We may have already committed ourselves to 6-meter sea-level rise

Even if humanity were to stop throwing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere today, a catastrophic rise in sea levels of six meters may be inevitable. Two previous prehistoric interglacial periods, in which the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was believed to be about what it is today, resulted in dramatic rising of the oceans.

High-latitude ice sheets are melting, and given that global warming is most pronounced in the Arctic, it may already be too late stop a rise in sea levels that would flood out hundreds of millions around the world. Two new papers, the latest in a series of scientific studies, paint a picture considerably less rosy than conventional ideas that major damage can still be avoided.

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

One of these papers, a nine-scientist report led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science, found that modest rises in global temperatures in the past led to sea levels rising at least six meters. She summarized the findings this way to Climate Central:

“Even if we meet that 2°C target, in the past with those types of temperatures, we may be committing ourselves to this level of sea level rise in the long term. The decisions we make now about where we want to be in 2100 commit us on a pathway where we can’t go back. Once these ice sheets start to melt, the changes become irreversible.”

Professor Dutton was referencing the widely held belief that catastrophic damage can be avoided if global warming is held to no more than 2 degrees C. from pre-industrial levels. The “permissible” level may be less than that, however. More sophisticated “sea-level reconstructions” through interdisciplinary studies of geological evidence and better understanding of the behavior of ice sheets enabled the paper’s authors to infer that temperatures only slightly higher than what we are experiencing today upset the climatic balance. A summary of the paper concludes:

“[D]uring the last interglacial — a warm period between ice ages 125,000 years ago — the global average temperature was similar to the present and this was linked to a sea-level rise of 6-9 meters, caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica. Around 400,000 years ago, when global average temperatures were estimated to be between 1 to 2°C higher than preindustrial levels, sea levels reached 6-13 meters [higher.]”

“Small” changes have big consequences

More alarming, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then was lower than it is today. Although geological forces pushing and pulling Earth’s surface can’t be precisely calculated, and thus introduce uncertainty in the actual level of the oceans in the geologic record, the greater uncertainty lies at the higher level of estimates. The paper’s summary said:

“Noticeably, during these two periods, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained around 280 parts per million (ppm). The scientists  also looked at sea level during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels reached around 400 ppm — similar to today’s levels. They hypothesized that sea level was at least 6 metres higher than today and potentially substantially higher. … While the global average temperature rises of 1 to 3°C seem small, they were, like today, linked with magnified temperature increases in the polar regions which sustained over many thousands of years.”

A second paper, State of the Climate in 2014, reports that Arctic sea-surface temperatures are rising faster than overall global temperatures, ice caps across the Northern Hemisphere continue to shrink, record high permafrost temperatures are being recorded in northern Alaska and melting of the Greenland ice cap is accelerating. The paper, a collaboration of 413 scientists from 58 countries, reports that, even if greenhouse gases were frozen at current levels, the oceans would continue to warm for centuries and thus lead to rising sea levels.

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time and warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere. This is already leading to warming oceans, State of the Climate reports:

“Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are preventing heat radiated from Earth’s surface from escaping into space as freely as it used to; most of the excess heat is being stored in the upper ocean. As a result, upper ocean heat content has increased significantly over the past two decades.”

The Science and State of the Climate papers back previous studies that conclude “there is no going back” — the excess heat stored in oceans will be released back into the atmosphere for centuries to come — and that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return.

Ice melts in front of our eyes

Two worrisome trends are that the eight lowest Arctic Ocean sea-ice extents have all occurred in the past eight years, and that the extent of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet during summer 2014 was faster than the 1981-to-2000 average 90 percent of the time. Antarctic ice is not yet showing accelerated melting, State of the Climate reports, but the paper does note that short-term extremes in temperatures have become more frequent on the continent.

Nor does that mean that all is well in Antarctica. Two scientific papers published in 2014 suggest the West Antarctic ice sheet has become dangerously weakened. One finds that a “large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet … has passed the point of no return” and the other finds that the ice sheet has become sufficiently unstable to possibly collapse in as few as 200 years. That is a long time by ordinary human standards, but very brief in geological terms, and would add greatly to rising sea levels.

So what would a six-meter increase in ocean levels mean? More than 440,000 square miles (1.14 million square kilometers), where 375 million people, would go under water, according to Climate Central.

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The current path humanity is walking is to throw more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Current plans by political leaders to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and completely by 2100 are woefully inadequate, but even those goals will be difficult to achieve. The metabolism of capitalism, and all its incentives, is for more growth and thus more anthropogenic warming. And although reversing global warming is impossible without reducing consumption, that, too, is impossible under capitalism because a typical advanced capitalist country 60 to 70 percent of the economy is accounted for by household spending.

Because of the growth imperative of capitalism — the need to grow or die forces enterprises into never-ending innovations to cut costs — economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer. Capitalism will not guarantee new jobs for those made unemployed by closing down polluting industries, adding incentives to maintain them. “Free trade” agreements accelerate global warming because supply lines are stretched around the world and production is moved to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulations. And as conventional sources of energy are depleted, more extreme measures are taken, including the exploitation of tar sands, adding still more greenhouse gases.

Our descendants are not likely to believe that short-term corporate profits and unsustainable consumption were a fair tradeoff for a world left much less habitable.

Marching on Monsanto and its government protectors

Controlling and knowing what we eat should be a fundamental human right beyond questioning. That it is not sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of cities around the world on May 23, the third annual March on Monsanto.

People on every continent save Antarctica participated in a March on Monsanto — demonstrations took place in 452 cites in 48 countries in opposition to Monsanto Company’s attempt to gain control over the world’s food. More than 200 U.S. cities, 47 Canadian cities, 22 French cities and 13 Argentine cities were among the places hosting organized marches.

One of the earliest rallies was in Sydney, where an organizer told the RT television network:

“This company has repeatedly committed, I would say, crimes against the Earth and what we are trying to show is accountability for corporations. Also we want to promote clean food. Food that’s free of pesticides, which our grandparents just called food.”

