Ranchers can fight global climate change, one acre at a time


If you are worried about climate change, these are not the best of times. The decision by the U.S. Senate to postpone climate legislation and the failure of last year's Copenhagen summit to produce tangible progress on limiting greenhouse gases means that Business-As-Usual still rules the world.

The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen to 390 parts per million -- 40 ppm above what many scientists consider the level necessary to keep the climate stable for human life. And it is rising at 2 ppm per year, far faster than at any time in the Earth's climate history.

What do we do? Some see salvation in high technology, including the "capture" of CO2 at its source followed by its storage underground, or the "scrubbing" of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by hundred of thousands of filtering machines the size of boxcars.

These technologies exist more in theory than reality, and even if they were practical, as well as safe, they are many years away from deployment. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is happening now. Which leads to a novel idea: What about trying low technology?

As I see it, the only real way that large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere can start today is if we encourage plant photosynthesis and land-based carbon storage activities. In other words, we need to start growing more grass.

There are only four natural carbon sinks on Earth: the atmosphere, the oceans, the forests and other perennial vegetation, and the soil. The atmospheric sink is overflowing with CO2, and the oceans are fast filling up, becoming alarmingly acidic as a result. Forests are being cut down or burned up, which just releases stored CO2 back to the atmosphere. That leaves us with the dirt beneath our feet.

The potential for CO2 storage in soils is three times greater than the atmosphere. And since two-thirds of the Earth's landmass is covered with grass, the potential impact on the climate could be huge.

NASA's James Hansen, the nation's leading climatologist, postulates that 50 ppm of CO2 could be pulled down and stored in the soil over the next 50 years. How? By employing the low technology of green plants, which transform atmospheric carbon into soil organic compounds that provide numerous benefits for humans and ecosystems alike.

In my experience in the arid Southwest, there are several strategies that can increase or maintain the carbon content of grass-dominated ecosystems. They include a switch to planned grazing systems using livestock as a land-management tool, particularly on degraded soils; the restoration of degraded riparian and wetland zones; and the removal of woody vegetation, with grass encouraged to grow in its stead where appropriate. Strategies to prevent carbon losses include conserving open space and sparing land from development and other land-use changes, using organic, no-till farming practices, and finally, managing land for long-term ecological and economic resilience.

Fortunately, these are approaches that have been carefully tested by practitioners, agencies and landowners over the past decade or two. Individually, these strategies have proven to be both practical and profitable.

The time has come to bundle them together into one economic and ecological whole, which I call a carbon ranch. The goal of a carbon ranch is to reduce atmospheric CO2 while providing substantial benefits for all living things, including local food production, improved ecosystems, restored wildlife habitat, rural economic development and the strengthening of cultural traditions -- especially among young people.

A carbon ranch also aims to reduce the amount of fossil fuels it uses as well as the amount of greenhouse gases it produces. And if the ranch can produce local renewable energy in addition to local food -- so much the better! In other words, one answer to the climate crisis is not to eat less red meat, as is commonly asserted, but to obtain as much of your meat as possible from a carbon ranch.

Of course, implementing a carbon ranch will be a big challenge, especially economically, though things could happen faster if early adopters were rewarded by governments for taking the leap into carbon ranching now, while the marketplace is still developing.

Meanwhile, maintaining Business-As-Usual on a warming planet is not an option. While we wait for policy-makers to quit procrastinating and do something, we can begin to fight climate change on the ground ... one acre at a time.

Courtney White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Carbon Ranch?
Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe
Dec 14, 2010 03:06 PM
The ranching industry should be admired for their resilience and their ability to resell themselves in an ever changing world. In the case of climate change it boggles the mind to try to make sense of Courtney White's "carbon ranch" idea when its clear that livestock ranching on public lands has done more to destroy wildlife, soils and plant diversity than any other single human activity including development.

White and the other followers of African Alan Savory twist data to believe that cows help deserts. In fact there were no analogous animals to cattle before Europeans arrived in the Southwest and the presence of cattle has been universally destructive. The sort of intensive cattle management Mr. White advocates failed at the Valles Caldera National Preserve for example because it was too expensive and labor intensive. With the cattle industry dying in the West, its hard to imagine how White’s ideas can take hold among the mostly senior ranchers who survive.

The real answer for sequestering carbon on public lands is to remove cattle and sheep and let the riparian areas and native grasslands heal from more than a century of constant overgrazing. Regular fire will do far more to promote range health than bovines and the recovery of riparian areas and watersheds in the absence of cattle will go far to promote diversity and carbon sequestration.

