Tuesday, September 27, 2011

If Only the Cows Would Stop Farting

I spent too many hours yesterday afternoon debating the whole climate change conspiracy ... and I use those terms purposely - not because *I* believe it's a conspiracy, but because the people with whom I was discussing the issue believe it's a conspiracy.

It started with a comment that went something like: If you want to get those global warming cultists to shut the hell up, ask them what's the ideal temperature of the earth and at what temperature is it "too hot" or "too cold."

Me, being me, I just had to comment, and I did, and it was a very long, drawn out (I know, so surprising, right?) explanation that included a couple of facts ... or at least truths that some of us believe at this point in time.

Scientists seem to agree that the average temperature of the earth - right now - is 59°F, which seems to be an ideal temperature, as most of the earth is currently able to sustain human life. Climatologists seem to agree that if the earth were to warm only 12°F on average, that would be enough to make significant areas of the world unhabitable for humans.

In response to those truths, one woman wanted to debate how we knew. She asked things like how do we know the "average" temperature and how do we know what the "average" temperature was 100, 150, 300 years or more ago, and is it possible that temperatures have always fluctuated wildly, and were we measuring the temperatures when the dinosaurs were here?

Her, not terribly articulate questioning, was really to point out, that perhaps, we humans are not responsible for the increase in temperature, and of course, that's a very common argument. The follow-up being that since we're not responsible, then we can do nothing about it, so shut the hell up and pass the Doritos.

The problem is that those arguments are, kind of, unsupported, and in fact, there is some body of research to suggest that, maybe, humans are responsible. So, no we haven't had continguous documentation of global temperatures for the earth's entire history, but we have been documenting temperatures for the last 150 years, and there are, what are believed to be, some pretty accurate temperature readings from as long ago as the fifteenth century.

But all of that aside, scientists have been able to take ice core samples from places that have been iced-over for a very long time, and based on these samples, they are able to determine what the C02 levels for the last six hundred thousand years have been. Based on these samples, they are able to mark on a timeline the beginning of the industrial revolution and are able to map the increase in CO2 levels. We're assuming that these increases are due to an increased use of fossil fuels, which, when burned, release CO2 into the atmosphere.

In response to that data, one person wanted to discuss cow farts, and how those are the real culprit in the increase in CO2 levels. I replied that it wasn't really the cow farts, but the sludge lagoons, which are mostly poop, which, as it biodegrades, releases methane, which is, indeed, a greenhouse gas, and yes, has been implicated in the increase in average global temperatures, but it's not CO2. The primary culprit in the increased CO2 levels is the burning of fossil fuels.

**Of course, *we*, humans, ARE directly responsible for the "cow-farts" - are we not? - thanks to breeding programs and the millions of beef cattle living (if you can call it that) in feedlots. So, if cow farts really are the cause, and it's not burning coal or driving cars, we can, simply, stop eating CAFO beef and using dairy products. Fewer cows = fewer farts and less methane in the atmosphere. Easy-peasy. Problem solved.**

Accompanying the cow-fart argument was the statement that since the 1970s we've been making significant changes in reducing the amount of CO2 we've been pumping into the atmosphere. In fact, I'm told, there are no more "home-based coal burners" in use any more. Really? Perhaps that's true here in the US, but there are places in the world where coal is still being used as a primary fuel for cooking and heating.

The bigger issue, though, is food production and the fact that if the world's temperatures increase - even by a measly 12°F - what once grew, here in Maine for instance, would no longer survive. I used maple sugaring as my example.

In order for the sap to flow, the maple tree has to go dormant - we call that "winter" here in Maine ;). In the very late winter/early spring, when the days are above freezing, but the nights are still below freezing, and snow around the base of the maple trees melts, the sap will run up from the roots into the trunk and then, branches of the tree.

Anyone who's ever seen a maple tap will note that there is a hole in the bottom of the tap. What happens is as the sap flows up from the ground, some of it goes into the little hole in the tap, and drips out into the bucket. During the day, when it's warm and the sap is running, we can actually hear the sap dripping into the bucket. At night, when the temperature drops, the sap goes back down into the roots, and the next day, if it's warm, the sap will run again.

If the temperature were to rise too much, we wouldn't have maple syrup anymore, and one woman suggested, "why not just tap earlier?"

I didn't answer that we have been tapping earlier - every year. It used to be well-known that maple sugaring season was in March. In fact, the traditional "Maple Syrup Sunday" here in Maine is the last weekend of March. However, we have been tapping our trees in February, and by the second week in March, the tapping is over. It's too warm to tap anymore. We might have three, good weeks, of sap running.

