We Are What We Eat: What Can I Do? (5)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 3:38 AM GMT on April 30, 2013

We Are What We Eat: What Can I Do? (5)

Revised: May 9, 2013

This is the continuation of a series in response to the question, “What can I do about climate change?” Links to the previous entries are listed at the end.

Last week I made a list of categories to classify the types of actions that we can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second item on that list is food. But first, I want to start with some more sets of categories.

When we think of fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas come to forefront. We often think of coal as dirty and natural gas as clean, in terms of air quality, climate change and general environmental damage. All of these forms of fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide when they burn, and that carbon dioxide is for practical human time in either the atmosphere or ocean permanently. Therefore we can’t simply replace coal and oil with natural gas and declare that we will avoid global warming.

If we examine how we use energy, then those uses can be divided into three categories: power generation, transportation and direct use for heat. For the past few decades, coal has dominated power generation and petroleum has dominated transportation. All three contribute to direct use for heat. Recently in the U.S., natural gas has been replacing coal for power generation, but worldwide, coal is still the dominant fuel (natural gas and coal, TON, NPR). Oil dominates transportation.

Taking another cut through our energy use, we can categorize use as residential, commercial, industrial and for transportation. Industrial uses create products from raw materials: manufacturing, cement making, mining and agriculture. Commercial uses include shops, government buildings and where governments spend money. Residential and commercial uses include a large part of electricity, heating and cooling of buildings, and heating of water. An interesting point: next to the burning of fossil fuels, cement making is the largest nonagricultural source of carbon dioxide emissions. It’s on the order of 5 percent.

If we return to the question of “What Can I Do?,” then the items discussed in the previous entries on efficiency focus primarily on the better management of buildings (residential and commercial) as well as on +choices in transportation. In fact, an alternative way to categorize use is for buildings, transportation and industry. If one were to think about government regulation, then emissions from coal-fired power plants are relatively easy to target because there are not that many power plants and they don’t move around. Transportation is harder to regulate because there are, globally, billions of cars and trucks and they do move around. The different categories I have described demonstrate both the easy opportunity for regulation, power generation, and the challenges of climate policy – that there is no single thing to fix the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Now to food – If we were to make a special food and agriculture category, then agriculture is responsible for about the same amount of emissions as, say, transportation or heating. Now, however, we have to become more holistic about what we mean by emissions. For agriculture, we have carbon dioxide emissions, which come mostly from deforestation. Cutting and burning forests to make new rangeland for cattle make up about 10 percent of the total annual carbon dioxide emissions. There is some emission from the use of fossil fuels for tractors and irrigation, and about half of the agricultural carbon dioxide fossil fuel emissions come from the manufacture of fertilizer. There are also other land use and soil management decisions made in agriculture that affect carbon dioxide emissions.

Beyond carbon dioxide, agriculture is responsible for about a third of methane emissions and close to two-thirds of the nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. These are greenhouse gases that are more potent than carbon dioxide; they are in much lower concentrations in the atmosphere.

So, what we eat can make a difference. When I was in college in the 1970s, I was introduced to Frances Moore Lappe’s book, Diet for a Small Planet. What I remember from that book was that if you took all of the calories needed to grow a pound of beef and instead feed those grains to people, you could feed many more people than you could with a pound of beef. It was my first introduction to sustainability. It takes much land and energy to make the well-marbled porterhouses that my father fed me in one-pound servings. No matter how you count, livestock production, in particular, beef production, releases a lot of greenhouse gases.

There are many marketing appeals in food and food supply. These appeals are to make personal decisions that affect the world, and individual choices the public makes about food and food supply do affect the world. We have appeals to buy grass-fed beef, organic meat and produce, locally produced and sustainable agriculture. We are faced with issues of packaging, preprocessing, natural, raw and prepared. There are no easy algorithms. In February, an apple from Chile might take less energy in transportation than an apple from Virginia takes in cold storage. We demand fresh fruit, vegetables and meat all winter. We demand exotic spices, fine coffee, tea and chocolate. The global demand for meat and nonlocal food increases as the world’s wealth increases.

So what rules of food selection matter? My personal evaluation is that reducing meat consumption is at the top of the list, and at the top of the meat list is beef. Pasture-raised might be better than feedlot, but life cycle studies show that beef is a relatively inefficient use of energy. Chicken is far more energy-efficient. Should we choose sustainable, local or organic meat and produce? From an emissions point of view, I hear sustainable advocated as best if there are actual standards and certification of sustainability--then local, then organic. I have made the controversial claim that since our current practice of organic, local and sustainable agriculture demands high payment for produce and meat, and since most of our generation of money requires high fossil fuel energy use, there is a hidden cost to the climate that comes from high-value crops.

