North American whales face potential extinction as warming oceans force them into unsafe territory

North Atlantic whales are facing extinction, experts say, after observing no sign of newborns in the past year.

As the ocean water temperatures have risen, depleting their food supply, the whales have been migrating to cooler waters where new hazards and “nutritional stress” are taking a toll on their population size, a March study out of Cornell University said.

Whales are now venturing farther north into cooler Canadian waters where food is more plentiful, but where boats and fishing gear have proved dangerous.

right whale extinction

In this Wednesday March 28, 2018 photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

“The fishing gear has not been specially designed to break away when whales are entangled, and there are no acoustic monitoring programs in place to force ships to slow down when whales are present,” said Charles Greene, professor of oceanography at Cornell University.

Researchers said 17 right whales died last year, totaling more than 3.5 percent of the population. Right whales refer to three types of Eubalaena whales – the North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale and the Southern right whale.

“Most of the dead whales that have been examined have exhibited evidence of the blunt trauma associated with ship strikes,” Greene said.

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Right whales eat Calanus finmarchicus, a species of copepods as their main form of nutrition. Scientists have tracked whale reproduction rates in correlation with the amount of available C. finmarchicus. Whale reproduction can vary greatly, Greene said, depending on the abundance of the copepods.

Recently, the researchers grew concerned with the spread of C. finmarchicus away from the Gulf of Maine as water temperatures rose, bringing the whales with them.

These northern waters are not safe for the whales, and the added “nutritional stress” has likely led to the decline in new calves.

“This elevated mortality in the population paints a bleak picture for this highly endangered species’ future,” he said.


Warming expert: Only decade left to act in time


Chris Carlson  /  AP

Power plants like this one in Huntington Beach, Calif., are large emitters of carbon dioxide, a gas that many scientists tie to global warming. news services

A leading U.S. climate researcher says the world has a 10-year window of opportunity to take decisive action on global warming and avert catastrophe.

NASA scientist James Hansen, widely considered the doyen of American climate researchers, said governments must adopt an alternative scenario to keep carbon dioxide emission growth in check and limit the increase in global temperatures to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.

If the world continues with a “business as usual” scenario, Hansen said temperatures will rise by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 7.2 degrees F) and “we will be producing a different planet.”

On that warmer planet, ice sheets would melt quickly, causing a rise in sea levels that would put most of Manhattan under water. The world would see more prolonged droughts and heat waves, powerful hurricanes in new areas and the likely extinction of 50 percent of species.

Clashing with White House
Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has made waves before by saying that President Bush’s administration tried to silence him and heavily edited his and other scientists’ findings on a warmer world.

He reiterated that the United States “has passed up the opportunity” to influence the world on global warming.

The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide. But Bush pulled the country out of the 160-nation Kyoto Protocol in 2001, arguing that the treaty’s mandatory curbs on emissions would harm the economy.

Hansen praised California for taking the “courageous” step of passing legislation on global warming last month that will make it the first U.S. state to place caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

He said the alternative scenario he advocates involves promoting energy efficiency and reducing dependence on carbon burning fuels.

“We cannot burn off all the fossil fuels that are readily available without causing dramatic climate change,” Hansen said. “This is not something that is a theory. We understand the carbon cycle well enough to say that.”

Most scientists believe global warming is due in some measure to the greenhouse effect, which occurs when so-called greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. These gases trap in Earth’s heat like the glass walls of a greenhouse. Greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are byproducts of the burning of fossil fuels.

Arctic studies
Hansen spoke as NASA released two studies that found sharp reductions in winter Arctic sea ice.

One of those studies was from Hansen’s institute. “It is not too late to save the Arctic, but it requires that we begin to slow carbon dioxide emissions this decade,” Hansen said in a statement.

Scientists and climate models have long predicted a drop in winter sea ice, but it has been slow to happen. Global warming skeptics have pointed to the lack of ice melt as a flaw in global warming theory.

The latest findings are “coming more in line with what we expected to find,” said Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “We’re starting to see a much more coherent and firm picture occurring.”

“I hate to say we told you so, but we told you so,” he added.

Serreze said only five years ago he was “a fence-sitter” on the issue of whether man-made global warming was happening and a threat, but he said recent evidence in the Arctic has him convinced.

Summer sea ice also has dramatically melted and shrunk over the years, setting a record low last year. This year’s measurements are not as bad, but will be close to the record, Serreze said.

Shrinking Arctic ice means less sunlight gets reflected and more gets absorbed, exacerbating the problem of warming. It also threatens Arctic species, notably polar bears, said Claire Parkinson, a research scientist at the Goddard center.

The polar bear population in Canada’s Hudson Bay has dropped from 1,200 in 1989 to about 950 in 2004, a decline of 22 percent, Parkinson said at the teleconference.

Polar bears typically hunt on Arctic ice, but when ice is depleted, they will forage on land, she said. This has led to more sightings in Inuit settlements, but does not mean that the number of polar bears is increasing.

Near-term Human Extinction: Part II, Feedbacks 21-49

21. Extreme weather events drive climate change, as reported in the 15 August 2013 issue of Nature (Nature, August 2013). Details are elucidated via modeling in the 6 June 2014 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles. Further data and explanation are presented in the 27 April 2015 online issue of Nature Climate Change.

Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective” was published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in their December 2015 issue and draws on conclusions from 32 international teams of scientists who investigated 28 separate weather events. Findings of this report, released on 5 November 2015, include the following: “Human activities, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, influenced specific extreme weather and climate events in 2014, including tropical cyclones in the central Pacific, heavy rainfall in Europe, drought in East Africa, and stifling heat waves in Australia, Asia, and South America.”

According to a paper in the 13 June 2016 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, atmospheric aerosols strengthen storm clouds, thus leading to extreme weather. An abundance of aerosol particles in the atmosphere — constantly added via industrial activity — can increase the lifespans of large storm clouds by delaying rainfall, making the clouds grow larger and live longer, and producing more extreme storms.

For many years, scientists have cautioned that individual weather events couldn’t be attributed to climate change. Now, however, specific extreme weather events can be attributed to climate change. A 200-page, March 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine examines the current state of science of extreme weather attribution, and identifies ways to move the science forward to improve attribution capabilities.

22. Drought-induced mortality of trees contributes to increased decomposition of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and decreased sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Such mortality has been documented throughout the world since at least November 2000 in Nature, with recent summaries in the February 2013 issue of Nature for the tropics, the August 2013 issue of Frontiers in Plant Science for temperate North America, and the 21 August 2015 issue of Science for boreal forests. The situation is exacerbated by pests and disease, as trees stressed by altered environmental conditions become increasingly susceptible to agents such as bark beetles and mistletoe (additional examples abound).

One extremely important example of this phenomenon is occurring in the Amazon, where drought in 2010 led to the release of more carbon than the United States that year (Science, February 2011). The calculation badly underestimates the carbon release. In addition, ongoing deforestation in the region is driving declines in precipitation at a rate much faster than long thought, as reported in the 19 July 2013 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. An overview of the phenomenon, focused on the Amazon, was provided by Climate News Network on 5 March 2014~. “The observed decline of the Amazon sink diverges markedly from the recent increase in terrestrial carbon uptake at the global scale, and is contrary to expectations based on models,” according to a paper in the 19 March 2015 issue of Nature. Finally, according to a paper in the 1 July 2016 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles, the 2010 drought completely shut down the Amazon Basin’s carbon sink, by killing trees and slowing their growth.

