Cows, climate change and the high court

April 19, 2011

FRANCE/If you took all the cows in the United States and figured out how much greenhouse gas they emit, would you be able to sue all the farmers who own them?

That interesting legal question came from Justice Antonin Scalia during Supreme Court oral arguments about whether an environmental case against five big U.S. power companies can go forward.

At issue is whether six states can sue the country’s biggest coal-fired electric utilities to make them cut down on the climate-warming carbon dioxide they emit. One lower court said they couldn’t, an appeals court said they could and now the high court will consider where the case will go next. A ruling should come by the end of June.

For now, though, the question was cows.

Attorney Barbara Underwood argued that the five power companies were the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States, making up 10 percent of U.S. emissions. No other company comes close, she said.

Scalia then leaped into the fray.

USA-COURT/“You’re lumping them all together,” he said of the five big power companies. “Suppose you lump together all the cows in the country. Would that allow you to sue all those farmers? I mean, don’t you have to do it defendant by defendant? … Cow by cow or at least farm by farm?”

And if you can lump all the cows together and claim they fuel global warming, Scalia reasoned, “you can lump together all the people in the United States who breathe, I suppose?”

Scalia has a point. Both people and cattle exhale carbon dioxide when they breathe, adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Environmentalists point to the amount of CO2 emitted by power plants as a more powerful fuel for climate change.

A slightly gamey aspect of bovines is methane, which they emit in copious amounts, and methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But that did not make it into these legal arguments.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (A French farmer prepares his cows before the public opening of the 48th Paris International Farm Show in Paris February 18, 2011)

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (Justice Antonin Scalia testifies before a House Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee hearing, Washington, May 20, 2010)


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Grenhouse gases do NOT cause global warming. It is the added energy photon ib the greenhouse effect that causes the warming. Mother Nature adds teh photon. Man doesn’t.

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Wow that sounds like a… …Heavy load..

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The only load is the garbage coming out of Justice Scalia’s mouth. It would be interesting to see our Supreme court Justice’s investment portfolios. Cows and humans are living beings, power plants are not. Burning fossil fuels are not the only way to generate power.

JDoddsGW, you have hit on the truth of the matter. Greenhouse gases absorb and retain light(radiation) from the Sun. The Earth’s atmosphere can only absorb so much light energy(photons)in any given time period. At some point available light energy for photosynthesis diminishes as agriculture and greenhouse gases increase in the biosphere. The result is climate change/ global warming.

An increase in human population means an increase in livestock production and power generation. As most power generation comes from burning fossil fuels it becomes clear that we are producing a double whammy. More livestock generates more methane and CO2. More gas and coal fired electric generators more CO2.

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