Carbon conversation participants who attend a six-week conversation “typically cut one tonne from their carbon emissions in the first year and halved their emissions in two to five years

By Liz Morgan

Let me ask you a question: what do you think is the best way to help tackle global warming? It can be a behavioural or technological/scientific solution; your imagination is the sole limiting factor.

It’s a really worthwhile question to ask, but it’s not mine, sad to say. I don’t know who first posed it, but the Manchester International Festival in England, in conjunction with The Guardian newspaper, is in search of the brightest and best ideas for saving Earth from overheating (or should that be saving us from ourselves?).

On July 13, the proponents of 20 different ideas each got 15 minutes to spruik their vision before a panel of experts, who will whittle down the list to 10. These 10 ideas will form the basis of the Manchester Report that will be sent to (presumably British) policy-makers, as food for thought, before December’s global summit on climate change in Copenhagen.

The top-20 ideas are as follows:
1. Methane and artificial photosynthesis: feed carbon dioxide emissions from power stations to algae that photosynthesise it into biofuels. Use ‘artificial photosynthesis’ to  convert CO2 to methane that can, in turn, be used to generate electricity or fuel cars.
2. Giant algae stomachs: giant plastic ‘stomachs’ in the sea could be used to digest seaweed farmed at the ocean surface, generating methane.
3. Alkaline oceans: adding lime to oceans has the potential to decrease acidity and reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.
4. Concentrate solar power in deserts: potential, by proven technology, to supply enough electricity to power all of Europe from Sahara and other North African deserts.
5. Hot rocks: hot water/energy from geothermal energy, a technology already tried and tested in several countries and under consideration in Australia.
6. Cloud seeding: remotely controlled “ships” spray sea water into the sky to form ‘seeds’ around which stratocumulus clouds form. Stratocumulus clouds reflect sunlight away from Earth. Another technology being explored in Australia and elsewhere.
7. Carbon capture and storage (no, this idea was not presented by Kevin Rudd, who was glowing like a nuclear rod from all the accolades he received at the G8 summit for his Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, and for enticing  Britain’s climate change guru, Sir Nicholas Stern, to come on board). Basically it proposes injecting CO2 deep underground, where it will be stored for a very long time (did someone mention nuclear?). The proposal suggests that if power plants can be made “carbon negative” through capture and storage, there is no reason why they couldn’t run on a mix of coal and wood. (Huh?)
8. Biochar: converting organic materials into charcoal (in a process that creates more energy than it uses) that, when mixed with soil, locks in carbon for a long time. Being researched by the CSIRO. (Carbon capture in soil is the subject of an extensive article by Michael Kiely of Carbon Farmers of Australia elsewhere on this website).
9. Efficient cooking stoves: more than half the world’s population uses wood or dung as fuel for cooking. More efficient stoves could help reduce deforestation.
10. Grassland management: grazing cattle in more traditional ways allows grasslands to act as carbon sinks.
11. Ceramic fuel cells: small power generators (for houses or commercial buildings) running on gas or biofuels, thus saving on energy lost in long-distance electricity transmission.
12. Energy bonds: to enable governments to raise money for longer-term investment in renewable energy technologies.
13. Solar photovoltaic power and rebates: cloudy Britain could make better use of solar energy, the proposer says, and users could be ‘rewarded’ with rebates for feeding unused energy into the grid system. (A thorny issue in some parts of Australia!)
14. Carbon mortgages:  loans for improving energy efficiency of homes that are paid off over two or three decades.
15. Thorium nuclear power: thorium is a more plentiful nuclear material, generates less waste and less harmful waste and cannot be converted in weapons-grade plutonium.
16. Marine energy: harnessing the power of waves and tides to generate energy. More predictable source of energy than solar or wind.
17. More efficient cars:  small, lightweight vehicles run on hydrogen or electricity.

Has anything struck you as odd, so far (apart from the fact that so many of the proposals are existing technologies)? We are three “solutions” from the end of the list, and the preceding 17 are all scientific/technological (I have changed the order from that on The Guardian’s website to make the argument).

The three “behavioural” ideas that made the cut include two that have already been well aired in the public domain, one of them for a very long time: they are using family planning to lower the world’s population and
reducing consumption.

It’s the third behavioural idea that caught my eye, and my imagination:  carbon conversations. I’ll say that again, for I hope it’s a phrase we will soon start to hear often. Carbon conversations. Talking about carbon; no more, no less. But when did just talking ever achieve anything, you might ask. Well, this program, devised by psychotherapist Rosemary Randall of the Cambridge Carbon Footprint organisation, would appear to show that it can, and does.

Carbon conversation participants who attend a six-week conversation “typically cut one tonne from their carbon emissions in the first year and halved their emissions in two to five years”, its website reports.

The premise is simple: many people feel completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the climate change crisis and powerless to do anything about it. Carbon Conversations essentially allows them to “feel the fear” and talk about it. But rather than focusing on the Doomsday science and the bewildering array of potential solutions, people are encouraged to touch base with their emotions around the issues, what kind of lives they want to live, what values they hold in society, what they want for their future and their children’s future. Identifying these hopes and goals seems to enable people to slough off their inertia and start making changes in their lives.

We know that environments affect our mental state. If we live in an environment that we fear is harming us now, or is becoming more threatening and dangerous, we retreat, become fearful, develop a sense of powerlessness. As American therapist and ecopsychologist Craig Chalquist puts it: “[We] need to think in terms of how profoundly our psychological well-being depends on the integrity of the lands we inhabit, for we cannot expect to remain sane in a wasted world.” (The Environmental Crisis is a Crisis of Consciousness: bringing the psychological dimension into the discussion. Speech delivered at “Voices for Change,” organised by students at Sonoma State University, November 2007. )

“We cannot expect to remain sane in a wasted world.” How true, and what more compelling an argument can there be for listening, talking and acting on climate change, right now? We have seen before what havoc madmen can wreak upon the world. Wouldn’t it be so much better to strike up carbon conversations, open up our hearts to our hopes and fears, stop the environmental and human degradation before it’s too late?

To quote Chalquist again: “Solving, or rather dissolving, the psychological barriers that fuel the environmental crisis by isolating our minds from what’s going on around us will require turning ourselves inside out, with the heart as the site of reconnection. Resurrect the heart from mechanicality and numbness and you resurrect the chamber or cauldron in which the future likes to brew.”