The next few post are going to be recycled from my other blog. I don't have time to maintain two blogs, and I don't have the time, or really, the interest, to go dashing about chasing new readers. Serious bloggers are probably gasping at this point.
I'm serious about what I write about, and I want to share it with interested readers. But I'm 51 years old, I'm in a most-likely losing battle with b-cell lymphoma, and I don't feel like I have unlimited time to become a perfect, trendy blogger.
So what you see here is what you get here. To borrow a phrase from my nephew, "...it's how I roll." If you haven't been here before, I'm a cow-calf operator from Nebraska -- that is, I'm an agricultural producer.
Climate hasn't been in the major media, at least not in a big way, for a while now. I think it's critical to understand that there's a difference between climate reality and climate politics. This, and the next few posts, represent my attempt to illustrate climate reality. I refuse to argue with cliches or sloganeering, however, feel free to comment and if you have a reasoned and objective argument to make, perhaps we can discuss it.
In a scientific paper published Oct. 20 in Nature, ‘Solutions for a
cultivated planet’, researchers laid out an argument that agriculture is
destroying the planet through land clearing, pollution, and the generation of
greenhouse gasses, and will therefore be unable to feed a growing human
population. In this series we’ve looked at a number of the assumptions the
research team based their conclusions on, and offered a number of science-based
Like any human enterprise, modern production agriculture is not perfect.
Unlike some (perhaps many) human enterprises, modern agriculture, with the
invaluable assistance of land grant university and food industry research, has
vigorously sought solutions whenever problems have surfaced. The proof of this
is in the unprecedented quality, quantity and safety of the food supply as well
as in the vast improvements in conservation and ecology practiced by farmers
and ranchers in the U.S., and increasingly, in other countries.
Perhaps part of the reason agriculture has been under attack over the last
few decades is fear. Most people in the developed world (about 99 percent in
this country) are at least two generations removed from working with or in
agriculture. Yet it is on agriculture that they rely utterly for their
sustenance. Biased and sensationalistic news reporting of flawed science tends
to enhance this fear. We’ll look at biased and misguided news about agriculture
in a future article.
This time we’ll define climate and weather, take a close look at climate
history around the globe, and explore some ideas about modern agriculture’s
ability to feed the world under a warming climate and under a cooling climate.
One of the difficulties many of us have in thinking about and trying to
understand the ongoing climate debate is that we tend to think that present
conditions represent a sharp change from those of the near past, and that
conditions of the near past were ideal and reasonably permanent. For
instance, the American history taught nearly universally in this country is
that Europeans essentially invaded the Americas, displaced the indigenous
population, and denuded the landscape to make way for farms, destroying “old
growth” forests and driving many native plants and animals to extinction.
This narrative is in some sense true, but heavily pejorative, and lacking
essential context. Human populations have waxed and waned for more than 100,000
years, and whenever populations have grown, humans have pushed out into new
territories. This scenario has played out countless times in every corner of
the globe – including the pre-European Americas, where several civilizations
were built by Asian and Pacific settlers, crested in good times, and eventually
succumbed to the encroachment of new settlers arriving from the west.
Changing the landscape by farming is very different than “denuding” the
landscape. Farming did bring environmental challenges, but most of these have
been more than adequately addressed and those remaining are being mastered.
It’s unrealistic in the extreme to think that the U.S. population can grow to
311 million without providing a food supply for those millions. Growing food
alters the landscape, but it does not destroy the land or the ecology of the
region, or of the planet. The planet is dynamic; landscapes and bio-populations
change over time naturally. Humans are a natural bio-population and alter the
landscape, as so do beavers with their dams, termites with their mounds, CO2 and CH4(methane) production, and a host of other organisms such as bacteria and fungi.
In fact, no natural bio-population leaves the landscape untouched; rather, they
live in symbiosis with the land.
What every crest and trough of human population, and every expansion and
contraction of humankind into and out of territories has in common is a very
tight correlation with climate change. Most of us tend to think the climate is
essentially stable for very long periods of time. Most of us have lived through
year after year climate conditions which seem unendingly similar and ordinary.
Remember, though, our lives are short in geologic time scales. We’ve all heard
of ice ages and tropical ages, extremes which happened long ago and may happen
again in the distant future, but we imagine that they will never visit our
present world or the world of the foreseeable future.
The best scientific evidence we have shows that ice ages, or glaciations,
and warm periods, or interglacials, have been common on Earth for at least 2.67
million years. Science has a hard time finding climate evidence earlier than
that due to the ever-changing geology of the planet. In the last 730,000 years,
there is solid evidence of 10 glacial periods separated by interglacial
periods. We are presently in an interglacial period which began about 13,000
The causes of these warming and cooling cycles are immensely complex, but
major factors appear to be solar activity, variations in the Earth’s orbit,
nuclear and thermal activity deep within the planet, and the active geology of
the planet’s crust (plate tectonics, etc.). The atmosphere and the oceans
certainly contribute to climate, but react to climate driving forces. They do
not in themselves drive climate. It is fair to say that Sun, orbit, internal
structure and crust drive climate, while the oceans and atmosphere make weather.