RT, in an online roundup of events around the world, also noted that protestors in Berlin, one of 10 German demonstrations, made connections among health concerns even though there is no commercial cultivation of food containing genetically engineered organisms in the country, and GMO bans exist in nine of Germany’s 16 states and in hundreds of municipalities. RT reported:

“Germany’s capital Berlin saw a big turnout even though Germany does not use Monsanto’s seeds. However, activists say local farmers still use Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, which end up leaving traces in breast milk of feeding mothers, the water supply and even urine of people who have not eaten GMO products.”

March Against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto

The struggle against dangerous pesticides received a boost earlier in the month in Germany when the country’s state consumer protection ministers called for a ban on glyphosate throughout the European Union. According to the online news publication EurActiv, E.U. approval of glyphosate expires at the end of 2015 and the E.U. bureaucratic arm, the European Commission, is conducting a safety review. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a business worth an estimated $10 billion to Monsanto. The company not only sells lots of the herbicide but also agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment. The use of  glyphosate on U.S. farms increased from 11 million pounds in 1987 to almost 300 million pounds in 2013.

What you don’t know might hurt you

There is plenty of reason for concern. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a study, published in The Lancet, that found glyphosate to be a “probable” carcinogen. Other studies, including a 2013 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology, have also reported health concerns. Further, a 2011 Earth Open Source paper, titled “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” says that the European Union and the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety cites “unpublished industry studies to back its claim that glyphosate was safe,” while ignoring or dismissing independent studies that indicate glyphosate causes endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer and birth defects.

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

Then there are the dangers of GMO foods, an area unfortunately quite under-studied. GMO labeling is required by 64 countries, including Australia, Japan and all 28 E.U. countries. Such laws are fiercely opposed by Monsanto and other multi-national agribusinesses, and they thus far have succeeded in keeping labeling laws from being enacted in the U.S. These corporate efforts to undermine food safety are part of the agenda behind the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Marchers against Monsanto took to calling the TPP and TTIP the “Global Monsanto Protection Acts.” One of the goals of those two so-called “free trade” deals is to eliminate the ability of governments to ban or even effectively regulate GMOs, and to ban any labeling of them. Monsanto and other agribusinesses repeatedly claim that GMOs are safe and healthy, but if that is so, why do they put so much effort into hiding them? Biotechnology companies spent $27 million lobbying for GMOs in the U.S. in just the first six months of 2014.

Should the TPP and TTIP come into force, nobody in the 40 countries that encompass these two agreements will be able to know what is in the food they eat or to have effective protection against food that may not be safe to eat.

Already we being used as laboratory experiments, and this will accelerate if Monsanto gets its way.

Water down laws, then dilute some more

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade, and much to do with eliminating regulations, lowering standards and eliminating health, safety and environmental laws in favor of maximizing corporate profits. The “harmonization” that is promoted in these agreements has meant reducing standards to the lowest possible level. Thus, European regulations on GMOs and food labeling will be targeted as “barriers” to trade under the TTIP because those standards are higher than U.S. rules.

Pesticide Action Network Europe notes that the process of European harmonization has already watered down regulations. In its position paper on the TTIP negotiations, PAN Europe says:

“Health standards already now do not sufficiently protect people and the environment and costs are already externalised massively to society in terms of health care (pesticide residues in food/water, contamination of rural citizens), soil deterioration (fertilizers), biodiversity decline (monocultures, pesticides), climate change (fertilizers and deforestation for soy/palm cultivation) and subsidies (taxpayers’ money). … Let’s take the example of pesticide residue food standards. They were harmonised at European level already in 2009 and indeed the least strictest food standards anywhere in Europe were chosen for harmonisation. Soon it was shown that this was a wrong approach. … Cumulative effects of residues are not calculated and the unscientific single-exposure approach maintained.”

Already, an E.U. paper that could have led to the banning of as many as 31 pesticides was not acted on because of heavy pressure from chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. A delegation of U.S. chemical-industry lobbyists and U.S. trade officials insisted that the E.U. drop proposals to ban the use of the pesticides despite health concerns.

Just as it is asked why Monsanto and other agribusinesses don’t want you to know what is in your food, we must ask why they don’t want us to know what is in the “free trade” agreements being negotiated on their behalf.

Legislators provide a backup plan

Perhaps as a backup in case the mounting public opposition to the TPP and TTIP succeeds in scuttling them, a Kansas Republican, Mike Pompeo, has cooked up a bill with the Orwellian name of “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” (Bill H.R. 1599) in the House of Representatives. H.R. 1599 was introduced on March 25 and is a re-introduction of the previous Congress’ H.R. 4432, which failed to become law. The bill’s stated purpose is: “To amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism, the labeling of natural foods, and for other purposes.” Well, yes, but in what way?

The devil is indeed in the details here. Activists at Food Democracy Now sound the alarm this way:

“This plan is so devious that it radically speeds up the approval process for new GMO crops, limits the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and [Department of Agriculture]’s ability to extend premarket safety reviews, declares GMO foods ‘safe’ and redefines genetically engineered foods as ‘bioengineered’ in order to sanitize this deeply flawed technology to the American public.”

A Daily Kos analysis notes that the bill would create a federal law banning any state or locality from enacting a GMO labeling law. The bill would also prohibit organic natural foods from being marketed as safer or better than GMO counterparts. It would also make it nearly impossible for a farmer to achieve organic certification:

“But most sinister is what I will call the bill’s virtual protection racket. It works like this. As a small organic farmer, if I want to market my product as GMO-free, I must ensure that the entire path to market — from seed to harvest to processing to transportation to distribution — is certifiably GMO-free. If my product shares any infrastructure with known GMO foods, I cannot claim being a GMO-free. … The burden of proof therefore is prohibitively expensive for a typical small farmer, which is what Monsanto, Dow et al are counting on.”