Perhaps this isn't unusual, and certainly a couple of years is too short of a time to prove the global warming theory, but my point is that if the right conditions don't exist - a period of dormancy, warm days combined with freezing nights - there will be no maple syrup, because the trees simply won't be able to produce the product.

But it's not just maple trees. Apply that same logic - that plants need certain conditions in order to grow and produce - to other crops, and then imagine what happens if we don't have those conditions in the places of the world where most of the crops are grown.

Global warming doesn't just mean that it will be a little hotter. It also means that the weather patterns will change, and places where hurricanes are unheard of, will start to experience them, and places where there was always enough rain will not have any, and places where there is a lot of snow might not have much, but places where there's never been snow will start to get it. But it also means that there will be places where we, humans, can no longer survive (check out this discussion on wet bulb temperatures).

Of course, then, the argument was that the Global Warming cultists are in it for the money, but I have to wonder how true that is. Perhaps there will be some money to be made - in particular by people in the alternative energy industries, but after many decades, the alt. energy purveyors are still struggling, and most of us "cultists" know that there is no equivalent energy source to fossil fuels. We know the real answer is to reduce rather than replace. My hunch is that the people who are the most staunchly opposed to the changes that would need to be made stand to gain a lot more than those who are in favor of making changes.

To wit:

Most of the changes that must be made would involve the "using of less." We'd have more farmers, because they'd all be local, and they wouldn't be using as much gasoline or oil-based fertilizers, because they'd also be raising the cows and pigs, and the manure would fertilize the crops rather than chemical fertilizers. We'd be doing a lot more by hand, which means less electricity, which means less coal burning. We'd be buying fewer "new" consumer goods (although all bets are off with regard to how much people would be willing to spend on thrifting ;).

Under the label of "global warming cultist", I will include such people as those who have organized and participated in projects like Riot4Austerity, the goal of which is to reduce by 90%, our overall consumption, which means getting down to using 10% of the average electricity, gasoline/oil, natural/propane gas, water, garbage, and consumer goods. If their project were successful, we'd all be using only 10% of what we (Americans/Westerners) use today.

If we're buying and consuming less, that means we're spending less, which means there is less money. So, my question is, how are the "Global Warming Cultists" making all of this cash?

I didn't go into all of that, except to say that there are often dollar signs somewhere near the bottom line of any political movement, and this global warming issue has become very political.

Of course, the bottom line for the people who were discussing this issue with me was one of freedoms and rights, and being a completely conservative, right-wing bunch, their primary concern was with regard to forced austerity measures that would require them to change their lifestyles. In short, they could not care less about whether the world really is warming, but they will fight to the death to keep the "liberals" from taking away their televisions and incandescent lightbulbs.

What struck me as kind of sad and rather narcissistic, though, was how very egocentric their arguments were. I talked about the global implications of climate change, in particular how certain areas would be unhabitable - like coast lines, and one woman quipped that migration away from the coastlines would be a good thing - would keep people from being "blown to smithereens by hurricanes."

Okay, true, sort of ... except when Irene came up into New England, it wasn't the people along the coast who were most affected, but rather the people who were many miles inland, and would never, not in a million years, have believed that they needed to prepare for a "hurricane."

It's just not that simple.

There are 98 million people living on the US east coast. If the coast floods and people can't live here, where should those 98 million people migrate? I wonder if she wants all of us to be her neighbors (as she obviously doesn't live on the coast). When Hurricane Irene came up the coast a few weeks ago, low-lying areas of Manhattan experienced some flooding. Over a million people live in Manhattan which has a population density of 70,000 people per square mile. For reference, Maine's largest city, Portland, has a population density of about 3000 people per square mile. One square mile is around 650 acres. Most resources suggest that one acre of land is needed to feed one person.

That said, perhaps, her argument has some validity. The US is a VAST, largely uninhabited continent, and the there is still enough land available that if we wanted to move inland, we probably could - especially if we keep the highways open and the trucks running - i.e. we don't need waterways or railways to transport goods.

Unfortunately, climate change won't just affect us, here in the US. Global warming is just that - the whole globe, the WHOLE earth. Every continent, every person, every plant and animal, will be affected. So, we can have a very cavalier attitude about a mass migration of a paltry 98 million from the US east coast, but it's not just us.

