Banner
    Why Cattle-Driven Global Warming Is A Load Of Bull
    By Patrick Lockerby | March 22nd 2010 10:29 PM | 25 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Patrick

    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

    View Patrick's Profile
    Why Cow-Driven Global Warming Is A Load Of Bull


    All animals breathe in air and then breathe it out again.  This astounding fact, seemingly new to some web users, has nothing whatsoever to do with global warming.

    Some people are still seemingly astonished to find that cows breathe out air deficient in oxygen and with a surfeit of CO2.  They eagerly report this brand new finding to a breathless crowd of eager supporters of any 'proof' that humans are not responsible for the inexorable rise in global CO2.

    Edit: 
    in response to a perfectly sound criticism from Here is why the 'cows cause global warming' argument is a load of bull.

    There is sound scientific evidence to show that CO2 emissions have been rising since about 1860, with a sharp upturn in the trend about 1910.  These dates relate to a rise in coal use and a rise in oil use respectively.  What was the world like before about 1860, and why was there a boom in coal use?

    One of the driving forces behind the global growth of the steam railways was the need to get meat to markets rapidly and cheaply.  Before the railways, animals were moved in great herds on cattle drives, most notably in the USA and Australia.  Many songs preserve the collective memory of these drives and trails - for example the Chisholm Trail to Abiline, Kansas.

    Just as the steam railway was developed from a need to get product from mines to industry, so the geographical extension of the railways was driven in large part by the need to get meat into the cities.  Railways were driven from cities to railheads where animals were brought in vast numbers.  The Abiline, Texas railhead, established 1881, was named after the former end of the cattle drive in Kansas.



    Of course, the US railroad system was begun long before the first cattle railhead was established.  One of the USA's earliest locomotives saw first service in 1831.  It was named John Bull.  History does not record whether this was to honor the loco's country of origin - the UK - or to caricature the British people.



    In the early days of the globalisation of railways, many locos were wood burners.  Coal was a better fuel: it provided more energy for less volume than wood.  With the expansion of the railways, more coal was transported and fewer trees were available for fuel.

    And so we have a period during which ever larger herds of animals were being transported by the burning of, at first mainly wood from deforestation, later mostly coal.  This should show up in the CO2 records.

    Animal populations in the age of steam

    The following paragraphs are taken from The World As Modified By Human Action, George P. Marsh, 1874.
    According to the census of the United States for 1870,  the total number of horses in all the States of the American Union, was, in round numbers, 7,100,000; of asses and mules, 1,100,000; of the ox tribe, 25,000,000; of sheep, 28,000,000; and of swine, 25,000,000.

    The only indigenous North American quadruped sufficiently gregarious in habits, and sufficiently multiplied in numbers, to form really large herds, is the bison, or, as he is commonly called in America, the buffalo; and this animal is confined to the prairie region of the Mississippi basin, a small part of British America, and Northern Mexico. The engineers sent out to survey railroad routes to the Pacific estimated the number of a single herd of bisons seen within the last fifteen years on the great plains near the Upper Missouri, at not less than 200,000, and yet the range occupied by this animal is now very much smaller in area than it was when the whites first established themselves on the prairies.

    But it must be remarked that the American buffalo is a migratory animal, and that, at the season of his annual journeys, the whole stock of a vast extent of pasture-ground is collected into a single army, which is seen at or very near any one point only for a few days during the entire season. Hence there is risk of great error in estimating the numbers of the bison in a given district from the magnitude of the herds seen at or about the same time at a single place of observation; and, upon the whole, it is neither proved nor probable that the bison was ever, at any one time, as numerous in North America as the domestic bovine species is at present.

    Summing up the whole, then, it is evident that the wild quadrupeds of North America, even when most numerous, were few compared with their domestic successors, that they required a much less supply of vegetable food, and consequently were far less important as geographical elements than the many millions of hoofed and horned cattle now fed by civilized man on the same continent.
    At the same time as the rise of railroads and herding in the USA there was a similar rise in Australia, together with a large-scale clearing of scrub and forest.  Argentina's contribution to global cattle stocks is also notable, rising sharply from about 1880 to 1920.

    Where is the record?