Tropical rain forests, long believed to represent the primary driver of atmospheric carbon dioxide, are on the verge of giving up that role. According to a 21 May 2014 paper published in Nature, “the higher turnover rates of carbon pools in semi-arid biomes are an increasingly important driver of global carbon cycle inter-annual variability,” indicating the emerging role of drylands in controlling environmental conditions. “Because of the deforestation of tropical rainforests in Brazil, significantly more carbon has been lost than was previously assumed.” In fact, “forest fragmentation results in up to a fifth more carbon dioxide being emitted by the vegetation.” These results come from the 7 October 2014 issue of Nature Communications. A paper in the 28 December 2015 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates Amazon forest could transition to savanna-like states in response to climate change. Savannas are simply described as grasslands with scattered trees or shrubs. The abstract of the paper suggests that, “in contrast to existing predictions of either stability or catastrophic biomass loss, the Amazon forest’s response to a drying regional climate is likely to be an immediate, graded, heterogeneous transition from high-biomass moist forests to transitional dry forests and woody savannah-like states.”

The boreal forest wraps around the globe at the top of the Northern Hemisphere. It is the planet’s single largest biome and makes up 30 percent of the globe’s forest cover. Moose are the largest ungulate in the boreal forest and their numbers have plummeted. The reason is unknown.

Dennis Murray, a professor of ecology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, thinks the dying moose of Minnesota and New Hampshire and elsewhere are one symptom of something far bigger – a giant forest ecosystem that is rapidly shrinking, dying, and otherwise changing. “The boreal forest is breaking apart,” he says. “The question is what will replace it?”

Increasing drought threatens almost all forests in the United States, according to a paper in the 21 February 2016 online issue of Global Change Biology. According to the paper’s abstract, “diebacks, changes in composition and structure, and shifting range limits are widely observed.”

For the first time scientists have investigated the net balance of the three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — for every region of Earth’s land masses. The results were published in the 10 March 2016 issue of Nature. The surprising result: Human-induced emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from ecosystems overwhelmingly surpass the ability of the land to soak up carbon dioxide emissions, which makes the terrestrial biosphere a contributor to climate change.

An abstract of a paper to be published in the April 2016 issue of Biogeochemistry includes these sentences: “Rising temperatures and nitrogen (N) deposition, both aspects of global environmental change, are proposed to alter soil organic matter (SOM) biogeochemistry. … Overall, this study shows that the decomposition and accumulation of molecularly distinct SOM components occurs with soil warming and N amendment and may subsequently alter soil biogeochemical cycling.” In other words, as global temperatures rise, the organic matter in forests appears to break down more quickly, thereby accelerating the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

23. Ocean acidification leads to release of less dimethyl sulphide (DMS) by plankton. DMS shields Earth from radiation. (Nature Climate Change, online 25 August 2013). Plankton form the base of the marine food web, some populations have declined 40% since 1950 (e.g., article in the 29 July 2010 issue of Nature), and they are on the verge of disappearing completelyaccording to a paper in the 18 October 2013 issue of Global Change Biology. As with carbon dioxide, ocean acidification is occurring rapidlyaccording to a paper in the 26 March 2014 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles. Acidification is proceeding at a pace unparalleled during the last 300 million years, according to research published in the 2 March 2012 issue of Science. Over the past 10 years, the Atlantic Ocean has soaked up 50 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the decade before, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean, according to a paper published in the 30 January 2016 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles. Not surprisingly, the degradation of the base of the marine food web is reducing the ability of fish populations to reproduce and replenish themselves across the globe, as reported in the 14 December 2015 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Diatoms, one of the major groups of plankton, is declining globally at the rate of about one percent per year, according to a paper in the 23 September 2015 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

The Southern Ocean is acidifying at such a rate because of rising carbon dioxide emissions that large regions may be inhospitable for key organisms in the food chain to survive as soon as 2030, according to a paper in the 2 November 2015 online issue of Nature Climate Change.

A paper in the 26 November 2015 issue of Science Express indicates millennial-scale shifts in plankton in the subtropical North Pacific Ocean that are “unprecedented in the last millennium.” The ongoing shift “began in the industrial era and is supported by increasing N2-fixing cyanobacterial production. This picoplankton community shift may provide a negative feedback to rising atmospheric CO2.” One of the authors of the papers is quoted during an interview: “This picoplankton community shift may have provided a negative feedback to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, during the last 100 years. However, we cannot expect this to be the case in the future.”

Further research on primary productivity in the ocean was published in paper in the 19 January 2016 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. Referring to the Indian Ocean, the abstract concludes, “future climate projections suggest that the Indian Ocean will continue to warm, driving this productive region into an ecological desert.”

For the first time, researchers have documented algae-related toxins in Arctic sea mammals. Specifically, toxins produced by harmful algal blooms are showing up in Alaska marine mammals as far north as the Arctic Ocean — much farther north than ever reported previously, according to a paper in the 11 February 2016 issue of Harmful Algae. The abstract indicates, “In this study, 905 marine mammals from 13 species were sampled including; humpback whales, bowhead whales, beluga whales, harbor porpoises, northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, ringed seals, bearded seals, spotted seals, ribbon seals, Pacific walruses, and northern sea otters. Domoic acid was detected in all 13 species examined and had the greatest prevalence in bowhead whales (68%) and harbor seals (67%). Saxitoxin was detected in 10 of the 13 species … These results provide evidence that … toxins are present throughout Alaska waters at levels high enough to be detected in marine mammals and have the potential to impact marine mammal health in the Arctic marine environment.”

24. Jellyfish have assumed a primary role in the oceans of the world (26 September 2013 issue of the New York Times Review of Books, in a review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean): “We are creating a world more like the late Precambrian than the late 1800s — a world where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn’t exist. We are creating a world where we humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to.” Jellyfish contribute to climate change via (1) release of carbon-rich feces and mucus used by bacteria for respiration, thereby converting bacteria into carbon dioxide factories and (2) consumption of vast numbers of copepods and other plankton.

25. Sea-level rise causes slope collapse, tsunamis, and release of methane, as reported in the September 2013 issue of GeologyIn eastern Siberia, the speed of coastal erosion has nearly doubled during the last four decades as the permafrost melts. And it appears sea-level rise has gone exponential, judging from Scribbler’s 4 May 2015 analysis. Considering only data through 2005, according to a paper published 28 September 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the 500-year return time of floods in New York City has been reduced to 24.4 years.

26. Rising ocean temperatures will upset natural cycles of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus, hence reducing plankton (Nature Climate Change, September 2013). Ocean warming has been profoundly underestimated since the 1970s according to a paper published in the online version of Nature Climate Change on 5 October 2014. Specifically, the upper 2,300 feet of the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans may have warmed twice as quickly after 1970 than had previously been thought. According to a 22 January 2015 article in The Guardian, “the oceans are warming so fast, they keep breaking scientists’ charts.”

