Climate Change: the facts

13 08 2019

Last night, I watched “Climate Change: the facts” presented by David Attenborough

Image result for d"david attenborough" "climate change" the facts

https://iview.abc.net.au/show/climate-change-the-facts/video/ZW2018A001S00

That link won’t let me watch it in my Linux laptop, though it worked on my phone and the smart TV we watch in the house we currently rent to as we while away Winter as I try to get the house ready for Christmas…… I can’t in all honesty recommend it, it was just as disappointing as I expected. Most of my readers already know climate change is upon us, and will most likely realise it will be the demise of nature for millions of years, and our civilisation; watching this film will not make you change your mind….!

It presents why we have to act urgently, with well known talking heads like Michael Mann and James Hansen, though, for a British film, it left out Kevin Andersen…. It’s the heavily laid on hopium at the end that had had me writhing in my seat……

It also tells huge porkies. Like saying the UK generates 30% of its electricity from renewables while leaving out the fact all the wind turbines were idle for a week during a complete lull in the weather.

Then it presented electric vehicles, and hydrogen powered ones, as a fait accompli. But they really lost me when the BBC stated “the science is in, we have to stop eating meat”

As my friend Jacqueline recently wrote, “We need to change our entire agricultural system. ALL of it, not just the beef and dairy. We need local food production, agro-ecological, that means that it doesn’t damage the ‘environment’ in production, and that also means that the type of agriculture has to fit with the local ‘biome’. If we do that, we will have a healthy diet with small amounts of everything on healthy land, with healthy animals and healthy farmers and consumers. We’d be paying farmers directly and they wouldn’t be spending so much on pesticides, fertilisers and feed that only make the corporations rich.

As long as people say ‘get rid of cows’ instead of ‘change the entire industrial agricultural system’, we are still going to be destroying everything. 

Incidentally, cows kept under appropriate conditions (silvo-pasture for example) so they can graze and browse don’t drink millions of litres a year because they get their water from the grass. And believe it or not, there are good farmers who grow food appropriately and keep cattle in ways that actually improve soil health and sequester carbon.”

The problem with shows like this is that they only concentrate on one admittedly serious problem; as we know here, we’re heading into all sorts of trouble. I was recently asked on social media, which was worse: climate change, economic collapse, peak oil, or the 6th mass extinction? This is of course typical human compartmentalisation; it’s not a contest I replied, it’s a perfect storm…… To his credit, Attenborough did mention the 6th extinction, after all nature is his specialty.

The real problem with this show is that Attenborough’s credibility is right up there, especially when governments and politicians virtually have zero, and his opinion, even if shaped by the BBC, carries a whole lot of weight. After watching this, millions of people will believe “we’re onto it”, and the solutions are at hand. Except they are not….


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22 responses

13 08 2019
Hugh Spencer

yes, I’m surprised that Kevin Anderson wasn’t on – perhaps he’s upset someone at the Beeb.
talking of hopium
https://www.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/68371/far-north-qld-climate-change-impact-summary.pdf
and this from a government that has opened applications for new coal mines in the Gallilee Basin (Adani) and elsewhere … $$$$$ reign … screw the planet.

13 08 2019
Brandon Young

“As long as people say ‘get rid of cows’ instead of ‘change the entire industrial agricultural system’, we are still going to be destroying everything.”

That is true, but we don’t have to change the industrial agricultural system all at once, and as you say there are some farmers that already raise livestock wisely, using regenerative agricultural systems

There are methods of regenerative agriculture already developed and in operation around the world, for all sorts of agricultural produce and for all sorts of local conditions. These systems work to build up the volumes of rich healthy soils, dramatically improving agricultural productivity and making farms more profitable.

So, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel or ban Monsanto and the like. We just have to let farmers know there are far better ways to operate, and point them towards constructive resources. Here is a good place to start:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2019-03-10/regenerative-agriculture-attracts-solid-backing-amid-success/10871130

If we were collectively wise enough to put a price on carbon emissions, and pay out the revenues collected for carbon sinking, then farmers who practice regenerative agriculture would be rewarded with enormous revenue streams for building up soil carbon. They would be subsidised by those farmers still trapped in the old way of doing things, depleting their own capital year by year and unleashing vast quantities of chemicals into river systems.

The consumption of cow meat would take care of itself. If farmers are slow to switch to regenerative practices, then meat prices would rise substantially, and demand would collapse accordingly. If farmers do switch to regenerative practices, then the production of meat would become environmentally responsible, and there would be no need for measures to reduce it.