This carbon ranch idea is yet the latest sales job from an industry whose time in the West is coming to a close.
Cattle Market
Dec 14, 2010 06:53 PM
You may want to check your facts a little closer, particularly the last sentence. While I'm writing this the meat industry as a whole is seeing record highs prices as the world is seeing record low animal numbers. The industry may just catch up to inflation causing a major market correction. In which case the beat down that the ranching community has endured for the last 50 years will finally be rectified to a certain degree.
Dec 14, 2010 09:00 PM
Kirt may be correct to an extent. However, cattle ranching on public lands contributes less than 2% of the total beef supply for the US and all of this is heavily subsidized by American taxpayers through Forest Service and BLM support for ranchers using lands owned by all Americans. If ranchers paid fair market value for public lands rather than the stagnant $1.35 a month they probably wouldn't bother. Public lands have higher values as watersheds than as cattle pastures for a tiny sector of the economy.

Beef is extremely unhealthy as a food. Its loaded with saturated fats, hormones, pesticides and antibiotics. Americans need to think twice about this deadly food source, economic or not.
Dec 14, 2010 11:21 PM
I have now idea where you get the 2% supply number. I have no hard numbers to work with but in all the western states almost all the producers of meat use some form of public lands for grazing. There is no way that we would see any where near the number of beef or lamb if there were only 2% of the total animals utilizing public lands. I don't want to turn this into a pissing match, but try and wrap your head around this concept. The only way to harvest the native grasses into a edible food is by grazing. I know most people don't value the over abundance of food that we as americans have. Not so long ago we did not have this over abundance. I believe that we may see a lack of affordable food again, sooner than you may think. I have to agree there is problems with it. There are problems through out agriculture from big business/government getting involved but I would not categorize it as "extremely" anything.....well except maybe tasty. The one thing that the enviro nuts like to pound on is the price of grazing. Why don't you take the time to look into the profit margin on that animal unit. If you look at inflation and the cost of inputs live fat cattle should be well over $2.00/lb. We are hitting record highs at $1.02/lb, 2 years ago they were in the $.70/lb range. All that the small family farm/ranch wants to do is stay alive except that every body wants to push unsound regulations on them with no real solution to any problems. Instead of pushing some agenda to force new absurd regulations try to solve problems, there are plenty without the additional unfounded ideas. I really don't understand why the general public is so against agriculture. Do you realize what the results will be? Its already starting. Imported food with little to no regulation and corporate america reaping the benefits. Is that really what we want? If you and all the other people against agriculture actually got involved to really experience the problems and try and solve them the world as a whole would be a much better place. That is my main message. GET INVOLVED, PRODUCE SOMETHING, SOLVE PROBLEMS, DON'T MAKE MORE. I think everyone can agree with that.
It's true - less than 3 percent
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Dec 21, 2010 05:40 PM
Less than 3 percent of U.S. cattle is grazed on federal land. And, it takes 7x as much BLM land as it does Eastern/Midwestern grassland to put a pound of weight on a cow. (And, as for jobs, federal grazing permits support less than 20K jobs.)

More from the same link - Florida raises more beef cattle than Wyoming.


Kirt, you partially nail the problem at the end. It's the near-monopoly consolidation among meatpackers. THERE's where you need to protest; tell big-biz Republicans that, not "environmental nuts."
Not ALL beef
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Dec 21, 2010 05:57 PM
Beef that's topped off with grain-feeding, whether only at a feedlot, or by a farmer or rancher before that, isn't so healthy. That said, 100-percent grass-fed beef is actually similar to bison in terms of healthy omega-3s, saturated fat levels, etc. And, even if not "certified organic," ranhcers of 100-percent grass-fed beef tend not to use any steroids or any unnecessary antibiotics.

Remember, mass-market hogs and chicken get antibiotics and such, too, just like mass-market beef. So, unless you want to target all mass-market meat, don't point the finger at beef alone.

That said, it takes more plant matter to put a pound of weight on a cow than it does a hog or chicken. Just another issue.
Ranchers can fight global climate change, one acre at a time
Ceal Smith
Ceal Smith
Dec 14, 2010 11:38 PM
Grazing per se is not the problem, but rather confining grazing animals unnaturally in the absence of predators. As an ecologist and plant/animal interaction specialist, the idea of mob grazing makes a lot of sense. Grasslands coevolved with large herbivores and are adapted to being intensively (but infrequently) grazed. Predators and better pastures would have kept herds naturally on the move. Simulating this evolutionary relationship could indeed be restorative.
Climate change
Mike Snow
Mike Snow
Dec 20, 2010 08:39 PM
"The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen to 390 parts per million -- 40 ppm above what many scientists consider the level necessary to keep the climate stable for human life."

This is sheer nonsense, a number pulled out of the hat for no reason.

Listen to a world-class, ACTUAL climate scientist expose that idiocy here:

A "denialist"
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Dec 21, 2010 06:04 PM
Richard Lindzen is a climate-change denialist who has worked for Big Oil-funded front groups and before that was even a flack for Big Tobacco on secondhand smoke.