Taking on Monsanto is already difficult. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a suit against Monsanto, challenging the company’s patents on genetically engineered seeds, a suit that eventually represented 300,000 individuals and 4,500 farms. The organic plaintiffs sought a pre-emptive judgment against potentially being accused of patent infringement should their fields become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed. Such suits are not unknown. Nonetheless, the courts ruled for Monsanto at the trial and appellate levels.

Sell first, ask questions later

A part of the problem is that, under the U.S. regulatory system — what it wishes to impose on Europe and elsewhere — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe. That can occur years after it began to be sold. But, charges Steven Druker in a new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, not even scientific concerns necessarily stop approval in the U.S.:

“[T]he [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] had ushered these controversial products onto the market by evading standards of science, deliberately breaking the law, and seriously misrepresenting the facts — and that the American people were being regularly (and unknowingly) subjected to novel foods that were abnormally risky in the eyes of the agency’s own scientists.

This fraud has been the pivotal event in the commercialization of genetically engineered foods. Not only did it enable their marketing and acceptance in the United States, it set the stage for their sale in numerous other nations as well. If the FDA had not evaded the food safety laws, every GE food would have been required to undergo rigorous long-term testing; and if it had not covered up the concerns of its scientists and falsely reported the facts, the public would have been alerted to the risks. Consequently, the introduction of GE foods would at minimum have been delayed many years — and most likely would not have happened.”

Mr. Druker is a public-interest attorney who successfully sued to gain access to FDA files. So confident is he in his findings that he has publicly challenged Monsanto to refute anything in his book and said he will change anything that is proven to be incorrect. Speaking at the New York March on Monsanto, he reported that he had not received a response.

Monsanto is perhaps the corporation most determined to control the world’s food. The vast majority of U.S. soybean, cotton, corn and canola are now genetically engineered. Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to Food & Watch Watch. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

We live under an economic system that reduces human interactions to nothing more than transactions, where an ever larger sphere of social decisions are made by “the market” and the quest for profits is promoted as the highest ideal. “The market” is not some neutral entity sitting high in the clouds, as pervasive propaganda would have us believe, but rather nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. A monopoly is the goal of capitalists, and the logical outcome of the relentless competition of capitalism. Just because food is among the most basic human necessities does not mean it is exempt. Don’t starve, organize!

Sometimes you can’t win: More cold and snow thanks to global warming

If global warming is not simply warmer weather, but rather increasingly crazy weather, then this winter has given us ample evidence. An irony of global warming for eastern North America is it seems to be the one place that is getting colder and snowier winters thanks to global warming.

Curse you, Arctic oscillation! New York City just suffered through its coldest February since 1934, and its second-coldest month (any month) since then. Boston’s snow has been of historic proportions. And cities from Toronto and Buffalo to Bangor, Maine, recorded the coldest month in their recorded histories. On the other side of the continent, cities from Salt Lake City, Utah, to San Francisco and Seattle recorded their warmest winter months in history.

In Europe, 2014 was the hottest year on record, based on an analysis that examined temperatures going back to the 16th century, with global warming overwhelmingly the primary factor for such extremes. And, globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record, with the top 10 hottest years all occurring since 1998. There hasn’t been a year with an average global temperature below the 20th century’s average since 1976.

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

But nonetheless millions of people are suffering through an extraordinarily rough winter for a second consecutive year. And it may be that shrinking ice in the Arctic Ocean is a significant factor behind the extreme winters much of the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing. The Arctic oscillation is a measure of the relative strength of the jet stream, a high-level atmospheric wind that divides polar air from temperate air. When these winds are strong, the jet stream tends not to wander north and south, bottling up frigid air in the Arctic. When those winds slacken, the jet stream develops into a wave pattern, with large movements north and south.

Those high-level winds speed up and slacken based on the differences in barometric pressure between Arctic and mid-latitude regions; a related measure, the North Atlantic oscillation, is the difference between semi-permanent low pressure near Iceland and semi-permanent high pressure near the Azores Islands. When there are significant waves, or north/south amplitudes, unusually hot or cold weather is the result, depending on which side you are on. These patterns can lock into place for weeks or sometimes months, leading to persistent extreme weather.

What is causing these patterns? Research continues, but there is an increasing amount of evidence that a warming Arctic is the culprit. The Arctic is warming faster than the globe as a whole, and the polar ice cap is shrinking as a result, which in turns causes faster warming. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, in a discussion of a paper by Rutgers University scientist Jennifer Francis, summarized this theory:

“[T]he extra heat in the Arctic in fall and winter over the past decade had caused the Arctic atmosphere between the surface and 500 [millibars] (about 18,000 feet or 5,600 meters) to expand. As a result, the difference in temperature between the Arctic (60 – 80°N) and the mid-latitudes (30 – 50°N) fell significantly. It is this difference in temperature that drives the powerful jet stream winds that control much of our weather. The speed of fall and winter west-to-east upper-level winds at 500 [millibars] circling the North Pole decreased by 20% over the past decade, compared to the period 1948-2000, in response to the extra warmth in the Arctic.”

So although, overall, global warming means hotter temperatures, it doesn’t mean there will never be another cold day, and sometimes it leads to counter-intuitive results. Also, there should be some perspective here. Difficult as the sustained cold has been, it is the sort of weather than once was more common. It’s less common now precisely because Earth is getting warmer.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It does not help that the corporate media lazily misuses the concept of “neutrality” to present a false controversy, as if there is still a debate as to whether global warming is happening, or if human activity is the cause if it is. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

Denialist groups, well funded by energy companies and other multi-national corporations concerned with their short-term profits rather than the long-term health of the planet, seek to sew doubt among the public. The manufactured split in public opinion can then be leveraged to claim there is a “controversy,” dampening the resolve necessary to tackle a problem that will ultimately threaten the habitability of the planet. Consider that the reservoirs serving South America’s biggest city, São Paulo, are going dry and scientists believe the cause of the drought is Amazon deforestation.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

Those who deny evolution do no more than provide a source of amusement. The denial of a planet-wide crisis is something altogether different.

