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.