    If domesticated herds of animals contribute to global warming, at least one of the CO2, CH4 and temperature records should show a sharp upswing prior to about 1860 due to the rise of meat production on a global industrial scale.  In reality, the records show significant upswings only after that date.

    Image source:
    Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions
    G. Marland, T.A. Boden, and R.J. Andres
    Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division,
    Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831-6335, U.S.A.

    -------------------------
    Conclusions:

    Any theorist wishing to show that animal farming makes a significant contribution to global warming must explain why the trend in global warming does not commence with the rise of industrial scale farming.

    Related reading:

    Don't Blame Agriculture For Climate Change?

    Comments

    Could part of the issue be that global C02 rises have been found to follow rather than necessarily precede global temperature rises? Warmer temperatures engendering more microbial activity & freeing more C02 in permafrost etc?

    logicman
    Paul: to at least some extent the lead-lag CO2-temperatures problem can be put down to the fact that, despite what text books say, the lower atmosphere is not well mixed in the short term. 

    Heat can travel by conduction into the land and ocean, and by re-emission as radiation and convection. CO2 and other gases can only travel by convection.  It can take from 1 to 2 years for an influx of CO2 to be well mixed.  This would account for the first 2 years of any lead-lag noted.  I am still investigating this and will write up what I discover.
    This post is a bit silly, as it doesn't attempt to discuss or quantify the actual effect or emissions of the animals. The temperature record in the period you're talking about is not entirely accurate, so why attempt to tie everything back to it?

    Cattle produce methane and cause deforestation, especially in countries like Brazil. To a large extent, the resultant emissions are measurable. If you accept that greenhouse gases cause temperatures to rise, then our food beasts are part of the equation. If not, go have a hamburger.

    logicman
    This post is a bit silly, as it doesn't attempt to discuss or quantify the actual effect or emissions of the animals. The temperature record in the period you're talking about is not entirely accurate, so why attempt to tie everything back to it?

    Cattle produce methane and cause deforestation, especially in countries like Brazil. To a large extent, the resultant emissions are measurable. If you accept that greenhouse gases cause temperatures to rise, then our food beasts are part of the equation. If not, go have a hamburger.
    I have accepted since I first learned of it, in about 1960, that greenhouse gases cause global warming. The 'CO2 causes global warming' idea wasn't invented by Al Gore.  It comes from Arvid Gustaf Högbom, 1870-1940, Om sannolikheten för sekulära förändringar i atmosfärens kolsyrehalt (1894) - Of the likelihood of secular changes in atmospheric carbon.

    Tests of carbon-13 and carbon-14, and of amounts of CO2 and O2 in atmosphere and oceans all point to fossil fuel burning as the souce of O2 depletion and CO2 rise.

    The short explanation:
    http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/pd/climate/factsheets/areincrease...
    The longer one:
    http://cdiac.ornl.gov/epubs/ndp/ndp057/ndp057.htm

    I have no interest in spending my time quantifying cattle emissions, since the problem of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is more verifiable, more quantifiable, more serious in its implications and a whole lot easier to deal with.

    Cattle produce methane and cause deforestation, especially in countries
    like Brazil. To a large extent, the resultant emissions are measurable.
    Cattle don't cause deforestation, humans do.  If farmers didn't destroy forests for cattle, they would destroy forests for some other agricultural purpose in order to feed the world's population.

    If you accept that greenhouse gases cause temperatures to rise, then our food beasts are part of the equation.
    About 18% of the equation.  Are you seriously suggesting that we neglect the 82% of the problem in favor of imposing a veggie lifestyle on the world at large?  How will that help?

    Edited: wrong url given before -
    Don't Blame Agriculture For Climate Change?


    Am I suggesting that we ignore other emissions in favor of going veggie? Or are you making up whole-cloth statements to put in my mouth? Since you seem to have lumped me in with whoever you're railing against here, I'll clarify for you: I'm not part of them, whoever they are.

    On the other hand, I might as well join up with them, since I'm seriously in favor of scaling back beef consumption; it's a luxury good that is over-consumed for no particular reason other than an artificially low price created by various subsidies (among them, corn) and illegal practices (cutting down rain forest). Alongside emissions, you can have your pick of health issues.