Another indication of a warming ocean is coral bleaching. The third global coral bleaching event since 1998, and also the third in evidence, ever, is underway on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. According to Australia National News on 28 March 2016, a survey of the Great Barrier Reef reports 95% of the northern reefs were rated as severely bleached, and only 4 of 520 reefs surveyed were found to be unaffected by bleaching.

27. Earthquakes trigger methane release, and consequent warming of the planet triggers earthquakes, as reported by Sam Carana at the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (October 2013)

28. Small ponds in the Canadian Arctic are releasing far more methane than expected based on their aerial cover (PLoS ONE, November 2013). This is the first of several freshwater ecosystems releasing methane into the atmosphere, as reviewed in the 19 March 2014 issue of Nature and subsequently described by a large-scale study in the 28 April 2014 issue of Global Change Biology. Release of methane from these sources in the Arctic and Greenland, according to the 20 May 2012 issue of Nature Geoscience, “imply that in a warming climate, disintegration of permafrost, glaciers and parts of the polar ice sheets could facilitate the transient expulsion of 14C-depleted methane trapped by the cryosphere cap.”

The mechanism underlying methane release in these systems is poorly understood. If sunlight drives the process, as suggested by a paper in the 22 August 2014 issue of Science, then amplification is expected over time as ponds and lakes are increasingly exposed.

Water bodies within Africa’s interior are adding significantly to the overall release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to a paper in the 20 July 2015 online edition of Nature Geoscience. Specifically, “total carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions [are] … about 0.9 Pg carbon per year, equivalent to about one quarter of the global ocean and terrestrial combined carbon sink.”

Large water bodies beneath deserts could profoundly worsen the situation. According to a paper published in the 28 July 2015 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a large carbon sink or pool lies beneath the Tarim basin in Xinjiang, China. The hidden pool of water stores “more carbon than all the plants on the planet put together. While more water may sound like a good thing, researchers believe that if this carbon were to escape into the atmosphere, we would be in serious, serious trouble.” Specifically, the senior authored explained in an interview: “It’s like a can of coke. If it is opened all the greenhouse gas will escape into the atmosphere.”

A paper in the 29 October 2015 issue of Limnology and Oceanography also addresses the issue of methane release from lakes. A write-up for the general public titled, “Global Warming Will Progress Much More Quickly Than Expected, Study Predicts” includes this line: “The findings suggest we have a ‘vicious circle’ ahead of us in which the burning of fossil fuels leads to higher temperatures, which in turn trigger higher levels of methane release and further warming.” This is a fine explanation for a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

A study published in the 17 November 2015 edition of Nature Geoscience shows that lakes in the northern hemisphere will probably release much more carbon dioxide due to global climate changes. The investigation, based on data from more than 5,000 Swedish lakes, demonstrates that carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s lakes, water courses, and reservoirs are equivalent to almost a quarter of all the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

Citing two recent journal articles, a paper in the 19 November 2015 issue of Yale Environment 360 concludes, “the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae.” The lakes include Lake Baikal, “the deepest, largest in volume, and most ancient freshwater lake in the world, holding one-fifth of the planet’s above-ground drinking supply. It’s a Noah’s Ark of biodiversity, home to myriad species found nowhere else on earth.”

Further support for the importance of streams and rivers as sources of atmospheric methane comes from a paper published in the November 2015 issue of Ecological Monographs~. The headline of the write-up for the general public tells the story: “Greenhouse gas emissions from freshwater higher than thought.”

paper in the 23 November 2015 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciencesfound, according to the abstract: “A sediment upwelling at the end of the thaw season likely contributed to these [methane] emissions. We suggest that, unlike wetlands, shallow seasonally ice-covered lakes can have their highest methane emission potential in the cold season, likely dominating the spring methane release of subarctic landscapes with high lake coverage.” In other words, as with methane release from the Arctic Ocean, methane release is abundant during the cold season. According to a paper in the 16 June 2016 online issue of Geophysical Research Letters, “Our findings indicate that permafrost below shallow lakes has already begun crossing a critical thawing threshold approximately 70 years prior to predicted terrestrial permafrost thaw in northern Alaska.”

As reported in the 16 December 2015 issue of Geophysical Research Letters: “In this first worldwide synthesis of in situ and satellite-derived lake data, we find that lake summer surface water temperatures rose rapidly (global mean = 0.34°C decade−1) between 1985 and 2009.”

paper in the 4 January 2016 online edition of Nature Geoscience finds, “lakes and ponds are a dominant methane source at high northern latitudes.” “By compiling previously reported measurements made at a total of 700 northern water bodies the researchers have been able to more accurately estimate emissions over large scales. They found that methane emissions from lakes and ponds alone are equivalent to roughly two-thirds of all natural methane sources in the northern region.

According to a paper in the 1 February 2016 issue of Nature Geoscience, ponds less than a quarter of an acre in size make up only 8.6% of the surface area of the world’s lakes and ponds, yet they account for 15.1% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40.6% of diffusive methane emissions.

29. Mixing of the jet stream is a catalyst, too. High methane releases follow fracturing of the jet stream, accounting for a previous rise in regional temperature up to 16 C in less than 20 years (Paul Beckwith via video on 19 December 2013).

30. Research indicates that “fewer clouds form as the planet warms, meaning less sunlight is reflected back into space, driving temperatures up further still” (Nature, January 2014)

31. “Thawing permafrost promotes microbial degradation of cryo-sequestered and new carbon leading to the biogenic production of methane” (Nature Communications, February 2014). According to a paper in the 21 October 2015 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,: “The observed DOC [dissolved organic carbon] loss rates are among the highest reported for permafrost carbon and demonstrate the potential importance of LMW [low–molecular-weight] DOC in driving the rapid metabolism of Pleistocene-age permafrost carbon upon thaw and the outgassing of CO2 to the atmosphere by soils and nearby inland waters.”

32. Over the tropical West Pacific there is a natural, invisible hole extending over several thousand kilometers in a layer that prevents transport of most of the natural and man-made substances into the stratosphere by virtue of its chemical composition. Like in a giant elevator, many chemical compounds emitted at the ground pass thus unfiltered through this so-called “detergent layer” of the atmosphere.Global methane emissions from wetlands are currently about 165 teragrams (megatons metric) each year. This research estimates that annual emissions from these sources will increase by between 17 and 260 megatons annually. By comparison, the total annual methane emission from all sources (including the human addition) is about 600 megatons each year. (Nature Geoscience, February 2014)

33. “Volcanologist Bill McGuire describes how rapid melting of glaciers and ice sheets as a result of climate change could trigger volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis” (13 February 2014 issue of The Guardian. According to a paper published online in the 5 February 2015 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, “underwater volcanoes defy expectations and erupt in bursts rather than a slow pace.

