UCS posts strange review of Cowspiracy — no, wait, a review of “Livestock and Climate Change”

CowspiracyWe’ve been wondering for some time if major environmental groups would ever react to Cowspiracy, the 2014 documentary making the case that livestock agriculture is the most destructive industry on the planet today.

Well, there’s good news and bad news! The good news is that one group, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is now publicly discussing Cowspiracy. The bad news is that this comes in the form of a rather strange review which Doug Boucher, a scientific advisor to the UCS, has posted on the UCS web site. 

My blog here is a response to Boucher’s piece. Unfortunately, because his review has so many problems, it tends to confirm, rather than diminish, the overall message of Cowspiracy that environmental groups are prejudiced against any suggestion or even hint of veganism.

This isn’t a review of Cowspiracy!

The first really, really strange thing about Boucher’s review of Cowspiracy is that his lengthy article attacks just one relatively minor facet of this documentary — its brief mention of “Livestock and Climate Change.” The “Livestock and Climate Change” (LCC) article, published in the November-December 2009 issue of WorldWatch, greatly advanced our understanding of how humans affect climate with its estimate that 51% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock agriculture. The movie Cowspiracy may have helped in some minor way in spreading awareness of this article, as the movie briefly mentions it. But Boucher is obsessed with LCC and ignores virtually everything else in the film.

Wait a minute! Is Boucher trying to review Cowspiracy or LCC?

If you weren’t paying close attention while you watched Cowspiracy, you might have missed the mention of LCC. LCC rates about 30 seconds of discussion, during which the movie fails to mention either the title of the study or its authors. (They are Robert Goodland, d. 2013, and Jeff Anhang.) Cowspiracy also gives about 30 seconds to a rival figure, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions due to livestock (from the FAO’s 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow), without really deciding which estimate is better. Later, the movie briefly brings up the 51% figure again (along with the FAO’s 18% figure) in questions to the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To center a lengthy review around this single relatively small aspect of the movie is totally and grossly unfair both to the movie and to his readers, who would expect his review to provide some basic understanding of what the movie actually contains. Cowspiracy has extensive discussion of, and questioning of environmental groups about, such issues as water use, water pollution, fish, rainforest destruction, world hunger, animal cruelty, nutrition, and other issues, which Boucher ignores. The climate aspect is clearly mentioned, but to imply that Cowspiracy is all about LCC is just wrong. So at the outset Boucher seems to have tossed perspective out of the window: he has failed to review the movie which he is supposedly reviewing.

False dichotomy between fossil fuels and livestock agriculture

Even if we treat his blog as a review of LCC, Boucher says plenty of other things that are scientifically ridiculous. Boucher’s review creates a false dichotomy between fossil fuels and livestock agriculture: “According to Cowspiracy, the major source of global warming pollution isn’t fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, as the world’s scientists are telling us. No, it’s animal agriculture.”

Nonsense. Why does it have to be one or the other? Obviously, there’s going to be considerable overlap between fossil fuels and the livestock industry. Because of this overlap, it could be (and probably is) true that over half of greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock — and over half of greenhouse gas emissions are due to fossil fuels.

The modern livestock industry is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Irrigation, pesticides, the building and running of farm machinery, artificial nitrogen fertilizers, extra carbon-intensive refrigeration, transportation, cooking, waste disposal, medical treatment of all the diseases related to livestock (ranging from swine flu to heart disease and cancer) — all of these would not even be imaginable without intensive use of fossil fuels. Without fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizers, the quadrupling of world population that took place in the 20th century would not have been possible (Vaclav Smil), and the huge increase in livestock wouldn’t have occurred either.

Consensus? What consensus?

Boucher refers to “the scientific consensus that livestock are currently responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gases.” He doesn’t even discuss this claim that there is such a consensus, he just announces it and gives a single link in his defense. But the link doesn’t take you to a consensus statement, it’s just an article by M. Herrero et. al., who express their view that livestock are responsible for 15% of all global greenhouse gases. Goodland and Anhang responded to Herrero’s work, and in my opinion pretty solidly demolished it.

Boucher isn’t reporting a consensus, he’s reporting on just one side of a debate — his side. He hasn’t looked at the references to LCC in the scientific literature (go to Google Scholar and enter “Goodland Anhang livestock climate”), and he has not attempted to follow the debate at all; he has simply dogmatically declared his side to be the winner.

