Breaking Green

False Solutions to Climate Change with Dr. Rachel Smolker

July 17, 2021 Global Justice Ecology Project / Host Steve Taylor Season 1 Episode 2
Breaking Green
False Solutions to Climate Change with Dr. Rachel Smolker
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Breaking Green talks with biologist Dr. Rachel Smolker about false solutions to climate change. 

The ravages of Global Climate Change are becoming more apparent every day, and people and nations are becoming more desperate for solutions. But there is increasing concern that agreements within the United Nations annual climate conferences are being driven by corporate interests that seek to monetize nature itself and secure corporate profits instead of addressing the root causes of climate change. Green capitalism with proposals such as payments for environmental services and carbon trading, allow corporations to continue business as usual under a green veneer. Some proposals even suggest global techno fixes that would alter weather patterns on a planetary scale.

Breaking Green is produced by Global Justice Ecology Project.
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The compendium of false solution to climate change is Hoodwinked in the Hothouse.



Steve Taylor  
Welcome to breaking green, a podcast by global justice ecology project. On  breaking green, we will talk with activists and experts to examine the intertwined issues of social, ecological and economic injustice. We will also explore some of the more outrageous proposals to address climate and environmental crises that are falsely being sold as green. I am your host, Steve Taylor. With the effects of global climate change becoming more apparent every day, it is clear that business as usual, must be fundamentally transformed. Yet there is increasing concern that agreements within the United Nations annual climate conferences are being driven by corporate interests that seek to monetize nature itself and secure corporate profits instead of addressing the root causes of climate change. Green capitalism, proposals such as payments for environmental services and carbon trading, allow corporations to continue business as usual under a green veneer. Some proposals even suggest global techno fixes that would alter weather patterns on a planetary scale. Without free prior and informed consent, indigenous peoples least responsible for climate change could see their communities disproportionately impacted from drought, flooding, sea level rise and extreme weather events. In this episode of breaking green, we will talk with Dr. Rachel smoker about false solutions to climate change, which critics argue are intended solely to generate profits from global crises while ensuring continuation of business issue. Dr. smoker is a co director of biofuel watch in the steering committee member of the campaign to stop g trees. She has researched, written and organized extensively on the impacts of biofuels and bioenergy, land use forests, biodiversity, food and climate. Dr. smoker has a PhD in ecology and biology from the University of Michigan and has worked as a field biologist, gaining firsthand experience with the complex balance between the needs of people in the ecological system that they depend on. Dr. smoker, thank you for joining us. 

Dr. Smolker  
Thanks so much for having me. 

Steve Taylor  
Before we go into false solutions, I wanted to ask you about the Environmental Defense Fund. One of the founding members is Robert smoker. Was that your father?

Dr. Smolker  
Yeah, that's my father. Environmental Defense Fund got started in my living room as a kid. four guys used to come over and talk about lots of things among them was the thinning of eggshells as a result of DDT, or predatory birds and on Long Island, among other issues. And and ultimately, they founded this organization. And you know, they had a little office in the town that I grew up in and slowly expanded from there. So yeah, that's the the surroundings that I grew up in.

Steve Taylor  
So the DDT in the eggshells that that goes back to Silent Spring, right, Rachel Carson,

Dr. Smolker  
Right, it sure does, yep. And my father new Rachel Carson, I'm told that I was named after her first real victory for Environmental Defense Fund was to get the use of DDT banned in the US, although it's still used elsewhere. So and, you know, I'm fortunately the organization grew too big for its own pants. And I think, you know, they say they do do some good work, but they've become an extremely corporate friendly greenwashing kind of big green NGO and I've been really disappointed with that, in particular took place with some direct action and involving rising tide and some other organizations who were critical of the EDF position on carbon trade and carbon offsets, which is something they've been very central in promoting into the international community and climate legislation.

Steve Taylor  
That's very interesting. The Environmental Defense Fund started in your living room per se, and they were very successful and some of the original environmental legislation in this nation in banning DDT, but you say they become a bit more corporate and supporting such things as carbon trade. Can you tell us how your position may differ from that a bit?