It’s not easy, but what we eat does make a difference to the environment. We usually think of this difference in terms of pesticides, herbicides and erosion, but there is also a climate impact. And as is often the case, the connection is indirect, far in the future and difficult to know how to value.


Note: The source of much of the material in this entry is based on Livestock’s Long Shadow a 2006 publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. There has been much criticism of this report, especially in its calculation of the emissions of the transportation sector. The original authors did modify their specific statements about transportation. As noted in the next blog in this series, there is substantial controversy about the impact of agriculture. My evaluation is that the agriculture numbers in this report are as robust as any I know. My opinion would be that the agriculture emissions in this report are more likely an underestimate than an overestimate. As for comparisons to other sources of emissions, when fossil fuel emissions are broken down as described in this blog, the different sectors, residential, commercial, transportation and industrial, are all large and no single one is dominant. Therefore, the conclusion that agriculture is comparable to these sectors seems reasonable.

Previous Entries in the Series

Setting Up the Discussion Deciding to do something, definition of mitigation and adaptation, and a cost-benefit anchored framework for thinking about mitigation

Smoking, Marriage and Climate Behavioral changes and peer pressure

Organizing and Growing Individual Efforts A little detail on efficiency and thinking about how individuals can have more impact than just that of a single person

The Complete List Eight categories of things we can do to reduce greenhouse gases

Moderation of comments: I have been getting more and more complaints about what is going on in the comments. WU and I will be addressing this. To start, here is a modified version of Dr. Master’s Blog Contents Rules.

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I'm afraid some of you will be shocked when I tell you that I am not a scientist.

But I have a few science questions:

What happens when you put a pot of water on the stove and turn the heat up to simmer?

Does the water get warmer?

Does some of that heat escape to the kitchen atmosphere?

What if the pot of water represented the earth's oceans and the stove burner represented the earth's core temperature?

Though measuring the earth's core temperature fluctuations is difficult, should this basic reasoning of energy transfer be ignored in favor of human kind's surface activities when it comes to climate change?

(this is my on-topic contribution today. thank you)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting cyclonebuster:

It is human nature to lash out at those who you think are the cause of the problem. But don't worry it is ok if you are wrong. There are others who won't fall for it. Change will still come because you will be out voted... How's that work for you?

Hey! That works fine. Maybe Federal CO2 laws should be put on voting ballots. I'm for that. Reducing carbon emissions is a good thing.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting Birthmark:

Is that bad in some way? Is Gore not supposed to earn a living or what?

And why does anyone actually care what Gore makes? He's not going to loan any of us any money.

Hey! What is Apple's carbon footprint?
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
P.S. -- That screwball 5th degree polynomial trendline in the bottom image in #584. Dude, seriously? Listen: there are a large number of credible climate science sources on the internet. You'll do yourself--and your argument--a large favor if you visit them, rather than sites featuring the denialist claptrap emitted by Humlum & Co. Just saying...

I had to repeat this posting. Entertaining use of scientific vernacular.

Pew Pew Pew

(that's the sound the bullets make in the climate change shooting gallery)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Silent Spring: Honey Bees Are Dying - America is one bad winter away from a food disaster.


CCD has wiped out some 10 million bee hives worth $2 billion over the past six years. The death rate for colonies has hit 30% annually in recent years and there are now about 2.5 million honey bee colonies in the US, down from 6 million in 1947 and 3 million in 1990. That downward spiral leaves virtually no cushion of bees for pollination, the report's authors write.

If that sounds scary, it is. Take almonds. California harvests more than 80% of the world's almonds. But you can't grow the nut without honey bees and it takes 60% of the US's remaining colonies just to pollinate that one $4 billion cash crop.

If the death toll continues at the present rate, that means there will soon be barely enough bees to pollinate almonds, let alone avocadoes, blueberries, pears or plums. "We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster" USDA scientist Jeff Pettis said in the report.

But scientists increasingly believe several interacting factors - from disease-carrying parasites to poor nutrition to pesticides are responsible for the mass die-off. For instance, the report says, studies have shown that exposure to even non-fatal levels of neonicotinoids may make bees more susceptible to disease.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
wow, you really got us with that one. criticism of al gore is totally kryptonite to people who understand that the globe is warming.

are you guys going to come up with anything new in the next decade or so, or is it going to be 'AL GORE YARGGGH!!!' for the next 50 years?

