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Climate urgency: we've locked in more global warming than people realize

Posted on 15 August 2016 by dana1981

While most people accept the reality of human-caused global warming, we tend not to view it as an urgent issue or high priority. That lack of immediate concern may in part stem from a lack of understanding that today’s pollution will heat the planet for centuries to come, as explained in this Denial101x lecture:

So far humans have caused about 1°C warming of global surface temperatures, but if we were to freeze the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide at today’s levels, the planet would continue warming. Over the coming decades, we’d see about another 0.5°C warming, largely due to what’s called the “thermal inertia” of the oceans (think of the long amount of time it takes to boil a kettle of water). The Earth’s surface would keep warming about another 1.5°C over the ensuing centuries as ice continued to melt, decreasing the planet’s reflectivity.

To put this in context, the international community agreed in last year’s Paris climate accords that we should limit climate change risks by keeping global warming below 2°C, and preferably closer to 1.5°C. Yet from the carbon pollution we’ve already put into the atmosphere, we’re committed to 1.5–3°C warming over the coming decades and centuries, and we continue to pump out over 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.

The importance of reaching zero or negative emissions

We can solve this problem if, rather than holding the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide steady, it falls over time. As discussed in the above video, Earth naturally absorbs more carbon than it releases, so if we reduce human emissions to zero, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide will slowly decline. Humans can also help the process by finding ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it.

Scientists are researching various technologies to accomplish this, but we’ve already put over 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Pulling a significant amount of that carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it safely will be a tremendous challenge, and we won’t be able to reduce the amount in the atmosphere until we first get our emissions close to zero.

There are an infinite number of potential carbon emissions pathways, but the 2014 IPCC report considered four possible paths that they called RCPs. In one of these (called RCP 2.6 or RCP3-PD), we take immediate, aggressive, global action to cut carbon pollution, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels peak at 443 ppm in 2050, and by 2100 they’ve fallen back down to today’s level of 400 ppm. In two others (RCPs 4.5 and 6.0) we act more slowly, and atmospheric levels don’t peak until the year 2150, then they remain steady, and in the last (RCP8.5) carbon dioxide levels keep rising until 2250.


Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the four IPCC RCP scenarios. Illustration: Dana Nuccitelli

As the figure below shows, in the first scenario, global warming peaks at 2°C and then temperatures start to fall toward the 1.5°C level, meeting our Paris climate targets. In the other scenarios, temperatures keep rising centuries into the future.

RCP warming

Global annual mean surface air temperature anomalies (relative to 1986–2005) from CMIP5 climate model runs. Discontinuities at 2100 are due to different numbers of models performing the extension runs beyond the 21st century and have no physical meaning. No ranges are given for the RCP6.0 projections beyond 2100, as only two models are available. Illustration: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

This is the critical decade

We don’t know what technologies will be available in the future, but we do know that the more carbon pollution we pump into the atmosphere today, the longer it will take and more difficult it will be to reach zero emissions and stabilize the climate. We’ll also have to pull that much more carbon out of the atmosphere. 

It’s possible that as in three of the IPCC scenarios, we’ll never get all the way down to zero or negative carbon emissions, in which case today’s pollution will keep heating the planet for centuries to come. Today’s carbon pollution will leave a legacy of climate change consequences that future generations may struggle with for the next thousand years.

Five years ago, the Australian government established a Climate Commission, which published a report discussing why we’re in the midst of the ‘critical decade’ on climate change:

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 41:

  1. Is ocean fertilization an option? How much CO2 can it suck out?

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  2. villabolo,

    I understand many people are pursuing ways of Geoengineering on a planetary scale. And fertilizing the oceans is one of those options.

    However, as an engineer I am painfully aware of how diffult it is to actually fully understand something well enough to be sure of the result. And I am talking about uncomplicated rather isolated things like knowing how strong a steel building actually will be. It is essential to understand thta a lot of experimenting is done to support the final design of a structure. And a lot of careful monitoring is required to ensure the building will perform as expected. And if necessary parts that do not perform as expected will be noticed and be able to be corrected without a major consequence. NOne of that is possible with geoengineering. The consequences would be global and a surprise. And in any engineering the ultimate objective is No Surprises. Surprises need to be restricted to the research and concept development.

    In addition humanity has a lousy track recond when it comes to understanding the actual implications and consequences of any large scale interactions with Regional nature systems. So I am very reluctant to support any geoengineering, regardless of the confidence expressed by the ones promoting it as a Good Idea.

    Also the push for profitability often creates resistance to actually developing a better understanding of the impacts of activities. And there is no doubt that most proponents of geoengineering concepts are pursuing potential profit, including personally patenting their ideas rather than declaring them to be public domain ideas. And it can be very easy to drum up popular support for actions that some people who are wealthy and powerful think they will personally be ablke to benefit from (including profitable actions that will allow them to continue to benefit from otherwise understood to be unacceptable actions). In many cases many others can be easily tempted to like the benefit or chance to benefit that continuing the unacceptable activity could offer (the popularity of denying the unacceptability of burning fossil fuels is a massive proof of that point).

    So ocean fertilization is indeed an option. But, like all other geoengineering options, it should only be learned about to be saved up for use on a nearly lifeless plant that future humans hope to make habitable (hopefully that nearly lifeless planet won't be this one).

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  3. I do think some planning has to be along the lines of what if we do nothing?  How do we survive this?  The idea of going to zero emissions is anathema to so many with power and money.

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  4. Average of the last 12 months in the GISS surface record is 1C above the baseline (1951-1980 avg).

    Global surface temps will probably continue to subside from the peak earlier in the year, but this is quite a milestone.

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  5. This article ties in nicely with the one by Bart Verheggen on inertia.  It also confirms the understanding I had ever since reading "Six degrees" by Mark Lynas a few years ago — an understanding that I'd not seen mentioned at all until now.

