventually be restored to a reasonable approximation of its preindustrial state.

Critics like Naomi Klein paint geoengineering as a tool of technocratic capitalism that serves only to distract from the social reforms needed to address the "root causes" of climate disruption. Some on the right are already using geoengineering as an excuse for inaction, just as news of new cancer drugs emboldens smokers to keep smoking. But this fear of moral hazard should not drive our entire policy.

It will be hard to build a shared vision around a long, patient road to climate restoration using both emissions cuts and geoengineering. It may be harder still to build the international institutions to manage these technologies. Nevertheless, working toward this goal may leave a better legacy for the next generation than the current see-no-evil injunction against researching geoengineering for fear that it will tempt us away from emissions cuts as the only path to salvation.

The just-say-no dictum has not been a successful path for drug use or teen pregnancy. Why would it work for climate change?

David Keith is a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

David Benjamin Sherry, Winter Sunrise Over Yosemite Valley, Yosemite, California, 2013, traditional color darkroom photograph

Lauren Markham, journalist

My boyfriend and I may have made a terrible mistake last year when we bought our sweet, 600-square-foot house in West Berkeley, California, just a few blocks east of the waterfront. Much as we love it, many sea-level-rise projections put our house underwater in not too many years' time. The public debate over climate change adaptation often focuses on rural areas—Arctic communities forced to relocate from the vanishing permafrost, farming towns in the dust bowl driven out as their water table is sucked dry. But what about those of us in cities? We are far from immune. We've already seen the drowning of New Orleans and the flooding of New York City, and it's not hard to imagine a tsunami leveling Los Angeles or a cold snap shutting down Boston—or, for that matter, my little house becoming a permanent fixture of the bay floor.

I'd heard about the work of a design firm in San Francisco called the Future Cities Lab that dreamed up a new vision for the San Francisco waterfront in an age of sea-level rise. Their model was at once enchanting and wildly practical, and I liked its optimism for my home city: namely, that when my house sinks, I don't have to go down with it. So I decided to pay the Future Cities Lab a visit to learn more.

Their offices are housed in a massive postindustrial building in the southeastern swath of San Francisco. Inside, 3-D printers toil away while human designers fit these robot-made pieces together and test mechanics on a large, square table strewn with rulers and power tools. Above the entrance hangs a model of the Bay Bridge, underneath which dangle what appear to be lush, airborne islands. Not too long from now, lab co-founder Jason Kelly Johnson explained to me, the west section of the Bay Bridge will need to be rebuilt. What if, in the age of sea-level rise, the bridge housed colonies of displaced people who could farm and fish and self-sustain? Thick ribbons raise and lower the small islands according to the time of day and the weather—lower if it's too windy, higher to get better views or relief from the sun. These ribbons also harvest fog, turning the vapor into water for agriculture and for drinking.

"There's an increasing acknowledgement among designers that climate change is happening, that we've reached a tipping point," Kelly Johnson told me. "Even big environmental groups are shifting their tone. It's not about solving climate change anymore, it's about dealing with it."

The Future Cities Lab team believes that there are exciting possibilities for climate-change adaptation through a combination of architectural principles, industrial and landscape design, ecology, and robotics—all of which create these whimsical yet sensible futurist visions. Kelly Johnson showed me the Hydramax project, a sister to the Bay Bridge colony, which reinvents the San Francisco waterfront once the seas have begun to rise. Fog-collecting feathers comb the infamously dewy bay air and siphon water into a hydroponic farm where the city's food is grown. The agricultural runoff then pours into aquaponic tanks of densely populated fish for human consumption. Surrounding the food production is a network of public squares and walkways that function as marketplaces, and once the fog has lifted and the sun comes out, the fog-collecting feathers settle into a canopy for shade.

"It's really the idea that buildings can be more than living spaces or backdrops," explained co-founder Nataly Gattegno. "That you could actually be living with the things that sustain you, instead of keeping things far away, as we do, growing all of our food in the valley."

If well designed on an integrated-systems level, cities are much more efficient than rural communities or suburban sprawls because of their density and effective use of resources. But the kinds of integrated designs that Future Cities Lab puts forth are rarely conceived of—and are, in practice, nonexistent.

"The Army Corps of Engineers is really good at building concrete walls," Kelly Johnson said as he plugged in a 3-D model of the Hydramax, the fog-collecting feathers wafting their appendages like tentacles, moving through the imagined bay air like sea fans at the base of a wave. "Building walls is what they do." Walled cities are a medieval means of keeping out the enemy, but if the enemy is the Earth itself, there's little a wall can do (just ask New Orleans). Instead, maybe we should look at ways to live in sync with the impacts of climate change, not just in spite of them.

Reversing the harm we've done will first require acknowledging it—and seeing that our way of life is too much for the world. As humans and creatures of both habit and comfort, we seemingly need to get as close to demise as possible to be able to see things clearly. But maybe the approaching environmental apocalypse is an opportunity to both accommodate the changing environment and create more symbiotic living environments, the sort that might have staved off some of this collapse in the first place.

Their designs are compelling and smart, but what drew me to the Future Cities Lab was their vision of a new world of environmental cooperation that is also beautiful—a place where I'd actually like to live. Often, Gattegno and Kelly Johnson explained, environmental design is purely utilitarian. Take solar panels or wind turbines: all function, no form. But why does ecological design have to be an aesthetic compromise? Why can't our cityscapes be both environmental and beautiful? Why can't our cities be more like Teslas—sexy and mindful, the smartest, most efficient of their kind?

The History Channel invited the Future Cities Lab to enter a competition to redesign Washington, DC, to minimize the impact of sea-level rise. Gattegno and Kelly Johnson scoured a host of scientific projections that put the entire National Mall underwater. It seemed there was no stopping the drowning. Their design included a network of adaptive citizen colonies—one that focused on harvesting wind energy, another that focused on sustainable food growth, another on water purification—that, together, would reinvent how humans can live on the shifting Earth. "Our thought was that, because this was the capital, there was this responsibility for this city to offer leadership on alternative models of living."

The project was one of eight finalists. "Another finalist's design was literally a walled city," Kelly Johnson said.

"I think our design was a little too scary for the judges," Gattegno said. "But I think ours was much more optimistic than any of the others."

The Future Cities Lab is a perennial silver-medal winner. To see their designs as optimistic takes a new kind of thinking that dwells somewhere between the all-too-American poles of denial and defeatism. To acknowledge that change is coming, to embrace it, and to redesign the way we live with a sense of both duty and joy is pretty radical. But I have a feeling that when push comes to shove and our houses start to sink, we'll go knocking on the Future Cities Lab's doors, inquiring about those fog-collecting feathers.

After visiting the lab I drove home across the west section of the Bay Bridge. I imagined living on a suspended pod of earth hovering between the bridge and the bay, between the obsolete product of man and the bewitching, looming threat of the sea. Maybe that's exactly where we belong, now, dangling between the two: what nature built and what man built, radically rethinking the space between.

Lauren Markham is a recipient of the 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.