Quoting MisterPerfect:
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so a quarter degree celsius in 16 years is 'near flatline'? do you know anything about temperature?

Quoting allahgore:

I said near a flatline not a true flatline. Data is data. I am not using an analogy.
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Quoting MisterPerfect:
In my time spent dealing with climate change, I've discovered two truisms:

1) The number of times Al Gore's name pops up in a comment is inversely proportional to the scientific content of that comment. (Note: your comment contains nine instances of his name. Ouch.)

2) Those who continue to obsess over Al Gore--a man who hasn't been in public office for 13 years--clearly have nothing of value to add to the topic of climate change, and are best ignored.

There, that was easy enough... ;-)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting MisterPerfect:

So... what does any of that have to do with climate change or CO2 emissions or plans to mitigate the impacts of global climate change?

Here's a hint - if Al Gore is a d-bag, it doesn't matter. If you stare at a mirror and repeat "Al Gore" three times and he appears, it doesn't matter. If video exists of Al Gore setting puppies on fire for fun, it doesn't matter.

None of that has any influence or explanatory power to contradict the laws of physics and thermodynamics that scientists have carefully catalogued and analyzed over decades if not centuries of study. Tossing out some bogeyman to pummel on doesn't contradict any of that. It's useless in this debate; it's just another form of trolling.
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Al Gore, Man of the People, Gets Paid Over $1 Million a Day to Sit on Apple’s Board, $125,000 per hour

If you want a poster child for corporate greed, you can look no further than Al Gore. After he failed to get enough votes to win Florida, and therefore the Presidential election in 2000, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs added him to the list of Yes Men on Apple’s board of directors.

A report out today says Al Gore cashed out about half of his Apple stock options in January to the tune of $30 million and has at least $15 million more. But that was his bonuses, that didn’t include his base pay. According to Reuters, during the height of the 2008 recession, Al Gore ‘only’ made $633,000 per year, or $127,000 per board meeting, since the board only met fives times that year. — However according to SEC filings, by 2010, his yearly compensation was back up to $1.3 million per year.

Looking at the numbers, Gore has made about $1,000,000 a year for the last 10 years to sit on a board that was famously paid to agree with Steve Jobs. And then he got $45 million in stock options as a bonus for a total of about $55 million. Considering the board meets about 5 times years, that’s just over $1,000,000 per day or $125,000 per hour.

So what has Gore done to earn that money? Gore’s most famous accomplishment was to lead the board’s investigating committee, which “cleared CEO Steve Jobs and current management of wrongdoing” in a stock option backdating scandal which Apple later admitted Jobs knew about.

When you’re Al Gore, Greed is good.

Al Gore, Man of the People
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting SouthernIllinois:
You make a compelling argument, but I just do not agree with you.
Luckily for you, you live in a nation that allows one to hold opinions, even those that are not supported by either fact or evidence. So, rock on!
Quoting SouthernIllinois:
The scientists have been all over the map with this one.
No, "the scientists" have not. They know the planet is warming at a possibly unprecedented rate, they know why, and they see nothing that will reverse that warming (short of a catacylsmic event). The rest is just details.
Quoting SouthernIllinois:
I do not see the present rate of warming continuing.
Again, you're entitled to your opinions, no matter how much they run counter to all known climate science.
Quoting SouthernIllinois:
Snowlover123 just had a great comment in Dr. Master's blog regarding the sun. Was wondering if you can respond to that comment.
I won't respond to a comment in another forum in this one, other than to say this: I see just another textbook example of cherry-picking. Denialists like to consistently pull snippets from (sometimes legitimate) science sources, discarding that which doesn't support their ideas. They then twist and contort what's left over to even further fit their preconceptions. And then they come into forums like these and spreads their debunked and discredited ideas.

Not worth listening to, really, nor responding to.

Anyway, on one side, I see your "gut feeling". On the other, I see the well-researched scientific opinions of tens of thousands of highly-educated and very professional climatologists, meteorologists, atmospheric dynamicists, atmospheric physicists, atmospheric chemists, solar physicists, historical climatologists, geophysicists, geochemists, geologists, soil scientists, oceanographers, glaciologists, palaeoclimatologists, palaeoenvironmental reconstructionists, ecologists, synthetic biologists, biochemists, global change biologists, biogeographers, ecophysiologists, ecological geneticists, applied mathematicians, mathematical modellers, computer scientists, numerical modellers, bayesian inferencists, mathematical statisticians, and time series analysts, etc. Don't take this personally, but I think I'll side with the latter.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting SouthernIllinois:
But what if it doesn't go forth as scientists project. Does that mean they go back to the drawing board?
Yes, it does. For just about every known law of physics will have to be broken for that to occur. Large portions of entire fields of science will have to be rewritten in light of such a magical happening. Climatology, meteorology, atmospheric dynamics, atmospheric physics, atmospheric chemistry, solar physics, paleoclimatology, biogeography, ecophysiology, numerical modelling, mathematical statistics--experts in all of those fields and more will be forced to toss out tremendous chunks of what they know and start rebuilding from scratch.

