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'Carbon Nation' Tackles Climate Change, By Ignoring It


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. How much do you personally worry about global warming? The people at the Gallup Poll have been asking that question every year since 1989, and according to their latest polling figures, there's been a bit of an uptick in the numbers: 55 percent said they worry about climate change - that's up about four points from last year.

That still leaves a lot of people doubting that climate change is important. Well, my next guest says it doesn't matter what people think about climate change, they still share some common ground on other energy issues, and that's all we need to start tackling, to start tackling the problem, he says.

Peter Byck is director and producer of the movie "Carbon Nation." He joins us from the studios of WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PETER BYCK: Thank you very much, it's a real pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Is that right, you say - I've heard you said it's toxic to talk about climate change, but you can get agreement other ways.

BYCK: I don't say it's toxic to talk about climate change. What I do is, when I meet a skeptic, I say hi, I believe climate change is real, the science is happening, it's happening, and I think that the solutions are going to make life better for just about everybody else. What do you think?

And that's really the magic moment because somebody like me has never really asked someone like them what do you think. And they say thanks for asking, I think climate change is a hoax and that Al Gore is a fraud and that professors are studying it just to line their nests to get more money.

And I say: I'm not going to change your opinion about climate change, am I? And they say no. And I say: You're not going to change mine either, are you? And they say no. I say: OK, let's table that. And we've already come to an agreement on tabling that, but we've had a respectful conversation. And from there what I'm finding is that when you ask anybody, do you like solar energy, the answer is yes. And the numbers are like 70 percent of Americans love solar energy.

And then you say: Do you like wind? And the numbers are even higher. They say yes, and 90 percent of Americans like wind energy. You ask about geothermal, no one really understands it, but we all like it. And then you ask about energy efficiency, and it's a no-brainer.

So even though I've just disagreed with that person about climate change, we've created a whole energy policy. We might have differences about fracking, maybe something about nuclear, but there's a discussion happening, and that's - with all those things that I've just described, my experience in showing the movie around the country for the last two years, we aren't a polarized country, especially when it comes to energy.

It's - I just see too much common ground. I see too much agreement. I just think people aren't listening.

FLATOW: Listening about...

BYCK: I don't think people in leadership are listening to the people, and I think a lot of people are being told that they're polarized, and we are polarized, and they're acting as if, and that's the problem. We're being told we're polarized so much we don't actually know that we're in agreement.

FLATOW: But aren't the politicians polarized?

BYCK: I think the politicians are incredibly polarized. I think Washington is a complete mess. But when you're out in the country, you don't see it. I don't see it. I mean, I really don't see it. I've been looking for it. I don't see it. I see people who think that they're going to disagree with me, and I think I'll disagree with them, and then we find out we agree on a lot of stuff. I think the polarized thing is way overplayed so people can sell books to show that we're more like the Civil War times in America than anyone believes. That's really it.

FLATOW: I've heard you talk about soil and that soil could be the answer to sequestering carbon dioxide.

BYCK: Yeah, there's a group out of California called the Marin Carbon Project, and they're working with some scientists at UC Berkeley, and one paper just came out, and basically when you add a half-inch of compost to soil, they've done a three-year study on two different plots, they've seen an increase of four to five thousand pounds of carbon per acre over that three-year period of time just from more forage and the soil being turned on.

The way we farm, with chemicals, and the way we've been grazing our cattle, overgrazing the land, we've turned the soil off. And what they're finding is with manure from cows, if it's a grazing situation with compost, just throwing the compost on, or with a lot of the techniques that are similar to organic farming, you're turning the soil on, creating a situation where the soil actually is doing what it evolved to do with the cattle and the bison and all those animals for hundreds of thousands of years, which is it turns into a massive carbon sink.

And this is how I get to sleep at night, because otherwise, you know, I think we're toast. I mean, we're probably very close to toast as it is, but this is actually going to suck down - if enough people come on board, and there's a lot of people looking at it right now. If enough people come on board, then we can actually suck down more carbon than we're putting up. We can actually put a brake on the warming of the planet.

And when I say a lot of people are looking into it, I'm talking - there's a group called the Sustainable Beef Roundtable, it was started by the WWF, and McDonald's is at the table, Wal-Mart is at the table, major beef growers from China and from Brazil are at the table.

And what they're trying to figure out is: Is it good business as well? And what the study is showing is that when you do this to the soil, for that acre of land, you're actually creating 35 to 50 percent more forage, and that acre of land is retaining an additional 27,000 gallons of water.

And so when you're a cattle person, 40 percent of your costs is feed. And so if you just stick to the grass, and you're growing that much extra forage on your ground just from having your cattle properly walking around your property, it's a huge business opportunity, and it actually turns the beef from a bad food to a health food.