    In particular, it always seemed to me that 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2 was equivalent to about two degrees of warming at least.  I couldn't understand why this prospect didn't feature in discussions of the subject.  Now at last I am told that 400 ppm is equivalent in the short-term to 1.5 degrees of warming and in the long-term to about 3.0 degrees above the pre-industrial level.  (Please correct me if I've misunderstood.)

    The conclusion then is that a limit of two degrees is pie in the sky.  Humanity has blown it — unless these mythical NETs can be made to work.  But I'll believe magic when I see it.

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  6. One Planet Only Forever,

     Seems to me that there is one relatively low risk geoengineering solution. One that yes is profitable, but can't be locked in by any patents. So profitable to the general welfare and larger economies, but not exclusive to any one single individual or small group.

    That potential solution is both large enough, and low enough risk to be almost pathological isanity not to do, IMHO. The solution is a fundamental change in agriculture that regenerates ecosystem services function in the soil, combined with ecosystem restoration projects like China's Loess Plateau Project (which does include an agricultural component as well). However, we do need to be serious about it. Alone these are not large enough. Everyone would need to make the changes needed worldwide. That the disadvantage. The advantage are 1 agricultural land is already managed. No need to develope a whole new untested industry. Just need to train the managers already on the land. 2 There is more than enough agricultural land world wide, even a small sequestration rate is enough. 3 Currently world wide agriculture is an emissions source, so converting it to a sink would do both, cut emissions and drawdown what's already been released. 4 Regenerative biological based systems are more profitable to the producer, because the more resources they use, the more that is left. Very different than economies based on scarcity. Economies based on scarcity are subject to boom and bust cycles. Regenerative economies are not as subject to this. Much more stable supply combined with a constant demand. 5 While agriculture of any sort  can never be really considered "natural", those agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems by using biomimicry are taking advantage of relationships that evolved over millions of years, and thus are extremely unilikely to have unintended side effects. In fact the biggest risk would be to take out too much CO2 and start a cooling trend that is too large. However should that happen, it is well known how to fix that. ;)

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  7. RedBaron,

    I agree with what you have presented. But I would encourage you not to refer to it as geoengineering.

    What you describe is humanity figuring out how to sustainably coexist as a part of the robust diversity of life on this planet far into the future.

    Here are some other examples of Geoengineering (each one now better understood to be globally damaging and ultimately unsustainable in spite of their popularity and profitability):

    • The current Industrial Agricultural practices
    • The massive chopping down of rain forests to create grazing land for cattle or to grow plantations
    • And burning fossil fuels

    Note that each example is related to a pursuit of maximum short term profit by a portion of global humanity (in some cases a very large profit for very few humans) any way that can be gotten away with.

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  8. "Pulling a significant amount of that carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it safely will be a tremendous challenge"

    Regenerate forests. Per Bill Ruddiman, anthropogenic emissions in the Holocene due to deforestation activities alone is upwards of 500 GtC. That's a lot of carbon that can be sequestered safely in recovering forests once humanity goes vegan.

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  9. Saileshroa,

    Do you realize that going vegan will require much more land to be cleared of forests to grow sources of nutrition not dependent on protein based agriculture?  

    We have some wonderful animals like chickens and goats that can forage on insects, or unfarmable vertical land, respectively.  They can convert those resources to meat, eggs, milk, etc... Protein is concentrated by these animals from items that we won't, or can't eat.  Veganism is the absolute wrong answer.

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  10. Dana1981,
    What is the solution to knock down CO2 emissions?  Humans are not going to give up cheap, reliable power.  You post plenty about reasons to cut CO2 emissions, but never any solutions.  

    I am quite certain that at your job location, and your house that you depend on reliable power.  Do you use any alternative energy as a source of power for your computing, heating/cooling needs?

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  11. Tonychachere,

    The data is consistent with my assertion. Please see my post on the Stanford MAHB blog here:

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  12. saileshrao,

     While I certainly sympathise with your choice to be Vegan, I do believe tonychachere is correct. I look at veganism as a boycott on current harmful methods of animal husbandry. Do doubt that must end, and if your boycott helps it end, I applaud you.

     Do not be confused though. All the ecosystems on the planet evolved with animals. Not just animals but specifically a herbivore/predator relationship. That is why any attempt to restore agriculture to ecosystem services function again must include animals. You are welcome to boycott those animals as food too if you wish, but the farmer does need them to both feed the population and regenerate soil health (which is a mitigation solution to AGW) Without that animal impact carefully managed, yields drop and agrichemicals are needed to boost yields back up again. Then you end up back on that slow downward spiral were are on now. You might delay it a bit because the part of the industrial ag that is worst in the CAFO system. But being less bad for the biome is not the same as being good.

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  13. Tony, this site does occasionally blog on solutions eg (its too hard) but for a better source, try Jacobson et al. 

    There are many resources out there, but this site is primarily about responding to denier myths concerning the science.

    Studies such as the Stern report dispute whether FF really are cheap - they have the appearance of being cheap because externalities like the damage to the climate are not currently factored into the price a consumer pays at the pump or on electricity bill. Puts those costs in and see if they are still cheaper than non-carbon sources. Sooner or later, humanity will have to move to other energy sources as stocks of FF become exhausted. I think future generations would prefer we move sooner.

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  14. tonychacher@10,

    I am quite certain (almost 100%) that the evidence available to everyone following what is going on globally leads to a more correct version of your statement "Humans are not going to give up cheap, reliable power."

    The statement that better explains the observations is: "Some Humans are not going to willingly give up trying to get away with obtaining personal benefit any way they can get away with, including trying to make burning fossil fuels be perceived to be a cheap, reliable power source."

    The solution is social and political change of the economic game. It requires actual effective blocking of such unacceptable pursuits of personal benefit. The level of protest globally against industrial extractive unsustainable pursuits of benefit is proof that not all humans are like that more callous greedy group of deliberate cheating trouble-makers.