For more, I suggest the book "Merchants of Doubt":

Mike Snow
Mike Snow
Dec 21, 2010 09:57 PM
Of course, for those who cannot deal with the science, then slander and ad hominem attacks is all we can expect.
Even in the youtube video, the pro-AGW scientist acknowledged Lindzen as one of the world's leading climate scientists
Climate change science
Doc Baker
Doc Baker
Dec 22, 2010 08:20 AM
Our understanding of how the global atmosphere responds to human influence isn't advanced either by rabid denial of change or rabid belief that humans are guilty -- progress is made by reasonable discussion of the actual science involved with the realization that our knowledge is not nor, not likely to be, perfect.

For those who rabidly deny human influence, you have to acknowledge both the basic physics involved (the greenhouse effect of certain gases is a well known phenomenon) and the very strong correlative data (tree ring data, glacial ice records, polar ice formation) and then develop a reasonable alternative hypothesis that can be put to the test. So far this hasn't been done in a way that's acceptable to the majority of the scientific community, though some have been supported strongly by those with vested interests in keeping the status quo.

For those who devoutly believe that humans are the cause, you have to recognize the complexity of the processes involved and that we don't know enough yet to reliably model the energy in the atmosphere without some significant doubt about all of the factors involved (like the impact of high altitude water vapor). We also have to acknowledge that some of the scientists might well be wrong because of this inadequate understanding but that the process of actually doing science is how we figure this all out.

For me, the most rational path seems to be to look at the overall consensus of scientists who are actually studying this issue and, by applying the precautionary principle, accept that it's very likely humans are modifying the atmospheric energy balance in ways that are probably not going to be beneficial to the ecosystems that we currently value. Which means we ought to start doing what we can to ameliorate our input of GHG's to the atmosphere sooner rather than later.

It's problematic to a certain extent because so much of this is being played out in the mass media market rather than strictly in the science community and the involvement of the less-than-well-educated-public often means belief and response to charismatic personality has a greater impact than a good discussion of the science involved.

Real Climate Scientists not propagandists
Mike Snow
Mike Snow
Dec 22, 2010 11:39 AM
"...progress is made by reasonable discussion of the actual science involved ..."
And if you watched the youtube video, that is exactly what you saw, a wholly reasonable discussion by two top scientists: Richard Lindzen, professorof Atmospheric Sciences at MIT and Hadi Dowlatabadi, University of British Columbia. You would be hard pressed to find a more reasonable discussion.

The comment about 'basic physics' and 'greenhouse effect' is sophmoric.

All the catasrophic pronouncements depend arbitrary postive feedbacks caused by the greenhouse effect not on the effect itself which can only account for 1 degree C. or less for a doubling of CO2. These positve feedbacks in computer models are one thing. The real world data from satallites is another. That shows negative feedback.

sophomoric, perhaps
Doc Baker
Doc Baker
Dec 22, 2010 01:51 PM
But that's only because it's a) really basic physics that so far no one has refuted, and b) it's all the general public, with its notoriously poor grasp of science in general and physics in particular, can grasp.

Besides, the consensus isn't focused solely on carbon dioxide -- there are other, more potent GHG's like methane and water vapor in the mix. And there has been some good evidence showing a positive feedback between warming and increased methane release from the polar waters and the tundra. CO2 is just the poster child for the whole discussion. The crux of the problem is understanding the entire energy balance of the globe and we're not there yet.

That said, when Lindzen has enough evidence to convince the majority of scientists working directly on the problem, I'll certainly look closer at moving into that camp. For now, the consensus appears to be otherwise.

If we really want to get down to nuts and bolts on this, the entire argument isn't really about the climate science. It's about whether we (particularly Americans) ought to change our lifestyles somewhat to reduce the risk of altering the energy balance in ways that might well be detrimental to the future of any number of ecosystems and the species occupying them (including humans). Many people will continue to grasp at any straw they can to avoid having to change the status quo, particularly if your business model depends on the current state of affairs. Others are jumping on the changes to feel better about themselves or to take advantage of new business opportunities (green energy, etc..).

I suspect that majority of the public is simply going to choose which side of the debate they fall into based less on the science and more on which side supports the lifestyle choices they make, and hence, makes them feel better about themselves.

By the way, if you'll notice, I haven't attacked Lindzen's hypotheses mainly because it isn't my specific area of expertise. I'm simply stating that for now, I'm going to side with the overwhelming consensus (and it really is overwhelming at the moment) in the science community that anthropogenic changes to the global energy balance are indeed occurring.
climate change
W.V. McConnell
W.V. McConnell
Dec 22, 2010 03:59 PM
The vast majority of us lack the expertise to make an informed decision on climate change. Rather than focus on any individual's opinion let's look at scientific consensus (not expecting unanimity). I go with the National Academy of Sciences. Others agree with Rush Limbaugh. Let each of us choose his/her own decision base.