The industrial agriculture system can be reformed one farm at a time, and it is already happening and being driven by the most innovative of farmers. If we add some pricing signals which will work to solve climate change, then the transition from old destructive ways to new sustainable ways will be dramatically accelerated.

14 08 2019
Hugh Spencer

i agree – but sadly it will be too slow – but should be attempted – the big issue is a lack of farmers with the right experience and attitude – a bit of a dying breed I’m afraid. a classic embodiment is Polyface farm.

Polyface Farm – We Are Your Clean Meat Connection
http://www.polyfacefarms.com/
Owned/operated by Joel Salatin and his family, Polyface Farm is located in Swoope, Virginia and has been at the forefront of grass-based farming for 40+ years.

13 08 2019
samsavvas

Mike, do you know of any references that consider the relevance or otherwise of carbon that’s already in the biosphere? There’s a great deal of angst about methane associated with cows but isn’t that just a normal ‘background’ constituent of the biosphere? Isn’t it methane release from permafrost and deep sediments that’s far more of a concern? I don’t quite understand the obsession with cows… Sam

13 08 2019
mikestasse

Absolutely Sam…. Cows are part of the carbon cycle, emissions from the thawing permafrost are not…

14 08 2019
samsavvas

So – short of reading the IPCC Report – can anyone point me to an article or reference which credibly discusses the relevance (or otherwise) of emissions of carbon that appears to already be in the biosphere? That is, should we really be counting methane emitted by farm animals at all if it’s already in circulation? I think it’s an important question because – given that patterns of food consumption are relatively easy to manipulate, they are likely to be a distraction or diversion from the issues that prove much harder to deal with – powering transport, industry and indeed reducing transport and industrial energy use! Thanks, Sam

14 08 2019
Brandon Young

Your question is whether methane emissions from cows and other herbivores are a problem that we should address.

The short answer is yes and no.

Yes, if we are talking about destructive industrial agricultural practices, and No if we are talking about natural processes or regenerative agricultural methods. The critical factor is the health of green pastures. Healthy pastures grazed by appropriate numbers of herbivores have rich growth of green grass.

The rest of this comment is a rough transcript of part of the video on which my blog post is based, and starts at about the 1 hour 15 minute mark:

That green grass produces transpiration of water vapour. When sunlight hits water vapour, it photo-oxidises and produces hydroxyl ions (OH-) and bicarbonate ions (HCO2+). The hydroxyl ions are free radicals, which are aggressively oxidative, and they react rapidly with methane creating CO2 and water.

We have a process where a healthy green pasture will produce about 100 times the hydroxyl radical photo-oxidation than is required to eliminate all of the methane that the herbivores grazing it have the potential to produce. 100 times.

There are also methanotrophs in the soil that feed on methane but that is just the icing on the cake, because photo-oxidation of methane into carbon dioxide and water does the bulk of the work of removing methane from the air. The driver of the process is the hydroxyl radicals.

Methane has been at atmospheric concentrations of about 700 parts per billion (ppb) for the last 10 million years plus. We have had massively increased numbers of herbivores on this planet. If you look at the buffalo, the wildebeest, the springboks, all of these natural grazing herbivores produced far higher methane production previously, but methane levels in the atmosphere have stayed constant at 700 parts per billion or thereabouts.

Recently, methane concentrations went up to 1700 parts per billion, and of course that was due to Russian oil and gas fields not having any maintenance for 10 years after Yeltsin and the USSR breakdown, and the fugitive emissions were prolific. They have now gone up to 2300 parts per billion, and it varies from place to place. Some nations have been fracking, which produces prodigious fugitive emissions.

But there is a patsy in this game, and they are called cows. It is a really neat thing – the cows can take the blame, because cows create methane. But the truth is that cows are actually maintaining these healthy green pastures, so maintaining that photo-oxidation potential particularly at high latitudes. The real issue of methane – although it might not be in the literature – is the methane hydrates that are sitting in high latitude ocean sediments on continental shelves that are now bubbling up.

