Meating In The Middle: The Challenge of Lowering Greenhouse Gas Emissions On Farms

Originally published on May 20, 2019 7:33 am

Cow guts are quite the factory. Grass goes in, microbes help break it down and make hydrogen, then other microbes start converting it to another gas. In the end, you get methane, manure and meat.

One of those things is not like the other. Methane emissions are considered the second-worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, according to Stanford University professor Rob Jackson.

Agriculture is the leading producer of methane emissions in the U.S., with animal digestion producing almost as much as oil and gas operations. So, one way to reduce that is to just stop eating beef, right? That’s what researchers near and far believe, including Paul West at the University of Minnesota.

“As an individual, one of the biggest effects that we can have [to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture] is changing what we’re eating to eating a smaller amount of beef,” said West, who is co-director and lead scientist of the Global Landscapes Initiative, which aims to balance future food needs with ag sustainability.

However, West and Jackson also advocate for sustainable agriculture systems to mitigate climate change. Just don’t go getting rid of all those gassy ruminants. They’re likely a key part.

Various seedlings sprouted by the dozens in early May on PrairiErth Farm near Atlanta, Illinois.

Beefing up on sustainability

Molly is not one to be left behind.

The old Great Pyrenees followed Dave Bishop’s Gator as he drove around his 350-acre operation called PrairiErth Farm. Here, Oreo cows coexist with all kinds of crops and vegetables either coming up in the fields or in hoop houses. And the friendly relationship between his two chickens and the cat? “It’s just not right!” he said, smiling and chuckling.

Dave Bishop stands in one of his hoop houses, which was heating up in the sunshine.

In the mid-20th century, U.S. farms used to look a lot more like Bishop’s, but many were sold or consolidated as farmers looked to economies of scale to stay afloat.

Bishop bought this land in central Illinois as the ’80s farm crisis set in. But it was the 1988 drought that forced him to change his farm’s makeup.

“Everything burned up in the field and it became pretty apparent that we had to do something differently then,” he said. “So we just began looking for things to reduce costs. If I have livestock, I can generate some more fertility. If I have more than just corn and soybeans to sell, I have more diverse marketing opportunities.”

He’s turned to regenerative agriculture, which means creating a sustainable farming operation that isn’t too hard on the landscape and involves everything from cover crops to diverse crop rotations to drainage water management.

Climate change is a real concern of his, as is staying economically sound. That’s why he says any regenerative farm system needs to integrate animals and shift toward diversity in plants and livestock.

West also mentioned the need for crop diversity, saying that large-scale corn production is an issue in the Midwest — and not because farmers are seeing low prices on the billions of bushels grown each year.

“Even though we grow [corn] much more efficiently than a number of places around the world, because corn is a crop that is requiring a tremendous amount of fertilizer …it still affects our climate a lot,” he said.

Dave Bishop only has a few chickens, which roam about near the house and have a friendship with the cat.

Remember the cow methane? Agriculture generates two other problematic greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The latter is boosted by excess nitrogen fertilizer applications, and is about 300 times more potent than carbon emissions (though it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon or methane emissions).

The future of agriculture

Researchers are making inroads to reducing the amount of methane individual cows produce, feeding them seaweed or other kinds of supplements. Some are even looking to breed cows that naturally make less methane.

However, the animal’s gut microbes that produce methane also help the animal — cut out too many, and that could be toxic. Because of that, Jackson said, “there is no way, that I can see, where we reduce methane emissions completely.”

There are also some perennial crops on the horizon, like wheat and miscanthus (a grass that could be grown for biofuel), that can sequester more carbon because the root-dense soil won’t need to be disturbed to replant every year. Those will likely take years to be adopted by the agriculture sector, though.

In the meantime, Colorado State University professor Keith Paustian said we know enough to start making a dent in ag emissions.

He helped create some of the first methods to calculate greenhouse gas emissions from country to country. He also helped create the COMET-farm tool, which allows farmers to calculate their own greenhouse gas emissions and recommends ways to reduce them.

While the prospect of land use changes could help farms sequester more carbon emissions than they put off, he said that’s not the only solution for climate change or even reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Brussels sprout starter plants sit in the sunshine at PrairiErth Farm. Exposing them to wind outside encourages them to grow stronger root systems, according to farmer Dave Bishop.

Bishop at PrairiErth Farm said vilifying cows won’t help when it comes to finding more sustainable agriculture operations, which he said will need both plants and animals. Researchers need to listen to farmers, he said, and farmers need to listen to researchers, too.

Because at the end of the day, he said, it’s about making sure there’s food for the future, “so we’ve got to get this right.”

This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called “Middle America’s Low-Hanging Carbon: The Search for Greenhouse Gas Cuts from the Grid, Agriculture and Transportation.” The effort, led by nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, includes 14 newsrooms in the Midwest, and aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change. For more, go to the project page.

Follow Madelyn on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

US warns China, Russia over Arctic amid environmental shifts

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Trump administration is moving to assert America’s presence in the Arctic. He’s warning China and Russia that the U.S. won’t stand for aggressive moves into the region that’s rapidly opening up to development and commerce as temperatures warm and sea ice melts.

Pompeo says in a speech in Finland that the U.S. will compete for influence in the Arctic and counter attempts to make it the strategic preserve of any one or two nations. He says rule of law must prevail for the Arctic to remain peaceful.

The speech comes a day before Pompeo attends a meeting of the Arctic Council at a time of profound shifts in the region’s environment and widespread criticism of the Trump administration’s skepticism of climate change

Climate Crisis Forces Us to Ask: To What Do We Devote Ourselves?

During the times when I’m being as emotionally honest with myself as I’m capable — when I truly ponder the idea that this industrialized version of our species may well have already baked enough warming into Earth’s life-supporting biosphere that all of us may very well be on the way out — I feel at a total loss as to what to do.