Livestock respiration

One of LCC’s key claims is that all these extra cows are breathing out CO2 — an obvious greenhouse gas which should be counted as such. Boucher isn’t impressed. He says: “the CO2 that plants take out of the atmosphere, goes back into the atmosphere, whether or not they are eaten by animals. Thus, livestock (and other animals, including both wild and human ones) don’t add to the amount of CO2 that gets emitted into the atmosphere [through respiration].”

Boucher is trying to define the problem of livestock respiration out of existence. The fact that eventually an individual carbon molecule absorbed by plants will make it back into the atmosphere isn’t relevant. What is relevant is the rate at which CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere (by plants) compared to the rate at which it is returned to the atmosphere (by cows, by fungi, or whatever).

The fact is, as LCC points out, that we have hugely expanded the number of cows on the planet. The biomass of livestock today far exceeds the total biomass of all large land animals — wild, human, or domestic — at any point in the past 100,000 years before the industrial revolution. This means that the rate at which CO2 is being put into the atmosphere (by cows) has been hugely ramped up, at the same time that the rate at which CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere by plants has been sharply reduced — think deforestation, soil erosion, and desertification, all consequences of livestock agriculture.

What you really want to know, then, is the balance between the rate at which carbon is oxidized as CO2 and put into the atmosphere (whether by cows, people, or fungi) and the rate of uptake of CO2 (by plants). If the rate of oxidation exceeds the rate of uptake, then CO2 is going to build up in the atmosphere and we have a problem. That’s the problem and that’s why we need to take livestock respiration seriously.

Methane

Boucher then criticizes LCC’s argument for a 20-year time frame for evaluating methane emissions. Methane, per unit volume, is much, much more damaging than carbon dioxide. But it also breaks down much more quickly; its half-life in the atmosphere is about eight years, while the half-life of CO2 is about a century. So how important methane is, depends on the time frame. The global warming potential of methane is 25 times that of CO2 in a 100-year time frame, but 72 times that of CO2 using a 20-year time frame. LCC argues that the 20-year time frame is more appropriate, “because of both the large effect that methane reductions can have within 20 years and the serious climate disruption expected within 20 years if no significant reduction of [greenhouse gas emissions] is achieved.”

Boucher slams this stance, saying that “ . . . . choosing to take the average over only 20 years, as the Worldwatch study did, is tantamount to saying that we only care about ourselves, not our children, our grandchildren, and future generations” (emphasis in original). Boucher doesn’t really argue for this point of view, he just declares it to be true.

Which time span is appropriate depends not on whether you care about the future, but how urgent the problem is. If you want quick action to reduce warming over the next decade or so, there’s only one practical way to do that, by effectively reducing methane emissions. This could have significant results within a decade. Even the total elimination of all CO2 emissions wouldn’t have a significant effect for almost a century, the half-life of atmospheric CO2. And Boucher’s idea that the 100-year time frame is some kind of “scientific consensus” is delusional. The IPCC itself agrees with the 20-year time frame for methane, so it would seem that Boucher is the one who is out of step.

I hope that the Union of Concerned Scientists will somehow distance themselves from this bizarre review. Its obvious bias and outright errors unfortunately strengthens a key charge in Cowspiracy: that environmental groups are prejudiced against the idea of limiting livestock agriculture at all.

One thought on “UCS posts strange review of Cowspiracy — no, wait, a review of “Livestock and Climate Change”

  1. Max Girouard

    If you call yourselves the Union of Concerned Scientists, seems like opinion should take a back seat! When it comes to meat, the level of concern and the level of science do not mesh with the entitlement experienced at the mere thought of giving up meat and dairy products! It is rather humorous to see actual scientists contort so much to make the evidence support their habit!

    The health effects of meat and dairy should be the only evidence needed. If anything else was causing nearly 3000 deaths per day, we would be up in arms with finding a solution! If a virus was killing that many people per day, it would be an epidemic! But now it is only business as usual.

    If we had a campaign to curb climate change, it might look like this: “Eat meat once a week (or less) – same for dairy! Part time is all you need to save our planet!”

    If we don’t find a way to curb our appetite, I see much suffering in our future!

    Reply

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