August 19, 2017

Globalization and climate change

From Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World Is Possible, eds John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander, 2004.


Climate change may be the most daunting problem that humankind has ever encountered, and economic globalization is accelerating it. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now predicts a temperature change of up to 5.8 degrees centigrade during the twenty-first century. However, the IPCC did not take into account such added critical factors as the annihilation of our tropical forests and other vegetation, especially because of global trade and development models. These forests contain six hundred billion tons of carbon, almost as much as is contained in the atmosphere. Much of this carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere in the next decades by the increasingly uncontrolled activities of the giant global logging companies. The director-general of the United Nations environment Program recently said only a miracle could save the world’s remaining tropical forests.

Nor does the IPCC include damage to the world’s soils from modern export-oriented industrial agriculture. Agriculture is now responsible for 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emission, 60 percent of methane, and 80 percent of nitrous oxide, all of them potent greenhouse gases. All the world’s soils combined contain sixteen hundred billion tons of carbon, more than twice the amount now in the atmosphere. Much of this will be released within a few decades unless there is a rapid switch to sustainable, locally oriented, largely organic agricultural practices. (See also chapter 8.)

The Hadley Centre of the British Meteorological Organisation has drawn even more frightening outcomes than IPCC. Hadley does take forest depletion and industrial agriculture into account in its recent models and concludes that the world’s average temperature will actually increase by up to 8.8 degrees centigrade rather than 5.8 degrees over this century. Many other climatologists agree. If they are right, the implications are horrifying.

The IPCC tells us to expect a considerable increase in heat waves, storms, and floods and the spread of tropical diseases into temperate areas, which will not only affect human health but also that of our crops. It also tells us to expect a rise in sea levels of up to eighty-eight centimetres, which will affect (by seawater intrusion into the soils underlying croplands and by temporary and also permanent flooding) something like 30 percent of the world’s agricultural lands. This will be especially disastrous for poor and small farmers occupying lowlands, such as in Bangladesh, and among island nations, although it will also threaten much of the U.S. coastline. But, of course, if the Hadley Centre’s predictions are right, the implications are still worse than the IPCC expects.

Also worrying is the melting of the secondary Antarctic, the Arctic, and in particular, the Greenland ice shields, which is occurring far more quickly than was predicted by the IPCC. This will reduce the salinity of the oceans and may weaken or divert oceanic currents such as the Gulf Stream from their present course. This process could eventually lead to the freezing up of areas that at present have a temperate climate, such as Northern Europe, which could eventually resemble Labrador, on the same latitude. Ironically, global warming could also lead to extreme cooling in some locales.

(The British Observer newspaper reported in 2004 on a secret U.S. Pentagon study warning of the possibility “that European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian climate’ as early as the first half of this century.” The Pentagon’s report apparently also predicts the possibility of nuclear wars, megadroughts, famine, and rioting across the world, in reaction. The authors of the study, including CIA consultant Peter Schwartz, a former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell, argued that climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern,” advice that was likely to fall on deaf ears in the Bush administration.)

Indeed, the effects of climate change are proceeding faster than predicted. Four years of drought in much of Africa have resulted in thirty to forty million people facing starvation. Drought in the American corn belt, the Canadian plains, and the Australian wheat belt may seriously reduce cereal exports, which will in turn affect the vast masses of people in Africa and elsewhere who are already facing starvation. The recent climate in Europe has also been dreadful. Floods in Germany in 2002 caused an estimated 10 billion euros in damages. The terrible storms in northern Italy, with hailstones the size of tennis balls, destroyed crops over a wide area in 2002. Drought in southern Europe has also drastically reduced harvests, destroying, for example, olive harvests throughout southern and central Italy.

All this is the recent result of no more than a 0.7 degree centigrade increase in global temperatures. What will things be like when we have to grow our food in a world whose average temperature has increased by two or three degrees, let alone by five to eight degrees as we are told might happen later in this century?

Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, our planet would continue to heat up for at least 150 years, which is the residence time of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, while the oceans will continue to warm for a thousand years. Our only choice is to take measures—and very dramatic ones at that—that can slow down the warming process so our planet remains partly habitable. This includes minimizing export-oriented products, with their commensurate fossil fuel use, and making drastic changes in agricultural production. But thus far industrial nations are not sufficiently attending to the problem, and some, like the United States and Russia, are ignoring it completely. Public protest is mandatory.