The Russian arctic is now bubbling like lemonade, with methane coming up, and the tundras are emitting methane. Methane previously has caused mass extinctions – a methane burp from the ground is one of the most dangerous things we face in this extreme climate, and the only thing that is going to save humanity or much of life on Earth from a methane burp is cows. Because if those cows or other herbivores like caribou are there they are producing enough sustainable green pastures, to produce enough photo-oxidation, to produce enough hydroxyl radicals, then we have 100 times the hydroxyl radicals from green pastures compared to the methane from the cows.
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Here is a good overview of the methane cycle:

https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/education/info_activities/pdfs/CTA_the_methane_cycle.pdf

14 08 2019
samsavvas

Thanks Brandon for the detailed explanation of the methane cycle and for the excellent link. I think I already broadly understood much of this but the additional detail is appreciated. But I think my query goes to question of whether emissions from cows, crops and other forms of vegetable decay and digestion should even be mentioned in ‘climate emergency’ programs such as ‘The Facts’ hosted by David Attenborough? Are they even remotely relevant to the task of controlling and constraining further GHG loading of the atmosphere (CO2 & CH4) given that the carbon involved is already in the biosphere?!? It seems to me that potentially they are an enormous distraction for us fallible humans given that the variables they encompass are 0 by their very nature – already contained within the biosphere’s ‘envelope’ and largely of shorter-term biological origin. Surely its the carbon of ‘non-biosphere’ origin that climate-crisis programs such as ‘The Facts’ should be focussing on – use of fossil fuels, release of methane clathrates and methane held in seabed deposits etc? It’s this major ‘distraction factor’ that concerns me…

14 08 2019
Brandon Young

Meat production contributes enormously to climate change, but more importantly, a switch to regenerative agriculture would be enough on its own to remove all of the excess heat in the Earth atmosphere and actually solve climate change.

The key is building up soil. Check the Boosting Nature’s Cooling system article on my blog – be warned it is quite a long article but hopefully easy enough to navigate and absorb.

If anything, carbon dioxide is the damaging distraction. It is too simplistic and misguided, and our attention would be better directed at water and the hydrological processes that nature evolved to regulate the climate.

14 08 2019
samsavvas

“Meat production contributes enormously to climate change…” Why please? I’ve heard this again and again but the explanations thereto seem a bit spurious to me. Is it because of its scale? Or because in places other than Australia meat production relies mainly on the outputs of fossil-fuelled agriculture (like corn etc)? AFAIK meat production in Australia has relatively small impact on fossil fuel-based GHG production because most of it is rangeland husbandry, despite it’s enormous scale. As I’ve said, I’m not asking this question because I’m seeking to deny the impact of methane as a GHG. It’s because I strongly suspect that in the public mind (and the pundit-led conversations that influence the public) there’s a tendency to focus on the most easily digested ‘distractions’ rather than focus on the much harder to psychologically and practically deal-with issues such as transport, power generation, broad acre agriculture, de-forestation, population overshoot etc etc etc. In comparison going vego seems like a nice life-cycle choice and much less terrifying doesn’t it!

14 08 2019
Brandon Young

Here are some snippets from the Executive Summary of a UN report specifically about the impacts of meat production.

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.”

“Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. Major reductions in impact could be achieved at reasonable cost.”

“The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land. The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to feedcrop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet.”

“Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount deforestation is occurring – 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder.”

“With rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting icecaps and glacier, shifting ocean currents and weather patterns, climate change is the most serious challenge facing the human race. The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.”

Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options
http://www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e00.pdf

The focus on land use and meat production is not a minor distraction, somehow less significant than other aspects of climate change. Soil in particular is the greatest leverage mankind has over the climate regulation system, because we have the ability to change the volume of the soil-water-carbon sponge on a meaningful global scale, and it plays the central role in nature’s mechanism of cooling the planet..

Rebuilding soils is the greatest weapon we can use against climate change, and destructive meat production is not just getting in the way of solving climate change, it is turning our greatest weapon against ourselves and our own best interests.

Hopefully the snippets are enough to convince you that the scale of the problem with destructive meat production is not as trivial as some people being persuaded to go vegan, and that the power to exploit nature’s cooling system to fight climate change is at least worth thinking about and reading about in more detail.

I think anyone who is serious about solving climate change, or even debating it honestly, needs to absorb the messages from the IPCC report about land use and agricultural practices as a starting point.

15 08 2019
samsavvas

Thanks Brandon – looks like just the sort of detailed discussion I was after. Much appreciated!

14 08 2019
Brandon Young

The bicarbonate ions are actually HCO3- not that it means anything in the process of the elimination of methane…

14 08 2019
Hugh Spencer

We do love to get sidetracked.
The current release of methane from the Arctic/Boreal areas – will swamp any natural process of conversion from methane to CO2.
However – while we conveniently forget the CO2 contributions from fossil fuel and cement (just to pick 2). we also totally forget the other elephant in the room – the eventual release of millions of tonnes of fluorocarbon refrigerants contained in the burgeoning number of AC and refrigeration systems – and these have CO2e of 2000 (or more) – so 1 Kg of say “the Ozone Friendly” R132a – is equivalent to 3.4 tonnes of CO2 – and it stays around for far longer – it’s our equivalent to the terrorists bomb.