From that point of numbness, my life force begins to ask, “What next, then?” Cycling through this process for years since I’ve been reporting on the climate crisis, and most intensely during the research and field trips for my book The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, circumstances (namely my own grief and despair) have inevitably forced me into contending with my emotions.

I’ve learned, through a lot of pain and struggling, that the only way forward is to allow myself to deeply feel and express the fear, rage, shock, panic, sadness, anxiety and despair. Only then can I move into a place of taking some of the deep breaths which accompany acceptance of the grave situation at hand.

Do you feel the emptiness inside when you become aware of emperor penguin chicks drowning from collapsing ice resulting from planetary warming? Or the fear that comes when we understand our ability to feed ourselves is now very much under threat?

First: Accepting Reality

When you read of how 1.5 acres of rainforest are vanishing everysinglesecond, does your heart clench in fear? Or when the last of another of the rare frogs existing within said rainforest is lost from this world forever, do you shed the tears that come from a seemingly impotent sadness?

When you come to understand what co-founder of Extinction RebellionRoger Hallam, himself a former organic farmer, has previously told the public, all of these feelings set in even more deeply. In the aforementioned lecture, to paraphrase Hallam, he pointed out how we have already warmed the planet 1.2 degrees Celsius (1.2°C). Based on observational data, we are easily within a decade of losing the summer sea ice in the Arctic. Within another decade, Earth will warm another .5°C due to the melting ice alone. There is already another .5°C warming to come from CO2 that has already been emitted but we’ve yet to experience the warming. The water vapor effect from these events (and other processes already in motion) doubles the impact of warming from other sources, adding another 1°C warming. Hence, at 3°C warming, most of the Amazon rainforest is lost, which in itself adds another 1.5°C of warming. At this point, most likely, Earth is tipped into a hothouse state, possibly into conditions that render it uninhabitable by humans.

Perhaps you might think this sounds too extreme, the stuff of science fiction. If so, consider this: the level of CO2 in the atmosphere today hasn’t been seen in 12 million years, and this level of greenhouse gas is rapidly bringing Earth back into the state it was in during the Eocene Epoch, 33 million years ago, when there was no ice on either of the poles.

At that point, there was very little temperature difference between the poles and the equator, according to Harvard University Professor James Anderson, who is best known for establishing that chlorofluorocarbons were damaging the ozone layer, in an interview with Forbes magazine.

“The ocean was running almost 10ºC warmer all the way to the bottom than it is today,” Anderson said, “and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere would have meant that storm systems would be violent in the extreme, because water vapor, which is an exponential function of water temperature, is the gasoline that fuels the frequency and intensity of storm systems.”

He warned of the folly of those who believe we can recover from this track we are on simply by reducing CO2 emissions — unless we undertake a deeply radical transformation of industry and the economic system, coupled with halting carbon emissions alongside removing what is already in the atmosphere, all within five years’ time.

“The chance that there will be any permanent ice left in the Arctic after 2022 is essentially zero,” Anderson said, while reminding us that 75 to 80 percent of the permanent ice has already melted in just the last 35 years.

Anderson warned that people have failed to come to grips with this, along with the pending collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which by itself will raise sea levels seven meters.

“When you look at the irreversibility and you study the numbers, this along with the moral issue is what keeps you up at night,” Anderson said.

Second: How Shall We Be?

“My sense is that only seldom is the problem that we “don’t know” — or, at any rate, that we don’t know enough,” Chris Goode, author of The Forest and the Field, has written. “The real problem is that we don’t have a living-space in which to fully know what we know, in which to confront that knowledge and respond to it emotionally without immediately becoming entrenched in a position of fear, denial and hopelessness.”

On Earth Day I was part of a panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The panel discussion, titled “Chroniclers of the Climate Apocalypse,” was comprised of climate journalist Oliver Milman, climate and health reporter Sheri Fink, and myself.

During the Q and A session, someone asked me a question along the lines of this: “What do you do, Dahr, or how are you being, with the grieving that comes from how far along we already are?”

I laughed dryly, thought for a brief moment, and then answered honestly: “I don’t know? I get to figure it out all over each day. Each time I give one of my book readings, it is different, because I’m having to evolve every day.”

And that is my truth.

My unsettledness around the question arises for two reasons: One, it always forces me to look into my heart to answer, rather than my head, which means I must experience all of the emotions brought about by the crisis within which we all must live; secondly, when I do this the right way, each moment it shifts and I must live on those emotional front lines, caretaking myself alongside listening, deeply, for what I am called to do next for the planet.

For Roger Hallam, his 20 years of organic farming connected him deeply enough to Earth that when a series of climate-disruption-fueled floods made it impossible for him to continue, he knew what he needed to do: work on his Ph.D. research on the dynamics of political power with particular reference to radical campaign design.

He then co-founded Extinction Rebellion, a group that describes itself as “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimize the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.”

I asked Hallam why it is imperative for people to rebel.

“Life is short and all we really know is that it pays to live a good life — whatever happens,” he said. “And that means the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This rule is broken in the most grotesque way … particularly by way of what we are doing to our kids.”

To those who feel there is no point in rebelling or taking other actions for the betterment of the planet, who feel that all is lost, Hallam had this to say: “We are in this life to do good, not to bargain with outcomes that are out of our control, anyhow.”

In other words, it is imperative to do what we can to protect the planet, even without a guarantee of success.

Third: To What Are We Devoted?

By way of the corporate capitalist industrial growth culture within which most of us have been raised and immersed, we have become disconnected from the planet we are so deeply part of. This, I believe, is the root cause of the climate crisis we now find ourselves in. Hence, the first step toward answering the question of “how to be” during this time, which must be answered before any of us can decide “what to do,” is to connect ourselves back to the planet. For we cannot begin to walk until our feet are on the ground.