Over the last 20-25 years, a small but vocal group of self-appointed
experts, politicians, and news reporters have continued to sound the
“human-caused climate disaster” alarm, claiming that man-made carbon dioxide
will set off an irreversible “runaway greenhouse effect.” Their science, which
relies heavily on computer modeling, makes little if any sense. Their
predictions stubbornly refuse to come true. After not falling for more than 30
years, the sky continues not to fall. Yet somehow, governments continue to pour
hundreds of billions of dollars into an effort to mitigate human influence on
the climate. This is perhaps the epitome of hubris, that some believe man more
powerful than the Earth or the Sun.
We humans tend to think we perform mighty deeds, and some of them are indeed
remarkable, such as the ability of a tiny fraction of the population to feed
all mankind. Nevertheless, our power and our abilities are as nothing when it
comes to changing the climate.
But that doesn’t mean that climate won’t change. If history and geology tell
us anything, it’s that climate often changes quickly – over only a few years –
and those changes profoundly impact all forms of life on the planet.
Climate and weather are not the same thing. Weather is the state of the atmosphere
at a particular place and time, hence the old saying that “all weather is
local.” Weather can mean a blizzard here, sunshine and warmth there, a
hurricane on one coast and cool rain on another. Climate, on the other hand, is
the conditions which prevail over time. For instance, the Earth is presently
emerging from the Pleistocene Ice Age, which ended about 13,000 years ago.
Since that time the climate has been generally warming, though there have been
prolonged periods which were sharply cooler and periods which were considerably
In our everyday perspective, 13,000 years seems a very long time ago. In
fact, little recorded human history exists from before that time. Yet the
Pleistocene Ice Age lasted for nearly 100,000 years. During that time, Homo
sapiens – modern man – walked the Earth, though usually in the more
temperate regions of the planet and along the edges of the glaciers. The
earliest known recorded human history exists as cave paintings dating back
about 35,000 years. Before that, little more than bones and primitive tools
exist to tell the story of early man.
In the 13,000 years since the last ice age, there have been periods of
warming and periods of cooling – times during which the planet was much warmer
than it is today and life, including human life, rapidly expanded – and times
when the planet was much cooler than it is today and when cold, disease,
famine, starvation and extinction events drove life savagely back. Using a
plethora of techniques, including ice-core sampling, geologic study, advanced
chemistry and physics, scientists have identified 14 such periods.
The last warming, called the Medieval Warming Period, lasted from about 900
A.D. to 1,300 A.D. and brought the world out of the Dark Ages. Global
temperature averages were about 1.5-2.0 degrees Celsius (C) warmer than
they are today. Human populations more than doubled, food was plentiful, wealth
grew. This was the time in which most cathedrals were built in Europe and the
Vikings colonized Greenland and Vinland, present day Newfoundland.
The Little Ice Age began about 1,300 A.D. and lasted until 1850 A.D. Though
this was a cooling period, Europeans settled the Americas and the United States
was born. Global temperatures fell overall, to an average of about 3.0 degrees
C colder than today. While there were exceedingly harsh winters, there were
also hot summers and drought. Though America was growing, it grew at a slow
rate as outbreaks of famine and disease took their toll. The “starving time” of
1609-1610 which killed more than 80 percent of the residents of Jamestown
Colony coincided with one of the coldest winters of the period. The Little Ice
Age was a global ice age, and despite exploration of the New World and other
reaches of the globe, it was an exceedingly tough time to be alive. Global
human populations fell off, famine and disease was common, life spans fell and
infant mortality soared.
In 1850 the Earth entered what is today called the Late Twentieth Century
Warming. As with most warming and cooling periods, this period was
characterized by fluctuations in warming and cooling, rather than a steady rise
in global temperatures. There was warming from 1850-1940, cooling from
1940-1976, and warming from 1976 to 1998. Nevertheless, it was on balance a
warming period. During this time there was remarkable growth in the human
population and wealth, relatively little famine, a marked decrease in disease,
amazing gains in technology, and unfortunately, remarkable gains in the
lethality of warfare. Climate-wise, this period was on balance a time of very
In 1998 the global climate began to cool once again, and has fallen about
0.1-0.3 degrees C over the past dozen or so years. Thus far the cooling has
caused no major disruption for life on the planet. There is no way to know
whether the present cooling will continue or whether it is merely a blip in a
generally warming interglacial period. Only time will tell.
As climate changes, will modern agriculture be able to feed a growing
population? This is an interesting question.
If the present cooling trend eases and global climate continues to warm or
stay stable for several thousand years, the answer is almost certainly yes. The
real threat most humans will face will be war, rather than hunger.
It is possible that warfare or even over-zealous governmental control could
spell the end of modern agriculture, at which point starvation would ensue. But
it’s at least as likely that agriculture will continue to imperfectly improve,
and that the human population will reach sustainable equilibrium.
But if the climate begins to cool, and Earth begins once again to slide into
a glacial period, the answer is no. Crops, livestock, and humans need sunshine,
liquid water and micronutrients to grow. Although some equatorial populations
would survive, just as in the last ice age, technology, and most of the human
population, would not.
The Earth, the climate – they will do what they are going to do regardless
of our wishes. For now, perhaps it’s better to set aside silly notions about
our capacity to destroy the planet and concentrate on being better neighbors,
and continue to improve the lot of both humanity and the planet.
Next time: The trouble with carbon