15 08 2019
Hugh Spencer

a comment from a person from out of the group to Brandon’s comments (which someone posted) ..I see the issue as probably unsolveable – largely because of alienation of land by current agricultural practices and population growth. If only we did what Karl suggests 40 years ago, but time is running out. There is of course the massive difference between pastured animals and feedlot animals.

Karl’s comments:
As a long-time student of systems ecology, agroecosystems in particular, and thirty years of farming with large herbivores (dairy sheep), I think I have some useful things to add on this subject. In short, as the blogger says, the cows are not the culprit, and to demonstrate that one needs only look at the history of high herbivore densities on the planet’s grazing lands that leave the climate relatively unchanged. In other words, to speak more generally – yes, the details of the bio-chemistry are useful, but investigation best starts with a systems-historical perspective.

From that viewpoint, there is much more to the story than the blogger reveals. That systems-historical view starts with the ecosystem in question – the one that includes large herbivores, their carnivore predators, and their prey (grass and some woody forages) – then studies the ecosystem processes, in this case the carbon cycle in particular. So the story is about more than just methane, although that is the primary focus of the cow-blaming crowd (typical reductionism at work). This prairie ecosystem in most parts of the world is subject to seasonal rains, and actually can sequester carbon better with a large herbivore population, and will desertify without it, permanently losing carbon, all other things being equal. I won’t go into the details here, but the work of range ecologist Alan Savory and others has documented the effects of proper herbivore management in seasonal rainfall environments, as French biochemist/farmer Andre Voisin documented long ago for temperate climates in several studies of the system in European meadow land management with cattle and other ruminants. The effect of carnivore predators on herbivores is critical, so where they are absent, managers of herbivores like cattle or sheep must mimic their role in natural prairie ecosystems to achieve the same results in systems managed by humans. The deep topsoils that colonists discovered in the prairie lands of the Mississippi watershed are in part the result of this process in natural prairie ecosystems.

My own experience managing the system in a temperate climate environment like the one Voisin managed and studied confirms his and Savory’s claims. Soil carbon levels are key to overall ecosystem health because of their effect on other ecosystem processes – water cycle, energy flow and ecosystem community dynamics (interactions of a diversity of species). Managing sheep as in ideally operating natural grassland ecosystems, I improved hay/pasture soil carbon levels of worn out and abandoned agricultural land gradually over decades to a permanent maximum, with a surplus to use in cropland improvement. The carbon still cycles out of the soil, but the grass-ruminant complex keeps soil organic matter at a higher level than would occur without it. Cuban agroecologists have found that this grass-ruminant complex can maintain high soil organic matter in an agroecosystem in which 3/4 of the land in forage maintains the fertitiliy of the 1/4 in cropland, despite the higher carbon loss levels of the subtropics.

13 08 2019
Bev

The obsession with cows is coming from moralising vegans, who know nothing about how life on this planet actually works and who want to believe their lifestyles are better than everyone else’s.

13 08 2019
Bev

I didn’t watch it and although I love Attenborough, he’s only good for nature documentaries. When he’s spreading hopium like this he’s only another denialist.

13 08 2019
lemmiwinks

Against my better judgement, I watched it and it was pretty much the “it will all be fixed” rubbish I was expecting. The first part was good, though ironic. They point out how we’ve already had about 1.2c warming then in the next breath they’re talking about how to limit it to 1.5c. Err cognitive dissonance much?

I still maintain we’re past tipping points or going to sail right past them shortly. On the plus side, winter has arrived, albeit a month late and a shortened stay.

13 08 2019
Glenn

It’s kinda hard to know how and where to put oneself.

I always thought southern Tasmania, but with our most recent electrical storms and fires, we are beginning to wonder if even this was poor judgement?

And summer is once again just round the corner.

Mike?

14 08 2019
mikestasse

So where else are you going to go? These fires we had were the first since 1963….. we’re told it’s highly unlikely they could occur again for at least ten years. Let’s face it, you can’t avoid climate change, NOWHERE is safe, it’s just some places are less unsafe. Rainfall down here is predicted to actually rise a little., and in a warming world, I find that comforting. The best thing you can do is build a fireprooof house. ANYWHERE!

13 08 2019
John Doyle

You picked up on that 30% figure for renewables in
the UK. I have it as 4% including hydro total. So what is the true figure?

14 08 2019
mikestasse

It literally depends on who you believe……….

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