The New York Times has found a solution to global warming. Well, maybe not. But it has revealed a misguided approach to covering climate change, one that is quick to embrace homespun narratives while overlooking difficult data.

The article from the Times magazine – appealingly titled “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” – suggests the solution to global warming is, literally, in our backyards. All we have to do is plant more trees and grasses, spread a little compost and do other kindly things to the soil. Put Mother Nature to work and – poof! – problem solved:

“… if we change how we treat this land, we could turn huge areas of the earth’s surface into a carbon sponge. Instead of relying solely on technology to remove greenhouse gases from the air, we could harness an ancient and natural process, photosynthesis, to pump carbon into what’s called the pedosphere, the thin skin of living soil at the earth’s surface. If adopted widely enough, such practices could, in theory, begin to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, nudging us toward a less perilous climate trajectory than our current one.”

The Times article cites all kinds of “data” for the effectiveness of what is called carbon farming, but they would be more accurately described as well documented anecdotes from a couple of proponents, not a scientific study.

The lack of scientific rigor didn’t stop the Times from gushing about the environmental and health benefits of “creating millions of tons of compost and applying it to great expanses of land.”

Sensible farming and land-management practices have a place in a broad strategy to combat climate change. Agriculture accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions annually, so tackling this sector is important.

But it’s going to take much more than compost and cows to cut emissions from farming. Indeed, buried deep in the article you get this whopping caveat from the author (emphasis added):

“Few experts I spoke to think the impact would be quite that grand; Pete Smith, for example, estimates that soil could, at the most, store just 13 percent of annual carbon-dioxide emissions at current levels. “I appreciate that everyone wants to save the planet,” he told me, “but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this is all we need to do.” 

The article overlooks the scale of the de-carbonization challenge, in agriculture and elsewhere. If the world is to meet the target set by the Paris Climate Accord and avoid the ravages of climate change, carbon emissions need to start declining rapidly after 2020. We’re a long way from that trend line. Global carbon emissions rose last year, reaching a record level. Better farming practices, even if adopted quickly, would not make much of a dent in carbon output.

Of course, a story about the hard-working folks who are reinventing farming to store carbon is an interesting read, and images of dirt-tinted fingernails and grassy landscapes evoke deep American themes. It’s very appealing – and very different from the way farming is done today.

And that is the other problem with the article. It acknowledges that changing farming practices on a large scale will be difficult and risky and its benefits won’t be seen for years. In that way, it reinforces the narrative that cutting emissions is complicated and disruptive. Ironically, that’s the same narrative put forward by the fossil-fuel industry and its allies.

In fact, there are fairly simple steps that could be taken now that would have a big impact on global warming. Putting a price on carbon, or giving nuclear power the same carbon-free-generation benefits as wind and solar would move things in the right direction. What’s needed is political will to enact the policies.

So New York Times readers should eat grass-fed beef and spread compost, but they might want to call their elected officials and get to the polls, too.