34. Deep ocean currents apparently are slowing. According to one of the authors of the paper, “we’re likely going to see less uptake of human produced, or anthropogenic, heat and carbon dioxide by the ocean, making this a positive feedback loop for climate change.” Because this phenomenon contributed to cooling and sinking of the Weddell polynya: “it’s always possible that the giant polynya will manage to reappear in the next century. If it does, it will release decades-worth of heat and carbon from the deep ocean to the atmosphere in a pulse of warming.” (Nature Climate Change, February 2014; model results indicate “large spatial redistribution of ocean carbon,” as reported in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Climate)

35. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide causes soil microbes to produce more carbon dioxide (Science, 2 May 2014)

36. Reductions in seasonal ice cover in the Arctic “result in larger waves, which in turn provide a mechanism to break up sea ice and accelerate ice retreat” (Geophysical Research Letters, 5 May 2014). Further corroboration is found in the 27 March 2015 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

37. A huge hidden network of frozen methane and methane gas, along with dozens of spectacular flares firing up from the seabed, has been detected off the North Island of New Zealand (preliminary results reported in the 12 May 2014 issue of the New Zealand Herald). The first evidence of widespread active methane seepage in the Southern Ocean, off the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, was subsequently reported in the 1 October 2014 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

38. As reported in the 8 June 2014 issue of Nature Geosciencerising global temperatures could increase the amount of carbon dioxide naturally released by the world’s oceans, fueling further climate change

39. As global-average temperature increases, “the concentrations of water vapor in the troposphere will also increase in response to that warming. This moistening of the atmosphere, in turn, absorbs more heat and further raises the Earth’s temperature.” As reported in the paper’s abstract: “Our analysis demonstrates that the upper-tropospheric moistening observed over the period 1979–2005 cannot be explained by natural causes and results principally from an anthropogenic warming of the climate. By attributing the observed increase directly to human activities, this study verifies the presence of the largest known feedback mechanism for amplifying anthropogenic climate change.” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 12 August 2014According to a July 2015 report in Skeptical Science, “water vapor feedback roughly doubles the amount of warming caused by CO2. So if there is a 1°C change caused by CO2, the water vapor will cause the temperature to go up another 1°C. When other feedback loops are included, the total warming from a potential 1°C change caused by CO2 is, in reality, as much as 3°C.

40. Soil microbial communities release unexpectedly more carbon dioxide when temperatures rise (Nature, 4 September 2014). As a result, “substantial carbon stores in Arctic and boreal soils could be more vulnerable to climate warming than currently predicted.”

41. “During the last glacial termination, the upwelling strength of the southern polar limb of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation varied, changing the ventilation and stratification of the high-latitude Southern Ocean. During the same period, at least two phases of abrupt global sea-level rise—meltwater pulses—took place.” In other words, when the ocean around Antarctica became more stratified, or layered, warm water at depth melted the ice sheet faster than when the ocean was less stratified. (Nature Communications, 29 September 2014) Robert Scribbler refers to AMOC as “the heartbeat of the world ocean system.” As reported in the 23 March 2015 online issue of Climatic Change, the slowing of the AMOC is “exceptional” and is tied to melting ice in Greenland. This twentieth-century slowdown apparently is unique, at least within the last thousand years.

42. “Open oceans are much less efficient than sea ice when it comes to emitting in the far-infrared region of the spectrum. This means that the Arctic Ocean traps much of the energy in far-infrared radiation, a previously unknown phenomenon that is likely contributing to the warming of the polar climate.” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2014)

43. Dark snow is no longer restricted to Greenland. Rather, it’s come to much of the northern hemisphere, as reported in the 25 November 2014 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research. Eric Holthaus’s description of this phenomenon in the 13 January 2015 edition of Slate includes a quote from one of the scientists involved in the research project: “The climate models need to be adding in a process they don’t currently have, because that stuff in the atmosphere is having a big climate effect.” In other words, as with the other major self-reinforcing feedback loops, dark snow is not included in contemporary models.

44. The “representation of stratospheric ozone in climate models can have a first-order impact on estimates of effective climate sensitivity.” (Nature Climate Change, December 2014)

45. “While scientists believe that global warming will release methane from gas hydrates worldwide, most of the current focus has been on deposits in the Arctic. This paper estimates that from 1970 to 2013, some 4 million metric tons of methane has been released from hydrate decomposition off Washington [state]. That’s an amount each year equal to the methane from natural gas released in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout off the coast of Louisiana, and 500 times the rate at which methane is naturally released from the seafloor.” (Geophysical Research Letters, online version 5 December 2014)

46. “An increase in human-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could initiate a chain reaction between plants and microorganisms that would unsettle one of the largest carbon reservoirs on the planet — soil” (Nature Climate Change, December 2014 )

47. Increased temperature of the ocean contributes to reduced storage of carbon dioxide. “Results suggest that predicted future increases in ocean temperature will result in reduced CO2 storage by the oceans” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2015)

48. According to a paper in the 19 January 2015 issue of Nature Geoscience, melting glaciers contribute substantial carbon to the atmosphere, with “approximately 13% of the annual flux of glacier dissolved organic carbon is a result of glacier mass loss. These losses are expected to accelerate.”

49. According to a paper in the 20 April 2015 online issue of Nature Geoscience, ocean currents disturb methane-eating bacteria. “We were able to show that strength and variability of ocean currents control the prevalence of methanotrophic bacteria”, says Lea Steinle from University of Basel and the lead author of the study, “therefore, large bacteria populations cannot develop in a strong current, which consequently leads to less methane consumption.”

Changing our diets to save the world

IN-DEPTH: Can we grow enough food to feed us all in a changing climate? And can New Zealand thrive as a dairy exporter without worsening climate change? Eloise Gibson spoke to IPCC food security and farming experts and found them surprisingly upbeat.

If we’re honest, the question on New Zealanders’ lips at a meeting of top scientists in Christchurch before Easter was a variation of that Kiwi classic: what do you think of New Zealand?

Newsroom specifically wanted to know what the experts thought of New Zealand’s prospects of thriving as a meat and dairy-exporting nation, in a future where people eat less meat and milk.

We talked through the issues with five experts, whose readiness to answer suggested we were not the first to raise it since they reached our shores.

As the rest of New Zealand prepared to gorge on marshmallow and chocolate eggs, they were here with more than a hundred other agriculture and climate scientists considering the much less sweet task of how to feed the world without worsening climate change.

It’s the second meeting of the 120 researchers, who are now about a quarter of the way through drafting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

The report, scheduled for August 2019, will cover desertification, land degradation, food security, sustainable land management and greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors can’t discuss in any detail what the final tome will say, but they can talk about their own research.

Based on their research in climate modelling, food security and farming methods, all of them agreed that eating and farming patterns need to change a lot if we’re to feed more people in our new and altered climate. That means raising fewer livestock and sharing the meat and milk we still eat more fairly between nations.

Right now, people in rich countries over-consume, despite the hefty climate impact of their livestock-heavy habits, says Pete Smith, a climate change and soil professor at the University of Aberdeen. “We can’t have nine or ten billion people consuming the way people do in the Western world,” he says. “But that’s not to say we don’t still have livestock in the system, we certainly do. But we can’t continue at the rate we are,” he says. “Although consumption has to come down, there are still going to be global markets.”

To supply those, choosier markets, New Zealand’s milk and meat must be not only carbon-neutral but meet other standards of human health (including responsible antibiotic use) and not polluting the environment, he says.