    Addressing your assertion that the other 82% of the problem is "a whole lot easier to deal with" -- exactly which planet are we talking about, here? There is no easy solution to emissions, at least for the sort of economically and physically restrained reality we actually live in. Our sources of electricity, fuels and raw material all emit significant amounts of GHG, and the cost projections for alternatives are well known and not amenable to the sort of fast turnaround required, unless you subscribe to optimistic fairy tales of the sort Al Gore disingenuously spreads around.

    The most important point is that emissions are spread among many different sources. We shouldn't start selectively ignoring some of those sources for one reason or another -- in retail parlance, everything must go, or at least be cut significantly. Even if you like your hamburgers and steaks.

    logicman
    Anonymous: I apologise unreservedly for my offensive tone.  I have no excuses to offer.

    Please do continue to contribute to this debate.
    There is no easy solution to emissions, at least for the sort of economically and physically restrained reality we actually live in.

    Our economies are geared to the provision of ever more goods at ever lower prices.  Quantity discounts don't exist in nature.  In nature, the more you take the disproportionately more it costs - thermodynamics dictates the realities.

    Giving quantity discounts to buyers of energy products is a counter-natural madness that needs to be reversed.  A new tariff scheme could make more money for oil companies even whilst they cut back on production.  It could give cheaper fuel to low volume users by penalizing the most profligate.  I will be writing about that economic model soon.

    We do not need to wait for a global solution.  At the national level, any method of transferring wealth from profligate users of energy to economisers would be sufficient to cause an economic demand from both consumers and producers for lower energy devices and greener energy sources.  The reduction in national expenditure on fuels would be financially beneficial for all net importers of fossil fuels.

    That is just one thing we can do - there are many others.
    I'll trade you apologies, then, as my original comment wasn't 100% nice.

    What keeps me up at night (because I do believe in AGW) is the question of whether cheap energy is, or is not, connected to economic output and, particularly, new growth. I think it's pretty obvious that a cement or aluminum manufacturer could become more efficient if prices rose, and that the economic harm would be limited. But there are some very scary stats, from both the electricity and liquid fuel industries, that suggest that raising prices economy-wide has an unpredictably bad effect.

    I'm not an expert in the field, but to my understanding it's all pretty speculative anyway. Maybe high oil prices figured in the current recession. Maybe one of the things that makes developed countries developed is cheap energy.

    On the whole, I'm in favor of progressively raising energy prices and, well, seeing what happens. The tragedy is having to juggle that with developing new technologies and the hardest challenge of all, politics, in an unreasonably short time frame (under 50 years).

    Getting back to the cow thing, the more I think about it, the more I want the industry heavily regulated. As much because I think the agriculture lobby needs a good whipping, as anything else. Continual kow-towing to farmers (realistically, a few giant ag companies) is another testament to our screwed up political system.

    logicman
    I gladly accept your offer to trade. :-)

    Getting back to the cow thing, the more I think about it, the more I want the industry heavily regulated. As much because I think the agriculture lobby needs a good whipping, as anything else. Continual kow-towing to farmers (realistically, a few giant ag companies) is another testament to our screwed up political system.
    I'm halfway inclined to agree with you - but:

    some farmers are part of the denier lobby.  They fear - rightly - that current ideas about focus on carbon footprints will harm their pockets.  In tackling fuel-sourced CO2 emissions, we need them onside.

    We have a crazy economic system wherein the ephemeral kicking of a lump of old leather between two lumps of wood earns disgusting amounts of money, but putting food on peoples' tables earns a pittance.

    If we attack the problem via a sane fuel pricing mechanism then we can sell discounted fuel to the people who put food on our tables and charge through the nose the people who make the food wrappings that litter our streets.  ( And football stadiums :-)

    Sound fair to you?
    Sounds fair, sure, and maybe even logical (per your pseudonym). But I can't say that I think it would work. Especially in an economy in which, just to use your example, half the people who put the food on the table double as the service workers at the companies you're talking about. Come down on the companies, and they'll shift the burden to their workers. You could end up with another anti-global warming lobby to equal the farmers.