Earth is crossing multiple points of no return

The world is certainly at a point where action, rather than more studies telling us what we should already know, is necessary. But if you do need another warning of looming environmental collapse, a new research paper concludes that four of nine “planetary boundaries” have already been crossed.

Crossing any one of these nine boundaries risks driving the Earth “into a much less hospitable state,” according to the paper’s lead author, Will Steffen of the Australian National University in Canberra. Crossing four of these boundaries — specifically, climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biochemical cycles — is all the more alarming.

Eighteen scientists, representing universities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and the United States, prepared the report, “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” under the auspices of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden. The goal of the paper, and the center itself, is to signal that a tipping point is approaching so that humanity has some time to change course. These warning points are determined in this way:

“[T]he proposed planetary boundary is not placed at the position of the biophysical threshold but rather up-stream of it, i.e., well before reaching the threshold. This buffer between the boundary (the end of the safe operating space—the green zone in [the graphic below]) and the threshold accounts not only for uncertainty in the precise position of the threshold … but also allows society time to react to early warning signs that it may be approaching a threshold and consequent abrupt or risky change.”

The nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

The nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Of the four boundaries that have already been crossed, two of them (climate change and biosphere integrity) have the potential on their own “to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.” The paper sets the “zone of uncertainty” for atmospheric carbon dioxide content at 350 to 450 parts per million (we are currently at the midpoint of that zone) and calculates that the “energy imbalance” — the “forcing” of atmospheric change through continued introduction of global-warming chemicals — is approximately double the safe limit. In other words, carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere much faster than it is removed.

To calculate “biosphere integrity,” the paper’s authors use the rate of species extinction and the populations of species, using pre-industrial rates as benchmarks. Although these are calculated imprecisely and with inadequate knowledge of what rate of extinctions can be tolerated, the current rate of extinctions is estimated to be at least 10 times higher than the proposed range of acceptability, although that proposed range in turn is far greater the authors’ “aspirational goal” of holding extinctions to the rate of “well-studied organisms over the past several million years.”

Thus this scientific paper is actually conservative in its benchmarks and nonetheless finds the Earth is in a whole lot of trouble.

Telling business titans to stop doing what benefits them

Many of you reading this may be thinking, “We already know we’re in trouble! We don’t need another paper telling us what we already know, and those in denial won’t be swayed by science and fact.” Quite so, but can there be a tipping point in research that finally sparks some real action? Perhaps the Stockholm Resilience Center believes there can be, releasing the paper just in time to present it to the World Economic Forum.

At least for public consumption, World Economic Forum attendees say they are taking the paper’s sober analysis seriously. Those attendees, the world’s titans of industry and finance, and the political office holders who are beholden to them, in their actual practice have shown little inclination to change course, to put it mildly.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Johan Rockström, posted an article on the Forum’s web site saying that, even if carbon dioxide concentration is held to the range of 350 to 450 parts per million, that is still an unacceptable risk. Drawing a vivid analogy, he wrote:

“But it is important to recognise that 450 ppm also holds a less likely, but significant 1.6% probability … of resulting in 6ºC warming, which is beyond any doubt a catastrophic outcome for humanity. … Is this an acceptable risk level? The answer is clearly no. It is the equivalent of accepting that 1,500 aircrafts crash, each day. … This is a risk level we simply would never accept for other sectors in society.”

The probability of runaway global warming at 450 parts per million would be set at much higher than 1.6 percent by many environmental scientists and activists, but Professor Rockström’s analogy is scary enough. Nonetheless, “business as usual” appears to be the outcome. A commentary in the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times lamented that “leaders are failing to lead but are giving in to populist pressures,” in the wake of continuing economic weakness. A rather ideological formulation, considering that the world’s governments continue to impose brutal austerity on their populations on behalf of their society’s wealthiest while ignoring popular discontent.

The same Straits Times commentary claimed that “Business leaders at the forum voiced a willingness to take steps to address this issue,” and quoted the head of a financial-services company as saying, “What I am taking from this meeting is a huge sense of urgency, especially from the business community.”

Moreover, the climate program director at World Resources Institute, Jennifer Morgan, wrote:

“First of all, there was no climate denial to be heard in Davos. … Second, there are a tremendous number of companies—whether bankers, soft drink manufacturers, sporting companies, or furniture makers—that are already taking action to make their businesses more climate-resilient and competitive in a low-carbon economy. These businesses and others are becoming leaders in climate action.”

Huh? Business leaders have profited enormously by moving production to all corners of the world, wherever the cheapest labor, harshest working conditions and fewest regulations are to be found, necessitating the shipping of components, raw materials and finished products around the world, adding significantly to global warming through all the transportation necessary to make that work. Making these long supply chains “more efficient,” as Ms. Morgan exalts, hardly is the road to climate stability.

That something so oblivious could be said becomes less of a mystery when we see that the World Resources Institute is a non-governmental organization with a board full of corporate executives. We have no more cause for optimism from the Planetary Boundaries paper itself, which offers no guidance on what to do. Critiquing the global economic system is outside the scope of such a paper, and reasonably so, but it is fair game to note the weak-tea ideas it does offer: A “stronger focus on green chemistry” and “learning from earlier mistakes.”

Infinite expansion on a finite planet

So here we are again: The chimera of “green capitalism.” The same world economic system that requires endless expansion on a finite planet, in which all incentives are for ever more frenzied extraction of natural resources and corporate externalization of the costs of pollution and global warming, which remorselessly and ceaselessly elevates private profit above all other human considerations, is magically going to save us.

The maximization of profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Moreover, putting an immediate halt to polluting industries would cause economic disruption and throw huge numbers of people out of work in a system that will not have new jobs waiting for them, a factor that is leveraged to buttress global-warming denialism.