Dr. Smolker  
Yeah, um, you know, carbon trade. Well, we know now after, you know, 20 years of and more of trying, it has not worked. It was the idea of using that kind of a system came around with its you know, Largely developed by EDF with trying to regulate sulfur pollution after we understood about acid rain and so on. So, and that system worked, all right, when there were just, you know, a set number of facilities that were remitting pollutants that were causing the problem, but carbon is a much, much more pervasive, you know, ubiquitous difficult to account for. But EDF was very insistent on promoting that. And in the early days of the international climate process, they were key in essentially saying, you know, the US position on climate is that we must use a carbon trade market mechanism to do this, it worked with our other, you know, efforts, and it will work with this. And there was a lot of resistance to that back in the day, but but it went, along with the US saying that they would, you know, engage with the whole un process on climate was the requirement essentially, that they go along with this carbon market approach. So that, you know, years on now, we know how that has not worked. We've seen through, you know, the European carbon trade we've seen? Well, basically, we've seen that carbon emissions have done nothing but go up, up up up up in spite of various different market mechanisms that have been tried. So, yeah. That's, that's the, it's an easy to game, especially when it comes to carbon accounting. And that's one of the reasons market mechanisms are so unlikely to be successful on this.

Steve Taylor  
Think that brings us to our topic for today. We wanted to talk about false solutions and what's being done with the United Nations and this promotion of false solutions. I know that biofuel watch was one of the sponsors of hoodwinked in the hothouse, which is a compendium about false solutions being promoted by the United Nations to address climate change. What is meant by false solution?

Dr. Smolker  
Yeah, well, it's something that is put forward largely because it either allows companies and commercial interests of various sorts to continue doing what they're doing and have some kind of a greenwash mechanism that is called a solution even though it's, you know, not really addressing the climate crisis. It's just providing some greenwash to the ongoing pollution by these players. A good example is, you know, carbon capture and sequestration for, you know, decades, we've been told about clean coal, right? clean coal is a dirty lie, I always do chili bond, we were told that, you know, we could continue to burn coal, we would just develop a technology to capture the carbon and bury it underground, and it would stay there. And we would not suffer the consequences of carbon emissions from coal burning. And here we are, I don't know how many years later. And, you know, we're starting to see coal go down, finally. But carbon capture and sequestration is still and more so now than ever, on the fore of false solutions to climate change, that we will be able to capture carbon emissions from all sorts of industrial processes. And somehow, you know, bury it underground and hope that it's going to stay there. And really, it's just a story about how we can keep on doing things that cause pollution, and have some kind of techno fix that'll clean up the pollution and after the fact, rather than rather than reining in these industries, and those false solutions, I mean, the bottom line is the bottom line, right? These companies want to keep profiting. And so they are very skilled and have lots of resources to come up with mythologies and stories and technofix future futuristic ideas about how to address the climate crisis that allow them to get away with continuing to do what they're doing.

Steve Taylor  
Well, that's interesting that you mentioned that about the techno fists fixes and mythology and some of the more grandiose plans that have been talked about recently. geoengineering comes to mind the idea of maybe putting particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight to increase the albedo of the of the planet's atmosphere. We're at