    And a major part of the basis for that solution is the continuing effort to develop and communicate the best understanding of what is going on with the objective of advancing humanity as part of a lasting constantly improving future for a robust diversity of all life on this amazing planet.

    Those who declare they will behave better when someone makes it easier and cheaper for them to behave better are part of the problem. And they deserve to be disappointed and ignored when they complain about efforts to make the damaging ways of living they developed a taste for more expensive and ultimately shut down. Hopefully, they will not respond violently to losing the freedom to continue to do whatever they please (some of them have influence over leadership of nations with nuclear first strike capability).

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  15. RedBaron, good points, but looking at this in absolute terms is not useful. The whole planet does not have to (and is not going to) turn vegan. So there will always be grazing use for those lands that are not well suited for other ag. 

    The problem is that, right now, more and more people are eating higher and higher levels of meat, and that is simply unsustainable, and is also contributing to global warming. 

    The are many pieces to the puzzle, and one of them is certainly reducing (and avoiding increasing) the amount of meat and dairy consumed, since most of this is now produced in ways that greatly increases GHGs in various ways, including rainforest destruction (especially in the Amazon).

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  16. Willi,

     You are right, and yet drew a different conclusion. Rainforest destruction is primarily for lumber. Crops come next until the soil deteriorates so badly no crops will grow. In those soils that doesn't take long. Once unfit for crops, then comes grazing, because that can restore soils.

    While it is true that rainforest destruction is at least partly due to animal ag, in this case the real destruction aside from the timbering to start the process comes when it is cropped with corn and soy for supplying CAFOs. Grazing actually can be the first stage in ecosystem restoration if done properly. Once soil health is improved enough, then either let the ecosystem revert to jungle then forest. Or even plant.


    The other point you may not know, is that on prime agricultural land, one can actually produce as much or more meat per acre at far less cost than growing commodity crops to feed animals.

    The CAFO system does not actually increase meat produced per acre, comparing like to like. Not only can you produce animal foods where the conditions are unfit for crops, a similar advantage in food per acre happens on that prime land too. Whereas the meat industry has managed to propagandize people thinking that we don't like CAFOs but it is the only way to meet supply for a growing population, the truth is it actually is the opposite. 

    So yes, we certainly need to stop slash and bun of the forests, But if what you say is true, and we need to actually produce more on less acres without clearing forest, the solution is instead of clearing forest, to convert the prime acreage that supplies CAFOs to prairie again. The prime soils are NOT clear cut forests. The prime soils are plowed prairies.

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  17. The video says half of the CO2 increase would disappear within 20 years without further emissions. How was possible in the past to have high CO2 levels on the long term like in the Pliocene and earlier?

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  18. Zoli @17, here is a schematic of the long term carbon cycle:

    As you can see, CO2 enters the atmosphere through volcanic activity, and is drawn down out of the surface system by rock weathering bringing the carbon into the ocean as Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) which then falls out as sediment and is taken into the Earth at subduction zones.  Over the long term, there is an approximate balance between the rates of these two processes.  If volcanism increases, or the rate of rock weathering decreases, however, that balance will be disturbed and CO2 will build up in the atmosphere until a new equilibrium is reached.  If volcanism decreases or the rate of rock weathering increases, the reverse will happen and the new equilibrium will be established with a lower CO2 content. 

    Several things effect the rate of rock weathering including the amount and elevation of exposed rock, the rate of rainfall, and temperature (with warm temperatures accelerating rock weathering).  The first is primarilly effected by the rate of mountain building (orogeny).  Thus, when the Indian sub-continent collided with the Asian continent, pushing up the Himalayas, that also increased the rate of weathering, thereby drawing down CO2.

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  19. @Zoli While Tom Curtis has posted a good diagram of the long carbon cycle, he has left out the impact of the biosphere on that cycle. During most the Pliocene The grassland/savanna ecosystem did not exist. During the Cenozoic, climate-wise, the Earth began a drying and cooling trend as grass/grazer biomes evolved and gradually spread forcing a drop in CO2 and CH4 levels, culminating in the glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch.

    Here is a good paper on it.

    Cenozoic Expansion of Grasslands and Climatic Cooling


    It has almost become a denialist mantra that CO2 was higher in ancient prehistoric times. While this is true, it is also true that the planet was warmer with much higher sea levels and vast swamps (which has now become coal) and much of the land not swampy was deserts. If we should return to similar conditions, civilization would very likely collapse. Probably actually long before reaching those conditions. Not to mention that the sun is actually warmer now than it was back then.


    So the available land that is in the sweet spot between not swamps and not deserts and available for agriculture would shrink dramatically. It would be hard to concieve of a way modern civilization could thrive under those conditions, although I must admit I am not a futurologist. Maybe there might be some small remnant of civilized humans left.

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  20. RedBaron,

    Ecosystems need animals to thrive, but not necessarily domestic animals. 35% of the land area of the planet is currently used for grazing domestic animals and that is a tremendous waste of precious carbon sequestration resources, where we could be "pulling a significant amount of atmospheric carbon and storing it safely".

    As scientists, it is disingenous to pretend that we don't know how to do that.

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  21. @saileshrao,

     I agree. My main issue with your posts isn't the current problem with the current wasteful systems. My issue with your posts is the dogmatic view that the solution must be no domestic animals at all.

    As an analogy look at it differently. Your dogmatic solution is to analogous to proposing to eliminate all children because some children are abused. No, it is just as wrong. You eliminate abused children by not abusing them anymore. In agriculture animal husbandry is both cruel to the animals and harmful to the environment, including one source for AGW. But it isn't the cows fault. In my opinion the solution is not to eliminate cows. The solution is to raise those cows properly with respect to both the cows and the environment. Same goes for pigs chickens etc.