Even reducing consumption is difficult because between 60 and 70 percent of the economies of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are accounted for by household buying; a capitalist economy that is not growing causes pain as capitalists scramble to maintain their profits by any means necessary.

“Green” consumption is still consumption, and not environmentally healthy, either. All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, puts this in sobering perspective:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need, that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. The scientists who prepared the Planetary Boundaries paper no doubt have the highest sincerity, but they have much company in being unable to imagine a world without capitalism. Until we do live in such a world, we will continue to hurtle toward catastrophe regardless of good intentions and well-designed research reports.

It’s not science fiction anymore: Monsanto seeks to control world’s food

The ultimate monopoly would be control of the world’s food supply. Although not the only multi-national corporation attempting to achieve the ability to dictate what you eat, Monsanto Company appears the most determined.

wheatAlready infamous for toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Agent Orange and dioxin, Monsanto’s march toward control of the world’s food supply is focused on proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms. No corporation or corporate oligarchy possessing a food monopoly would be desirable, but Monsanto is a particularly frightening contender. So powerful is the company that a special law tailored for it was snuck into a congressional appropriations bill funding U.S. government operations.

The Farmer Assurance Provision — better known by its nickname, the “Monsanto Protection Act” — was quietly slipped into an appropriations bill in March by a Missouri senator, Roy Blunt. The appropriations bill had to be passed to avert a government shutdown, providing an opportunity to do a favor for the powerful. Slipping off-topic special measures into bills hundreds of pages long is routine in the U.S. Congress.

Efforts to remove the language from the bill have so far failed. The relevant language is this:

“Directs the Secretary [of Agriculture], if a determination of non-regulated status under the Plant Protection Act has been invalidated, to authorize movement, introduction, continued cultivation, or commercialization for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status.”

In plain language, what the above passage means is the U.S. Department of Agriculture is required to ignore any court order that would halt the planting of genetically engineered crops even if the department is still conducting a safety investigation, and rubber-stamp an okay. The group Food Democracy Now! summarized the implications of that requirement:

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment.”

The Monsanto Protection Act expires at the end of the government’s fiscal year, September 30, with the expiration of the appropriations bill of which it is a part, but the language could easily be included in next year’s appropriations bills. As outrageous as the special provision is, it is consistent with the basic methodology of public safety in the United States — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe.

Sell first, ask questions later

In other words, it’s not up the company selling a product to prove it is safe; it is up to others, after the fact, to prove that it is unsafe. This is the case with, for example, chemicals and pesticides. And it is the case for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). No corporation has more riding on GMOs than Monsanto. That is not merely because GMOs have steadily taken an increasing share of foods grown for animal and human consumption, but because of genetically engineered seeds. A report by the Center For Food Safety and Save Our Seeds puts the magnitude of this change in stark terms:

“The vast majority of the four major commodity crops in the U.S. are now genetically engineered. U.S. adoption of transgenic commodity crops has been rapid, in which [genetically engineered] varieties now make up the substantial majority: soybean (93 percent transgenic in 2010), cotton (88 percent), corn (86 percent), and canola (64 percent).” [page 5]

Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to a separate report by Food & Watch Watch. These seeds have been engineered to be resistant to insects or to withstand the application of herbicides. The report, “Monsanto: A Corporate Profile,” states:

“Monsanto not only markets its own patented seeds, but it uses licensing agreements with other companies and distributors to spread its traits throughout the seed supply. … The acreage on which Monsanto’s [genetically engineered] crop traits are grown has increased from a total of 3 million acres in 1996 to 282.3 million acres worldwide and 151.4 million acres in the United States in 2009. … Monsanto’s products constitute approximately 40 percent of all crop acres in the [U.S.]. …

“A lawyer working for DuPont, the next largest competitor in the seed business, said ‘a seed company can’t stay in business without offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it, so if they want to stay in that business, essentially they have to do what Monsanto tells them to do.’ ” [page 8]

DuPont is one of the world’s largest chemical corporations and a major competitor in many fields. If an enterprise as powerful as DuPont finds itself at the mercy of Monsanto, what chance does a family farmer have?

The reference to “Roundup Ready” in the quote above is a reference to a suite of Monsanto agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment.

Patents on life reverses precedent

As with the consolidation of seed companies, the rise of genetically engineered crops and the right to patent living organisms is a recent development. After decades of refusal by the U.S. Congress to allow patents on food-producing plants that re-produce via seeds, it passed a law in 1970 allowing patenting of “novel” varieties produced from seeds.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings in 1980 and 2001 allowing living organisms, including plants, to be patented, opening the floodgates to current corporate practices. A frenzy of acquisition of seed companies and a rapid expansion of patents on seeds and plants ensued. The report by Center For Food Safety and Save Our Seeds summarizes what these changes have wrought:

“As a consequence, what was once a freely exchanged, renewable resource is now privatized and monopolized. Current judicial interpretations have allowed utility patents on products of nature, plants, and seeds, without exceptions for research and seed saving. This revolutionary change is contrary to centuries of traditional seed breeding based on collective community knowledge and established in the public domain and for the public good.” [page 5]

The ETC Group, in its report, “Who Owns Nature?,” also highlights the privatization of a commons:

“In the first half of the 20th century, seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. In the decades since, [biotechnology companies] have used intellectual property laws to commodify the world seed supply — a strategy that aims to control plant germplasm and maximize profits by eliminating farmers’ rights. … In less than three decades, a handful of multinational corporations have engineered a fast and furious corporate enclosure of the first link in the food chain.” [page 11]

Proprietary seeds now account for 82 percent of the world’s commercial seed market. Monsanto, according to the ETC Group, directly accounts 23 percent of the world’s seed sales by itself. Monsanto and the next two biggest seed companies, DuPont and Syngenta, sell almost half.

Once a farmer contracts with a giant seed company, the farmer is trapped. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Monsanto aggressively litigates against farmers to enforce this provision, dictates farming practices and requires its inspectors to be given access to all records and fields. The company has even sued neighboring farmers whose fields unwillingly became contaminated with Monsanto’s seeds.

