Climate change is likely the single greatest threat currently facing humanity, and the other species on this planet. The only other crisis of this magnitude is nuclear weapons. While that threat persists, there have at least been some success in controlling the proliferation of atomic weapons. The previous generation made it through the Cold War. Now, this generation has to deal with a warming planet.
Despite extreme push-back from fossil fuel companies and a general reluctance on the part of many governments to take the threat seriously, we now have nearly unanimous scientific consensus that human activities are causing the planet to heat up at a rate unlike anything life on this planet has had to experience before. Yes, the world has warmed in the past. But the speed now with which the temperature is changing is unlike what our evolutionary ancestors faced millions of years ago.
We are only now witnessing the first clear signs of a changing climate. Already, we have a drought in California and much of the United States like we have never seen. The arctic ice is melting, transforming reflective, cooling ice into heat-absorbing water, accelerating the rate of warming. We know what is causing these changes. We have the capacity to reign in our greenhouse gas emissions. But we aren’t.
The greenhouse effect is a fairly simple process, which scientists have understood for nearly two hundred years now. If it weren’t for the greenhouse effect, the planet would be too cold to support life as we know it. By releasing carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that have been stored in the Earth, we have pushed this natural process severely out of equilibrium.
When light from the Sun reaches the Earth, a good chunk of that energy bounces off the planet. If it weren’t for our atmosphere, all of that reflected solar energy would simply escape back into space, and the plant would be considerably colder. But the presence of certain gases in the atmosphere capture some of the reflected solar energy, which radiates back towards the Earth as heat.
The CO2 which is released in the burning of fossil fuels is one of those gases. The atmosphere is enormous, and C02 is actually an incredibly small component. Currently, there are 400 parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere. We know from examining ice cores that there is supposed to be about 300ppm. And that level is still rising.
Agriculture and Greenhouse Gases
Agriculture, transportation, and energy production are the three leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. While agriculture doesn’t produce much C02, it is a leading producer of methane gas and nitrous oxide, other powerful greenhouse gases. Methane is potentially over 30 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2 The methane produced by the flatulence of cattle, sheep, and goats is a major source of greenhouse gases. Agriculture is responsible for:
- 18-30% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
- 9% of global CO2 emissions
- 35-40% of methane emissions, primarily from farm animals
- 64% of nitrous oxide emissions
- Globally, 70% of all agricultural land is used for livestock production.
This does not only raise serious ethical questions about the treatment of animals on farms, it draws into focus the ecological dilemma of our global food system.
There is a sort of dark romance to the phenomenon of global warming. Sunlight which was captured and stored by plants millions of years ago became trapped under the Earth as oil, gas, and coal. When we burn those fuels, we release that ancient solar energy. But we are still receiving as much energy from the Sun as we ever have, and so we’ve overloaded the system. We’re simply overheating the planet.
The release of greenhouse gases has been accompanied with rapid deforestation over the past two centuries. Rain forests are ripped up for palm oil plantations, or for pasture for cattle. Peat bogs are drained to be converted into farmland or other uses, and the peat moss is sold off as a medium for growing house plants. But these natural systems are the Earth’s natural mechanism for recycling carbon out of the atmosphere — that’s how the fossil fuels were created in the first place, by being absorbed into the bodies of plants.
We are certainly faced with a crisis. Luckily, solutions exist. Renewable energy technology is progressing by leaps and bounds. We no longer have to rely on coal and oil to provide for our energy needs. Canada and the U.S are the 6th and 7th highest per-capita energy consumers. By reducing our use of frivolous energy and switching to renewable sources, we could see a big reduction in carbon emissions. We need to combine personal, responsible consumer decisions with political activity to make change on a global level.
So much of the emissions in agriculture come from animal farming. There are many reasons why the farming of animals is problematic. This is another big one. So much of the food we grow is meant to feed cows, pigs and chickens, and most of the land which we clear for farms is used to raise animals that we don’t need to eat.
The planet is in crisis. We need to start acting like it so that we can make the appropriate changes in our lives and in our culture. To learn more about how you can be part of the solution, see our Ways to Help page.