Compendium Vol. 1 No. 1: INTRODUCTION

Compendium Volume 1 Number 1 July 2017

In order to re-evaluate our approach to climate change in the anthropocene and to find solutions in addition to reducing carbon emissions, we do well to consider the situation from a systems perspective.  That is, to acknowledge that we’re not simply dealing with recent energy imbalances disrupting millions of years of relative stability in planetary temperatures, and to acknowledge as well that the prevailing belief that these changes are driven primarily by geophysical phenomena unrelated to biological systems is most likely erroneous.  To the contrary, we emphasize the point that anthropogenic global warming is an extremely complex phenomenon, a function driven primarily by the biology of all kingdoms of life.

Earth temperatures over 500 million years. Graphic: Glen Fergus, data sources are cited at

There is no question that planet earth is seriously warming at accelerating rates; however, it is increasingly apparent that the greenhouse gas premise of climate science is problematic. That global warming is simply a consequence of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, is a persistent hypothesis that has its origins in the modern physical sciences beginning around two hundred years ago, although climate-related observations were made by the ancient Greeks and undoubtedly by many hunter-gatherer cultures.  This greenhouse gas hypothesis must now be subject to closer examination.

It is well established that greenhouse gases do trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore, the resultant energy imbalance in the form of trapped heat from the burning of fossil fuels has increased greenhouse gas concentrations and planetary warming. However, global warming is largely treated as a geophysical phenomenon isolated from planet earth as a living, dynamic system.  Isolating variables, a primary tool in mainstream science, often leads to overlooking systems behavior that bears no resemblance to the behavior of any of its parts.

Biological systems are generally regarded as victims of global warming; they are less generally regarded as the primary potential solution. This view is starting to change, but slowly, whereas global warming is a pressing emergency not allowing for the normal course of a paradigm shift to take place over at least one generation if not more.  

We must therefore develop a new paradigm, that of global warming as a phenomenon of biology and ecosystem function. From this perspective we would regard greenhouse gases as a symptom of human mismanagement and destruction of billions of acres of land and waters – a highly problematic symptom, to be sure, but not the root cause.  Such a perspective brings an entirely new set of potential solutions to bear, powerful land management solutions well within our grasp, as we seek to demonstrate.

The challenge in promoting eco-restoration as the primary approach to addressing global warming is that the scientific literature supporting such efforts is diffuse, spread across many disciplines, sometimes with few obvious connections.  There currently exists no dedicated journal that intentionally collects studies from fields as disparate as rangeland science, paleontology, soil science, microbiology, agronomy, evolutionary biology, mycology, entomology, oceanography, limnology, and many many others – not to mention human psychology – and relates findings directly to climate, its effects, mechanisms, and solutions.

This Compendium will begin to look at some of the elements of planetary climate and systems function, and attempt to weave them together to create a more comprehensive systems view.  We attempt to offer opportunities for many different and powerful nature-based approaches for dealing with changes in planetary function, particularly climate.

There are a number of assumptions that we need to reconsider if we are to see our way clear to a new, more effective climate paradigm.  Once we have drawn a picture of the new paradigm and the previously unrecognized connections among investigations that this paradigm enables, the research and data will be positioned to acquire new meaning, sense and purpose.

Life as a Geological Force[2]

Going back almost 4 billion years, a scant half-billion years since the formation of planet earth from cosmic dust, life began to appear.  It persisted through eons of celestial, tectonic and climatic upheaval.  Around a billion years later, life, in the form of microbes, found the driver’s seat and has taken over the world ever since.  In an anthropocentric culture that creates gods in its own image, we are not generally aware that millions of species of living things have molded this planet, turned it blue and green, and created most of its features, from an oxygen atmosphere to geological formations to proliferation of millions of other kinds of living things. Without life, Earth would be merely another rock flying through space, like Mars or Venus.

The power of life is especially important in discussions of and action on climate change, since mainstream climate science views living things as victims of global warming, not primary drivers of potential climate solutions, as mentioned above.  This is most unfortunate since our current obsession with greenhouse gas emissions as a root cause of climate disruption has led us to a dead end.  For even if we were to go to zero emissions immediately, due to positive feedback loops and a seriously degraded biosphere, climate chaos would likely continue to accelerate and rage out of control.[3],[4]  It is therefore not unreasonable to pursue the possibility that living things are able to remove the requisite carbon from the atmosphere, cool the biosphere as well as return biodiverse life to dead and dying ecosystems, and in fact there is ample evidence that such is the case – as we shall see.

Gerber, P.J., Hemming Steinfeld, Benjamin Henderson, et al. 2013, Tackling climate change through livestock -  A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2013, [Earthworms]

Hansen, James, et al. 2016, Young People's Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions, [Introduction]

United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013, Working Group 1, Summary for Policymakers,, p 26.

[2] See Westbroek 1991.  His research is based on the groundbreaking work of Russian systems scientist and biogeophysicist, Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945). Vernadsky’s work is relatively unknown in mainstream science, which is still fractured into narrow disciplines where systems thinking is more theoretical than operational reality.  See Vernadsky’s signal work, The Biosphere, in an excellent edition annotated by Mark McMennamin with a forward by Lynn Margulis, Copernicus/Springer-Verlag, 1998

[3] “A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period. [emphasis added]” [United Nations 2013: 26].

[4] “The growth rate of climate forcing due to human-caused greenhouse gases increased over 20% in the past decade mainly due to resurging growth of atmospheric CH4 [methane], thus making it increasingly difficult to achieve targets such as limiting global warming to 1.5°C or reducing atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. Such targets now require “negative emissions”, i.e., extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. [emphasis added]” [Hansen 2016: 1]

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 1 Number 1 July 2017