Our products must be very good, because they’ll be expensive. A changing climate will raise food prices across the board, but it may hit animal products worse by forcing countries to include the true environmental costs of growing food, our experts said. Still, New Zealand shouldn’t be afraid to boost its price tags.


Holding the pre-Easter IPCC meeting in Christchurch signaled global recognition of what most Kiwis know already – that, among developed nations, our greenhouse gas emissions are uniquely skewed towards farming.

Our problem is mostly cows, with their methane-laced burps and gas-producing urine, both of which New Zealand spends millions trying to solve.

But when these researchers talk about the climate costs of food growing; they’re looking much wider than reducing cow burps.

They’re discussing wholesale changes to the food system. “This is first time really that the IPCC has tackled food, as opposed to agriculture, in a big way,” says Tim Benton, who studies food security in his job as Dean of Strategic Research Initiatives at the University of Leeds. “I’m really hoping that, for the first time, people will start to pay attention to the impact our food systems have on climate and the impact climate has on our food systems.”

Globally, agriculture ranks second only to fossil fuels as a source of greenhouse gases.

Smith, from the University of Aberdeen, lists the numbers: “Direct emissions from crops and livestock are about 14 or so percent of global emissions, if you include deforestation it’s 24 percent, and if you add things like transport for moving food around and the embedded emissions in the agri-chemicals, you’re probably talking 30 per cent,” he says. “We can’t meet the Paris targets without it.”

Farming faces a circular problem. Growing food creates a lot of greenhouse gases, and greenhouse gas is threatening the world’s food-producing capability. “If we don’t tackle climate change, the impacts on the food system will be such that there’s no guarantee we could feed 11 billion people at the end of the century,” says Benton.

Even cows are not immune. “Dairy cows really do not like warmer temperatures, it decreases milk production and fertility,” says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Rosenzweig founded a project called AgMIP, which collates and improves the models researchers use to project climate change’s impact on farming, as well as farmers’ options for adapting. “We add climate models, crop and livestock production, and economists to bring in the demand side from consumers,” she says.

“When we do these rigorous multi-model projections, what we find is that in the mid- and high- latitudes, things could get better for some decades, as those regions warm. But in the lower latitudes, where primarily the developing countries are, food production is projected to decrease. When we take these results and feed them into the economic models, we find that, overall, globally, there’s a decline in production and an increase in food prices,” says Rosenzweig. “We look at the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s and it basically gets progressively worse. It just gets hotter and we get more heavy rainfalls and more droughts, all of which affect agriculture.”

AgMIP used its models to test whether adaptation methods, like planting heat- or drought-tolerant varieties, changing crops, or increasing irrigation or fertilizer could make up for lower yields from climate change in various regions of the world. The answer was usually no, even assuming farm technology keeps improving. “Mostly when you look at different regions the adaptation can compensate for some of the climate effects but not all,” says Rosenzweig. “That means we need mitigation.”

Mitigation, Rosenzweig, Smith and Benton each explained, has to include rearing less livestock, especially our burping cows. “We need to think about what we’re eating and how much. Because large-scale animal production, especially industrial animal production, has a very large carbon footprint,” says Rosenzweig.

None of them suggests everybody goes vegan, because most of us will not, they say.

“It’s just unrealistic to think that everybody is going to give up meat tomorrow,” says Rosenzweig. “So we need to realise there’s probably a pathway of healthy diets that is not no meat at all, but reduced meat consumption.”

Dairy has a lower greenhouse footprint than beef, but it remains considerably higher-emitting than producing vegetable products. Still, no-one expects a quick switch. “New Zealand has an important livestock sector and I don’t think these people are about to start growing carrots tomorrow. It’s about finding pathways to sustainable production,” says Rosenzweig.

Benton agrees. “On an existential basis, I don’t think any country needs to be particularly worried, because we’re talking about changes over a number of years,” he says. “If you look back 30 years, our agricultural industry was very different to what it is today and in 30 years’ time it will be different again.”

Major change is certainly needed, says Benton. Trade rules, subsidies and other policies serve many people too much low-nutrient food, artificially cheaply, he says. “$590 billion dollars around the world is spent on agricultural subsidies that largely support the eight major crops that make up the bulk of our food, and those crops are pretty low in nutrition – rice, maize, soya, sugar, palm oil…,” he says. “Food is easily available, it’s cheap, it’s economically rational to over-consume and throw it away. Increasingly, influential bodies like the UN are coming to the conclusion that our food system’s not working.”

The savings to health and the environment could counterbalance any cost of producing nutritious food more cleanly, says Benton. For example, he says, by 2025 the cost of treating Type 2 diabetes alone is projected to be higher than the economic value in GDP generated by producing all food. “When you consider malnutrition in all its forms through to obesity, cardiovascular disease and various cancers that come from eating the wrong sort of food, about half the world’s population are not a healthy weight,” he says. “We’ve got to the point where we have a super-abundance of food but…calories are really cheap and nutrition is not,” says Benton. “It doesn’t make any sense that the price of food doesn’t reflect the cost of growing food or the healthcare costs caused by food,” he says. “In the long-run, if your crop has an impact on, say, water, that cost needs to be somehow internalized. If food wasn’t subsidized by the environment and health systems, it would be more expensive and then people wouldn’t be able to waste so much and eat so much.”

Benton knows that rising costs will raise an inevitable question, which is, what about poor people, who are already under-nourished? That can be dealt with in other ways, he says.

“[UK] research has found that subsidizing the cost of food through unsustainability amplifies costs so much in the long-run that the correct thing to do is support the poor so they can afford to buy food, it doesn’t make sense to support food systems as a whole to support the poorest in society,” he says.

Another hope is that growing a greater diversity of crops, with less waste, will help build resilience to climate change in countries where sufficient food is hard to come by. But Rosenzweig warns of the need to go slowly, to avoid hurting food supplies. Unlike Benton, she doesn’t believe the world’s mega-food-producers are likely to go anywhere or be pushed out by artisan farmers. But, she says, the giants will get more sustainable, as will medium and small producers. Rosenzweig and Benton agree that food is going to cost more, and that people will eat less livestock products.

“For producing countries like you and Brazil that raises the question of…what you would lose from people buying less produce,” says Benton. “In the long-run, my feeling is that the economics of food production will change so that producing less is still profitable. In the long-run, the food system has to become more transparent and that should make it easier for people to say, ‘I value food that is very healthy or high animal welfare’…and it will be easier to find,” says Benton. “The digital revolution will allow you to visit a farm virtually from anywhere in the world and say ‘I like what that farmer is doing.’”


That leaves the question of what people will enjoy sufficiently to spend a small fortune on it.

Smith, from the University of Aberdeen, doesn’t accept the argument sometimes made on behalf of the United States’ feedlot industry (and supported by a few prominent U.S. agricultural scientists) that feedlot meat and dairy is preferable to pasture farming, because of its greater greenhouse efficiency. It’s true, if somewhat counter-intuitive, that products, especially meat, from cows fed grain in feedlots are typically lower in greenhouse gases.

