Rivers, Agriculture & Climate Change

David Cassuto

I’ll be a visiting professor at  Williams College this coming semester, teaching climate change law & policy as well as environmental law at the Center for Environmental Studies.  So, climate change has very much been on my mind of late.  This is not a new thing, of course.  I’ve blogged frequently about the relationship between animal law & policy and climate change and written more extensively about it elsewhere as well.  In addition, I’ll be talking about CAFOS and climate change as part of the animal law panel  at the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) meeting this weekend.

However, I recently stumbled on a new (to me) aspect of the pernicious relationship between industrial agriculture and climate change: the denitrification of rivers.  Microbes in rivers convert nitrogen to nitrous oxide (as well as an inert gas called dinitrogen).  That nitrous oxide then makes its way into the atmosphere where it becomes a potent greenhouse gas as well as a destroyer of atmospheric ozone. 

Denitrification would occur irrespective of anthropogenic activity but industrial agriculture and other modes of fossil fuel consumption have vastly increased it.  Atmospheric nitrous oxide concentration has increased by 20 percent over the past century, and continues to grow by 0.2 to 0.3 percent per year.  River & stream-based denitrification is now believed responsible for at least 10% of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions to the atmosphere.  That’s three times more than was estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  So, in addition to wreaking widespread environmental havoc through the nitrogen cascade, and pouring carbon into the atmosphere through all kinds of other means, industrial agriculture warms the planet and savages the ozone layer through denitrification as well. 

The evidence piles up.  If the unspeakable brutalization of billions of beings weren’t reason enough for a ground up reconsideration of agriculture in this country (which it is), then the environmental destruction resulting from our obsession with animal products should take us the rest of the way. 

Read more about the relationship between denitrification, climate change and agriculture here, here &  (if you’re feeling really ambitious) here.

2 Responses

  1. […] This post was Twitted by pacelawlibrary […]

  2. Will someone PLEASE write an article on Urban Heat Islands and Climate Change!

    I live in Farmington, NM, – in the “high desert”. Not a big city as cities go, but acres and acres of asphalt, concrete, and dark roofs that hold heat and release it slowly at night have have changed the local climate. It takes a powerful low-pressure system to break through and provide precipitation, especially in hot months.

    Last winter we had the best snowfall since the early 50’s, when the population was about 3,000. There was storm after storm, providing cloud cover so the parking lots, roads, and buildings didn’t have as much opportunity to store heat.

    The water cycle is out of whack over the city. I call it the “Farmington Donut”. Rainclouds moving around the city, with the city as a “donut hole” of cloudless sky and no precip. But the water cycle works to the southeast over the Navajo Agricultural Production Industries, because it’s both planted and irrigated. Sometimes the precip is “verga”, but mostly it reaches the ground.

    In the 50’s, the water cycle was operating properly, because the valley was overwhelmingly agricultural. Now there are well over 100,000 people, and the city can’t attract “big box” stores with their huge and treeless parking lots, build roads, or approve subdivisions fast enough.

    We also have two power plants to the west and southwest – where our weather comes from. I’ve heard pilots flying out of our local airport avoid them, because the upwelling heat over the stacks causes disturbances as high as 10,000 feet. And then there are the gas production “flare stacks”. NO meaningful consideration is given to the damage being done.

    I’ve brought the subject up at City Council meetings, including my research on what I consider reasonable solutions. Our elected officials just laugh at my “rantings” and call for more irresponsible development!

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