    You said, "As scientists, it is disingenous to pretend that we don't know how to do that." And I would say the same. You are being disingenous in pretending we don't know how to raise domestic animals as part of an AGW mitigation plan. Of all possible solutions to AGW, your fixation to eliminate domestic animals is based on your religious Vegan dogma, rather than the rational scientific side. As I said, you are more than welcome to continue your Vegan boycott of all domestic animal products. I will help by boycotting CAFO products. But as a policy to restore ecosystem services to agricultural land, the vegan dogma is unworkable.

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  22. Digby Scorgie @5.

    You say "Now at last I am told that 400 ppm is equivalent in the short-term to 1.5 degrees of warming and in the long-term to about 3.0 degrees above the pre-industrial level. (Please correct me if I've misunderstood.)"

    There is some in what you say here that I'm not happy with.

    If we take 400ppm CO2 to represent rougly half the forcing that would result from a doubling of CO2, and if we take climate sensitivity (ECS) to be 3ºC, and if we assume other positive & negative forcings roughly cancel each other out, then 400ppm would result in 1.5ºC rise above pre-industrial (which is -0.31ºC on HadCRUT4, so 2015 was +1.06ºC on pre-industrial): 1.5ºC rise reached 100 years after reaching (& maintaining) 400ppm.

    The warming described in the OP resulting from feedbacks beyond the mechanisms deal with in ECS I see as being twice what it should be. The OP says "The Earth’s surface would keep warming about another 1.5°C over the ensuing centuries as ice continued to melt, decreasing the planet’s reflectivity." This is surely wrong. The OP cites Hansen & Sato (2011) but that paper suggests the slow feedbacks would only add 50% to the ECS warming. So it would be another +0.75°C.

    That then tots up to +2.25ºC rise but occurring over centuries.

    So it really comes down to how quickly mankind can reduce CO2 emissions, the target being zero. I would be surprised if this cannot be done by 2060. And a thought. Consider how much of the technology available to mankind today was an impossible dream only 50 years ago. Without wanting to trivialise the task required to transform technology, I feel I am on quite solid ground arguing that in a couple of centuries (and before those slow feedbacks have the time to bite) mankind will have the technology to adjust global CO2 to a level that they consider to be convenient and one which will go a long way to preventing further damage from AGW.

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  23. RedBaron,

    The proper analogy is to ban all abuse of children if children are being abused. It is the eating, milking, forcibly impregnating or otherwise abusing and exploiting sentient beings that is unsustainable.

    Imagine trying to reduce the global consumption of tobacco products exclusively through "smoke less" or "smoke gently" campaigns, instead of "smoking cessation" campaigns. It would not be successful. But we have to reduce the global consumption of animal products significantly to do any meaningful, reliable mitigitation of climate change and ecosystem degradation. And in a hurry.

    Veganism is a way of living where we seek to never deliberately hurt an innocent animal unnecessarily. In all my talks to over thousands of people over the years, I have never met a single person who answered "Yes" to the question,

    "Would you ever deliberately hurt an innocent animal unnecessarily?"

    I'm afraid those who answer "No" to this question and yet balk at veganism must experience cognitive dissonance, akin to climate denial.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] This is heading off topic very fast and the statements concerning animals are heading into very well worn territory of values. While scientific discussion of whether veganism would be beneficial for climate is welcome, attempts to use climate issues as an excuse to promote vegan values are not. There are other fora for such discussions.

  24. MA Rodger @22

    You have got me confused.  I arrived at the statement you query by adding the numbers in the second paragraph of the article.  To summarize:

    (1) We've caused about 1 C of warming to date.

    (2) Freezing atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm now would result in another 0.5 C "over the coming decades".

    (3) There'd be "another" 1.5 C "over the ensuing centuries".

    Are you saying (3) is incorrect and that the further warming over the "ensuing centuries" would only be 0.75 C?  If so, I think it should be up to you and the author to sort this out.  (I hope that doesn't sound rude; it's not meant to be!)

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  25. RedBaron,

    "In my opinion the solution is not to eliminate cows. The solution is to raise those cows properly with respect to both the cows and the environment. Same goes for pigs chickens etc."

    Per IPCC AR5, domestic animals annually consume 7.27 Gt of dry matter biomass and produce 0.18 Gt of animal-based foods for human consumption, at less than 3% efficiency of biomass conversion.

    Of the 7.27 Gt that domestic animals consume annually, 3.87 Gt is sourced from grazing land that comprises 35% of the land area of the planet, 3.14 Gt is sourced from cropland that comprises 10% of the land area of the planet and 0.26 Gt is sourced from waste residues.

    Of the 1.54 Gt that humans consume annually, 1.36 Gt is sourced from cropland as plant-based foods and 0.18 Gt is sourced from domestic animals as animal-based foods.

    The animal agriculture industry is aiming to double the production of animal-based foods by 2030. Assuming that this requires the doubling of biomass extraction in IPCC AR5, this would require sourcing 14.54 Gt of dry matter biomass for the consumption of domestic animals alone.

    Can you please explain how we could do this "properly" while producing the plant-based foods needed for an estimated 8.5 billion people in 2030, all in the face of accelerating climate change?

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Discussions work best when you read others comments carefully. Red Baron posts clearly indicate that he is against feedlots (or any cropland to feed agriculture), but that grazing lands are (can be) carbon sinks that need grazing animals to support that sequestration. This was discussed in considerable detail (with you included) over here. (Which seems a better place for further discussion).

  26. Moderator,

    Noted, but don't human values play a significant part in effecting the behavioral changes needed to mitigate climate change and environmental degradation? There is plenty of interdisplinary scientific research that finds it to be the case. Please see, e.g.,

    Corner, A., Markowitz, E., Pidgeon, N., "Public Engagement with Climate Change: The Role of Human Values," WIREs Climate Change, vol 5, issue 3, pp. 411-422, May 2014.

