In Murray, Ag Expert Discusses Human Role In Climate Change

Nov 3, 2017

Dr. Adam Chambers leads a panel discussion at Murray State University on climate change and agriculture.
Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS


The U.S. government's most comprehensive climate report to date says that the world continues to warm and humans are the cause. During Murray State University’s Agriculture Appreciation Week, the Sierra Club invited Murray native Dr. Adam Chambers to talk about climate change and agriculture.


Chambers is an air quality scientist for the USDA and co-founder of the Pinhead Climate Institute, a Smithsonian affiliate that works to educate young scientists about climate change in their communities. Nicole Erwin sat down with Dr. Chambers here at WKMS.  



  Erwin: Dr. Chambers, welcome home and thank you for joining us in the studio today. I say home, you live in Telluride, Colorado now. But Calloway County is kind of what set you on the path to a career in climate science and agriculture.

Chambers: Yeah I was really fortunate. I grew up on a farm outside of Crossland, Kentucky and spent a lot of years working on the farm. That farm work with my schoolwork, coupled with a lot of great science teachers along the way prepared me really well for my job right now and allowed me to go around this country.

And also I traveled the world quite a bit and have been on farms all over the world and you see some interesting operations. But my roots in Callaway County are near and dear to my heart. And my upbringing here taught me the value of hard work and hard work on the farm. And then my educational background. Murray State set me up for a nice educational opportunity at Yale. Yale set me up for a nice doctorate opportunity over in Europe, where I worked in China and India and Pakistan and and now I really want to help the U.S. ag sector move forward on this climate issue.

Erwin: The reality of climate change is something that is actually still debated in this country. As a co-founder of the Pinhead Climate Institute, an organization that strives to educate young scientists and implement local-level climate actions; and a career that has focused on the applied sciences and reducing atmospheric pollutants. What do you say to people that are on the fence specifically in agriculture about climate change?

Chambers: Well you don't have to call it climate change if you don't want.  You can call it increased carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere and I'm fine with that. All I'm trying to do is work on solutions that move carbon out of our atmosphere and into our terrestrial biosphere. Right. So we can move carbon out of the out of the atmosphere where we have too much of it and put it into soils and biomass and that addresses warming which is caused by increased carbon in the atmosphere.

Erwin: Do people get hung up on the word climate change?

Chambers: Yeah in this country people get hung up on the word climate change. They get hung up on the words global warming they get hung up on the words global climate change. I think this is all semantics though and we really need to just get on with it. We recognize that the science is strong. Science is a body of literature that keeps moving forward and it proves that too much carbon in the atmosphere holds too much heat. We have to remove that carbon. We can do it through healthy soils and through reducing our emissions.

Erwin: The U.S. government's most comprehensive climate report to date says that the world continues to warm and humans are the cause. The climate report, discussed on NPR just yesterday said that “the past 115 years are the ‘warmest in the history of modern civilization.’  The global average temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over that period. And that greenhouse gases from industry and agriculture are by far the biggest contributor to warming.” Can you talk about whether or not this data is politically motivated. And what this report says about Agriculture's role?

Chambers: Yeah I think I'll start with the political motivations. From my training at Murray State from Calloway County High School all the way through Yale and the Technical University in Vienna where I got my doctorate. I've never been asked to spin my science to politics.

Now on the flip side I've actually had politicians and bureaucrats ask me to downplay or manipulate my science. So the scientific community is all about improving our body of literature that says that humans are causing the climate to change on our planet and we're doing that by putting emissions into the atmosphere and not removing them at the same rate we're putting them in. So we're getting an imbalance of carbon and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and we need to move those out of the atmosphere; and that's the challenge to the people who are walking on this planet today and tomorrow.

But we don't have a hundred years to debate this. We have to move out on actions now and that's really where my focus is.

Erwin: Where does the ag industry come into play here?

Chambers: Since the beginning of cultivated agriculture humans have caused emissions to the atmosphere. It might have been one of our first sources of pollution to the atmosphere. When we started cultivating crops, we plant one seed of corn and we harvest many grains of corn off of that same plant.

Agriculture is a small portion of the global segment of emissions in the atmosphere but it can be a big player in reducing global emissions, carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere through something that we all learned in fourth grade or fifth grade, which is photosynthesis. So through photosynthesis plants breathe in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.

Now we can harvest that carbon dioxide. Plants help us harvest that and remove it from the atmosphere and put it to use in healthy soils. And that's really where my focus is on healthy soils and perennial biomass or biomass that grows year after year after year and accumulates carbon.


Erwin: There is a program through the USDA where you are currently working to implement conservation measures on managed agricultural lands that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and works to enhance carbon sequestration, and it involves an emerging carbon market opportunity. Can you talk about what the USDA is doing with carbon trading and how buying and selling carbon can benefit US landowners and the ag industry?

Chambers: I'm not here on behalf of USDA so I can't necessarily talk entirely about USDA. But I can talk about the activities that we're doing through the Pinhead Climate Institute, to purchase carbon offsets from a Colorado rancher who is generating carbon offsets. They are then verified, or are created if you might, through a third party. That third party in this case is Ducks Unlimited, which many people are aware of, the big organization of Ducks Unlimited, and then the carbon credits are then purchased by the town that I work with and retired on behalf of our carbon footprint to improve our net environmental benefits to the atmosphere and to the environment.

Erwin: Sustainable development is becoming more present within corporations these days, being able to show how you are more green is an emerging market. How do you start the conversation with different corporate entities about getting involved with the carbon market?