Doubts raised on ‘benefits’ of GMOs

Nobody knows the full effects on the environment or human health of these chemicals and GMOs. A recent study published in the journal Entropy found that residues of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, are found in a variety of foods in the Western diet and in turn can cause cellular damage leading to several diseases, including gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. More than 800 scientists have signed a letter calling for a moratorium on all field trials of GMOs for at least five years, a ban on patents on life forms and declaring that genetically modified crops “offer no benefits to consumers for farmers.”

Genetically modified crops, of course, are carried along by winds and don’t stop at property boundaries. Last month, genetically modified wheat was discovered in the fields of a farmer in Oregon. The Guardian reports that the wheat has never been approved for human consumption and is a variety developed by Monsanto in an experiment that ended a decade ago. Several Asian countries responded to this news by banning imports of U.S. wheat and the European Union advised wheat shipped from the U.S. be tested.

Hoping to expand its reach, Monsanto (and three other corporations) are attempting to corner the market in maize in Mexico, the staple crop’s birthplace. The companies have applied to plant genetically modified maize on more than two million hectares in two Mexican states. Already, according to a report in Truthout, farmers near Mexico City have found their crops contaminated with genetically modified maize.

Sixty-four countries currently require GMO labeling, but such labeling in the United States is bitterly fought by Monsanto and other giant agribusinesses. The companies argue that GMOs are safe, but if they are so proud of their products, why do they resist them being put on a label for consumers to see? Nor does the revolving door between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto inspire confidence.

Corporate lawyers and others who have done work for Monsanto, for instance, subsequently moved to the FDA, where they gave approval for Monsanto products. Although corporate executives going to work for the U.S. government agencies that regulate them, then going back to their companies, is a common practice, Monsanto has sent an extraordinary number of executives to government posts.

Nonetheless, this specter shouldn’t be looked at overly simplistically as Monsanto being an evil company. It and its competitors are acting in the way that capitalist competition mandates they act — grow or die is the ever present imperative. All industries move toward monopolization (a handful of companies dominating an industry, not necessarily a “pure” monopoly of one); corporations grow to such massive size that they can dominate their societies; and the surviving corporations convert ever more human activity or traditionally public spheres into their private profit centers. This is the natural result of market competition and allowing “markets” to determine social outcomes.

Monsanto happens to be the company that is most ruthless at navigating and further developing these ongoing systemic trends, just as Wal-Mart is the company that is the leader among retailers forcing the moving of production to the lowest-wage countries, squeezing suppliers and exploiting workforces. That does not mean that we should be content to allow Monsanto to grab control of the world’s food supply or make life itself a commodity. Quite the contrary. The specter of any enterprise gaining a monopoly over food is too frightening to contemplate, never mind an enterprise so dedicated to squashing anybody who gets in its way.

The idea of Monsanto (or any other corporation or bloc of corporations) wresting control of the world’s food supply sounds like a bad science fiction movie or a crazy nightmare. But modern capitalism is heading toward that previously unthinkable place. The time is to organize is now, for we never have as much time as we think we do.

Global-warming debates shouldn’t exclude role of livestock

The struggle to halt global warming ordinarily focuses on fossil fuel consumption and use, currently exemplified by the Alberta tar sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. It would be foolish to disregard that, but what if the rapidly expanding livestock industry has been overlooked as a major contributor to global warming?

Since I last wrote about global warming, I have had my attention drawn to a paper published in World Watch that provides a strong argument that animal agriculture is significantly undercounted as a contributor to global warming. What makes this study interesting is that, in contrast to unsupported claims about methane sometimes made by vegan and animal-rights activists, it grounds its arguments squarely on carbon dioxide.

The World Watch paper, authored by environmental scientists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, concludes that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, and provocatively advocates substituting meat and dairy products with analogs as the fastest way to avoid the planet reaching a climatic tipping point. The paper argues that there is not enough time, nor sufficient political will, to make necessary changes in energy and transportation before irreversible climate changes are upon us.

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

The sources, and thus the solutions, to global warming constitute a legitimate debate. I am under no illusions that I will be settling anything here. But although the ideas under discussion are far from settled, they are scientifically grounded and merit strong consideration. And what if this paper is correct? We do ourselves no favors by dismissing it.

The starting point for the World Watch paper is the authors’ critique of a lengthy report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists for its attribution of livestock as responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Interestingly, the paper criticizes the FAO report for badly underestimating animal agriculture’s contribution.

Livestock do exhale and trees are cut down

The World Watch paper cites seven sources that are undercounted by the FAO, the most significant of which are overlooked respiration by livestock, forest destroyed to create grazing lands, undercounted methane and an significant undercounting of the number of livestock. Adding up undercounted and additional misallocated sources, greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to livestock total about 32,500 million metric tons as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. The FAO report’s estimate is about 7,500 million metric tons.

Livestock respiration is the single biggest source undercounted, contributing 13.7 percent of the global total of greenhouse-gas emissions, itself comparable to the FAO estimate of all livestock-related emissions. Professors Goodland and Anhang wrote in World Watch that the FAO report incorrectly considered livestock respiration to be not a contributor to, or possibly a net subtraction from, global warming because it viewed respiration as part of a biological cycle. They wrote:

“[L]ivestock (like automobiles) are a human intervention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has been never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in pre-industrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon-absorption system.)”

Moreover, chopping down forests removes carbon sinks, leaving more carbon dioxide to remain in the air and release the carbon that had been stored. Often this is not accounted for in determining greenhouse-gas sources. Estimates of the number of livestock range up to 70 billion and that takes a lot of space — the livestock advocacy organization International Livestock Research Institute estimates that 45 percent of the world’s land surface is dedicated to the industry.