Dr. Smolker  
a time with this conversation where it's really alarming because you This crisis of climate change is becoming very real to people and tangible look out west, you know, the heat, heat, extreme heat that's just happened and so on. And the geoengineering advocates are using the concern and the fear, as you know, it's an emergency, we need to do everything we can, we need to try these things out test to make sure we can have this on hand in case it really gets bad, right. And it is getting really bad. But the the issue for me is that all of these technologies they're talking about are things that will only make things worse. And then there's also questions, of course, who gets to decide when we know that a lot of these technologies have really serious negative consequences. And of course, those will fall mostly on people who are least equipped to deal with them, who gets to decide, you know, where we're going to spray aerosols, and, you know, try to block the sun or whatever, you know. And so the issues of governance and the potential for these things to become really, you know, I don't know how to say bones of contention between people and countries and interests, is a really great concern, especially for example, like with Stratospheric Aerosol injection, that's actually not a hard thing to do, you can deploy that relatively easily. It's not like there's a lot of technical barriers, the same is true with, you know, some of the proposals to to use nature in a way that will be so grand as to alter the atmospheric concentration of co2, right, we just plant trees, well, you're gonna have to plant a lot of trees, if you're going to impact the global atmosphere. If you're want, if you're, you know, talking about, for example, biochar, which I just happen to have spent quite a bit of time on in the last week, you'd have to collect burn, and then spread the charcoal until it into soils over a vast air and part of the, you know, vast areas of the Earth's surface to see any impact on the global atmospheric atmosphere. And that's assuming that it actually did reduce emissions, which it's not going to because you have to cut down trees and stuff to burn them in order to make the charcoal which is so it's absurd. And frankly, a lot of these false solutions really are absurd ideas. And they distract us from what are very basic, simple things that we know we can do. And a lot of them. We've learned through unfortunately, like, economic crisis of 2008 showed a decrease in emissions, right? The pandemic forced people to change the way they were doing things, and, you know, decline in fossil fuel emissions and so on as a result of people being in lockdown. These are lessons that we we can we can learn from about what works and what doesn't work, you know. So, yeah,

Steve Taylor  
What is this biochar proposal? I mean, we when we also hear about bio mass, you know, burning this idea that burning trees to produce energy can reduce global warming gases. Could you explain that a little bit more?

Dr. Smolker  
Sure. Yeah. I mean, as I said a minute ago, some of these call solutions really are just plain absurd. So the idea that we, you know, on the one hand, we're advocating, and we are escalating, burning trees for, you know, for power. On the other hand, we have, you know, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation and carbon offsets, using forests and nature based solutions. And all these ways that we are going to have trees be a solution to by letting them grow and absorb carbon, and at the same time, we're burning them for energy. And those two things are in direct opposition to each other in terms of how we relate to forests and what we do with our forests. So that's the absurdity of that the idea that we can burn trees for power has been perpetuated by one of those mythologies that the forest products industry has perpetrated that you know, when you burn a tree, yeah, carbon is emitted, but a new tree will grow and it'll absorb the same amount of carbon right back into the new tree. So then there's a net, you know, carbon balance that's that they will call me It's, it's, we call it the mythology of carbon neutrality. That and unfortunately, that has been incorporated into policy it has been incorporated into just the public discourse in a way that it is just been very difficult to help people understand that, that is not the proper accounting for what happens, you burn a tree in two seconds, it may take 200 years for a new tree to grow. You're also not accounting for all of the other emissions that happened, you know, in the forest, when the soils were disturbed and oxidized. And when other trees and collateral damage happened and all the transportation and maybe drying the material before it was burned, and so on and so forth. There's a lot of other emissions associated with it that are bigger than the tree that was just burned. But this, this is not stopped, not stopped this juggernaut of biomass burning, which is getting bigger and bigger. Just a few weeks ago, the International Energy Agency put out a report. And a lot of people were celebrating the fact that they basically said very straightforwardly, we need to get off of fossil fuels. But what they didn't celebrate was the is projections that burning biomass for power would be escalating greatly over the next few years, because that's pretty much what's happened as fossil fuels have been coming under increasing fire. Renewable Energy has become the darling and of renewable energy, we find that almost half of it is bioenergy in different forms, including biofuels and burning trees for electric power.

Steve Taylor  
This is your host, Steve Taylor. And we will be back right after this.

Theresa Church  
Global Justice ecology project partners with small nonprofits acting as a fiscal sponsor, so they can focus on their crucial work for ecological and social justice, forest protection and human rights. Jeff is proud to sponsor biofuel watch. biofuel watch provides information, advocacy and campaigning in relation to the climate, environmental human rights and public health impacts of large scale industrial bio energy. They campaign to stop the Drax biomass power plant, which burns more wood than any other plant in the world. They also oppose geo engineering, biofuels and genetically engineered trees. biofuel watch is a founding steering committee member of the International campaign to stop g trees. To learn more, go to biofuel watch.org.uk.

