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Solar or Soy: which is better for the planet? (Part 1)

What was my introduction to veganism?  A few years ago, I stumbled across an Animals Australia online video of sow stalls, causing the penny to finally drop on the horrors we are inflicting on non-human animals. Further reading soon led to (amongst other issues) an understanding of the cruelty involved in egg and dairy production, and that was it; no more animal products of any kind.

Soon after, I learnt of the horrendous environmental impacts of animal agriculture, and extensively researched that issue, particularly the climate change aspects.

I will be elaborating on animal agriculture’s impacts in future articles, but in this introductory article, I will discuss climate change generally, and the ominous threat that it poses to life on our wonderful planet.

Many who focus on animal rights may consider climate change to be a secondary issue. However, with the potential for catastrophic disruption of societies and economies, it is something we cannot and must not ignore. We must also consider the plight of wild animals whose habitats are being altered so rapidly that they are unable to adapt.  Quite apart from the resultant species extinction, the suffering of individual animals trying to survive through such a process must be horrific.

Earth

The Science

Dr James Hansen is widely regarded as the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist. He is the head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA and has advised top levels of the U.S. government on the issue. (If only they had listened!)

His key sources of information are (in this order): (a) paleoclimate (ice core) data, going back hundreds of thousands of years; (b) satellite data; and (c) computer modelling.

In 2008, Dr Hansen was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live program. Here’s an extract from that interview:

“There’s no disagreement about the physics of radiative transfer and the fact that adding infra red absorbing gases to the atmosphere is going to make the atmosphere more opaque in the thermal spectrum, in the long waves. That will reduce heat radiation to space and if you reduce the radiation to space, given the fact that the amount of energy coming from the sun is unchanged, then you have to warm up the planet. You’ve got an energy imbalance and until the planet warms up enough to radiate that energy away, it’s going to continue to get warmer. So the basic physics is very hard to dispute.” [i]

Computer modelling has been criticised by some of those who deny that human activity is the key cause of climate change. However, modelling is generally only used in an effort to estimate likely climate change impacts in specific regions. The key tools for understanding the overall progression and impacts of climate change are paleoclimate and satellite data, which support the basic physics.

Concentrations of CO2 and other warming agents

If we accept that increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other warming agents will increase average global temperatures, then a review of changes in those concentrations over time can help us to understand the current and potential extent and impacts of climate change.

The following chart depicts (in the red section) the relative increase in CO2 concentrations in the past hundred years.  During that time, they have increased to around 390 ppm (parts per million), after never exceeding 300 ppm in the previous 1,000,000 years.[ii]

That’s a 30% increase in around 0.01% of the overall timeframe!  And the process is accelerating; in the past 50 years, CO2 concentrations have increased around 24%.

Million-years

If we shorten the period under review to 2,000 years ending 12 years ago, the picture is just as alarming, with CO2 concentrations of 380 ppm at that time:[iii]

CSIRO

Ice core data show that, during the period of 425,000 years before the industrial revolution (commencing around 1750), there was a close correlation between atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and methane (CH4), temperature and sea level. [iv]

Hansen-2

For the period of human civilization before 1750 (10,000 years included within the shaded circles in the above diagram), CO2 concentrations, temperature and sea level were relatively stable. As a result, communities were able to be established along rivers, coastlines and elsewhere with relative certainty about their long-term prospects.

The blue shaded area, again indicating increases in CO2 concentrations over the past 100 years, points to potentially catastrophic increases in temperature and sea level.

In next article: Tipping points, runaway climate change and the need for emergency action.

Paul Mahoney

Paul Mahony is a member of VegetarianVictoria, Animal Liberation Victoria, Animals Australia and Bayside Climate Change Action Group (BCCAG). In 2009, he prepared Vegetarian Victoria’s submission to the Victorian State Government in response to its Climate Change Green Paper. His question on animal agriculture and climate change recently finished second in polling for The Sunday Age’s “Climate Agenda”, and was followed by a major article on the subject. He is also contributing to the land use component of “ZCA 2020”, a project by Beyond Zero Emissions.


[i] Dr James Hansen, Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA interviewed on Late Night Live, ABC Radio National (Australia), 8th March, 2010 and replayed 8th July, 2010.


[ii] Hansen, J., “Storms of my grandchildren”, 2009, Bloomsbury, p. 232, http://www.stormsofmygrandchildren.com/


[iii] Adapted from CSIRO, “The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers”, Fig. 4.1, p. 10, http://www.science.org.au/reports/climatechange2010.pdf


[iv]  Adapted from Hansen, J; Sato, M; Kharecha, P; Beerling, D; Berner, R; Masson-Delmotte, V; Pagani, M; Raymo, M; Royer, D.L.; and Zachos, J.C. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, 2008. (This writer has inserted the various overlays.) http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf <http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf

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