Each day I wake and begin to process the daily news of the climate catastrophe and the global political tilt into overt fascism. The associated trauma, grief, rage and despair that come from all of this draws me back to the work of Stan Rushworth, Cherokee elder, activist and scholar, who has guided much of my own thinking about how to move forward. Rushworth has reminded me that while Western colonialist culture believes in “rights,” many Indigenous cultures teach of “obligations” that we are born into: obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself.

Hence, when the grief and rage threaten to consume me, I now orient myself around the question, “What are my obligations?” In other words, “From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?

Each of us must ask ourselves this question every day, as we face down catastrophe.

Would You Change Your Eating Habits to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?

What did you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner yesterday?

Take this short quiz to find out how much your choices contribute to climate change. Then, tell us: How did you score? How do your eating habits compare with those of other Americans?

In “Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered,” Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart answer questions about the impact that food shopping, cooking and eating habits have on climate change:

Does what I eat have an effect on climate change?

Yes. The world’s food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year. That includes raising and harvesting all the plants, animals and animal products we eat — beef, chicken, fish, milk, lentils, kale, corn and more — as well as processing, packaging and shipping food to markets all over the world. If you eat food, you’re part of this system.

How exactly does food contribute to global warming?

Lots of ways. Here are four of the biggest: When forests are cleared to make room for farms and livestock — this happens on a daily basis in some parts of the world — large stores of carbon are released into the atmosphere, which heats up the planet. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they burp up methane, another potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Animal manure and rice paddies are also big methane sources. Finally, fossil fuels are used to operate farm machinery, make fertilizer and ship food around the globe, all of which generate emissions.

Which foods have the largest impact?

Meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have an outsize impact, with livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year. That’s roughly the same amount as the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today.

In general, beef and lamb have the biggest climate footprint per gram of protein, while plant-based foods tend to have the smallest impact. Pork and chicken are somewhere in the middle.

Is there a simple food choice I can make that would reduce my climate footprint?

Consuming less red meat and dairy will typically have the biggest impact for most people in wealthy countries. That doesn’t necessarily mean going vegan. You might just eat less of the foods with the biggest climate footprints, like beef, lamb and cheese. If you’re looking for substitutes, pork, chicken, eggs and mollusks have a smaller footprint. But plant-based foods like beans, pulses, grains and soy tend to be the most climate-friendly options of all.

How much would changing my diet actually help?

It varies from person to person. But a number of studies have concluded that people who currently eat a meat-heavy diet — including much of the population of the United States and Europe — could shrink their food-related footprint by one-third or more by moving to a vegetarian diet. Giving up dairy would reduce those emissions even further.

If you don’t want to go that far, there are still ways to shrink your individual footprint. Just eating less meat and dairy, and more plants, can reduce emissions. Cutting back on red meat in particular can make a surprisingly large difference: According to a World Resources Institute analysis, if the average American replaced a third of the beef he or she eats with pork, poultry or legumes, his or her food-related emissions would still fall by around 13 percent.

Students, read the rest of the green “Big Picture” section of the article, then tell us:

— What were the most interesting or surprising facts about climate change and food you learned? What questions do you still have?

— How climate-friendly is your diet? Do you tend to eat a lot of meat and dairy? Or do your meals mostly consist of plant-based foods? How do you feel about the impact your eating habits have on the environment?

— Why do you choose to eat the way you do? Do your parents do most of the meal planning, food shopping and cooking? Do you make any personal choices based on moral, religious, environmental or health reasons? Or, do you just simply eat what tastes good?

— After the “Big Picture” introduction, the article goes on to detail five specific areas that contribute to climate change: Meat, Seafood, Dairy, Plants, and Shopping and Food Waste. Choose one and read the related section. What did you learn about this topic? If you were to alter your diet in this area to make it more environmentally-friendly, what changes would you have to make? How difficult would these changes be for you and why?

— Now that you know more about the impact your eating habits have on the environment, would you actually be willing to change any of them to reduce your carbon footprint? If so, what specific changes would you make and why? If not, why not?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.


Beto O’Rourke now has the most robust climate proposal of any 2020 presidential candidate

But some activists think the plan doesn’t go far enough.

2020 presidential contender Beto O’Rourke toured Yosemite National Park on Monday, where he announced his $5 trillion plan to fight climate change. 
Beto O’Rourke/Twitter

Former Democratic Texas representative, 2020 presidential contender, and table-standerBeto O’Rourke on Monday released a new policy proposal, what he called “the most ambitious climate plan in the history of the United States.” While not entirely aligned with the Green New Deal resolution, the broad framework introduced to Congress in February, it’s the most comprehensive climate policy proposal put out by any 2020 contender to date.

Embedded video

Beto O’Rourke


Heading into Yosemite National Park to talk about our historic climate action plan. Follow along throughout the day and read the plan at 

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O’Rourke is pitching big numbers and ambitious targets: $5 trillion in new investments, halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s his first major policy proposal and it’s a stab at distinguishing himself from the crowded field of 2020 presidential candidates on a major issue for Democratic primary voters. An April Monmouth Universitypoll of Iowa Democratic voters showed that climate change was the second-most important issue to voters after healthcare.

But getting more specific with his policies also opens him up to scrutiny and criticism. The plan has already drawn a scolding from activists who claimed right off the bad O’Rourke should have offered more aggressive goals. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a fellow 2020 presidential contender, responded to the new plan by attacking O’Rourke’s record in Congress. These reactions are revealing a fissure between candidates and environmental activists who keep pushing further, a gap that could haunt both sides come election day.

O’Rourke’s climate plan brings more specifics and a narrower scope

The proposal lays out a four-pronged approach to how an O’Rourke administration will tackle climate change. That includes 1) executive action, 2) mobilizing $5 trillion over 10 years to invest in a clean energy transition, 3) guaranteeing net-zero emissions by 2050, and 4) preparing vulnerable communities for the impacts of climate change.