Steve Taylor  
Welcome back to breaking green. So you talked about how the math on the carbon net neutral doesn't really work with the biomass as a biologist who studies biodiversity. What are some other concerns? It's almost seems like there's a commercialization of life or force going on? Are there questions of bio diversity with this type of proposal?

Dr. Smolker  
Absolutely. And it's so it runs so deep, because, you know, we've turned conversations about biodiversity into a discussion about biomass and carbon accounting. And we've forgotten about the fact that biodiversity is like all of the other life forms on the planet that depend on healthy ecosystems and water and clean air and all of the benefits that we receive from having a healthy ecosystems and healthy forests. And just the use of the language, you know, I hate the term biomass, use it, because that's what's used in this in this arena of discussion. But we should be really aware that when we're talking about biomass, we're talking mostly about forests, we're talking about trees, or we're talking about grasslands or other you know, ecosystems that have been converted to growing energy crops like corn, or sugarcane or palm oil, all of which are leading forces in the in the loss of biodiversity.

Steve Taylor  
So, there's also the issue of genetic engineering and changing the nature of the forest. What do you know about proposals to alter the genetics of trees to make them more amenable are more biofuel friendly?

Dr. Smolker  
Right. Yeah, there's a huge push to engineer characteristics of trees and other organisms, you know, crops and, and also especially microbes of various sorts, in really this push to be able to turn living plant bio mass or bio material, whatever into fuel, el for either to burn it or to make liquid fuels for transportation is one of the biggest if not the biggest impetus within genetic the fields of genetic engineering these days. There's a huge amount of fun funding and a huge amount of Research going in. With trees in particular, there's a lot of interest in trying to alter the growth patterns of trees so that you can, quote, make more biomass more quickly, you know, so trees that grow faster and bigger and you know, make more wood essentially. And then there's also a push to do various alterations to the characteristics of wood that will allow accessing to the sugars in cellulose, accessing sugars, and cellulose and wood has been a huge technical barrier that has made it very difficult to make liquid fuels from wood. And that's also why there's a huge lot of research in the on microbes, in particular, to try and get microbes that can access the sugars in cellulose and break them down into components that are that can be used to turn into cellulosic ethanol, basically. So yeah. And and then, you know, and then there's, there's, you know, lots of crops that have been engineered from corn to make it more amenable to ethanol production. And in particular,

Steve Taylor  
What are the risks of that when it comes to the overall biological health of a planet? As a biologist, you see that, you know, we're so desperate now that we're going to re engineer we're going to recode our forests. Are there attendant risks to that?

Dr. Smolker  
Absolutely. I mean, making the there's a reason that, for example, the sugars and cellulose are so difficult to access. And it's one of the reasons why very few organisms can eat wood. And that trees have had been able to protect themselves from being you know, gobbled down by hungry organisms, they this has been a very useful for them, and they can stand up tall and reach the sun because of it. So, you know, engineering trees that have less, you know, solid defenses against having their sugars eaten, or engineering microbes that can digest wood in that way, and may be converted into other chemicals. running rampant through nature. No, thank you. I think there's a lot of risks that are inherent to it, you know, cross contamination with wild species is one of them. But there's, you know, it's, it's easy to start imagining a really horrific mess that could happen, should something like that be released into the environment, uncontrolled, and run rampant? You know, I worry about microbes, for example, which have very short turnover, you know, and they mutate pretty quickly. And we've learned about this, I learned a lot about viruses recently. And they mutate, and they change and a lot of the engineering of microbes for biofuels is making them extremely Hardy. And my concern is that those that hardiness for being tolerant of industrial refinery conditions may be exactly what would also make them able to survive, should they be released into the environment under certain circumstances. So yeah, I think there's a huge amount of risk and I would also just add, you know, I have read a lot and learned a lot from understanding evolutionary theory. And I believe that you know, our evolutionary history is something that is the commons It is our shared history of life on Earth, and that just the to wantonly manipulate it for commercial purposes. I find it really offensive.

