If we were having a real conversation on climate, one thing we’d be discussing is when man-made climate change started. You might think it’s obvious: shortly after the middle of the 20th century, when the cooling trend reversed. Much of the scary rhetoric focuses on the last 20, 40 or 60 years. But among those concerned with regenerative agriculture, it’s meant to be 150 years or so. In Cows Save the Planet, Judith Schwartz writes (p. 12) “Oil, coal, and gas represent one source of emissions, but over time the greater culprit has been agriculture. Since about 1850, twice as much atmospheric carbon dioxide has derived from farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels (the roles crossed around 1970). In the past 150 years, between 50 and 80 percent of organic carbon in the topsoil has gone airborne. The antidote to this rapid oxidization is regenerative agriculture...” And yes, to a person with a direct-drill seeder everything looks like a soil issue. But it is time the alarmists dished the dirt on when they claim, to within a few decades at least, that humans began heating the planet with pernicious consequences.
If we were having a real discussion on climate change and how to respond, we would also be considering the very broad point that life is full of tradeoffs, that you very rarely face a choice in your personal life or in public affairs where one option has only benefits and another only costs. Which we mention because our purpose here is not to ridicule regenerative agriculture. On the contrary, we think it is a very important idea, and not just for commercial farming. In fact we even recommend it for your lawn and garden, to promote biodiversity, soil health and a better quality of urban life.
It doesn’t have to do everything, or do everything superbly, to be a good choice on balance. And it’s OK if not every reason given for adopting it convinces you. But it does matter, in pondering this choice and others, to get our story straight on when manmade warming kicked in.
For instance in Growing a Revolution (p. 57) David Montgomery says “When soil is upended and meets the air, the organic matter in it decays faster, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2). By 1980, roughly a third of the carbon humanity had already added to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution came from plowing up the world’s soils, primarily in the Great Plains, Eastern Europe, and China. Over application and over reliance on nitrogen fertilizers accelerated the loss of soil organic matter.”
He could be right about some things in this passage, including the dangerous long-term consequences of treating a farm as a chemistry experiment not an ecosystem, and even that certain types of farming might be more carbon-intensive, without being right that the world will end in fire and flood if we release carbon. (Or if wild pigs do, some seem to think, although generally speaking the holistic types think animals disturbing the ground and plants is part of a healthy process.) Indeed, it could be true that agriculture released considerable amounts of carbon before 1980, but not enough to matter, or even that humans did. But some of these writers take a rather different view.
Thus, on p. 11, Schwartz writes “We’ve got a carbon problem. Scientists tell us we’ve already passed the safety threshold for the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. To avoid destabilizing the climate and provoking other associated catastrophes, we need to bring that down to 350 parts per million.” Which is a strangely mechanistic view of nature in a generally holistic writer, the idea of climate change as having a kind of on-off switch at 350 ppm. And there’s also that telltale “Scientists tell us”.
It could also be true that regenerative agriculture is a good idea without reference to its impact on carbon. Which Schwartz thinks is crucial. She actually makes a general point we’ve also made elsewhere, saying (p. 23) that “according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report, if, in 2007, we completely stopped emitting carbon dioxide, it would take nearly a century to bring concentration levels down to 350 parts per million.” But her argument is that regenerative agriculture could speed the process up by working with nature instead of against it to sequester carbon by rebuilding soil rapidly, which again is an activity we endorse though not for that reason.
If you habitually mow and fertilize your lawn and exterminate all unexpected plants, or take a similar approach to your corn field, we suggest you reconsider. Not because you’ll save the planet from the carbon purple dragon, but because you’ll get healthier plants, birds, bees and endless pleasant surprises along with bugs that eat your flowers with a sinister chuckle. All life involves tradeoffs.
Including that if you make a series of wild claims about human impact on climate, many of them playing fast and loose with when it started, you will scare people but lose credibility. So let’s get it straight, folks: When did man-made climate change kick in and why?