O’Rourke pulls no punches in laying out the stakes.

“Climate change is the greatest threat we face — one which will test our country, our democracy, and every single one of us,” he writes on his website.

Among its provisions, O’Rourke’s framework attaches dollar amounts to some specific line items, like $250 billion to research and development. It include grants for job training as part of its path to a cleaner economy, but for the most part, it’s narrowly focused on climate and energy — cutting emissions and creating alternatives.

Out of the top-line $5 trillion number, roughly $3.5 trillion in O’Rourke’s climate plan is allocated through tax incentives, loans, and other financing mechanisms for infrastructure, research, resilience, and clean energy deployment. The $1.5 trillion outlay would be funded by “structural changes to the tax code” that end tax breaks to fossil fuel companies and raise rates on corporations and top earners. Of that, $1.2 trillion would to grants for sustainable housing, transportation, public health, farming, and start-ups.

In that sense, O’Rourke’s climate plan actually looks quite a bit like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in that it leverages a big chunk of public money and tax incentives to finance public infrastructure projects and spur innovation. In O’Rourke’s case, the aim to curb energy consumption and boost cleaner fuels and electricity sources.

However, it takes more than wind turbines and solar panels to fight climate change; you have to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing fuel sources. And despite the attrition of coal, overall energy use, including fossil fuels, is still rising in the United States.

But rather than a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, O’Rourke is anchoring a legally binding net-zero emissions standard by 2050. “This standard will send a clear price signal to the market while putting in place a mechanism that will ensure the environmental integrity of this endeavor — providing us with the confidence that we are moving at least as quickly as we need in order to meet a 2050 deadline,” according to O’Rourke’s proposal. This doesn’t rule out pricing carbon but instead focuses on setting definitive goal posts.

While there is some funding allocated for job training, O’Rourke doesn’t include a federal jobs guarantee, a key element in the Green New Deal. And O’Rourke counts on market forces and incentives to move the needle toward cleaner energy to greater extent than the authors of the Green New Deal.

The backlash to O’Rourke’s proposal, explained

The Sunrise Movement, an activist group promoting the Green New Deal, immediately criticized the new proposal, not for its provisions, but for its timeline.

“Unfortunately, Beto gets the science wrong and walks back his commitments from earlier this month in Iowa to move to net-zero emissions by 2030,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise, wrote in a statement Monday. “Beto claims to support the Green New Deal, but his plan is out of line with the timeline it lays out and the scale of action that scientists say is necessary to take here in the United States to give our generation a livable future.”

It’s true that O’Rourke said he wanted net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 during a campaign stop in early April. But that’s not in line with what scientists say is necessary. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that in order to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, the world must halve greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 2030, get to zero net emissions by 2050, and go negative thereafter.

Getting to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century is already an incredibly ambitious target. Getting there in 10 years is damn near impossible.

Eric Holthaus


My main concern with Beto’s plan is that net zero by 2050 is a global goal, not a U.S. goal. The U.S. goal needs to be much much more ambitious than that in order to motivate deeper cuts internationally that are consistent with the 1.5 degree target. 


Okay. In my professional opinion, it is not really feasible to imagine a net zero transition by 2030, and the GND Resolution itself does not call for such a timeline. But I can see how you’d reach that conclusion from the IPCC report.

See JesseJenkins’s other Tweets

Back in March, Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and analyst with Carbon Brief, ran through, sector by sector, the extraordinary list of things that would need to happen in a 10-year mobilization to net-zero emissions vs. a 30-year mobilization.

Zeke Hausfather@hausfath

The targets set in the proposed Green New Deal are a bit ambiguous. It suggests a 10-year mobilization, but does not necessarily set a goal of net-zero carbon by 2030. Lets explore the impact of the goals on the climate and the challenge of mitigation *epic thread*. 1/27

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And even the Green New Deal’s framers aren’t aiming for net-zero emissions by 2030. My colleague David Roberts directly asked Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), one of authors of the Green New Deal resolution, if this was the target. The senator emphatically said no.

Yet Sunrise at first said that the Green New Deal calls for a 10-year mobilization to meet 100 percent of US power demand with zero-emissions sources.

Update, Wednesday, 2:21 pm: Prakash released another statement acknowledging that the Green New Deal cited the IPCC target of net-zero emission by 2050, but that “2050 is too late.”

Sunrise Movement 🌅


Our statement on the controversy around @BetoORourke‘s climate plan:


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Other environmental groups had a more favorable read of O’Rourke’s proposal. “This plan to confront the climate crisis is the kind of leadership we need from our next president,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, wrote in a statement.

O’Rourke isn’t counting on Congress to drive climate policy

Should O’Rourke take the oath of office in 2021, he says he will reenter the Paris climate agreement, implement rules to cut emissions of super-potent greenhouse gases like methane and hydrofluorocarbons, set tighter clean air rules, ramp up appliance efficiency standards, demand clean energy procurement from federal contractors, and end new fossil fuel leases on public lands.

Some states might sue to block these changes, but they are grounded in existing legal authorities and are likely the most feasible parts of his climate agenda, especially if Congress remains just as gridlocked after the next election.

Still, a comprehensive, enduring climate policy would still have to go through the House and Senate at some point. Lawmakers pushing the Green New Deal show no sign of letting up so far, but with the Senate filibuster in place, most meaningful climate policies have grim prospects barring a massive sweep in the next election. (O’Rourke has broached getting rid of the filibuster.)

O’Rourke deserves credit for going beyond simply giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on the Green New Deal like other presidential contenders. And it’s likely other candidates will soon weigh in with more robust climate proposals of their own. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as already taken a stab at climate policy through her plan for public lands released in April, which also calls for ending new leases for fossil fuel extraction. Her proposal adds a commitment to generate 10 percent of US electricity from renewables on public lands.