    Thank you for your consideration and for the use of this forum.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] You miss my point. Values are not very malleable. I very strongly doubt that any data about value of meat in diet or use benefits of grazing would turn you into a meat eater. Nor will any argument about "hurting innocent animals" likely to change the views of someone who regularly kills and eats meat. You look at the world through different eyes. The arguments-against-values discussion goes on ad nauseum in other fora and that is where it can stay. 

    Please feel free however to discuss things that can be decided on basis of data. Eg whether RedBaron's type of managed grazing is a net carbon sink, grazed soils versus forest soils as carbon sinks; whether abandoning feedlot meat would be good for planet as well as the animals; what would be effect on atmosphere if world went vegan and our herds disappeared etc. Ideally those discussions would continue over here.

  27. MA Rodger and Digby Scorgie, the article abovelinks to the skeptical science article on Hansen and Sato (2012) to justify its estimate of ESS.  The SkS article states:

    "During a period like the Holocene while warming to a Pliocene-like climate, slow feedbacks (such as reduced ice and increased vegetation cover) increase the sensitivity to around 4.5°C for doubled CO2. However, a climate warm enough to lose the entire Antarctic ice sheet would have a long-term sensitivity of close to 6°C. Fortunately it would take a very long time to lose the entire Antarctic ice sheet."

    The 4.5 C is consistent with MA Rodger's figures, while the 6 C is consistent with the article above.  For the ESS to be that high, however, the current CO2 concentration must be sufficient (if maintained) to melt away near 50% of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which seems implausible.  In any event, given that Dana was working with a range of estimates of ESS, using the highest value without noting it was a worst case estimate is overstating the case, and I believe should be corrected.

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  28. @saileshrao,

     One solution is parallel to Freeman Dyson’s geoengineering “solution” of just plant more trees. There are many reasons this won’t work, but the basic one is that planting trees increases stocks, but doesn’t stabilize fluxes. Using the bucket analogy, you have a created a bigger bucket, but still a bucket with no drain. It helps temporarily … until the new bigger bucket gets full. We call that Saturation. It’s a temporary fix that helps, but it is not a long term solution.

    However, maybe even accidently, Dyson might have stumbled onto something that can solve AGW to the benefit of all.

    Atmospheric CO2 level is the primary human impact we can change that directly influences energy flows. It comes down to the carbon cycle and the CO2 fertilization effect. Dyson is correct BTW that there is more carbon in the soil than in biomass and atmosphere combined. Also correct about the fertilization effect on plant growth. This is what is called a stabilizing feedback. The debunkers of Dyson are also correct about the increasing emissions from the labile fraction of soil carbon as temperature increases. Called a reinforcing feedback.

    Here is where it gets interesting. Dyson AND the vast majority of the Dyson debunking sources have focused on the wrong biome. It is NOT the forest plants that have the capability to mitigate AGW. It’s the grassland/savanna biome that actually can be a forcing for global cooling, and counter the current global warming trend.

    In a forest, the stabilizing feedbacks and the reinforcing feedbacks largely counter each other, and little is done long term to mitigate rising CO2 levels. Once you reach that saturation point you are done. You might even decrease albedo. But grasslands sequester carbon very differently than forests. Most grassland carbon is not sequestered in biomass, nor labile carbon in the top O horizon of the soil, but rather the newly discovered liquid carbon pathway. Grasslands also have higher albedo.

    Most terrestrial biosphere carbon storage is in grassland (mollic) soils. Where trees store most their products of photosynthesis in woody biomass, grasslands instead of producing a woody tree truck, secrete excess products of photosynthesis (exudates) to feed the soil food web, especially mycorrhizal fungi. Those fungi (AMF) in turn secrete a newly discovered compound called glomalin deep in the soil profile. Glomalin itself has a 1/2 life of 7–42 years if left undisturbed. The deepest deposits even longer with a 1/2 life of 300 years or more in the right conditions. Then when it does degrade a large % forms humic polymers that tightly bind to the soil mineral substrate and can last thousands of years undisturbed. Together they all form what is called a mollic epipedon. That’s your really good deep fertile soils of the world and they contain far more carbon, even in their highly degraded state currently, than all the terrestrial biomass and atmospheric CO2 put together. This LCP is what built those famously deep and fertile midwest soils.

    Even though wood is resistant to decay, the biomass of forests is still considered part of the active carbon cycle (labile carbon) That litter layer on the forest floor is relatively shallow, and most that decay ends up back in the atmosphere, unless locked in some kind of peat bog or permafrost. Tightly bound soil carbon in a mollic epipedon is considered differently than the labile carbon pool. It is the stable fraction of soil carbon, and grassland biomes pump 30% or more of their total products of photosynthesis into this liquid carbon pathway.

    The importance of this recent discovery of the Liquid Carbon Pathway (photosynthesis-root exudates-mycorrhizal fungi-glomalin-humic polymers-mollic epipedon) to climate science AND agriculture can not be stressed enough.

    Mollic Epipedon

    Glomalin: A soil protein important in soil sequestration

    Glomalin Is Key To Locking Up Soil Carbon

    Liquid carbon pathway unrecognised

    Cenozoic Expansion of Grasslands and Climatic Cooling

    So while specifically Dyson was wrong, he has identified in the most general terms the pathway forward. “Plants” is too general. Forests is categorically wrong, although we still need them for their rapid buffering capability on climate as well as many other important ecosystem services, not to mention lumber. But the forcing of CO2 mitigation long term comes from the grassland biome, now largely under agricultural management and that is plants after all. Dyson got the wrong plants and the wrong soils, but did hit on the right concept.

    The real question is can this mitigation strategy work within conservative ideals so that a political coalition between both liberals and conservatives can be made to devise a plan acceptable to both? It is pretty obvious that a carbon tax has and will continue to meet with opposition.

