[imgcontainer]Clay Pope addresses the 2013 National Rural Assembly about climate change.[/imgcontainer]

He came at us like an Oklahoma auctioneer.

Part salesman, part preacher, Clay Pope’s rapid-fire description and endorsement of carbon offsets as an answer to climate change blew my hair back a bit.

Pope has the passion of a true-believer as he threw data at the crowd in rapid fire bursts. We were struck dumb in the face of so much science delivered with so much enthusiasm.  Could this Oklahoma son be right? Could we win the hearts and minds of farmers on the climate change issue by appealing to their wallets?

Now that my hair’s back in place, I’m taking a deeper look into this new take on cap and trade.

Pope calls his carbon-offset idea ECOpass. It’s a project of his organization, the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts (OACD). He described the idea to folks at last month’s National Rural Assembly in Bethesda, Maryland. 

Paul Monies of the Oklahoman describes ECOpass as an “Okie twist on the idea of buying carbon offsets.”

Some folks at the Rural Assembly, however, weren’t so sure about this brand of cap and trade. During a question and answer period, several wondered if this “answer” to climate change ignored the central issue of industry practices that created the carbon-emissions problem in the first place.

Cap and trade was proposed back in 2009 in a bill that passed the House but failed in the Senate. It would have established a limit and price for carbon emissions and created a market in which companies could buy or sell permits for emitting greenhouse gases.

Although initially celebrated by environmentalist as a perfect marriage between industry and conservation, the notion has since lost much of its support.

Some environmentalists found little about cap and trade that they liked. They claimed that the proposal would destroy the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to fight pollution from coal-fired plants and would lock us into a system that rewards polluters with massive giveaways and could be gamed by Wall Street.

In Pope’s surprising twist on cap and trade, however, it’s not corporate fat cats who get the carbon credits, it’s farmers. They get paid to leave carbon in the ground. According to Pope, this rewards farmers for good natural-resource stewardship that sequesters carbon in the soil while providing additional conservation benefits.

Those rewards would come in the form of payments from folks who purchase ECOpasses to compensate for the carbon footprint they have in their everyday lives.

Pope and his organization have partnered with the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department to sell ECOpasses to the public. People can purchase them in  $5, $10 and $30 denominations, which equates to different levels of carbon credits that are created by practices such as no-till farming, grass plantings, tree plantings and improved pasture management. Farmers who have signed up for the program then receive money for their conservation efforts.

The ECOpass grew from a pilot project that used money from Western Farmers Electric Cooperative and federal grants that paid farmers to use conservation practices to keep more water in the ground.

Although the financial reward for farmers participating in the program is modest, Pope claims that it creates an important new paradigm. As farmers see improvements in soil erosion and the public sees improvement in water quality and wildlife habitat, a new conversation can begin about providing infrastructure support for better addressing climate change overall.

Luring farmers into better land stewardship by appealing to their wallets is “grabbing the low-hanging fruit,” according to Pope.

Although he admitted that his form of cap and trade won’t adequately turn around the forces that are contributing to climate change, it is a great start. “We’ve got to do something, “ he insisted.

Pope’s fast-talking speaking style must help gain the attention of his fellow Okahomans.

When Pope goes out to speak to the public about climate change, he often hears them say that climate change is a natural process that can’t be fixed.  His response is that the Dust Bowl was a natural process. If the farming practices that created that “natural” disaster had not changed, we would be in a far worse place than we are now, he says.

The Soil Conservation Act helped make those changes, and it might be an example of how legislation could help us address climate change. The 1936 law paid farmers to reduce production to conserve soil.

The Dust Bowl was climate change on steroids, Pope said, and the lower Midwest is in similar straits now. The southern Great Plains are in the third year of a drought that rivals anything we saw in the Dust Bowl, he said.  But Pope acknowledges that change is a thorny issue, since its impact is not immediately visible. Until an event like the Dust Bowl occurs, it’s a problem that seems to lie in the distant future.

Pope contends that to address climate change in a meaningful way, we need to move toward a Brown Revolution, instead of a Green Revolution like the one in the 1960s that changed agriculture production worldwide. Pope’s Brown Revolution would place the same urgency on soil conservation as a way address climate change as the Green Revolution did to feed the world.

In an effort to emphasize the role that soil conservation and good farming practices play in mitigating climate change, Pope quoted William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 speech in which he tied the economic fate of farmers with the rest of the world. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.