Renowned British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough has warned that we are facing “global catastrophe” if we do not act rapidly to deal with climate change.

Attenborough, 92, made the comments in a new one-off program for the BBC titled Climate Change: The Facts, which airs in the U.K tonight.

“In the 20 years since I first started talking about the impact of climate change on our world, conditions have changed far faster than I ever imagined,” Attenborough says in the film, Radio Times reported.

“It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies,” he said. “We’re running out of time but there’s still hope. I believe that if we better understand the threat we face, the more likely it is that we can avoid such a catastrophic future.”

Using interviews with several leading researchers in the field, the program investigates the science of climate change; the impact it could have on humans and the natural world if major reductions in carbon emissions are not made; and potential solutions to this “global threat.”

“One degree Celsius global warming may not sound like much, but it’s having a dramatic effect on our weather,” Peter Stott from the U.K. Met Office says in the film. “We’re seeing extreme heat in southern Africa, Japan, North America, in the U.K. as well. So it doesn’t mean to say that every single weather event is due to climate change. But what [it] does mean, is that with the baseline climate having changed, then the frequency of the extreme temperatures is increasing.”

Richard Black, from the Energy and Climate Change Intelligence Unit, adds: “Often the question is did climate change cause a certain event, and you can never really answer that question. But what scientists do is to look at whether climate change made a certain event more or less likely or more or less intense.”

As well as climate experts, the program also briefly features Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who sparked a global movement last year when she began striking on school days.

Thunberg began her “School Strike for the Climate” by protesting alone—initially—outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm every Friday. Her activism soon attracted the attention of the media, inspiring similar protests by young people around the world.

“My future and everyone else’s future is at risk and nothing is being done, no one is doing anything, so then I have to do something,” Thunberg says in the film, Radio Times reported. “So I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament, and I decided that I wasn’t going to go to school.

“The first day I sat all alone. Then the second day people started joining me. I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that this would happen. It happened so fast.”

David AttenboroughDavid Attenborough on stage during UKTV Live 2016 at BFI Southbank on September 6, 2016, in London.DAVE J HOGAN/DAVE J HOGAN/GETTY IMAGES

Climate change: Sir David Attenborough warns of ‘catastrophe’

Media captionViewers can watch Climate Change – The Facts on BBC One, Tonight at 9pm

Sir David Attenborough has issued his strongest statement yet on the threat posed to the world by climate change.

In the BBC programme Climate Change – The Facts, the veteran broadcaster outlines the scale of the crisis facing the planet.

Sir David says we face “irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies”.

But there is still hope, he says, if dramatic action to limit the effects is taken over the next decade.

Sir David’s new programme lays out the science behind climate change, the impact it is having right now and the steps that can be taken to fight it.

“In the 20 years since I first started talking about the impact of climate change on our world, conditions have changed far faster than I ever imagined,” Sir David states in the film.

“It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”

Speaking to a range of scientists, the programme highlights that temperatures are rising quickly, with the world now around 1C warmer than before the industrial revolution.

“There are dips and troughs and there are some years that are not as warm as other years,” says Dr Peter Stott from the Met Office.

“But what we have seen is the steady and unremitting temperature trend. Twenty of the warmest years on record have all occurred in the last 22 years.”

The programme shows dramatic scenes of people escaping from wildfires in the US, as a father and son narrowly escape with their lives when they drive into an inferno.

Scientists say that the dry conditions that make wildfires so deadly are increasing as the planet heats up.

GreenlandImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionGreenland is losing ice five times as fast as it was 25 years ago

Some of the other impacts highlighted by scientists are irreversible.

“In the last year we’ve had a global assessment of ice losses from Antarctica and Greenland and they tell us that things are worse than we’d expected,” says Prof Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds.

“The Greenland ice sheet is melting, it’s lost four trillion tonnes of ice and it’s losing five times as much ice today as it was 25 years ago.”

These losses are driving up sea levels around the world. The programme highlights the threat posed by rising waters to people living on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, forcing them from their homes.

“In the US, Louisiana is on the front line of this climate crisis. It’s losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet – at the rate of of a football field every 45 minutes,” says Colette Pichon Battle, a director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy.

LouisianaImage copyrightJULIE DERMANSKY
Image captionPeople are moving from parts of Louisiana in the US as a result of rising waters

“The impact on families is going to be something I don’t think we could ever prepare for.”

Hope rising

Sir David’s concern over the impacts of climate change has become a major focus for the naturalist in recent years.

This has also been a theme of his Our Planet series on Netflix.

His new BBC programme has a strong emphasis on hope.

Sir David argues that if dramatic action is taken over the next decade then the world can keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5C this century. This would limit the scale of the damage.

“We are running out of time, but there is still hope,” says Sir David.

“I believe that if we better understand the threat we face the more likely it is we can avoid such a catastrophic future.”

The programme says that rapid progress is being made in renewable energy, with wind now as cheap as fossil fuels in many cases. It shows how technologies to remove and bury carbon dioxide under the ground are now becoming more viable.

But politicians will need to act decisively and rapidly.

“This is the brave political decision that needs to be taken,” says Chris Stark from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change.

GretaImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionTeenage campaigner Greta Thunberg has helped spark school strikes all over the world

“Do we incur a small but not insignificant cost now, or do we wait and see the need to adapt. The economics are really clear on this, the costs of action are dwarfed by the costs of inaction.”

The programme also highlights the rising generation of young people who are deeply concerned about what’s happening to the planet.

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg explains that things can change quickly, despite the scale of the challenge on climate change.

“The first day I sat all alone,” she says, speaking of her decision to go on strike from school and sit outside the Swedish parliament to highlight the climate crisis.