But that’s not the whole story, says Smith. “The feedlot systems need to get their food from somewhere and about 30 per cent of all crops grown on the planet go into livestock feed,” he says. “The more feedlot systems you have, the more land you need to produce those crops. And while it’s true that the greenhouse gas per unit of product is lower for those feedlot systems, that’s as a result of forcing the animal up to slaughter weight much quicker so they’ve had less chance to emit methane. Climate change is not the only game in town, and the over-use of growth hormones and antibiotics [needed to fatten animals faster] is not accepted in many countries,” says Smith.

Annette Cowie, a principal research scientist at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, believes that there will always be a place for livestock that can forage for food, such as grass, that people can’t eat, on land where crops can’t grow.

Ruminants like cows have this unique ability. Cowie also sees huge potential for new technologies such as biochar, which can trap emissions in the soil, though she is wary of overblowing the advances farms could make.

But, as Smith explains, New Zealand doesn’t need to eliminate cow burps to claim to be cleaner. He puts only a little store in gas-squashing technologies, like the methane-inhibiting feed supplements New Zealanders are working on, because they’ll never reduce emissions to zero. “The only way is to offset emissions by planting more trees or creating carbon sinks. In the future, you might say, ‘for this litre of milk we made this many greenhouse gases but we’ve created a forest offsetting it domestically’,” says Smith. “You’ve got a great climate, great soil for producing pasture,” he says. “It’s not perfect, at the moment you’ve got over-fertilization and other stuff, but if you can get those issues addressed…New Zealand could be putting its stuff on the international market as the most environmentally-benign dairy products there are,” he says.

Long-term, we shouldn’t be afraid to have fewer cows, producing less, says Smith. “The push toward productivity has not necessarily moved us in the right direction on other measures,” he says. “One of the big issues is, we currently don’t pay farmers enough, and we’ve come to expect very low food prices. When you’re not squeezing every last litre of milk out of the land by over-fertilizing, you can step back and accept maybe 5 percent less milk for a massive environmental benefit,” says Smith. “We, as a society, might decide to pay farmers the difference.”


Such a move would be a mighty relief to the farmers Mark Howden works in Australia, where he’s the director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University. In a food system that favours maximum production and reliability, climate change is already proving a major headache, he says. Some Australian farmers are doing it tough, though not in every location, says Howden. “What farmers are seeing now in terms of changes in rainfall is different depending where you are. Some farmers are having to, say, move out of wheat farming and into mixed farming with livestock that can handle the dry conditions. “Their options are shrinking and they’re feeling significantly stressed,” he says. “And what farmers are seeing now is very much in line with the projections for the future.”

Meanwhile, at supermarkets: “The demand is for very reliable foodstuffs, with no variation in quality, so the supermarkets can employ their marketing strategies,” he says. “Both of those things are challenged with the increased variability and extremes of climate that we’re already seeing and that will increase in future, so the pressure from the value chain is in the opposite direction to the pressure from climate. That increases stress on farmers,” says Howden.

One tactic that’s already been employed by a few Australian farmers is “hedging” their climate risk by buying farms in at least two different micro-climates. “They can have more than one farm in different regions, so in New Zealand maybe you’d have one in the South Island and one in the North, so it’s unlikely both will be affected in the same way and you can buffer your supply system.” Another strategy is educating consumers “about why there is variability in produce and the importance of seasonal cooking, and that just because an apple has a spot on it, doesn’t mean it’s not okay,” says Howden.

One of the biggest things that Howden recommends that farmers do to reduce stress might not come easily. It involves changing farmers’ minds, not their farming systems. Howden says his work shows it is easier to cope with changes when farmers accept that climate change is happening. “In Australia, farmers are about four times more likely than the average Australian to say they don’t believe in climate change [the figures are 32 per cent versus 7 percent]. Yet when you actually look at what farmers are doing, the vast majority are changing their practices to adjust to a changing climate. There’s a discrepancy between what they’re saying and what they’re doing, and those sorts of discrepancies actually cause stress in their own right,” says Howden. “It stops effective strategic decision-making, because if you’re thinking this is just a few bad years, you’re expecting it to get cooler and wetter again. What we find is that those who take climate change seriously have lower stress levels, because they are empowered to take action.”

When Howden talks to farmers about adapting, their approaches change over the course of a few meetings. “Often they are initially focused on the technical options, so, say, they’re still growing wheat but different varieties. But after a few discussions on climate change, where they end up is that the important thing is having much better strategic business capability and the ability to juggle trade-offs,” he says.

Rosenzweig, the impact modeler, sums up those trade-offs and farmers’ tricky conundrum. “The challenges for agriculture everywhere are to simultaneously be reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases and be adapting to a changing climate,” she says. To do it, they will need our help, and that includes changing our diets. “That’s why there’s a role for people changing what we eat. Because as we go from 6 or 7 billion people to 9 or 10 billion, how are we actually going to do that?” she says.

Are Meat Eaters Contributing to Climate Change?
By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, March 28, 2018 (HealthDay News) — Climate change scientists have a beef with all the steaks and burgers Americans are eating.

Beef is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production, the researchers said in a new study.

They found that one-fifth of Americans account for nearly half of all U.S. food-related greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

And America’s love affair with beef is the main reason, said Martin Heller, the study’s first author.

“Reducing the impact of our diets — by eating fewer calories and less animal-based foods — could achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” said Heller, a researcher with the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.


“It’s climate action that is accessible to everyone, because we all decide on a daily basis what we eat,” he added.

For various reasons, “the production of both beef cattle and dairy cows is tied to especially high emissions levels,” Heller and his colleagues said in a university news release.

These bovines eat lots of feed that involves use of fertilizers and other substances manufactured through energy-intensive processes. There’s also the fuel used by farm equipment.

“In addition, cows burp lots of methane, and their manure also releases this potent greenhouse gas,” the researchers said.

Heller’s team created a database on the environmental effects of producing more than 300 types of foods. They linked that to data on the diets of more than 16,000 U.S. adults.

The researchers found that on any given day, 20 percent of Americans were responsible for 46 percent of all food-related greenhouse emissions in the country. Those with the greatest impact were linked with eight times more emissions than those with the lowest impact.

Beef consumption accounted for 72 percent of the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between the highest and lowest groups, according to the study.

The researchers only looked at emissions from food production. Emissions from processing, packaging, distribution, refrigeration and cooking of food would likely increase total emissions by 30 percent or more, according to Heller.

Revised regional methane emission factors required for dairy cattle

dairy cows eatingmaq123/iStock/Thinkstock

Revised methane emission conversion factors for specific regions are required to improve emission estimates in national inventories.

Mar 20, 2018

An international consortium of animal scientists has concluded that revised methane emission factors for specific regions are required to improve methane emission estimates for dairy cattle in national inventories, according to an announcement from Wageningen University & Research (WUR).

The scientists, including some from WUR in the Netherlands, collated a large global database of methane production from dairy cattle to develop intercontinental and regional models of methane emissions. The results have recently been published in Global Change Biology.

Dairy cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas with considerable impact on climate change. To reduce the impact of dairy cattle production on the environment, the amount of methane produced needs to be quantified accurately, WUR said. Measuring methane production is complex and expensive. Therefore, models are commonly used to predict methane production, WUR explained, and results are used in national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions.