    Our economy is based on consumption and self-interested action. Maybe the former can change, but I do think that the burden will eventually have to be spread evenly between everyone to get anything done, as there are only a small handful of industries that everyone else is willing to gang up on (primarily oil). But making any significant lifestyle changes at all gets into the quagmire of proving global warming to the public, which as any denier will tell you, is "too smart" not to see the "scam". And they will remain so, as long as we're all still self-interested actors (forever) or something un-ignorable happens, i.e., significant warming.

    Hence all the global warming believers who fervently wish for a really hot year, despite fearing the geological consequences. We could remake the economy and the energy industry, but it would take a war-time psychology similar WWII, in my opinion.

    In the meantime, I'm on your side about a new pricing mechanism or, better yet, a higher gas tax. But there's already one coming. It's just too weak to do much. See points above ;)

    I thought it was the farting methane, not the exhaling used up air that was the issue with the cow population increase and global warming.

    still, cows venting at either end has little to compare to all the pollution that humans generate through our activities

    logicman
    I thought it was the farting methane, not the exhaling used up air that was the issue with the cow population increase and global warming.

    still, cows venting at either end has little to compare to all the pollution that humans generate through our activities
    Nina: I think we can agree on this - thanks for the comment.

    ... little to compare to all the pollution that humans generate through our activities
    At both ends, in my opinion.  ;-)
    adaptivecomplexity
    This post doesn't mention methane once, nor does it show in any way that methane produced by agriculture is negligible to other pollution caused by humans.
    I don't understand why you focused the entire article on CO2.
    Mike
    CO2 exhalations are politer than methane farts?

    not al agricultural pollution is from the animals various venting of gases or waste production

    a lot of it is fertilizers, chemicals, machinery, disruption of water - ground or rivers, land fills - all human activities

    animals when left to their own devices stay at population levels supported by the resources available

    humans alter the environment and use resources at an alarming rate - and are incrediblity wasteful

    in nature, everything is eaten by a chain of other things - no waste

    logicman
    This post doesn't mention methane once, nor does it show in any way that methane produced by agriculture is negligible to other pollution caused by humans.
    I don't understand why you focused the entire article on CO2.
    Michael: I do mention CH4:
    If domesticated herds of animals contribute to global warming, at least one of the CO2, CH4 and temperature records should show a sharp upswing prior to about 1860 ...
    The entire current focus on 'cows cause global warming' is a follow-on from flawed studies which showed that cows account for 3% of global CO2 emissions.  An estimate of CH4 was made and this was converted to a CO2 equivalent.  The final estimate was 18% CO2 equivalent.

    Mitloehner says confusion over meat and milk's role in climate change stems from a small section printed in the executive summary of a 2006 United Nations report, "Livestock's Long Shadow." It read: "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents).
    This is a higher share than transport."
    Don't Blame Agriculture For Climate Change?

    'Livestock's Long Shadow' is an FAO policy document which cites more policy documents - including FAO policy documents - than scientific papers.

    The bulk of global excess CO2 is from fossil fuels as proven by C-13 and C-14 studies.  Focus on cows, or other minor contributors is a red herring.  If the ship is sinking, emptying the meat locker doesn't really help much.
    adaptivecomplexity
    An estimate of CH4 was made and this was converted to a CO2 equivalent. The final estimate was 18% CO2 equivalent
    You don't say any of this in the article - you don't talk about CO2 equivalents, you talk about CO2 emissions, claiming that it's a load of bull that cows contribute substantially to CO2 increases. The issue isn't CO2, its methane.
    Mike
    logicman
    Michael: after having considered your criticism, and having just come back afresh to this after giving it some thought, I have edited my article to address the point you raise.  I have inserted these words:

    One of the sources of CO2 that is being ignored is of geologic origin. What many people don't realize is that places where there is a huge magma chamber beneath the ground--even if there is no volcanic activity--CO2 can seep through the ground over very large areas. As result people and livestock are killed as a result. This has occurred in several areas in Africa. And the amount of CO2 released in this fashion over time is far greater that a bunch of cows.

    Perhaps the most dramatic instantiation of this process in geologic history was 250 million years ago when the basaltic supervolcano, the Siberian Traps began erupting. The amount of CO2 released over a period of about a million years caused a rise in global temperatures of about 10°F. To make things worse there was a layer of coal between the magma and the surface upon which the basaltic lava was being extruded. The magma is believed to have ignited the coal, thus producing the even more potent greenhouse gas methane. This is turn warmed the oceans enough to melt the methane hydrate ice on the sea floor thus releasing even more methane. The effect on global temperature was a rise of 18-20°F. With temperatures that high, the oceans became uniform in temperature.