“But on the second day, people started joining me… I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that this would have happened so fast.”

“Change is coming whether you like it or not.”

Follow Matt on Twitter@mattmcgrathbbc

Climate Change – The Facts is on BBC One on Thursday 18 April at 9pm

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Climate change made the Arctic greener. Now parts of it are turning brown.

Warming trends bring more insects, extreme weather and wildfires that wipe out plants

7:00AM, APRIL 11, 2019
Alaska landscape

TUNDRA IN TROUBLE  In southern Alaska in 2012, geometrid moths and other insects heavily defoliated alder bushes and other shrubs (brown patches in this aerial photo).

The Chugach people of southern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula have picked berries for generations. Tart blueberries and sweet, raspberry-like salmonberries — an Alaska favorite — are baked into pies and boiled into jams. But in the summer of 2009, the bushes stayed brown and the berries never came.

For three more years, harvests failed. “It hit the communities very hard,” says Nathan Lojewski, the forestry manager for Chugachmiut, a nonprofit tribal consortium for seven villages in the Chugach region.

The berry bushes had been ravaged by caterpillars of geometrid moths — the Bruce spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) and the autumnal moth (Epirrita autumnata). The insects had laid their eggs in the fall, and as soon as the leaf buds began growing in the spring, the eggs hatched and the inchworms nibbled the stalks bare.

Chugach elders had no traditional knowledge of an outbreak on this scale in the region, even though the insects were known in Alaska. “These berries were incredibly important. There would have been a story, something in the oral history,” Lojewski says. “As far as the tribe was concerned, this had not happened before.”

At the peak of the multiyear outbreak, the caterpillars climbed from the berry bushes into trees. The pests munched through foliage from Port Graham, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, to Wasilla, north of Anchorage, about 300 kilometers away. In summer, thick brown-gray layers of denuded willows, alders and birches lined the mountainsides above stretches of Sitka spruce.

Salmonberries are widely harvested during the summer in southern Alaska’s coastal regions. The shrubs have been hit hard by moth damage in recent years. 


Two summers ago, almost a decade after the first infestation, the moths returned. “We got a few berries, but not as many as we used to,” says Chugach elder Ephim Moonin Sr., whose house in the village of Nanwalek is flanked by tall salmonberry bushes. “Last year, again, there were hardly any berries.”For more than 35 years, satellites circling the Arctic have detected a “greening” trend in Earth’s northernmost landscapes. Scientists have attributed this verdant flush to more vigorous plant growth and a longer growing season, propelled by higher temperatures that come with climate change. But recently, satellites have been picking up a decline in tundra greenness in some parts of the Arctic. Those areas appear to be “browning.”

Like the salmonberry harvesters on the Kenai Peninsula, ecologists working on the ground have witnessed browning up close at field sites across the circumpolar Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland to northern Norway and Sweden. Yet the bushes bereft of berries and the tinder-dry heaths (low-growing shrubland) haven’t always been picked up by the satellites. The low-resolution sensors may have averaged out the mix of dead and living vegetation and failed to detect the browning.

Scientists are left to wonder what is and isn’t being detected, and they’re concerned about the potential impact of not knowing the extent of the browning. If it becomes widespread, Arctic browning could have far-reaching consequences for people and wildlife, affecting habitat and atmospheric carbon uptake and boosting wildfire risk.

Growing greenbelt

The Arctic is warming two to three times as fast as the rest of the planet, with most of the temperature increase occurring in the winter. Alaska, for example, has warmed 2 degrees Celsius since 1949, and winters in some parts of the state, including southcentral Alaska and the Arctic interior, are on average 5 degrees C warmer.

An early effect of the warmer climate was a greener Arctic. More than 20 years ago, researchers used data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellites to assess a decade of northern plant growth after a century of warming. The team compared different wavelengths of light — red and near-infrared — reflecting off vegetation to calculate the NDVI, the normalized difference vegetation index. Higher NDVI values indicate a greener, more productive landscape. In a single decade — from 1981, when the first satellite was launched, to 1991 — the northern high latitudes had become about 8 percent greener, the researchers reported in 1997 in Nature.

The Arctic ecosystem, once constrained by cool conditions, was stretching beyond its limits. In 1999 and 2000, researchers cataloged the extent and types of vegetation change in parts of northern Alaska using archival photographs taken during oil exploration flyovers between 1948 and 1950. In new images of the same locations, such as the Kugururok River in the Noatak National Preserve, low-lying tundra plants that once grew along the riverside terraces had been replaced by stands of white spruce and green alder shrubs. At some of the study’s 66 locations, shrub-dominated vegetation had doubled its coverage from 10 to 20 percent. Not all areas showed a rise in shrub abundance, but none showed any decrease.

In 2003, Howard Epstein, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and colleagues looked to the satellite record, which now held another decade of data. Focusing on Alaska’s North Slope, which lies just beyond the crown of the Brooks Range and extends to the Beaufort Sea, the researchers found that the highest NDVI values, or “peak greenness,” during the growing season had increased nearly 17 percent between 1981 and 2001, in line with the warming trend.

Brown among the green

As the Arctic warms up, it’s getting greener, but some pockets have been going brown instead. Satellite imagery and ecologists on the ground have observed browning in the circled areas on this map.


Earth-observing satellites have been monitoring the Arctic tundra for almost four decades. In that time, the North Slope, the Canadian low Arctic tundra and eastern Siberia have become especially green, with thicker and taller tundra vegetation and shrubs expanding northward. “If you look at the North Slope of Alaska, if you look at the overall trend, it’s greening like nobody’s business,” says Uma Bhatt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Yet parts of the Arctic, including the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of western Alaska, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (the islands north of the mainland that give Canada its pointed tip) and the northwestern Siberian tundra, show extensive browning over the length of the satellite record, from the early 1980s to 2016. “It could just be a reduction in green vegetation. It doesn’t necessarily mean the widespread death of plants,” Epstein says. Scientists don’t yet know why plant growth there has slowed or reversed — or whether the satellite signal is in some way misleading.

