Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, left, and Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, adjunct professor in global development and a professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, attended the Vatican’s climate change summit May 15-17.

Houlton to Vatican climate summit: Ag is ‘most powerful weapon’

Agriculture can be a key component in the battle against a warming planet, Cornell’s Benjamin Z. Houlton said at the Vatican’s global climate change summit, held May 15 to 17.

“Agriculture can be the most powerful weapon we have in the fight against climate change. Full stop,” said Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, speaking May 17 at the “From Climate Crisis to Climate Resilience” workshop and summit.

“We really need to start thinking this way about our food systems, because I will show you data and evidence to back that up with certainty,” Houlton said. “It’s critical that we start thinking of our food system as a pathway to [climate change] mitigation, adaptation and resilience.”

Hundreds of scientists, researchers and policy leaders – including U.S. governors Kathy Hochul (New York), Gavin Newsom (California) and Maura Healy (Massachusetts) – attended the summit to discuss how best to handle droughts, floods, atmospheric greenhouse gas, clean energy and human rights.

“We are experiencing a global sustainability revolution that is going to go right through the center of our agrifood system,” Houlton said.

Houlton described his own research on rock weathering – sinking natural carbon into agricultural fields, where it reduces atmospheric carbon and helps crops. Negative carbon emissions within the food system, he said, are achievable at a scale larger than any other sector on the planet.

In fact, Houlton explained how several global models show that between 1 and 2 billion tons of atmospheric carbon can be removed via rock weathering. He has been working with Native American tribes, farmers, ranchers, industry partners, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to test this technology and understand its value.

This concept is critical for us to embrace, he said.

“I know this sounds ambitious,” Houlton said. “Hopefully it’s in the realm of hope and optimism. Everything seems impossible until it’s done. I believe the future food system will be a catalyst for negative carbon emissions.”

Houlton ended by suggesting that private and government markets pay farmers for the carbon services they’re providing. “If we put that into a policy – as farmers are the most innovative people in the world – they will figure this out. They will work with us,” he said. “They will work with science, but let’s get them paid.”

Summit organizer Veerabhadran Ramanathan, adjunct professor in global development (CALS) and a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, addressed the full conference early and noted that countries must concentrate not only on rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions and removing carbon dioxide, but also need to fully examine the societal needs created by global warming.

“Today’s climate crises threaten children and rob future generations’ right to flourish fully within nature,” Ramanathan said.

“There is a new way to look at the climate problem,” he said. “We’re advocating for a new approach focused on mitigation, adaptation and societal transformation – building partnerships with industry, science, faith and community leaders, like mayors and governors, to foster hope and forge new solutions for achieving resiliency to unavoidable climate change.”

Speaking early in the summit, Pope Francis urged the group to action.

“The poorer peoples – who have very little to do with the pollution of the environment – need to receive much greater support and protection,” he said. “They are victims.”

He urged a universal approach for societal policy change and political decisions and a need to invert the global warming curve in the next quarter-century. Eliminating atmospheric carbon dioxide will likely span several generations, he said.

“Dear friends, I thank you for your efforts and I encourage you to continue to work together in effecting a transition from the current climate crisis to climate resilience in equality and social justice,” the pontiff said. “There is a need to act with urgency, compassion and determination, since the stakes could not be higher.”

Houlton serves as co-chair of Cornell’s 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, which is leveraging transdisciplinary knowledge for real-world impact, facilitated through the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.  

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Jeff Tyson