Can Cattle Save Us From Global Warming?

A small band of activists and scientists believe that farming done the right way can remove carbon from the atmosphere.


On an unseasonably warm and sunny winter morning—the kind that lulls you into thinking global climate change can’t be so bad—a group of environmentalists and sustainable agriculture advocates gather over muffins and coffee on a California ranch to discuss a bold initiative to reverse the greenhouse effect. It’s a diverse group—longtime ranchers, a forestry professor from Berkeley, organic food activists, a Vermont dairy farmer, the author of a famous children’s book—united in their belief that current proposals to address the climate crisis don’t go far enough. On The Commons cofounder Peter Barnes, author of the book Climate Solutions, is also on hand along with OTC fellows Ana Micka and myself.

Wick—who owns this ranch in the hills of Marin County north of San Francisco with Peggy Rathmann, author of the classic picture book _Goodnight Gorilla_—goes on to outline the climate crisis in terms all-too-familiar to anyone paying attention to the issue. But he then offers a solution that would astonish most people, especially green activists: “Eat a local grass-fed burger.”

“It will take carbon out of the air and put it back into the soil,” chimes in Abe Collins, the Vermont dairy farmer.

This idea is shocking on two counts:

First, the cattle industry and meat eating are targeted as a leading cause of global warming, up there with autos, jet planes and coal-burning power plants. The animal rights group People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for instance, recently launched an ad campaign declaring, “Meat is the No. 1 Cause of Global Warming.”

Second, efforts to stop global warming have been focused almost entirely on reducing emissions, not in taking existing carbon out of the atmosphere (a process known as known as carbon sequestration).

Carbon sequestration is not a new idea. It figures prominently in the popular carbon off-setting programs in which people pay a firm to plant trees—which absorb atmospheric carbon in their trunks, branches and roots—to compensate for their carbon emissions from air or auto travel. Coal companies and the Bush Adminstration have also floated the idea of massive engineering projects to sequester carbon underground, which have been greeted with intense skepticism by most environmentalists due to the cost and the unproven nature of the technology.

But initiatives to sequester carbon in soil through growing crops and grazing animals are less common, but perhaps more promising than planting trees since croplands and grasslands cover more of the earth’s surface than forests and they grow at a faster rate.




The host of Cosmos dishes on our warming planet, why science is “trending” in our culture, and the meaning of a groundbreaking science TV experiment.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in this Sunday’s final episode of Cosmos. Fox/National Geographic

{originally published on Mother Jones website here.}

Tuesday evening, I had the privilege of sitting down with the show’s host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, to discuss this milestone, and how he feels generally as the 13-part series comes to a close. (The final episode, entitled “Unafraid of the Dark,” airs this Sunday night.) “The ratings are exceeding our expectations,” said Tyson, fresh off the climate episode triumph. But Tyson emphasized that to him, that’s not the most important fact: Rather, it’s that a science show aired at all in primetime on Sunday night.

“You had entertainment writers putting The Walking Dead in the same sentence as Cosmos,” said Tyson. “Game of Thrones in the same sentence of Cosmos. ‘How’s Cosmos doing against Game of Thrones?’ That is an extraordinary fact, no matter what ratings it earned.”

I spoke with Tyson in the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Hall in DC, below a painting of the society’s founders signing its charter in 1888. Tyson, wearing a glittering space-themed tie, sipped white wine before moving upstairs to a reception where he was destined for an hour of handshakes and selfies. Later that evening—after a special advance airing of the final episode of Cosmos—he would electrify a packed room by explaining to a young girl how solar flares work, a display that involved him sprawling across the stage (and his fellow panelists) as he contorted his body to mimic the dynamics of the sun’s plasma. The show concluded with Tyson explaining how “plasma pies” (as he dubbed them), ejected towards us by our star, ultimately become the aurora borealis and the aurora australis.

There were other Cosmos luminaries on the stage—including executive producers Brannon Braga and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow—but Tyson won the room that night. Easily.

And yet, many members of our species still deny that the globe is warming thanks to human activities—a point that Cosmos has not only made a centerpiece but that, the program has frankly argued, threatens civilization as we know it. Tyson is know for being fairly non-confrontational; for not wanting to directly argue with or debate those who deny science in various areas. He prefers to just tell it like it is, to educate. But when we talked he was, perhaps, a little more blunt than usual.Overall, Tyson notes, Cosmos premiered not only on Fox but on National Geographic Channel and, globally, in 181 countries and 46 languages. “It tells you that science is trending in our culture,” Tyson averred to me. “And if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization.”

“At some point, I don’t know how much energy they have to keep fighting it,” he said of those who don’t accept the science of climate change. “It’s an emergent scientific truth.” Tyson added that in the political sphere, denying the science is just a bad strategy. “The Republican Party, so many of its members are resistant to embracing the facts of climate change that the legislation that they should be eager to influence, they’re left outside the door,” said Tyson. “Because they think the debate is whether or not it’s happening, rather than what policy and legislation can serve their interests going forward.”

“Science is trending in our culture,” says Tyson. “And if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization.”

Listen to Mother Jones’  Inquiring Minds podcast, in which Neil Tyson explained why he doesn’t debate science deniers, and much more. 


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