Sixty percent of China's 1.6 BILLION people live in the 12 coastal provinces. If predictions about rising water levels come true, where should those nine hundred and sixty million people go? I'll tell you where many of them are going - at least the ones who can afford it ... they're coming here. I wonder how that woman feels about that.

Of course, if global warming predictions come true, we'll have simultaneous coastal flooding AND increasing wet bulb temperatures in many of the interior States. In fact, places like Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia will be too hot for humans during much of the year, when the temperatures rise above 100°F on average, and the humidity levels make it impossible for our bodies to cool themselves (see, again, the discussion on wet bulb temperatures.

On the one issue, we all agreed - the changes that need to be wrought should be on an individual, grassroots level rather than by governmental decree, and I was careful to stress - numerous times - that the changes really are very simple ... and cost-effective.

But my main point was this: what do we have to lose by making the changes? What do we have to gain?

If the global warming "cultists" are wrong, and we have voluntarily simplified our lives by making some very easy, and ultimately cost-saving changes, we have a little more money to spend on things we might like, rather than spending it on gasoline and electricity.

If they are right ....

So, the question remains - what do we have to lose by living differently? There's certainly a lot to gain by voluntarily simplifying our lives.


  1. You might also point out that when those people migrate inland, they will, of necessity, be forced to inhabit land that currently produces food.

    This means food costs will continue to rise for that woman herself.

    As for those who argue that large portions of the US are empty land I would suggest a brief geography lesson. Those parts of the US are empty bc. they are not inhabitable (they are desert). These climate change deniers should all offer to move to the salt flats of Utah. See how much you could grow there, folks.

    My MIL is considering a move from Oklahoma which has become unbearable in the last two years.

    While she is just uncomfortably hot (she didn't leave her house for weeks at a time this summer) her farmer neighbors produced substantially less food due to the heat. In a few more years, they will not be able to grow much of anything there. The blossoms drop off the tomatoes and beans before they can fruit out.... This food disaster is looming and no one is paying attention to it.


  2. Thanks, Victoria. Great points.

    I wouldn't say "no one is paying attention", though. You are. I am. That's two, and it's a start ;).

  3. The more I read about the problems with climate change, the more I want to move back to my home state. Wisconsin sounds really good right about now.....

  4. Very interesting post... until the political slamming.

  5. @ Karen - with all due respect - I wasn't "slamming" any particular political ideology, and I wasn't talking about "conservatives" in general, but really about the people with whom I had the conversation. They are politically conservative, and their opinion is that global warming is a farce perpetuated by some entity that wishes to take their money or force them into some undesirable lifestyle. That's what they said - in not so many words. So, my commentary was not about any political party, but really was in reference to particular individuals who hold a particular ideology that forms their core beliefs. As such, I it was appropriate to use that terminology, because it is their very conservative political leanings - by their own admission - that make them question the validity of the climate change science.

    For the record, I'm neither conservative nor liberal, although many people think I'm the latter :). I think our political system is just two sides of the same coin and the entire coin is tarnished, and as I told my friends (and these people are my friends, even though our opinions differ greatly), I would fight just as hard as they against any legislation that forced austerity measures, but I also think that those changes need to be made. We need to do it voluntarily, and I'm not so naive to think most people will volunteer to give things up, but my goal as a blogger and with my book is to get people to think about their choices and not just do things because that's what they do.

    I'm sorry if you were offended. It wasn't meant to be a political rant ;).

  6. Heck, it shouldn't be a political rant at all. But large corporations don't want the short-term impact to their bottom line and have managed to rile up the far too large army of the ignorant on the topic. If you'd have managed to engage them in a wider-ranging discussion, you probably would have found that they think the earth is 6000 years old & dinosaurs coexisted with humans.

  7. Honestly, I'm having trouble buying into either side of the global warming thing. Though I believe that 12 degrees could cause some drastic changes, 2 degrees plus or minus just seems like a reasonable variance. The world goes in and out of ice ages - how many degrees brought that on and back off again?

    Regardless, I've been cutting back on energy use in many ways, but for other reasons. 1) We are stewards of what is in our keeping while we are here and we should use, but not be wasteful of the earth's resources. 2) Importing OPEC oil is bad for us in many regards. 3) Excessive pollution is not so good for living things. 4) Thriftiness has saved my butt more than once. 5) I have a fascination with self-reliance. 6) Our future could hold terrible hardships and the sooner we can adjust and prepare ourselves, the better.

    So, different paths, somewhat similar destination?

    I do admire your passion.

    brenda from arkansas