Today, as I write this, is Nov. 2. When The Enterprise prints it, and you read it, it will be Nov. 4. Between now and then is Nov. 3, a day of great consequence for the climate crisis. I’m not sure how to characterize the outcome of the election. I know today I am a mix of hope, even optimism, and anxiety and dread.

Is this a “tipping point” that will define our future? Yes. Are we at Yogi Berra’s “fork in the road”? Also yes. We know where the road we are on is taking us. Unlike Berra’s framing of this choice, we also know which road is the fork, and though we can’t see over the horizon to its final destination, it promises a better outcome than the one we are on.

Should we fail to follow the fork in the road being offered to us, we, and that includes future generations, will forever regret the road not taken.

So here’s to hoping that Nov. 4 will usher in a new morning in America, one in which we can exult, one in which we can get down to the serious business of planning and implementing a livable, equitable world, and one in which I can promise to lighten up on the clichés.

For me, today, on Nov. 2, I am choosing hope and optimism, and here are a couple of touchpoints for that hope and optimism.

According to a Bloomberg article, “Climate scientists have quietly begun converging on a stark conclusion: The window in which cutting emissions by reducing fossil fuels alone can reverse climate change has essentially closed. To keep temperatures on the planet from rising 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, the stated goal of the 2016 Paris agreement, humanity will also have to swiftly develop ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

Enter Joanne Chory, plant biologist. She and her colleagues are genetically engineering a common roadside weed to develop very deep and thick roots. As she explains it, “Plants are really good at sucking up CO2.”

This small project has bigger goals. The researchers admit that a weed sequestering carbon in its roots, no matter how deep and thick they grow, won’t have much of an impact on global climate. The weed is a Beta test; the bigger goal is to extend this research to crops like corn, wheat, soy, rice, cotton and canola that collectively occupy more than half of Earth’s arable land.

The key to their approach is to isolate the genes that can “increase the amount of suberin in parts of the roots that are not needed to absorb water or nutrients. A major constituent of cork, suberin is impermeable to water and far harder for microbes to break down than the rest of the biomass. It will hold the sequestered carbon in the soil for decades, possibly even centuries.” They’ve also identified some genetic variants that increase root mass — and the ability of the roots to grow deeper where there’s less oxygen and few microbes are present to break the roots down.

It’s a bold vision, but is it pie-in-the-sky? Some don’t think so. The development of CRISPER technology enables many genetic modifications of just this sort. Also, the project is funded in part by the TED’s Audacious Projects organization backed by, among others, the Bill and Melinda Gates and MacArthur foundations.

Big news also comes from a recent study published in Nature (as reported in a recent New York Times article) that purports to offer a pathway to “soaking up almost half of the carbon dioxide that has built up since the Industrial Revolution and averting more than 70 percent of the predicted animal and plant extinctions on land. The key? Returning a strategic 30 percent of the world’s farmlands to nature.”

Sounds good, but what about losing all that land going to food production? The study asserts it could be accomplished “while preserving an abundant food supply” and it would be “one of the most cost-effective ways of combatting climate change.” The article indicates that the study’s authors (I’m not sure any of them are farmers) claim that, “Relinquishing 15 percent of strategic farmlands could spare 60 percent of extinctions and sequester about 30 percent of the built-up carbon in the atmosphere.”

Sometimes, probably most times, it seems the bigger the idea the greater the difficulty of implementation and the harder it is to transform something science says could happen into something that does happen.

This study is not alone, however, in its premise. The basic idea is echoed by other proposals, not all of which are focused on farmland, such as in the Bonn Challenge that “aims to restore 350 million hectares by 2030 and the Campaign for Nature that is “pushing leaders to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030” and E.O. Wilson’s proposal in 2014 to save the earth by setting aside 50 percent for the environment.

Nobody ever said the “fork in the road” would be without bumps potholes, washed-out bridges, and other obstacles. One thing that can be said, however, is that congestion on the fork in the road will not be a problem.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on November 04, 2020 | PRINTED in the November 04, 2020 edition on page B6