Steve Taylor  
I agree with you there, I have to be transparent on my opinion with that the idea of recoding all of nature because, you know, our species has pushed the limits of of consumption is is is terrifying. And it actually it looks like we're heading in that direction. Do you think I want to get your opinion on that? What How does this look, we have these proposals. It seems like people are becoming more tolerant for these radical ideas out of a sense of desperation. How do you think this is headed?

Dr. Smolker  
I think you're absolutely right. You hit the nail on the head, people are becoming more tolerant of a lot of things because there's just so many You know, confounding disasters happening all at once. And, and at the same time, we have a hugely, vastly more access to information of all sorts, you know, real information and public information and just the internet is just a world of, you know, opinions. And you know, it has become very challenging to try to sort through all of that information and come to, you know, some informed judgments about what's going on. And I think a lot of people are actually harboring a lot of fear about the future and about, you know, the state of the world, there's just so much bad news. And people are feeling fearful and desperate, and that makes them much more willing to consider crazy ideas, even when there's a possibility that they will make things worse, you know?

Steve Taylor  
Well, when you and I were younger,  it was chemicals, chemicals and the EDF, your father, you know, was part of identifying the fact that, you know, chemical pollution can alter our ecological systems. Is there an analog to that now going on with this idea that maybe nature's like a computer program that can just be coded to what we want it to do?

Dr. Smolker  
Yeah, I mean, that's I that kind of reductionist thinking is very, very characteristic of the biotech industry, and the sort of zealous genetic engineers who really see that we can just, you know, it, like, life is just a bunch of Legos, and I'm a Lego master. And, you know, I'm just going to move these Legos and tweak this together here and there, and the systems thinking it's too messy, you know, nature is really messy. And I think there's, you know, actually sort of a psychological need that some people have for things to be to be very digital and very organized, and very, like, graspable, and, and predictable, and manipulable, and messiness, and search chance, and, you know, that sort of random element of life is really disturbing. But it's, but it's part of it's part of life on Earth, you know, it's certainly those things are very, very central to the natural world and history of the natural world,

Steve Taylor  
what would be a solution to what we're facing? I mean, climate change is being seen as a, you know, an Extinction Level Event, if it's not addressed. Is there a solution?

Dr. Smolker  
When people ask me this question, I say yes to No, the thing isn't that we need to develop some new technology or develop some new this, that or the other thing, the thing that we need to do is to say no, to all of the destructive things that are happening, to the mining, to, you know, deforestation and logging and overconsumption, and, you know, the human rights abuses, that, that sort of complete lack of respect for people and so, you know, there's a lot of things to say no to every time we see something that makes us alarmed, and want to reach for some, you know, crazy idea for a solution is just, you know, really say yes to No, I've been just recently, looking at some of the proposals for deep seabed mining. You know, a lot of people are thinking, Oh, I need an electric car, and I need, you know, this new device. And all we need battery storage for renewable energy to really take off and so on. But all of those things require a lot of materials I mean, solar panels, wind turbines, take a lot of materials and I love it. I like them better than burning trees. But you know, and then people have this idea that if they have an electric cars, somehow there's like zero emissions, you know, there's no understanding that the electricity has to come from somewhere and all the materials that go into the battery and so on and so forth. So now they're, you know, there's a big push to try to open up the deep seabed, deep ocean seabed where there are apparently these deposits of metals that are desirable for, especially for battery production, and the companies that are wanting to do that are so saying, Oh, well, we can't have the renewable energy future that we must have unless we do this because we need those metals, you know. So we should make the deep ocean seabed, which is a very large area of the Earth's surface. And it's a whole world, deep deep below the ocean that we sort of know very little about. And it seems a real crying shame to go down there and start digging it all up and making a huge mess out of the way, our oceans are already in trouble. So, you know, what should we do? I guess the point is just, you know, no, going out and buying an electric car is not the solution. You know, the solution is just saying no, you know, no more, no more, less, less, less less.