Chambers: It's pretty easy to start that conversation with corporate entities and the governments, where I live. They're a little bit more forward thinking where where we live in Telluride, Colorado. It  is at about 9000 feet. So we're on the sharp edge of climate change. It rained in Telluride, last January 22nd. It's typically not supposed to rain at 9000 feet in elevation in January. That's a full snow time. So the discussion is easy to initiate.

You can talk to corporations and I do through my day job at USDA, I work with a lot of corporations. And they are mostly looking for ways to improve their sustainability, reduce their carbon footprint and also be be able to tell that story to their consumers because the world of the future consumer is going to value the environmental sustainability of a corporation. So you're seeing a lot of corporations trying to be proactive which will allow them to get some space into the market where maybe their competition isn't isn't quite performing as well.

Erwin: California is kind of leading the way with a carbon market?

Chambers: Correct. In California they have what's called a cap and trade program. So there are a bunch of industries that are capped. So they have to reduce their emissions and then they can trade with folks like agricultural producers. So farmers and ranchers can generate these carbon credits and trade those into the market and then they can be retired on behalf of the polluting industries which cap and trade. It has its merits. It definitely has some deficiencies but it seems to be working quite well in the state of California and other states are looking to opt in to California's cap and trade program.

Erwin: And where do conversations like this start for producers in more rural communities. For example in western Kentucky. How could someone here let's say a hog farm or any livestock producer benefit from something like this?

Chambers: So with a hog farm for example you've got a lot of manure that you're dealing with and they could implement an anaerobic digester--essentially a way to capture the gases given off from manure. And in a lagoon or a slurry, you need to put a cap on that and make sure that's not a leaky lagoon. And so that cap captures all the gas. Then you can run that through a typical engine that can run on  gas or propane and generate electricity that can go out onto the grid.

Now you have a pricing scheme that you need to be to help pay for the benefits of the electricity there. Which the pricing may not be as complementary to that hog farmer in Kentucky as it may be in California right now. But there's definitely opportunities for dealing with the gases that come off of the manure and the lagoons.

Erwin: So is the way it would work is, from the industry side, X corporation says we're going to provide $100,000 to buy X amount of credits and that money would go towards helping to pay for digester, how do these scenarios come into play?

Chambers: Yeah that's a great example of how U.S. industry can come forward and some industries have what they call a price on carbon already internalized on their balance sheet. Which says we understand our emissions and we are going to value those emissions because there is a cost to polluting the environment. And then they turn that money back around and in a lot of cases they could have an opportunity to give that to farmers.

They want to pay it to farmers and ranchers in their supply chain that can reduce their emissions. And that also helps with things like animal stewardship and water quality. With this type of carbon credit it's very charismatic. It has multiple benefits. So it's not only a carbon credit but it's also got these what we call co-benefits.

Erwin: Can someone in Kentucky do that now?

Chambers: In Kentucky you can definitely do the anaerobic digester activities and actually sell those carbon credits, because we're talking about a global problem not a local problem on the carbon side. You could sell those that into the California marketplace.

Now it's not easy. I will caution everybody in advance that it is a hard sell. But it is possible. And the other thing that farmers and ranchers can implement are things like nitrogen management so they can manage their fertile fertilizers more efficiently and get paid for those in them in a carbon market as well as avoiding conversion of grassland. So keeping the soil carbon intact rather than plowing it under that's a little bit of an issue here in western Kentucky that's a pretty significant issue up in the Dakotas.

Erwin: Let’s say a farmer hears this and they are interested in selling carbon, who do they contact? Their local extension agent the department of agriculture?


Chambers: In Kentucky the resources are very limited. They can definitely go out to their extension agents and to their local offices where they seek assistance. You know this is a nascent market. This is an emerging market so I don't want people to think that there's just these enormous opportunities of change now. But this is definitely going to be the change of the future and this is an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to farm something else right. Farm bushels of nature, in addition to producing the product that they they do and try to you know diversify their income and recover from some financial benefits from  harvesting bushels of nature.

Erwin: And that's really what moves things forward is that the financial benefit.

Chambers:  I am a strong believer in economics moving the needle on this so getting a price on carbon, establishing a price on carbon, is very important. Establishing a way to do business with farmers and ranchers who own the 350 million acres of cropland in our country and the 400 or so million acres of grazing lands in our country, giving them an opportunity to harvest some economics from places other than typical commodity markets is something that I'm really passionate about.


Erwin: This week is ag appreciation week at Murray State. The Sierra Club asked you to talk with students and faculty earlier about climate change and agriculture. You also visited some students at Calloway County High School. In those interactions, did you find that educators here are prepared to talk to their students about climate change?

Chambers: That's a great question. I think educators are timid on climate change because of the policy debate that's going on and the implications and and the sharpness that sometimes you see educators receive for talking about climate change. Climate change is happening right?  We know it's happened over the last four hundred thousand years but what we're seeing now is we're seeing humans influence the climate and the climate is changing dramatically.

We as as a species need to address that and I encourage every educator out there to kind of get away from the politics and dig in to the science and we can definitely go a lot deeper into the science. But we want to bring our community along with us. And so there's a tension there.

But the truth is that the planet's climate is changing and humans are causing that change. And so all we have to do is tell our children and our students a little bit about what's causing that change. And it's no different than than E= MC2. It's science. And that's what we want to stand up for, science.

Erwin: Thank you for talking with us.

Chambers: Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.