    I believe it is possible, yes. But certain areas will take dramatic change for that to happen. Most importantly energy and agriculture. Right now both those sectors have already overgrown what can be sustained. Quite predictable since they were never really sustainable since the industrial revolution anyway. Just took a while for people to realise it.

    For it to happen though, agriculture production models will need to be changed to regenerative systems, energy will need technological fixes like solar and nuclear etc. and overall since population has already exceeded environmental capacity, a large amount of ecosystem recovery projects will be needed as well. So yeah, reforesting can be a part where appropriate. All of these are possible, however I personally believe they are unlikely to happen on their own given social and institutional inertia.

    My focus is on agriculture. Having studied it quite intensely for years, I believe we currently have the ability to fix that one. Only a few minor gaps remain. I can only hope others committed to the other two big ones meet with similar success. But then comes the hard part, actually doing what we know how to do before these unsustainable systems currently in effect start failing world wide, collapsing even our ability to do what we know how to do! That’s the actual tricky part.

    For example, if agriculture fails before we fully institute regenerative models and the infrastructure changes needed, civilization collapses. Not much going to be done about it then. AGW will see to it that all three will fail if changes are not done soon enough. Once again with the potential to collapse civilization, or at least many nations including ours. Again making it near impossible to implement what we already know how to do.

    So how do we institute the changes needed in a free market economic base beneficial to mitigating AGW?

    The most important leg is agriculture. The answer may be more simple than you think. The rise of “king corn” can be seen as a direct result of a series of changes in agricultural policy instituted by Earl Lauer Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Most important to this policy change was the Buffer stock scheme (ever full granary) combined with urgings to farmers to “get big or get out”. (Which happened by the way. Now there is actually a crisis from too few family farmers, average age being 60.) That led to huge surpluses which we then were able to successfully use for many purposes, including major grain sales to Russia and China and many humanitarian aid projects.

    Something has changed though. Now China has opened up beef sales. This is a value added commodity over grain. It makes more sense to drop the buffer stock scheme on grain, and instead I propose a buffer stock scheme on grass fed beef instead. You can do this on the same amount of subsidies that we currently use for grain, and instead put them on restoring the great prairies/steppes/savannas of the world….raising beef. This would positively affect carbon sequestration, pesticide use, erosion, seasonal dead zones in our productive coastal waters, biodiversity, energy budget, economic growth, international trade balance, rural economic development, etc… AND if done properly, as many case studies at the USDA-SARE & USDA-NRCS clearly show, even increase total yields of food for humans.

    So to fully answer, instead of adding a carbon tax, one way to solve this is simply change what we subsidize. No need for new taxes. In agriculture instead of a buffer stock scheme on king corn, a buffer stock scheme on carbon being sequestered in soils. Just redirect the same amount of funds away from one to the other. Same goes for energy. Fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $493 billion in 2014, with subsidies to oil products representing over half of the total. Those subsidies were over four-times the value of subsidies to renewable energy. Simply redirect the subsidies for fossil fuels over to renewables. Doesn’t necessarily need to cost one penny more.

    The idea that we are still subsidizing AGW, while trying to find solutions to AGW is quite frankly ridiculous. Goes to the wise old saying, “A house divided against itself can not stand.”

    Now for some interesting general numbers. “Under appropriate conditions, 30-40% of the carbon fixed in green leaves can be transferred to soil and rapidly humified, resulting in rates of soil carbon sequestration in the order of 5-20 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.”

    Liquid carbon pathway unrecognised

    Fast facts: The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources

    5-20 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year x 1.5 billion hectares = 7.5 - 30.0 billion tonnes of CO2 per year AND that's just arable cropland, that doesn't even include the ecosystem recovery projects that could be done on degraded desertified rangeland mentioned by Allan Savory in his famous TedTalk. That's actually a larger area of land, but much more complicated to calculate. Because some rangeland is healthy and currently sequestering carbon in the LCP. A larger % is degraded by overgrazing and/or undergrazing, both causes of desertification and either nearly net zero flux, or actually a CO2 emissions source. Depending on the brittleness factor, they also each respond differently when properly managed. So it is difficult to quantify exactly how much more CO2 could be sequestered per year restoring these areas, but likely even more total (but less per hectare). China's restoration project of the desertified Loess Plateau early results shows just how significant this can be.

    Soil carbon sequestration potential for "Grain for Green" project in Loess Plateau, China

    Pasture Cropping: A Regenerative Solution from Down Under

    The System of Rice Intensification (SRI)…
    … is climate-smart rice production

    The next two have USDA case studies on file with the USDA, and instructional vids. I will post both.

    No-Till Case Study, Brown's Ranch: Improving Soil Health Improves ...

    Gabe Brown: Keys To Building a Healthy Soil


    12 Aprils Grazing Dairy Manual

    Trantham's Sustainable 12 Aprils Dairy Grazing Program: A Top Farm that Almost Went Under

    As you can see, more food per acre. Little to no cost. More profitable. Large enough.

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  29. @Tom Curtis

    Thanks. Meanwhile I found an SkS article in the subject 'Do high levels of CO2 in the past contradict the warming effect of CO2?'

    So the climate in my post-apocalyptic story will be a bit colder.

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  30. Tom Curtis @27

    Okay, so it seems the amount of long-term warming is in dispute.  Please take this up with the author.  I'm not qualified to do so.

    But whatever the case, if CO2 levels remain at 400 ppm (they won't), the planet is headed for more than two degrees of warming.  Optimists think humanity can reduce CO2 levels below 400 ppm.  Just from bitter experience, I think they'll simply carry on rising until the changing climate gets so bad it wrecks global civilization — resulting paradoxically in the required reductions in emissions.  Am I a pessimist or a realist?

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  31. Red Baron, et al:

    Something for both of you to take into account in your ongoing discourse: 

    Humankind is a witness every single day to a new, unprecedented challenge. One of them is the very fact that the world’s arable lands are being lost at 30 to 35 times the historical rate. Each year, 12 million hectares are lost. That means 33,000 hectares a day!