The present study is based on a data set of measurements from more than 5,200 lactating dairy cows assembled through a collaboration of animal scientists from 15 countries. The core project, GLOBAL NETWORK, was developed by a consortium of eight countries — the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, France, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland and Finland — and was funded by national governments, mostly via The Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security & Climate Change.

WUR said the project represents a “true collaboration” of animal scientists around the globe who shared their experimental data. The main goal of the project was to develop robust enteric methane prediction equations that can be used by scientists, government agencies and nonprofit organizations interested in adopting or assessing methane mitigation strategies and abating the trends in Earth’s climate.

Simplified models

This large study showed that methane emissions from dairy cattle can be predicted by simplified models requiring readily available feed-related variables. Feed intake is the key factor for methane production prediction, the researchers said. Although complex models that use both feed intake and detailed chemical composition had the best performance in predicting methane production, models requiring only feed intake and dietary fiber content had the second best predictive ability and offer an alternative to complex models.

A major finding is that revised methane emission conversion factors for specific regions are required to improve emission estimates in national inventories, WUR said.

The concept of methane emission conversion factor was introduced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to indicate the proportion of the animal’s energy intake that is converted to energy in methane. This factor is widely used for national greenhouse gas emission inventories and global research on mitigation strategies, the announcement said.

The research by the consortium offers opportunities to include region-specific methane conversion factors in national inventories. This is essential to improve the accuracy of carbon footprint assessments of dairy cattle production systems in several regions worldwide and to help devise mitigation strategies, according to WUR.

The team that conducted the study is currently developing similar databases for predicting and mitigating methane emissions from beef cattle and small ruminants (sheep and goats).

Vegan climate letter

Dear Editor,
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the cartoon at the top right hand corner on page 4 of the March 14, 2018 edition of the Methow Valley News is worth at least that many–depending on how it’s interpreted. In case you missed it, the drawing featured a wide-eyed, fearful pig, fish, cow, goat, bear, deer and other allegedly delectable and destroy-able beings on a cracker, being shoveled into the gaping mouth of a ginormous human head.
Though it’s caption was, “Bite of the Methow,” it seemed to symbolize the ‘Bite of Humanity,’ as in the chunk that meat-eating is taking out of this once vibrant planet.
If you can’t find it in yourself to care about cruelty issues, you might at least consider your food choices in regards to the fact that animal agriculture is the “third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the energy and industrial sectors,” according to “The Case for a Carbon Tax on Beef” by Richard Conniff in the New York Times, March 17, 2018.
And as Chatham House, an influential British think tank, points out, livestock production is responsible for more greenhouse gas “ than the emissions produced from powering all the world’s road vehicles, trains, ships and airplanes combined.” Conniff adds, “including grazing, the business of making meat occupies about three-quarters of the agricultural land on the planet.”
Call it food for thought, but what you eat is actually affecting our weather these days.
Jim Robertson

The Case for a Carbon Tax on Beef


CreditIgor Bastidas

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, we just can’t imagine that, for instance, floods, mudslides, wildfires, biblical droughts and back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes are going to be a serious problem in our lifetimes. And we certainly don’t make the connection to the food on our plates, or to beef in particular.

Paying the Price for Polluting

The production of beef has a larger impact on the environment than that of any other meat or dairy product. A tax based on carbon emissions could increase the price of beef by up to 41 percent in supermarkets.

The cattle industry would like to keep it that way. Oil, gas and coal had to play along, for instance, when the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency instituted mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. But the program to track livestock emissions was mysteriously defunded by Congress in 2010, and the position of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association at the time was that the extent of the emissions was “alleged and unsubstantiated.” The association now goes an Orwellian step further, arguing in its 2018 policy book that agriculture is a source of offsets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture, including cattle raising, is our third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the energy and industrial sectors. At first glance, the root of the problem may appear to be our appetite for meat generally. Chatham House, the influential British think tank, attributes 14.5 percent of global emissions to livestock — “more than the emissions produced from powering all the world’s road vehicles, trains, ships and airplanes combined.” Livestock consume the yield from a quarter of all cropland worldwide. Add in grazing, and the business of making meat occupies about three-quarters of the agricultural land on the planet.

Beef and dairy cattle together account for an outsize share of agriculture and its attendant problems, including almost two-thirds of all livestock emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That’s partly because there are so many of them — 1 billion to 1.4 billion head of cattle worldwide. They don’t outnumber humanity, but with cattle in this country topping out at about 1,300 pounds apiece, their footprint on the planet easily outweighs ours. 

The emissions come partly from the fossil fuels used to plant, fertilize and harvest the feed to fatten them up for market. In addition, ruminant digestion causes cattle to belch and otherwise emit huge quantities of methane. A new study in the journal Carbon Balance and Management puts the global gas output of cattle at 120 million tons per year. Methane doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide. But in the first 20 years after its release, it’s 80 to 100 times more potent at trapping the heat of the sun and warming the planet. The way feedlots and other producers manage manure also ensures that cattle continue to produce methane long after they have gone to the great steakhouse in the sky. 

The French researchers, from the Toulouse School of Economics, decided to take a look at a carbon tax on beef because the European Union has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions more than half by midcentury — and that includes agricultural emissions. The ambition is to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, widely regarded as a tipping point at which cascading and potentially catastrophic effects of climate change could sweep across the planet. Their study found that a relatively steep tax, based on greenhouse gas emissions, would raise the retail price of beef by about 40 percent and cause a corresponding drop in consumption, much like the sugar tax on sodas and the tax on tobacco products.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to put a carbon tax on fossil fuel, a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions? You bet. But many people who now commute in conventional gas-fueled automobiles have no better way to get home — or to heat their homes when they get there. That broader carbon tax will require dramatically restructuring our lives. A carbon tax on beef, on the other hand, would be a relatively simple test case for such taxes and, according to the French study, only a little painful, at least at the household level: While people would tend to skip the beef bourguignon, they could substitute other meats, like pork and chicken, that have a much smaller climate change footprint.

The tax would also reduce the substantial contribution of beef and dairy cattle to water pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss and human mortality. (A 2012 Harvard School of Public Health study found that adding a single serving of unprocessed red meat per day increases the risk of death by 13 percent.) Those factors have already driven down beef consumption in the United States by 19 percent since 2005.

Zohra Bouamra-Mechemache, a co-author of the French study, readily acknowledged that the proposed carbon tax on beef has no chance of becoming reality, “not even in Europe” and certainly not in the United States. Our politicians continue to regard the beef industry as, well, a sacred cow. And even if the rest of us acknowledge the reality of climate change, we tend to put off actually doing much about it in our own lives. It’s a J. Wellington Wimpy philosophy: We want our hamburgers today, on a promise to pay on some future Tuesday, probably in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Still, the idea of a carbon tax on beef makes me think. I crave the aroma of beef, from a burger, or a barbecue brisket cooked low and slow. It’s just harder to enjoy it now when I can also catch the faint whiff of methane lingering 20 years into our increasingly uncertain future.