Returning To An Agriculture That Protects The Atmosphere

Industrial agriculture is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, 60 percent of methane gas emissions, and 80 percent of nitrous oxide—all major gases causing climate change (See also Box F, chapter 2 [not available]). These can be drastically curbed by abandoning the present industrial agriculture model, and pursuing traditional, sustainable agriculture systems that have provided abundant food and maintained ecosystems for many centuries. Here are some steps we can take:

Nitrous Oxide—In the last few decades tropical rainforests have been cut down at an alarming rate; mainly for conversion to an industrial agriculture export crop or for cattle grazing. Millions of tons of nitrous oxide emissions are the result. Nitrogen fertilizers, a staple of industrial agriculture, are another major source of nitrous oxide, contributing as much as 10 percent of total annual nitrous oxide emissions. Centuries-old alternatives include mulch, manure, and other such low-tech, “on-farm” fertilizers that deliver healthy soils and abundant crops.

Methane and Carbon Dioxide—Methane emissions are dramatically increasing because of flood-irrigated, nitrogen-dosed rice fields and the substantial increase in industrially raised livestock—cattle, in particular. Cattle fed high-protein grain diets emit considerably more methane gas than grass-fed cattle. Organic rain-fed rice fields emit significantly less methane.

Carbon dioxide emissions are largely caused by loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere. Modern industrial agriculture contributes to this by such practices as deforestation and drainage of wetlands, deep ploughing that exposes the soil to the elements, use of heavy machinery that compacts the soil, use of fertilizers and pesticides that destroy soil structure, overgrazing leading to desertification, and the practice of growing monocrops on a large scale.

Using manures, composts, mulches, and cover crops such as forest bark, straw, or other organic materials that are fed back into the soil not only reduces nitrous oxide but is effective in preventing loss of soil carbon. These fertilizers also reduce soil-borne diseases and increase crop productivity. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a system of agroforestry—planting trees in or near crops—is a good means of maximizing absorption of carbon by the soil.

High energy intensiveness in industrial agriculture further contributes to increased carbon dioxide emissions. A recent study in the U.K. concluded that non-mechanized, or traditional, systems of agriculture in England and Germany used seven times less fossil fuels than industrial production.

Modern irrigation is especially energy intensive. When water is extracted from a depth of more than thirty meters, pumped irrigation requires more than three times as much fossil fuel energy for corn production as rain-fed cultivation. Our dependence on perennially irrigated land is largely due to commercial hybrid seed varieties, as well as genetically modified seeds, which require much more water, just as they require more chemicals. Farmer-saved seeds that have been developed and selected over millennia to succeed in specific local climates and geological configurations have longer roots that can dig deep into the soil to find sources of moisture that the short-rooted commercial seeds cannot utilize.

Water used for irrigation presently consumes nearly 70 percent of all the water used worldwide, and this figure is projected to double in another twenty years. The water scarcity that has resulted leads to pressure to privatize. (In the Indian state of Orissa, water prices have increased tenfold due to privatization, and small farmers can no longer afford it.)

Prior to industrialized agriculture, many regions had developed effective, non-intensive water systems. Some food producers still use such systems—water catchment, low-flow irrigation, and other such methods—low-cost, low-tech methods that foster high food production and maintain watersheds.

Most industrial agriculture production is for export markets—this translates into massive increases in the use of fossil fuels for transport, packaging, and long-distance preservation. One-eighth of world oil consumption goes toward transport, with food products accounting for a considerable slice of this.

Such travel and trade in food are completely unnecessary. This is referred to as “the great food swap”—ships pass in the night, one carrying grain from the United States to India and one loaded with grain from India to the United States. This system benefits the handful of corporate grain traders but creates great food instability around the world. Localized food production and distribution is one answer to reducing fossil fuel transport.

If traditional agriculture systems have successfully provided food and fibre for millions over many centuries, why are we undertaking such a radical transformation of food production, one that threatens the very atmosphere of the planet?

A World Bank report notes that “small holders are outstanding managers of their own resources—their land and capital, fertilizer and water.” But the report goes on to lament:

“The farmers had to be induced to produce for the market, adopt new crops, and undertake new risks. . . . Until enough subsistence farmers have their traditional lifestyles changed by the growth of new consumption wants, this labour constraint may make it difficult to introduce new [export] crops.”

In other words, we destroy successful local agriculture systems to bring profits to wasteful industrial agriculture corporations, risking planetary health. It is imperative that we immediately move away from an industrial food system that depends on intensive use of chemicals, water, and fossil fuels toward a localized model based on traditional, ecologically sustainable practices. This is not only desirable to contain climate change but is also the best way to ensure food security and food safety, preserve wildlife and other species, maintain biodiversity, and protect our soil, water, and air.

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