    Moreover, scientists have estimated that the fraction of land surface area experiencing drought conditions has grown from 10-15 per cent in the early 1970s to more than 30 per cent by early 2000, and these figures are expected to increase in the foreseeable future.

    While drought is happening everywhere, Africa appears as the most impacted continent by its effects. According to the Bonn-based United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), two-thirds of African lands are now either desert or dry-lands.

    The challenge is enormous for this second largest continent on Earth, which is home to 1.2 billion inhabitants in 54 countries and which has been the most impacted region by the 2015/2016 weather event known as El-Niño.

    Arable Lands Lost at Unprecedented Rate: 33,000 Hectares… a Day! by Baher Kamal, Inter Press Service (IPS), Aug 16, 2016

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  32. @John Hartz,

    You are absolutely correct. In fact all you have done is restate the exact same problem from a different point of view than climate science. Same solution applies to both, because to regenerate soils requires sequestering organic carbon in those soils, and the source of that carbon is from the atmosphere via photosynthesis.

    Or to make it simple. The same carbon we have too much of in the atmosphere, we have too little of in our soils. The extra in the atmosphere causes the problem of AGW. And the loss of carbon in our soils causes deterioration of arable land.

    So any solution that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and restores it to our agricultural soils kills two birds with one stone. 

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  33. Red Baron @32:

    The overarching question then becomes, "How rapidly can the human race implement processes to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and restore it to soils on a scale large enough to make a signicant impact on both the soils and the atmospheric concentration of CO2?"

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  34. @ John,

     That's an interesting question John, because of the way you phrased it. The biological systems can recover extremely rapidly. In the order of a decade or less you could strat seeing significant reductions in atmospheric CO2 if every land manager started implementing these various regenerative agricultural systems. The soil starts recovering the first year, but 3 years +/- is when it really starts kicking off due to reinforcing feedbacks.  Those reinforcing feedbacks will dominate and accelorate until the main stabilizing feedback, lower atmospheric CO2,  slows them down.

    But that's not exactly what you asked. You said how fast can we humans implement the changes required? That requires first of all that people not be in denial of AGW or soil degradation. Then one must convice the population of the planet to actually make the changes in agriculture. Then it requires education of the now motivated land managers in the regerative agricultural systems available for their local conditions. All these things require cooperation. That could indeed take a very very long time. Maybe too long. 


    Assuming we actually could get a world wide cooperative effort, both problems could be solved, or at least no immediate risk and well on their way to resolution, within a few decades.

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  35. RedBaron,

    Thank you for the very detailed explanation and the useful links. Your agricultural knowledge is impressive. As you point out, there are a lot of things that need to be changed: agricultural production models, energy mixes and ecosystem recovery. But let me grant that your approach to carbon sequestration is workable within the current system. 

    I happen to be a systems specialist and take a holistic perspective.   Climate change is a threat multiplier for a host of environmental threats: ecosystem degradation, toxic pollution, resource depletion and fresh water scarcity, to name a few. Couple those with the social ills of poverty, inequality, overconsumption, etc., and you have an apocalyptic mix ready to combust at any time. Solving carbon sequestration addresses the threat multiplier, but not the underlying threats. 

    Far from being dogmatic, Veganism is a rational response to climate change, the threat multiplier, as well as the underlying environmental threats, simultaneously! It releases pasture land back to Nature which can be re-wilded to their native biomes for ecosystem recovery. Rapid carbon drawdown occurs in re-wilded native forests until maturity (carbon stock remains sequestered as long as the forests stand) and as you point out, deep long term carbon sequestration can occur on prairies with native ruminants. Trees store the toxic pollution in their trunks in recovering forests, while people stop ingesting bio-concentrated doses of toxic pollution through animal foods. For instance, the USDA estimates that 95% of the dioxins in our bodies, which are some of the strongest carcinogens known to man, come from the foods we eat. Dioxins are released into the atmosphere whenever chlorine reacts with hydrocarbons and this happens, for instance, when we bleach wood pulp. Currently, the four main food sources of these dioxins are fish, eggs, cheese and meat, in that order. And so on.

    This is why Veganism has taken hold among the youth, who are as far from dogmatic as you can get. In the US, as of 2010, according to a Hartman Group Research report, 12% of Millennials, 4% of Gen X-ers and 1% of Baby Boomers were vegan. Since then, interest in Veganism has tripled according to Google trends. The interest is especially strong in the developed countries of the world, which augurs well for Veganism’s continued exponential growth.

    Veganism also forces society to address the social threats. We are ensconced in a socioeconomic system that is based upon consumption as an organizing value and competition as an organizing principle. We are each bombarded with 3,500 ads a day, persuading us to consume one unnecessary product or another. We constantly compete against each other to determine who is better at one activity or another. The social hierarchy so created greases this ritualistic consumption.

    This socioeconomic system is incompatible with Veganism. When taken to its logical conclusion, Veganism necessitates conscious simplicity since any unnecessary consumption uses natural resources that hurts innocent animals somewhere. This is why going vegan is a process that doesn’t stop with our dinner plates. This is also why “vegan consumerism” is an oxymoron and why it frightens the elites in the current system that more and more people are going vegan. Hence the widespread “Cowspiracy” that has infected institutions everywhere, especially in the developed world.

    But the response to Veganism shouldn't be fear. Veganism requires transforming our civilization around compassion, not consumption, as the organizing value, and cooperation, not competition, as the organizing principle. Is that such an onerous transformation to contemplate? Surely, we are truly lucky to be alive at this incredibly significant moment in human history, piloting such a transformation...