Steve Taylor  
But that goes to the heart of, you know, consumption, and this notion of unlimited economic growth. Um, so I, my, my question is, how does one who is watching this and see these proposals put forward? How does someone who is not a scientist or a lifelong ecologist, kind of smell out a false solution per se?

Dr. Smolker  
Yeah, I think, you know, this is a really, really good question. And I just did a talk recently about bio char. And I found that, you know, in the end of the talk, I wanted to address exactly this question, because there are a lot of very well intentioned people who think biochar is a great thing, and it's gonna, you know, be their salvation. I believe that science is a very useful tool. A beloved mentor of mine once said that the scientific method is the best tool that we have. It's not perfect, but it's the best tool that we have for discerning truth from fiction and from keep in to keep each other from lying to one another. And that's, that's true, science has become less and less perfect. I would say, in the world of biochar, for example, you can find a peer reviewed study saying every which thing and why is that it's because there's a lot of funding for going into like soil science departments in academia. People in academia are under the gun all the time to bring in big grants. So their their pursuit of truth in academia is often dictated by commercial interests, where the funding comes from and from the university institutions themselves. So it's always a matter I think of following the money, even when you're using the best tool, we have the scientific method, you still have to follow the money. And you know, and you need to use common sense. And I think, you know, teaching people critical thinking is something that we have really failed at in the last decade or two. And it's unfortunately coincided with this in, you know, sort of revolution of information overload, and a lack of skills for critical thinking and evaluation and the patients and work that it takes to kind of dig through things as opposed to just Oh, my friend who I like, told me this, and it must be true.

Steve Taylor  
So also, as we mentioned earlier, biofuel watch and an end global justice ecology project, both co sponsored the hoodwinked and hothouse, which is sort of a primmer on some of these false solutions. And listeners interested in seeing that can go to climate false solutions.org that's climate false solutions.org. Dr. smoker? Is there anything that I haven't asked you about that you would like to discuss regarding this?

Dr. Smolker  
No, I guess, you know, the main point, I love hoodwinked in the hothouse, the first two editions were extremely useful. And I found that when I was handing out that booklet, partly because it was really beautiful, people were really interested to see it. And that a lot, I was amazed to see a lot of people sort of light up and say, oh, false solutions to climate change, like it hadn't really occurred to them that any, there would be such a thing as a ball solution. And for a lot of people who are sort of starting out on the learning curve about how to navigate these things. It's actually a really fundamental hurdle, that they have to go over to understand that there is such a thing as a false solution to climate change. And I see that especially with, you know, sort of younger people who are just setting out and starting to, you know, kind of their awareness is raising and they're trying to figure you know, find their way So, I was really thrilled to be able to be involved with helping out on this on this new edition. And I think it's super timely because we do have a growing awareness. Have a lot of new people are sort of coming into the fray. And this is something that I think some of us old timers could you know, articulate and hopefully, that's helpful. Well,

Steve Taylor  
Dr. smoker thank you for talking to us about false solutions and a bit of your history and the history of the EDF has been great to have this conversation. And thank you for joining us. Thanks for having me. You have been listening to breaking green, the global justice ecology project podcast. Find us at Global Justice ecology that work visit to find more interviews, podcast organizations, and ideas for addressing climate change.



Introduction to Breaking Green
Introduction to False Solutions
Introduction to Dr. Rachel Smolker
History of EDF and Dr. Smolker's Father
Carbon Trading
What is meant by false solution
Geo Engineering
Bio Char and Bio Mass
Break with Theresa Church
Biodiversity
Genetic Engineering
Risks of GE Trees
Desperation and Tolerance for Radical Proposals
Reductionism and Biotech / Lego Masters
What is a real solution
Detecting False Solutions
Hoodwinked in the Hothouse
Close of Breaking Green