Or--and this is just a thought--the tens of thousands of scientists in those fields will continue to be proven right, and the planet will continue to warm at an increasingly astounding rate.

Which do you suppose is more likely?
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting JohnLonergan:

If you take out natural influences like volanos, solar cycles and ENSO, you get this:

Foster and Rahmstorf 2011

You all know how crazy I am, and because of it, I compiled over 1,000 values of data by hand, pixel-by-pixel, over the last few days to determine the true anthropogenic signal, removing (in order of significance) the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, volcanic forcing, solar activity, and ENSO. The result: I've produced a slightly different graph, and I can show you the methodology that I used on this - you can see the long-term trend and moving average, which shows that global temperatures warmed 0.9C in the period 1861-2010, and that the warming is accelerating. I might even do a full blog on this sometime later.

Data sources

HadCRUT minus AMO (graphical)
GISS minus PDO (graphical)
Berkeley Earth minus volcanic for September (graphical datasheet)
Composite data normalized, minus solar and ENSO (manual calculation)
Combined data taken with weighted mean (EXCEL tabulation)
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Quoting cyclonebuster:

You can't have a flatline when this happens...


If you take out natural influences like volanos, solar cycles and ENSO, you get this:

Foster and Rahmstorf 2011
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Banned? again Skye? Com'on, that one was pretty funny at least.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting allahgore:

I doubt they will answer the tough questions that you are asking.

Wow, the pot calling the kettle black, that's so, so, you.

2.5 months and you have never read, refuted or understood any of the resources or links given to you in response to your comments or questions.

But you are good with irrelevant, misleading or misdirecting one liners that don't require any thought or effort.

It's like pretending GW is actually a friendly wizard, despite all the evidence of the evil it is doing.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
How Likely Is a Runaway Greenhouse Effect on Earth?
The results of the latest analysis are not entirely reassuring.


Sometime in the last few billion years, disaster struck one of Earth’s nearest neighbours. Planetary geologists think there is good evidence that Venus was the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect which turned the planet into the boiling hell we see today.

A similar catastrophe is almost certain to strike Earth in about 2 billion years, as the Sun increases in luminosity.

But that raises an important question: is it possible that we could trigger a runaway greenhouse effect ourselves by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere?

This runaway greenhouse only stops when the atmosphere reaches some 1400 degrees C, causing it to emit thermal radiation at a wavelength that water vapour does not absorb and so can radiate into space.

Goldblatt and Watson have an answer: “The good news is that almost all lines of evidence lead us to believe that it is unlikely to be possible, even in principle, to trigger full a runaway greenhouse by addition of noncondensible greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”

But there is an important caveat. Atmospheric physics is so complex that climate scientists have only a rudimentary understanding of how it works. For example, Goldblatt and Watson admit that the above conclusion takes no account of the role that clouds might play in this process.

And scientists’ ignorance of the processes at work raises a significant question mark. As Goldblatt and Watson put it: “Is there any missed physics or weak assumptions that have been made, which if corrected could mean that the runaway is a greater risk? We cannot answer this with the confidence which would make us feel comfortable.”

wiki on "Thermal Runaway" as it applies to Semiconductors & Chemical Reactions
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
U.S. Sees Record-Low Tornadoes and Tornado Deaths


Just two years after the U.S. experienced one of the deadliest and busiest tornado seasons on record, it appears that Mother Nature has done a complete reversal, setting an apparent record for the fewest tornadoes during any 12-month period, going all the way back to 1954.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Okla., estimates that, between May 2012 and April 2013, there were just 197 tornadoes ranked EF-1 or stronger on the Enhanced Fujita scale. That beats the previous 12-month low, which was 247 tornadoes from June 1991 and May 1992.