Surprisingly, the FAO report so often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists concludes by calling for intensified factory farming! Because this is buried on page 236, it is understandable that few are aware of that. The FAO report sees the current heavy consumption of meat as a given:

“If the projected future demand for livestock products is to be met, it is hard to see an alternative to intensification of livestock production. Indeed, the process of intensification must be accelerated if the use of additional land, water and other resources is to be avoided. The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be to reduce land requirements for livestock production, including the implicit water, nutrients and other resources represented by land. This involves the intensification of the most productive arable and grassland used to produce feed or pasture; and the retirement of marginally used land where this is socially acceptable and where other uses of such land, such as for environmental purposes, are in demand.”

The practical effect of concentrating livestock production in smaller areas at current levels would be more inhumane factory farming. That is no solution, from an environmental or moral standpoint.

Can consumers induce market changes?

Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming, regardless of whether we accept that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of greenhouse gases. A solution to global warming must include addressing this aspect of the problem. The World Watch paper proposes three “market incentives” to tackle the problem:

  • Because food companies already suffer from global warming-amplified weather disruptions, it is in their interest to act to slow down global warming.
  • Because rising petroleum prices and terminal decline in petroleum production will have potentially catastrophic effects on livestock production, food companies can be ahead of the competition by replacing livestock products with alternatives sooner.
  • Food companies can produce and market soy- and seitan-based alternatives to a wide variety of traditional meat and dairy products.

The authors estimate that if 25 percent of current livestock products were replaced with alternatives by 2017, a minimum of 12.5 percent reduction in global anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions would be achieved, roughly equaling the goal of international climate treaties. The authors note that meat alternatives taste good and are often healthier — to that I have no argument as it dovetails my personal experience. But, in essence, the authors conceive this as a marketing solution, both to induce consumers to switch from meat-based diets and as “investment opportunities” for food companies that promote themselves as helping to slow global warming. They wrote:

“By replacing livestock products with analogs, consumers can take a single powerful action collectively to mitigate most [greenhouse gases] worldwide. Labeling analogs with certified claims of the amount of GHGs averted can give them a significant edge.”

I fear this is slipping too close to an “individual” solution rather than a “systemic” solution. Although these ideas seek to bring change to industry, ultimately it is based on individuals changing their individual behavior. And it is based on “market solutions,” although it is unconstrained markets that have allowed the livestock, energy and other industries to grow powerful enough to run roughshod over the environment and be indifferent to the climatic damage to which they are major contributors.

Environmental damage is an external cost for corporations in the present-day capitalist system — that is, the costs of environmental destruction is borne by society, not by the company inflicting the damage — and until that externality changes, market solutions based on changes in consumer patterns and awareness can only go so far.

In answer to this, it is argued that greenhouse-gas emission taxes could be imposed to accelerate a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels and promote reforestation. An additional argument is that large-scale livestock die-offs are occurring more frequently and that global warming may cause such declines in livestock population that reductions in meat and dairy consumption may become involuntary.

Professors Goodland and Anhang in their paper acknowledge that reductions in energy and transportation are desirable but that bringing about changes in the livestock industry is the fastest way to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases before we reach the climatic tipping point. Their paper concludes with a declaration that the “case for change” is not only a public-policy or ethical case, but “also a business case.”

Given the short-term mentality of modern business, driven by uncontrolled market forces, it will be difficult for business leaders to come to such understandings; indeed, agribusiness and energy corporations are the most energetic in denying the existence of global warming, even as the weather grows ever more erratic. That 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate warming is human-caused, while only 45 percent of the general public does so, is a testament to the power of entrenched industrial interests and the bottomlessly funded corporate misinformation industry. Activities remaining at the individual level are powerless against this power.

A permanent long-term solution requires a transformation in economic systems, not tinkering with consumption patterns. Yet time is not a luxury we possess. There is no alternative to tackling global warming and the enormous danger that hangs over humanity today, and the solutions suggested by Professors Goodland and Anhang provide tangible objectives, in addition to the no less difficult tasks environmentalists face in confronting the energy and transportation industries.

We ignore concrete ideas at our peril. And what if animal agriculture does account for half of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions? There is too much at stake to ignore any aspect of the problem.

Global-warming objectivity is debating “why,” not “if”

A classic example of so-called “objectivity” functioning as a mask for ideological obfuscation is the “debate” over global warming. The form over which the corporate mass media presents the issue is as if there is a question of whether Earth’s climate is changing, presenting humanity with grave challenges.

A foolish “debate,” as climate scientists are nearly unanimous in the reality of global warming, and the world’s temperatures are indisputably rising as gases that create a greenhouse effect continue to be pumped into the atmosphere. More than three decades have passed since the last year in which global temperatures were below average (1976) and each of the past twelve years ranks among the fourteen hottest years ever recorded. Droughts, severe heat waves and devastating storms are becoming more common, and Arctic Ocean ice coverage again reached an all-time low last summer.

There is no other explanation for this accelerating phenomenon other than increases in atmospheric gases that trap heat. And there is no other explanation for the sources of those accumulations other than human industrial and agricultural activities. Because oil and gas production and usage are the largest single source of human-caused greenhouse gases, companies involved in that industry have incentives to deny global warming, and the money to propagate their desired message.

Energy companies, automobile manufacturers and their lobbyists fund a variety of “research institutes” that pump out reports with pre-determined conclusions. At least two of their denialist institutes started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems. Excepting those news outlets with obvious Right-wing biases, what is often at work here is an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of many countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by lavishly funded corporate fronts that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

“Neutrality,” in any rational sense, shouldn’t mean a “balance” between reality and self-serving non-reality. A legitimate debate on global warming would center on which human activities have significant responsibility and at what point greenhouse gas emissions reach a tipping point where climate change would be beyond human ability to counter effectively.

The industry-or-livestock debate

Environmentalists and others concerned about the health of the world are in agreement that greenhouse gases are putting Earth at serious risk. The debate here concerns whether industrial activity or animal agriculture is the main culprit. Determining which is the bigger contributor to global warming partly requires determining what gases contribute most. This, too, as a byproduct of the industry/livestock debate, is itself a matter of debate.