    1) Warm water does not absorb as much oxygen as cooler water and

    2) With a uniform temperature in the oceans around the world the ocean currents cease and you're left with stagnant water which quickly loses most of its oxygen. This as a result produces anoxic water in which marine live slowly suffocates to death. In the mean time, purple anaerobic bacteria thrive, producing hydrogen sulfide as a waste product thus turning the oceans into a pink toxic brew.

    The net result of this global catastrophe was the death of 90% of living organisms on both the land and in the oceans--perhaps the worst mass-extinction event ever. It was certainly much worse than the K-T extinction that killed off most of the dinosaurs.

    We currently know of twenty active supervolcanoes on the planet and there could be more that we know nothing about. I worry more about the CO2 that is seeping through the ground from these unbelievably huge magma chambers than I do about the CO2 coming from a bunch of cows around the world. In fact the CO2 from these magma chambers is more of a threat than even the methane that comes out of these cows from the other end! LOL ;-)

    This is the opinion of your resident geologist. ;-)
     
    logicman
    Eric: many thanks for your input.  In many respects you are ahead of me here.  I propose to mention CO2 from volcanos in my 'understanding climate' series.

    I can assure you that volcanic CO2 is most definitely not ignored by climatologists.  It is distinguishable from other sources by radiocarbon analysis.  In modern times, at least since 1860, the bulk of excess CO2 in the atmosphere is demonstrably from fossil fuel burning.

    CO2 from volcanos is, as you say, a killer.
    http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work/Nyos.html
    Hi Patrick,

    Actually, I meant that it was being ignored by the media. I should have been more specific in my statement. I know it is of great concern to climatologists. Sorry for the confusion. ;-)
    logicman
    Actually, I meant that it was being ignored by the media ...

    Only because it's good science, Eric.  If you publish a paper showing that volcanic CO2 killed Napoleon Bonaparte then the media will be all over you.  :-)
    LOL Patrick! Quite true! ;-)
    Hank
    Actually, I meant that it was being ignored by the media.
    Maybe ignored by the non-science media.  But global warming hype was done by the same people who told us America would be overrun by garbage in the 1980s and the ice age was coming (unless overpopulation had us resorting to cannibalism first) in the 1970s.  They have to sell stuff and that means creating problems to get the public concerned about.

    On this site if you search for natural causes of CO2 and methane related to global warming, there is a lot of stuff.  Regrettably the IPCC threw off everyone after 2001 who didn't agree with a punitive approach to CO2 emissions and by 2007 it had lost most of its credibility with the public.  And the credibility of the media coverage about the science related to global warming went right along with it.    We have been unfashionable in the past for addressing all greenhouse gases related to warming and calling B.S. when studies were crap, which made us 'unreliable' to the militant, cultural arm of science.   But it turned out we were right where we needed to be.
    This post is absolutely ridiculous.
    The concern is not the carbon dioxide emissions that cows are 'breathing out' as you state.
    The issue is the methane caused by methanogens located in the cows rumen. The methanogens convert hydrogen into methane. In fact, the presence of hydrogen and carbon dioxide can bond to create methane and in fact, lowers carbon dioxide emissions. However, methane has 56-times more impact on the Earth's stratosphere, compared to carbon dioxide.
    Get your facts straight, kid.

    Hank
    You're arguing a different point than Patrick was making - everyone here knows methane, with 23X the warming impact of CO2, is important and bioengineering cows that fart less would be terrific.   But the kooks who argue that cows cause global warming demographically object to science so they wouldn't be happy with genetically engineered cows.    Their solution seems to be make everyone vegetarian or insure that only rich people can eat meat - science is out to make life better for everyone, not just the rich.
    Your graph looks like it is showing Fossil Fuel Emissions. This seems like an inadequate way to describe CO2 levels. Also you say yourself wood was a major fuel source which wouldn't be included in the graph if fossil fuel emissions are being descibed. Which seems to me to be the case since there probably wasn't 0 million metric tons emitted in 1815.