“All the models indicated for a long time that we would expect greening with warmer temperatures and higher productivity in the tundra, so long as it wasn’t limited in some other way, like [by lower] moisture,” says Scott Goetz, an ecologist and remote-sensing specialist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is also the science team lead for ABoVE, NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, which is tracking ecosystem changes in Alaska and western Canada. “Many of us were quite surprised … that the Arctic was suddenly browning. It’s something we need to resolve.”

Freeze-dried tundra

While global warming has propelled widespread trends in tundra greening, extreme winter weather can spur local browning events. In recent years, in some parts of the Arctic, extraordinary warm winter weather, sometimes paired with rainfall, has put tundra vegetation under enormous stress and caused plants to lose freeze resistance, dry up or die — and turn brown.

From 2002 to 2009, two moth species defoliated as much as a third of the mountain birch trees that stretch across northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. By 2014, some trees had recovered (top) while others had not (bottom).


Gareth Phoenix, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Sheffield in England, recalls his shock at seeing a series of midwinter timelapse photos taken in 2001 at a research site outside the town of Abisko in northern Sweden. In the space of a couple of days, the temperature shot up from −16° C to 6° C, melting the tundra’s snow cover.“As an ecologist, you’re thinking, ‘Whoa! Those plants would usually be nicely insulated under the snow,’ ” he says. “Suddenly, they’re being exposed because all the snow has melted. What are the consequences of that?”

Arctic plants survive frigid winters thanks to that blanket of snow and physiological changes, known as freeze resistance, that allow plants to freeze without damage. But once the plants awaken in response to physical cues of spring — warmer weather, longer days — and experience bud burst, they lose that ability to withstand frigid conditions.

Top: Healthy crowberry shrubs grow among mountain cranberry in Abisko, Sweden, in September 2005. Bottom: A 2013 midwinter warming event near Tromsø, Norway, melted the snow. By May, these crowberry plants turned reddish brown from severe stress. When this happens, the leaves eventually turn brown, then wilt, turn gray and fall off.


That’s fine if spring has truly arrived. But if it’s just a winter heat wave and the warm air mass moves on, the plants become vulnerable as temperatures return to seasonal norms. When temporary warm air covers thousands of square kilometers at once, plant damage occurs over large areas. “These landscapes can look like someone’s gone through with a flamethrower,” Phoenix says. “It’s quite depressing. You’re there in the middle of summer, and everything’s just brown.”Jarle Bjerke, a vegetation ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Tromsø, saw browning across northern Norway and Sweden in 2008. The landscape — covered in mats of crowberry, an evergreen shrub with bright green sausagelike needles — was instead shades of brown, red-brown and grayish brown. “We saw it everywhere we went, from the mountaintops to the coastal heaths,” Bjerke says.Bjerke, Phoenix and other researchers continue to find brown vegetation in the wake of winter warming events. Long periods of mild winter weather have rolled over the Svalbard archipelago, the cluster of islands in the Arctic Ocean between Norway and the North Pole, in the last decade. The snow melted or blew away, exposing the ground-hugging plants. Some became encrusted in ice following a once-unheard-of midwinter rainfall. In 2015, the Arctic bell heather, whose small white flowers brighten Arctic ridges and heaths, were brown that summer, gray the next and then the leaves fell off. “It’s not new that plants can die during mild winters,” Bjerke says. “The new thing is that it is now happening several winters in a row.”

Insect invasion

The weather needn’t always be extreme to harm plants in the Arctic. With warmer winters and summers, leaf-eating insects have thrived, defoliating bushes and trees beyond the insects’ usual range. “They’re very visual events,” says Rachael Treharne, an Arctic ecologist who completed her Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield and now works at ClimateCare, a company that helps organizations reduce their climate impact. She remembers being in the middle of an autumnal moth outbreak in northern Sweden one summer. “There were caterpillars crawling all over the plants — and us. We’d wake up with them in our beds.”

In northernmost Norway, Sweden and Finland in the mid-2000s, successive bursts of geometrid moths defoliated 10,000 square kilometers of mountain birch forest — an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico. The outbreak was one of Europe’s most abrupt and large-scale ecosystem disturbances linked to climate change, says Jane Jepsen, an Arctic ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

Three effects

The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. The higher temperatures have led to browning in some areas due to:

Extreme weather
Midwinter warming awakens plants, which then freeze as temperatures dive.
Moth infestations
Insects thrive and move into new areas to eat plants.
Dry plants plus more lightning leads to blackened land.

“These moth species benefit from a milder winter, spring and summer climate,” Jepsen says. Moth eggs usually die at around −30° C, but warmer winters have allowed more eggs of the native autumnal moth to survive. With warmer springs, the eggs hatch earlier in the year and keep up with the bud burst of the mountain birch trees. Another species — the winter moth (O. brumata), found in southern Norway, Sweden and Finland — expanded northward during the outbreak. The spring and summer warmth favored the larvae, which ate more and grew larger, and the resulting hardier female moths laid more eggs in the fall.

While forests that die off can grow back over several decades, some of these mountain birches may have been hammered too hard, Jepsen says. In some places, the forest has given way to heathland. Ecological transitions like this could be long-lasting or even permanent, she says.

Smoldering lands

Once rare, wildfires may be one of the north’s main causes of browning. As grasses, shrubs and trees across the region dry up, they are being set aflame with increasing frequency, with fires covering larger areas and leaving behind dark scars. For example, in early 2014 in the Norwegian coastal municipality of Flatanger, sparks from a power line ignited the dry tundra heath, destroying more than 100 wooden buildings in several coastal hamlets.