The drought that enveloped the majority of the lower 48 states during the past year has contributed greatly to the paucity of tornadoes, since the dry conditions have robbed the atmosphere of the water vapor that fuels severe thunderstorms. Other tornado ingredients, such as strong upper-level winds and atmospheric wind shear, have also been missing.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
New Study: As Climate Changes, Boreal Forests to Shift North and Relinquish More Carbon Than Expected

Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

It’s difficult to imagine how a degree or two of warming will affect a location. Will it rain less? What will happen to the area’s vegetation?

New Berkeley Lab research offers a way to envision a warmer future. It maps how Earth’s myriad climates—and the ecosystems that depend on them—will move from one area to another as global temperatures rise.

The approach foresees big changes for one of the planet’s great carbon sponges. Boreal forests will likely shift north at a steady clip this century. Along the way, the vegetation will relinquish more trapped carbon than most current climate models predict.

Scientists use incredibly complex computer simulations called Earth system models to predict the interactions between climate change and ecosystems such as boreal forests. These models show that boreal habitat will expand poleward in the coming decades as regions to their north become warmer and wetter. This means that boreal ecosystems are expected to store even more carbon than they do today.

But the Berkeley Lab research tells a different story. The planet’s boreal forests won’t expand poleward. Instead, they’ll shift poleward. The difference lies in the prediction that as boreal ecosystems follow the warming climate northward, their southern boundaries will be overtaken by even warmer and drier climates better suited for grassland.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
according to NOAA, 16 years ago (1996 vs 2012), the average worldwide temperature was about a quarter degree C lower than in 2012. that's a flatline??

besides which, what's up with 16 years? why 16 anyways? what's so special about that number?

look, i understand that things like 'data analysis' can be hard. it's like playing with the interactive google chart of the crappy stock you bought, like if you drag the beginning part of the chart to the bit when it was at its lowest it totes looks like you made a bundle even though you bought in way before when it was much more expensive. oh man, if only i bought at the bottom! it makes you feel good, like you didn't lose your shirt over some stupid tip your lousy brother-in-law gave you, but it still means nothing with regards to how much money you've actually made, which is nothing. bupkes. gornisht.

when you actually look at the data, there's a clear rise in the signal. this is in spite of anomalous el nino years like 1998, in spite of any seasonal variability. it's going up and playing with the graph to make it look otherwise just makes you look foolish.

Quoting allahgore:

The 16 yr trend is near a flatline with global temps.
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of what, warming? that's idiotic. that's like saying there's no correlation between you getting paid and you having money because on rare occasions you don't have much money even after you get paid.

just like pointing to 1998 and saying 'not much warming since then!' is like ignoring the fact that you get a 3% raise every year by pointing to that sign-on bonus you got a decade ago. but i made the same back in 2002 as i did in 2012! therefore, i haven't had a raise in 10 years!

seriously, i don't expect everyone to understand even basic trend analyses, but for crying out loud, if you don't please don't walk around acting like you know more than those who do or that your junior high-level skepticism is a 'real zinger'.

Quoting allahgore:

that chart shows co2 is not the cause.
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i have a feeling it's going to be a while.

Quoting allahgore:

snowlover is making me look up so much data, I am trying to understand.
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i think his point is, if you take the overall temperature data, subtract the GW signal, you'll find that what's left correlates with the decadal and seasonal anomaly data.

which is, well, self-descriptive. and expected.

how about this; take the overall temperature data and subtract the decadal and seasonal anomalies, and hey! there's a GW trend. this is only news to deniers, and they ignore it anyways.

i think overall he's arguing that the PDO is the biggest factor in the non-GW part of the signal, i.e. just plain old variability. that remains to be seen, but it's his opinion.

Quoting Neapolitan:
Hey, I've got a fun exercise for you; look up the meaning of this word.
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JohnLonergan~ The dramatic Arctic acidification wasn't so much expected 5 years or so ago. Don't think cold water holding more CO2 was taken into account & this amount of summer sea ice melt wasn't expected.
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Quoting cyclonebuster:


He's fractaly wrong as usual.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting Skyepony:
The Arctic seas are being made rapidly more acidic by carbon-dioxide emissions, according to a new report.

It is well known that CO2 warms the planet, but less well-known that it also makes the alkaline seas more acidic when it is absorbed from the air.

Absorption is particularly fast in cold water so the Arctic is especially susceptible, and the recent decreases in summer sea ice have exposed more sea surface to atmospheric CO2

Thanks for posting this, I think that dangers of ocean acidification are not sufficiently recognized.
Corals, some plankton, shellfish and krill are extremely pH sensitive. These species are an intergal part of the foodchain, especially in the Arctic. Not only will CO2 harm us by global warming, poison the oceans.
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Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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