Some groups focus on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because there is far more of it than other greenhouse gases. For example, 350.org derives it name from a consensus that humanity must reduce the level of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 392 ppm but still well above the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm. Similarly, the Oxford e-Research Centre’s Trillionth Tonne web site says that when humanity has pumped 1 trillion tons of carbon (cumulatively, for all history) into the atmosphere, runaway climate change will ensue; the web site’s calculator estimates that more than 566 billion tons have been emitted.

Both of these groups acknowledge the other greenhouse gases, but see carbon dioxide — and, thus, industrial activity — as the crucial factor. The Trillionth Tonne web site says:

“Other greenhouse gases also cause warming, while other forms of pollution cause cooling. So far, these effects very approximately cancel out, but this is unlikely to remain so. … Carbon dioxide emissions are the single most important factor in the future and, under all current scenarios, the net effect of other emissions is to add to the warming caused by carbon dioxide. So to limit total global warming caused by human activity to less than 2 °C, we clearly have to limit the warming caused by carbon dioxide to less than 2 °C.”

A rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius above the long-term median is a more common way of expressing the climatic tipping point.

Some organizations see contributions from industrial activity and animal agriculture. The Skeptical Science web site maintained by an Australian scientist, for example, says:

“While methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, there is over 200 times more CO2 in the atmosphere. E.g., CO2 levels are 380 ppm while methane levels are 1.75ppm. Hence the amount of warming methane contributes is calculated at 28% of the warming CO2 contributes. … This is not to say methane can be ignored — reducing methane levels is definitely a goal to pursue.”

And then there are vegan and vegetarian activists who say that it is animal agriculture that is mostly responsible for greenhouse gases, and that changes in diet from meat consumption would mitigate the threat. The non-profit agency EarthSave, for example, says that focusing on carbon dioxide levels is a mistake:

“Domestic legislative efforts concentrate on raising fuel economy standards, capping CO2 emissions from power plants, and investing in alternative energy sources. … This is a serious miscalculation. … It’s true that human activity produces vastly more CO2 than all other greenhouse gases put together. However, this does not mean it is responsible for most of the earth’s warming. Many other greenhouse gases trap heat far more powerfully than CO2, some of them tens of thousands of times more powerfully. When taking into account various gases’ global warming potential—defined as the amount of actual warming a gas will produce over the next one hundred years—it turns out that gases other than CO2 make up most of the global warming problem. … The surprising result is that sources of CO2 emissions are having roughly zero effect on global temperatures in the near-term!”

Sorting out competing theories

We have a wide range of opinions. To sort it out, it is necessary to find data and make some calculations. Activists who zero in on animal agriculture as the problem say methane and other gases are the problem, not carbon dioxide. They frequently cite a United Nations report issued in 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” This is a detailed analysis that seeks to quantify the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and possible solutions to ameliorating the effects. The report says:

“The livestock sector is a major player [in climate change], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport. … The sector emits 37 percent of [human-caused] methane. … It emits 65 percent of [human-caused] nitrous oxide, the great majority from manure.”

The methane and nitrous oxide that are pumped into the atmosphere matter, because those are much more effective greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful, according to internationally accepted standards. Those multiples are adjusted for the fact that CO2 is stable long term, while methane dissipates in an average of 12 years and nitrous oxide in 114 years. The United States Environmental Protection Agency publishes online the amount of the main greenhouse gases produced each year in the U.S., and the amounts generated by the various sources of those gases, calculated in millions of metric tons per carbon dioxide equivalent.

Using the agency’s 2010 figures to calculate the various amounts accountable to industrial activity and to animal agriculture (which are calculated in carbon dioxide equivalents, counting one methane ton as equivalent to 21 carbon dioxide tons and one nitrous oxide ton as 310 carbon dioxide tons), global-warming transmissions related to animal agriculture total three percent of industrial activity. (In making this calculation, I excluded emissions attributed to crop agriculture, natural causes and activities that contributed minuscule amounts.)

If these figures are in any way accurate, they demonstrate that industrial activity, in particular fossil fuel extraction and consumption, is overwhelmingly the main culprit. The Environmental Protection Agency report was prepared by professionals and scientists, not political-appointee higher-ups, so I see no reason to not regard its statistics as reliable. (Nor have I found any better or comparable data, which does not mean such data doesn’t exist.)

According to the report, fossil fuel consumption accounts for more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas systems are the largest contributor to methane emissions, with livestock and landfill waste also significant. Agricultural soil management accounts for about two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions (I did not count it for either side). Overall, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that, from U.S. sources, the total contribution of methane and nitrous oxide to global warming are 17 percent that of carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, animal agriculture is not fully accounted for in the above report. Some portion of fossil fuel use is attributable to animal agriculture and the carbon imbalance caused by destruction of forest to clear land for livestock production is far more acute in other parts of the world, among other issues. Another section of the United Nations report quoted earlier says:

“Livestock also affect the carbon balance of land used for pasture or feed crops, and thus indirectly contribute to releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The same happens when forest is cleared for pastures. … Some of the indirect effects are difficult to estimate, as land use related emissions vary widely, depending on biophysical factors as soil, vegetation and climate as well as on human practices.”

Those effects aren’t accounted for in the Environmental Protection Agency report. This is a debate that must continue; I am under no illusions that I have settled anything definitively. I should stress that the statistics are U.S. outputs for 2010, not global outputs, so the true planetary ratios likely vary. All sides quoted here agree that global warming is a dire problem that must be tackled now, as any reality-based analysis must do. Debating how to tackle global warming is immeasurably more productive than taking seriously tired arguments from self-interested deniers.

There is no single route to reversing global warming. Regardless of where the emphasis should be, Western consumerism is clearly unsustainable. The world’s people will not be using resources the way they now do in the not too distant future, whether changes are voluntary or imposed by the limits of nature. Endless growth on a finite planet can’t last forever.