Sparsely populated places, where lightning is the primary cause of wildfires, are also seeing an uptick in wildfires. Scientists say lightning strikes are becoming more frequent as the planet warms. The number of lightning-sparked fires has risen 2 to 5 percent per year in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska over the last four decades, earth system scientist Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and his colleagues reported in 2017 in Nature Climate Change.

In 2014, the Northwest Territories had 385 fires, which burned 34,000 square kilometers. The next year, 766 fires torched 20,600 square kilometers of the Alaskan interior — accounting for about half the total area burned in the entire United States in 2015.

In the last two years, wildfires sent plumes of smoke aloft in western Greenland (SN: 3/17/18, p. 20) and in the northern reaches of Sweden, Norway and Russia, places where wildfires are uncommon. Wildfire activity within a 30-year period could quadruple in Alaska by 2100, says a 2017 report in Ecography. Veraverbeke expects to see “more fires in the Arctic in the future.”

The loss of wide swaths of plants could have wide-ranging local effects. “These plants are the foundation of the terrestrial Arctic food webs,” says Isla Myers-Smith, a global change ecologist at the University of Edinburgh. The shriveled landscapes can leave rock ptarmigan, for example, which rely heavily on plants, without enough food to eat in the spring. The birds’ predators, such as the arctic fox, may feel the loss the following year.

The effects of browning may be felt beyond the Arctic, which holds about half of the planet’s terrestrial carbon. The boost in tundra greening allows the region to store, or “sink,” more carbon during the growing season. But carbon uptake may slow if browning events continue, as expected in some regions.

Treharne, Phoenix and colleagues reported in February in Global Change Biology that on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, extreme winter conditions cut in half the heathlands’ ability to trap carbon dioxidefrom the atmosphere during the growing season.

Yet there’s still some uncertainty about how these browned tundra ecosystems might change in the long-term. As the land darkens, the surface absorbs more heat and warms up, threatening to thaw the underlying permafrost and accelerate the release of methane and carbon dioxide. Some areas might switch from being carbon sinks to carbon sources, Phoenix warns.

On the other hand, other plant species — with more or less capacity to take up carbon — could move in. “I’m still of the view that [these areas] will go through these short-term events and continue on their trajectory of greater productivity,” Goetz says.

A better view

The phenomena that cause browning events — extreme winter warming, insect outbreaks, wildfires — are on the rise. But browning events are tough to study, especially in winter, because they’re unpredictable and often occur in hard-to-reach areas.

On Svalbard in the Arctic in 2015, extreme weather killed flowering mountain avens, but purple saxifrage survived.


Ecologists working on the ground would like the satellite images and the NDVI maps to point to areas with unusual vegetation growth — increasing or decreasing. But many of the browning events witnessed by researchers on the ground have not been picked up by the older, lower-resolution satellite sensors, which scientists still use. Those sensors oversimplify what’s on the ground: One pixel covers an area 8 kilometers by 8 kilometers. “The complexity that’s contained within a pixel size that big is pretty huge,” Myers-Smith says. “You have mountains, or lakes, or different types of tundra vegetation, all within that one pixel.”At a couple of recent workshops on Arctic browning, remote-sensing experts and ecologists tried to tackle the problem. “We’ve been talking about how to bring the two scales together,” Bhatt says. New sensors, more frequent snapshots, better data access and more computing power could help scientists zero in on the extent and severity of browning in the Arctic.

Researchers have begun using Google Earth Engine’s massive collection of satellite data, including Landsat images at a much better resolution of 30 meters by 30 meters per pixel. Improved computational capabilities also enable scientists to explore vegetation change close up. The European Space Agency’s recently launched Sentinel Earth-observing satellites can monitor vegetation growth with a pixel size of 10 meters by 10 meters. Says Myers-Smith: “That’s starting to get to a scale that an ecologist can grapple with.”

Earth’s carbon dioxide levels highest in 3 million years, study says


Ocasio-Cortez: We reacted to 9/11, so where’s the reaction on climate change?

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., appeared on MSNBC Friday to address the Green New Deal with host Chris Hayes and discussed the dire world she’s convinced lies ahead for Americans if climate change is not addressed.

“So this issue is not just about our climate. First and foremost we need to save ourselves. Period. There will be no future for the Bronx. There will be no livable future for generations coming, for any part of this country in a way that is better than the lot that we have today if we don’t address this issue urgently and on the scale of the problem,” said Ocasio-Cortez.


The freshman congresswoman believes America has seen dire situations before and mobilized, but mostly in connection with conflict and war. “Historically speaking, we have mobilized our entire economy around war. But I thought to myself it doesn’t have to be that way, especially when our greatest existential threat is climate change,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“First and foremost we need to save ourselves. Period.”

— U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

“And so to get us out of this situation, to revamp our economy to create dignified jobs for working Americans, to guarantee health care and elevate our educational opportunities and attainment, we will have to mobilize our entire economy around saving ourselves and taking care of this planet.”

Ocasio-Cortez also addressed critics of the Green New Deal legislation she’d co-sponsored, after MSNBC played a montage of Republicans and pundits, including some on Fox News, criticizing her and talking about “cow farts” and accusing her of wanting to take away their “hamburgers.”

“I didn’t expect them to make total fools of themselves,” Ocasio-Cortez said, saying she expected the criticism.


The congresswoman also said Hurricane Maria and the devastation caused on Puerto Rico was a sign that climate change problems are “here,” invoking the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and criticizing the government for the lack of response.

“You know that this is here. This is not something that’s coming. … On the events of September 11 2001, thousands of Americans died in one of the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. And our national response — whether we agree with that or not — our national response was to go to war in one, then eventually two countries. Three thousand Americans died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Where’s our response?” Ocasio-Cortez said to loud applause.