Technology & Science

Taking sides in the wicked climate change debate

Stephen Strauss examines why the Copenhagen meeting on climate change in December gave many a sense that the media was ignoring the "science" of global warming.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted the UN climate summit in Copenhagen fell short of its goals but called it an important step toward a global agreement needed to combat climate change.
"When it comes to climate change, the press seems to be obsessed with providing 'balanced' reporting," Geert de Cock, Sierra Club of Canada.

"Many media outlets overlooked the actual science that has informed this massive international meeting, choosing instead to focus on the 'he said, she said' musings of political pundits," Fraser Los, contributing editor of thegreenpages.

As the quotes above highlight, one of the reactions that came out of the Copenhagen meeting on climate change in December was a sense by many that the media was ignoring the "science" of global warming because it went against a classic diktat of journalism, which is to get the other side of the story.

I have a somewhat different take on the "other side" controversy. Part of the reason the media went looking for an opposite view on climate change was because two-sidedness was easy to convey.

On one side are most of the world's atmospheric scientists, who say that human-initiated emissions of greenhouse gases have started to seriously change the world's climate. On the other is a much smaller number of scientists who are saying that there is no evidence yet that humans are responsible for any of the slight warming we seem to have seen, and that future effects might not be so dire.

Participants in the debate can bring forward different amounts and examples of evidence, but there are definitely two sides to the issue.

Wicked problems

If you want to know what is profoundly confusing to a journalist writing about climate change, try to understand the difficulties of explaining issues of how to remedy a problem when they turn into what is called a "wicked problem."

A wicked problem is one in which the solution is not true or false but just better or worse. A wicked problem has no immediate or ultimate test for a solution and can be considered a symptom of another problem. (You can read a discussion of a wicked problem on Wikipedia).

If you want to know how wickedness works when looking at climate change, consider scientists' efforts to deal with the environmentally damaging belch of a cow. In 2006, the UN's Food and Drug Administration estimated that the planet's roughly 1.5 billion cattle and buffalo produced 37 per cent of all the methane that human-related activity releases. That is a big concern, because methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One molecule of methane traps as much heat as 20 molecules of carbon dioxide.

The methane is the fermented fruit of a cow's digestive inefficiency. The less efficient a cow is at breaking down the food it eats, the more methane comes out, usually as belches. Studies suggest that a cow belches somewhere between 100 and 500 litres of methane a day.

So what to do to cut down on this?

Welcome world: Copenhagen's interactive globe, one symbol of the climate change summit.
Last year, British Lord Nicholas Stern, who wrote an influential account of the costs of climate change in 2006, expressed a simple truth: "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world's resources. A vegetarian diet is better." 

A simple truth maybe, but assuming that six billion humans want to continue to eat and drink from the cow, it's not a widely acceptable one. So, for the last 15 or 20 years, agricultural scientists have been looking at how to make cattle more "fuel efficient" and in so doing, cut their methane emissions. About five years ago, Agriculture Canada scientists produced a much-quoted review  of all that was known about what they called methane "mitigation strategies" in cattle. They list 19 possible remediation avenues, and I will just discuss a few.

One simple solution is to increase the amount of milk a cow produces. Yes, you have to feed them more, but studies suggest that making cows more efficient at turning feed into milk can lower their average methane emissions by anywhere from 17 to 26 per cent. A simple and tested way to boost milk production is to inject cattle with the bovine somatotropin hormone. In the U.S., this has increased milk production by an estimated 10 or 20 per cent and as consequence, lowered methane release by an estimated nine per cent.

From an environmental perspective, injecting hormones into cattle is good for the environment. Yet, you can almost hear organic food lovers shiver at what they would see as milk production wickedness.

Low-methane genes

Another way of reducing methane emissions is by altering what cattle eat. Letting cows graze on whatever grows naturally on the open range or in farmers' fields is, methane-reduction-wise, usually a bad idea. Cattle's digestive systems become most efficient when they eat — I quote the 2004 paper —  "diets rich in starch … such as the ones commonly used in U.S. feedlots." So, people have experimented with reducing methane emissions by feeding cattle corn, or barley, or flax, or canola or cod liver oil or ground up bits of coconut.

Of course, this is wickedly contradictory because, I again quote the article, "the decision to reduce CH4 (methane) production should also take into account the importance of ruminants in converting fibrous feeds, unsuitable for human consumption, to high quality protein sources (i.e. milk and meat)."

That is, one of the reasons we have cultivated cows is that they can turn grasses that people can't eat into something that we can.

In their search for cow-stomach-efficiency, scientists have also looked at "manipulation of rumen fermentation." One such manipulation involves giving cattle substances such as antibiotics to kill the bacteria in their stomachs that work to turn feed into methane. So, what you might do is decrease methane emissions but increase worries about generalized antibiotic resistance in the animals and in humans who eat their meat and drink their milk.

There is an active research effort, most notably in this country at Stephen Moore's lab at the University of Alberta, to find the gene or genes that make some cattle produce less methane. The hope is to create strains of cattle that genetically are programmed to release less methane. But again, one worries about wickedness here, because previous studies on the increase of milk production in cattle have highlighted what we already know about genes —  they effect not just one thing but many. The same traits that increase milk yield also decrease cow fertility, for example.

And I haven't even spoken about the efforts to take cattle excrement, break down the methane in it and produce biofuel. To be efficient, this fundamentally requires cattle not to roam free but be penned in some place where their excrement can be gathered.

What does this all say about the complaints of too much journalistic scientific "other-sidedness" that followed from Copenhagen?

To my mind, those who are concerned about dealing with human-induced climate change should instead of complaining be counting their blessings. Two-sidedness gives the impression one can choose sides and, with enough will and effort, bring about change. If one casts remedying the problem of climate change as not just a wicked problem but as what is being called a "super wicked problem," what people are likely to do is throw up their hands and their hearts.

What they are likely to say is: This is too complex to fix, and so, there is nothing we can do but await the grim dawning of a wicked future we can't change.