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  36. @saileshrao,

     I have been thinking about your post all day. I have a quandry. In all honesty I do not want to discourage you from Veganism. See if you can follow my train of thought. I honestly think that veganism is really only possible in developed countries. In developed countries like the USA where I am developing one small niche to add to the regenerative models I posted about above, as much as 95% -97% or more of the animal products available to consumers have used the destructive agricultural production models. So a Vegan boycott of those products is actually in my view a big help.

    There are fundamental flaws in your grand vision of a world completely transformed to veganism. But I really don't think it is productive to alienate a potential ally with arguments over that 3%. Nor do I think any Vegan movement has any chance at all to convert the entire world to your dietary restrictions anyway. So I believe the point is moot anyway.

    What I will say is this. Your grand vision of rewilding vast areas would actually remove them from food production too. The remaining land could feed our population, but without using biomimicry on that remaining land (which by necessity requires carefully managed animal impact) It would be impossible to produce enough food without agrichemicals at our current technology. So the remaining land would eventually degrade in the boom and bust cycle I referenced above. We would need to continually go back to those newly rewilded areas and bring them back into agricultural production, and rewild the degraded land, in sort of a huge rotational fallow plan. Beyond being unrealistic, it is also only delaying the inevitable, because you really haven't converted to a regenerative agricultural model. All you are really doing is destructive agriculture, but on less land temporarily. It can't solve AGW, only slow it. It would be the best we could do, if we didn't have regenerative production models. From a systems science POV it is not much different than what we have now, just without animals. Still a cause of AGW, but cut by 1/2. And that's assuming you could even make it work at all.

    So no I don't fear Veganism. I encourage it. It helps pressure a change. But taken to the extreme of the whole world going Vegan, likely not workable, and certainly not a plan to eliminate AGW. Again, less damaging to the soils is not the same as regenerating the soils.

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  37. Interesting discussion. I'm not a vegetarian, but I concede meat eating is pretty inefficient use of resources. We need a lot of plant matter to generate a small quantity of meat. Maybe the answer is to keep meat eating pretty moderate.

    But then we look at the oceans where a lot of plankton is presumably needed to support a small number of fish. We can't eat plankton so we might as well eat the fish. We have nothing to lose, provided we don't over fish, and no obvious impacts on climate change.

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  38. RedBaron,

    Even if we need a few domestic animals to sustain it (many veganic farmers disagree), a Vegan food system, which reduces the human biomass demand on Nature by a factor of 6, would be easier to manage into the future.

    Perhaps I wasn't clear, but just as climate change, ecosystem degradation and toxic pollution are systemic issues, the fear of Veganism is also a systemic issue. Veganism is based on a nurturant ethic towards Nature (80% of vegans are women), which runs counter to the domination ethic underlying our current system.

    I also don't expect the necessary system change to happen overnight. Vegans have the critical mass now for the Buckminster Fuller approach: "You don't change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

    What would a socioeconomic system based on compassion as an organizing value and cooperation as an organizing principle look like? We are planning sandbox implementations in cooperation with academic institutions and NGOs in the US and India.

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  39. Nigelj,

    "We have nothing to lose, provided we don't over fish, and no obvious impacts on climate change."

    We have already overfished to the point where modern fishing operations depend on a network of high tech sensors to track and trap fish up to 2km below sea level. Most seafood contain higher toxic pollutants than any other food source. In fact, Jeremy Jackson of Scripps says that by as early as 2030, eating a morsel of fish would be equivalent to playing gastronomic Russian roulette:

    But as you can imagine, my sympathies are entirely with the fish.

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  40. @saileshrao,

    The thread title is, "Climate urgency: we've locked in more global warming than people realize".

    I have contended there is a mitigation option that allows us to avoid being locked into this greater AGW. I have provided case studies for all the major staples; rice, small grains and large grains, meat and dairy being produced at commercial scale in a way that significantly reduces atmospheric CO2 by sequestering C into the soil, restoring soil health to agricultural land, if they were adopted world wide. (My own work is in various vegetable crop regenerative models of production but I haven't posted that here because it is original research) I have shown evidence for both correlation and causation. I have even proposed a way to potentially break the current political deadlock and avoid economic disruption both to the many producers and larger commodity markets, international trade markets etc... by proposing how we might do this at a profit at all economic trophic levels. (pardon the pun)

    Now you said, "Even if we need a few domestic animals to sustain it (many veganic farmers disagree), a Vegan food system, which reduces the human biomass demand on Nature by a factor of 6, would be easier to manage into the future." 

    Where are your numbers? Where are the case studies? How do you scale it? Where is the socio-economic political plan? How will this prevent us from being locked into more global warming than people realize? How will we pay for it? Who are the economic winners and losers and why?

    I ask all this because I don't want a sloganeering reply based solely on your attempt to convert acolytes to your religious dogma, rather I am actually interested in this so called "veganic" agriculture and how it might fill some of the more minor gaps in my plan. There are various local ordinances and zoning issues surrounding animal husbandry in and near large population areas. It is not the major agricultural land, but it is one small gap in my proposed plan I need to work through.

    So if you could please leave the conversion of the world's population to Veganism aside for a moment, and instead answer some of these questions, maybe I could integrate some of your ideas into my proposed plan of action?

    Thanks in advance.

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  41. RedBaron,

    The definitive book on the subject, commissioned by the StockFree Organic Growers Network, is by Jenny Hall and Iain Tolhurst, "Growing Green: Animal Free Organic Techniques," Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.

    Sure, there are unanswered socioeconomic and political questions in the veganic approach as I already pointed out, just as there are unanswered questions on species extinctions, toxic pollution, etc., in the Rotational Grazing approach. The latter continues the Western scientific tradition of extracting more from Nature in the face of an ecological crunch, along the same vein as the Haber-Bosch process of the 1900s and the Green Revolution of the 1960s, both of which has had unintended catastrophic consequences.

    But perhaps, we are veering off topic? My best wishes to your proposed plan of action.

    I consider this discussion closed.

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