Stephen Hawking Was Right to Worry About Our Impending Doom

Stephen Hawking
Photo: AP

Physicist Stephen Hawking died today at the age of 76. In the latter stages of his illustrious career, Hawking devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to issuing warnings of future threats—from the perils of climate change and nuclear war through to artificial superintelligence and alien invasions. And for this he was often ridiculed. But here’s the thing: Hawking was right—and it would be incumbent upon all of us to heed his advice.

When Hawking wasn’t talking about Euclidean quantum gravity, naked singularities, or radiation seeping from black holes, there’s a good chance the Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics was doing his best Chicken Little impersonation, telling a global audience that the sky above would soon give way, should we choose to keep ignoring it.

For Hawking, there was no shortage of ways in which the sky could fall. Early in his career he warned us about comets and asteroids, but by the mid-aughts he began to focus his attention on self-inflicted wounds. In 2006, at the age of 64 and with virtually nothing left to prove, Hawking posed the following open question online: “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” Over 25,000 people chimed in with their own opinions, with many asking Hawking for his own advice. “I don’t know the answer,” he replied. “That is why I asked the question.”

That same summer, and in another sign of his mood shift, Hawking told a news conference in Hong Kong that life on Earth “is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.” This time around, however, he volunteered an answer to the problem: colonize other planets or perish.

Hawking’s view of humanity had turned grim, and by 2010 he was warning of alien invasions, saying, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.” In her 2012 book, Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work, author Kitty Ferguson wrote about the physicist’s view of computer viruses and why he thought they were a new form of life. “Maybe it says something about human nature, that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive,” said Hawking. “Talk about creating life in our own image.”

More recently, Hawking began to voice his concerns about artificial intelligence. In 2014, he famously said that AI was our “worst mistake in history,” and he signed an open letter warning of AI risks, alongside like-minded public figures including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, physicist Sir Martin Rees, and biologist George Church. “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand,” he wrote in an Independent op-ed with computer scientist Stuart Russell and physicists Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek. “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.” A year later, he added his name to an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous killing machines.

By this point in his career, Hawking began to sound like a droning bell. His repeated calls for off-world colonization in the face of such risks as “climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth” began to sound monotonous, and people began to tune him out—Gizmodo included. Except for the tabloids, of course, who cheerily repeated his dire warningswithout pause.

Doom fatigue aside, Hawking’s death provides us with an opportunity to reflect on his warnings. As someone who has written extensively about the many ways humanity could end its tenure on Earth, I have very little to complain about when it comes to the late physicist’s views.

It sucks to hear, but he was right. We’re in big trouble. And we need to do something about it.

Last year, for example, Oxford’s Global Priorities Project listed asteroid impacts, global warming, artificial intelligence, and global pandemics among humanity’s most pressing near-term risks. With the shifting geopolitical climate, we have no choice but to worry—yet again—of nuclear war. Hawking’s view of malevolent aliens may have violated popular conceptions of friendly extraterrestrial visitors, but he was right to be terrified. At the same time, there’s no shortage of potential existential risks in our future, whether it be from a poorly programmed artificial superintelligence, a nanotechnology-powered apocalypse, or a retreat into a dystopian totalitarian dark age.

Of course, Hawking didn’t come up with these threats from thin air, nor was he the only one making such warnings. He just happened to be exceptionally vocal about it, and because of his extraordinary reach, he was able to communicate his message to a large global audience. That’s why he got branded as a Chicken Little, and why we became so inclined to associate these doom-and-gloom scenarios exclusively to him.

The best way to honor Hawking’s legacy, in my opinion, is to take inspiration from his admonitions and his persistency. He may have sounded misanthropic at times, but his warnings came from a good place. Despite the physical hardships he had to endure for so many years, Hawking never gave the impression that he gave up on his own life, and by virtue of his ceaseless warnings, he never gave up on humanity either.

Yes, the future looks scary—but as Hawking reiterated time and time again, the worst thing we can do when threats appear on the horizon is to plant our heads firmly in the ground.

What does eating meat have to do with extreme weather conditions like this week’s snowstorms? Quite a lot, actually

The top five meat and dairy corporations have higher greenhouse gas emissions than oil giant Exxon – if we’re going to have a ‘Green Brexit’, let’s start by examining how we eat

Reducing meat production and meat eating has the potential to avert climate catastrophe. That sounds dramatic, but consider the facts. Livestock farming is responsible for as much as 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – higher than all forms of transport combined. And a recent report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy revealed that the top five meat and dairy corporations have higher greenhouse gas emissions than oil giant Exxon.

This week I hosted a debate in the European Parliament on how we can reduce the climate impact of our diets based on a new report about tackling climate change through plant protein agriculture. Just 5 per cent of European consumers in 2016 followed a vegetarian diet compared with 19 per cent in Asia. And to feed the animals that eventually end up as meat on our plates requires the import of vast amounts of protein crops – especially soy – in the form of animal feed. This in turn contributes to deforestation in Latin America where large-scale intensive farms grow GMO soya to feed our animals.

The UK climate provides the perfect conditions for growing plant protein – largely peas and beans – for direct human consumption. Fava beans are but one example of the huge potential. They add essential nitrogen to soil, provide food beneficial to insects and are highly nutritious.

Hemp seeds are another. They can be grown almost anywhere, require low inputs of fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides and need little water, land and maintenance. Despite the potential, for farmers and consumers alike, the UK currently only assigns about 16 per cent of agricultural land to the growing of protein crops.

For farmers, protein crops can be incorporated into sustainable crop rotation systems and help a shift away from intensive chemical-reliant monocultures. They also have the rare ability to take nitrogen from the air and capture it in soil, reducing the need for expensive and environmentally damaging nitrogen fertilisers. For consumers, protein crops offer a more affordable source of protein than meat with many health benefits including being a good source of iron and fibre.

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EU production of protein crops is tiny compared with consumption. Just 2.5 per cent of soya beans consumed in the EU are grown in the EU. A consultation launched recently by the Commission demonstrates a growing recognition of our over-dependency on protein imports for animal feed and the need for greater self-sufficiency. It is the first step in developing an EU-wide protein plan. As Greens, we are pushing for more protein crops to be grown on arable land and that one or two protein crops are incorporated into crop rotations. We also want to see a greater use of EU-grown protein plants for fodder for animals.

It is important to stress that this is not about demonising or alienating livestock farmers, but providing alternatives and encouraging more diversified diets with less dependence on meat for protein. There would also be huge environmental benefits, from reduced methane emissions (from farms) and carbon emissions (from transporting animals) through to protecting forests and wildlife from massive monoculture plantations.

Given the benefits of increasing home-grown protein crops, you would expect the idea to be part of the Government’s consultation on the future for food, farming and the environment in a “Green Brexit”, launched this week. But it receives no mention at all.

This week, extreme weather has been in the news: the “Beast of the East” bringing cold weather and blizzards to the UK, as well as the Arctic experiencing unprecedented warmth. This prompted one climate scientist to comment: “There are further surprises in store as we continue to poke the angry beast that is our climate.”

Changing the way we grow, produce and eat food is not only essential to tame this “angry beast”; it is also one of the easier ways we can transition to a low carbon economy and lifestyle. We just need the right economic incentives and political will to make it happen.