Global Warming May Have Started Sooner Than You Thought

The following is based on my reading of a specific section of a book that made me think again about global warming. I have paraphrased sections and excluded the bit about GM crops, if you want to know more, read the book.

Image depicting climate change

Human induced climate change is a clear and present threat not just to us but every other living thing on this, our one and only planet.

We humans have exerted a profound effect on our environment, not just locally but globally. The conventional view is that climate change – caused by us – started during the industrial revolution as we’ve been burning fossil fuels in increasing amounts, pushing up carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and warming the planet.

But, our impact on global climate actually started much earlier. Antarctic ice cores provide a record of ancient levels of carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere. For most of the past 400,000 years the concentration of these gases has fluctuated in natural cycles. But, the pattern has changed – 8,000 years ago for carbon dioxide and 5,000 years for methane. The levels of these gases rose when they should have dropped. What changed?

Neolithic man for one, and the change from foraging for food to the spread and intensification of agriculture. We cleared forests to enable us to grow stuff and released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This may have delayed an ice age in the Northern Hemisphere. If a few thousand humans with stone tools could delay an ice age what damage is 7 billion of us doing?

Grain for grain, agriculture is now more energy hungry and more dependent on fossil fuels that ever before. Agriculture is responsible for more than 1/3rd of global greenhouse gas emissions through clearing forests to methane coming from livestock. It is also produce by microbes in flooded rice fields and nitrous oxide from fertilised soil. Expensive seeds and growing use of mono-cultures and cash crops threaten the livelihoods of poor farmers. Heavy use of agrochemicals has also taken its toll. Changes in land use and increasing use of pesticides have destroyed insect life.

The environmental and health costs of nitrogen contamination from fertilisers are estimated by some to outweigh the economic gains in agriculture. World hunger is getting worse. This is despite the fact we are actually able to grow enough food for everyone already, it’s just not in the right places or prices. International trade in food generates profits for large and powerful corporations but doesn’t get food to where its most needed.

The key to solving world hunger won’t come from increasing productivity on large-scale farms. Focusing on yield alone will lead to more problems with spiraling energy costs, increases in greenhouse gas emissions, loss of habitats and biodiversity and contaminated water. The best way forward is via sustainable agro-ecological methods designed to maintain and sustain soil and water quality. And to support not poison pollinators.

Farming isn’t just about food production its about power and profit – concentrated in the rich North. Initiatives to change need to be driven by the grassroots not the current top down system of policies, trade agreements and regulations. We need to come up with ways if producing food, in the right places, while adapting to climate change and trying not to make it any worse. We need to conserve ecosystems and improve lives of poor farmers. We need an integrated holistic strategy that looks at the costs and gains at local and global levels.

Article based on pages 318 – 325 of the book Tamed by Alice Roberts