It's tremendous. And I've been looking at it for five years, and I've seen people coming up with the same numbers at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, some folks at the Tall Grass Beef Company in Kansas, some folks in Africa, in Europe. I'm seeing the same numbers, the same exact numbers.

FLATOW: And you mention in your movie that cattle farmers can make money out of knowing things about...

BYCK: Well, if you have a carbon market, then it's just crazy money. In California, a carbon market is starting in February, and so I was just talking to some of the folks from the Marin Carbon Project, and they're looking at farmers actually starting to make money from making their soil healthier.

FLATOW: Making money from it?

BYCK: Yeah, yeah, because you're going to be able to sell carbon credits. Your carbon sequestration ability is going to become a value, a marketable value.

FLATOW: If I don't care about climate change then, why do I care if the ground is sequestering carbon? Or do you not couch it that way?

BYCK: Yeah, well, you just got 27,000 more gallons of water. You've just saved 40 percent of your cattle feed, and you've just potentially put yourself in a trading market that you didn't know existed.

FLATOW: Do you think that the droughts this summer has changed anybody's mind about...

BYCK: Yeah, I think when people hear climate change, global warming, and it gets hot, I think they think - it's clear that, like you said at the top of the show, the numbers are coming in higher. And then when it's really, really cold, those numbers go down because that's just misinformation.

I mean, just the fact that we're debating climate change at all is - actually, it's a victory for the folks in the '80s and '90s from the fossil fuel industry who just wanted us to debate it. That was a game plan. It's the same exact game plan as the tobacco industry. There's a book by Naomi Oreskes called "Merchants of Doubt." You know, it's the same exact game plan.

They won. They did a great job. They're the best storytellers since Shakespeare. They're brilliant. And...

FLATOW: So you're saying as long as we talk about it, we won't do anything about it.

BYCK: Exactly.

FLATOW: Keep us busy talking about it.

BYCK: Which is why we started our film from the premise that climate change is real and let's keep moving. Now, we were under the assumption in 2007, when we started, that the debate was over. We were naive. And when I met this guy named Bernie Karl up in Alaska who's revolutionizing geothermal power by using water that's much cooler than thought possible to create energy - he's in the 180, 200-degree water temperature; it used to be that you thought you'd have to at least make steam - he's doing all this great work, but he doesn't believe climate change is caused by humans.

And so when I met him, I realized, wait a second, if he's revolutionizing geothermal power, and he's going to do more to solve climate change than I am, and he doesn't believe that climate change is caused by humans, maybe there's a lot of smart people and dedicated people who like clean air and clean water who don't think climate change is caused by humans but still have great ideas.

It made me realize that maybe a lot of those people were being sort of kept out of this tent, you know, and to me that was the biggest light bulb moment, unexpected, from when I was filming.

FLATOW: Speaking of filming, can we expect to see a sequel in the works here?

BYCK: I started shooting on Monday. I went down to El Paso, Texas, to shoot at Fort Bliss. A big part of our film is the greening of the Department of Defense. And right now there is a competition amongst base commanders around the U.S. to become the first net-zero-energy base, to create all the energy they use, to use water in the most efficient manner, to produce no waste, to have bio-waste incinerators on base.

It's mind-blowing. And to have my tax dollars spent in that manner makes me very happy, because when the DOD sets its mind - there's some amazing people in the Department of Defense, amazing people...

FLATOW: Well, we had the secretary of the Navy come on, and he told us about all the...

BYCK: Yeah, Ray Mabus.

FLATOW: Ray Mabus, he came on and told us about all the green things. And then I read that just last month, John McCain is pushing back, saying how dare you use military money to do research on, you know, saving energy.

BYCK: Yeah, well, you talk to Ray Mabus, and you talk to Brigadier General Dana Pittard down at Fort Bliss, and you find out that having their bases be sufficiently powered so they're in charge of their energy is national defense. And when Pittard got to Fort Irwin, where we filmed him in the movie, where he was before, Southern California Edison, like his second week, said, oh, by the way, we have to turn off the power line to your base, we have to do some work on it.

And literally from the power station in Mojave to Fort Irwin is an 18-mile power line. One. And Pittard said this is ridiculous. You can just turn off my power like that, what could a terrorist do. We need to be off the grid. And then when you say we need to be off the grid, what does that mean? It means a lot of renewable energy, and how do you patch it together?

Well, you've got to have a smartgrid. Well, how do you do that? Well, we've got to figure it out. And so all these things that we're going to use, all these things that it's going to right to our cities, all this technology is going to come from the military, and just like the GPS did, just like the microchip did, and to me it's the best use of our tax dollar. And they're doing it for self - they're doing it for national defense, absolutely, 100 percent.

FLATOW: It backs up with what we've heard with DARPA, the things other - the military leads the way in technology many times. Peter Byck, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you.

BYCK: Thank you, this was awesome.

FLATOW: We'll wait for your next movie. Peter Byck is director and producer of the movie "Carbon Nation." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.