My last three columns highlighted a federal, dividend-based carbon tax. This policy would often amplify complementary local, state and international policies. State governments, for example, can capitalize on a dividend-based carbon tax by expanding renewable energy production, electrifying transportation, increasing energy efficiency, and so forth. Illinois’ Clean Energy Jobs Act, or CEJA, under review in Springfield, would leverage a national carbon tax by saving Illinoisans lots of money. By accelerating decarbonization in Illinois, CEJA would ensure that we hold onto more carbon dividend dollars because we would be burning less fossil fuels and therefore paying less in carbon taxes.
There are many carbon-cutting solutions. Paul Hawken and his 70 drawdown fellows, for example, assembled in their book, “Drawdown,” 80 workable, big-impact solutions that are ready for full deployment. If fully exploited, the top 10 solutions alone would eliminate 540 to over 800 gigatons of greenhouse gases by 2050. All 80 solutions would trim emissions by 1,000 to over 1,500 gigatons.
Drawdown also presents 20 ideas under development. One of them, rewilding the Mammoth Steppe, would have more impact than any other drawdown solution. It could slow down and possibly prevent the large-scale release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost, i.e., the once permanently frozen, carbon-impregnated soil of the arctic. With 1.4 trillion tons of carbon held in its icy grip, permafrost contains the largest carbon depository on the planet. It exceeds the amount of carbon locked up both in our forests and carried in our atmosphere. If permafrost begins melting on a large scale, it’s game over.
During the last ice age, grasslands of the Mammoth Steppe stretched from Europe through Siberia and thence into Alaska and the Yukon. The steppe’s rich grasslands supported an incredibly dense population of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, supersized bison, musk ox, horses, reindeer and antelope.
Then, about 12,000 years ago the big animals disappeared. Was it a change in climate with warmer and wetter seasons leading to tundra and trees crowding out grasses that fed the mammoth? Or were the mammoth and other large herbivores hunted to extinction by humans? Grasslands need large herds of herbivores to maintain them. Take away the grass eaters, and tundra and trees displace the grasses that supported vast herds of herbivores.
Russian geophysicist Serge Zimov, with a lifetime spent researching permafrost, supports the extinction hypothesis. To test his hypothesis, he has created a 50-square-mile Pleistocene Park where he is reintroducing bison, musk ox, reindeer and arctic-hardy horses. These animals feed themselves in the winter by pushing away snow to browse on the grass below. Since the snow insulates the soil from the bitter cold, its removal by grazers results in a 3° to 4° Fahrenheit drop in soil temperature. That drop may be just enough to materially slow or prevent the large-scale release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost.
Let’s hope Zimov’s mostly proven concept is rapidly scaled across the globe-circling permafrost zone. The survival of civilization depends on keeping permafrost frozen.
William Rau is Illinois State University professor emeritus of sociology.
Hawken, Paul. 2017. Drawdown. NY: Penguin; https://www.academia.edu/40148623/Drawdown_Paul_Hawken
Anderson, Ross. 2017 (April). Welcome to Pleistocene Park. The Atlantic; https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/04/pleistocene-park/517779/
Kintisch, Eli. 2015 (Dec 4). Born to rewild. A father and son’s quixotic quest to bring back a lost ecosystem—and save the world. Science Magazine; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/350/6265/1148.full
Revive & Restore. 2014 (Nov 25). Zimov’s Manifesto. Revive & Restore; https://reviverestore.org/projects/woolly-mammoth/sergey-zimovs-manifesto/
Slater, Grant. 2017 (April). A film on Pleistocene Park; https://sifloy.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/pleistocene-park/
Science Magazine. 2015. Born to rewild; https://youtu.be/IWnlPYu3ovQ
Wilkinson, Kathrine. 2020. Drawdown Review; https://drawdown.org/drawdown-review