Western Washington dairy cows

Dairy cows graze in Western Washington. They continue to get the blame for climate change, despite evidence that tailpipe emissions are a far bigger problem.

The folks at Washington’s Department of Ecology like to write reports. It’s as though they are always looking to point a finger somewhere for causing one sort of problem or the other.

Most recently, they put together another report on how much greenhouse gas the state produces. Greenhouses gases such carbon dioxide and methane help trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, thus raising the overall temperature and contributing to climate change.

For the record, Washington produces an estimated 97.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. That’s about 1.5% of the U.S. total of 6.45 billion metric tons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In other words, Washington state could unplug and turn off every car, truck, appliance, plane, factory and other gadget and still have only a minimal effect on the U.S. total. This isn’t to suggest that states shouldn’t do what they can to respond to the growing climate disaster. But it is important to bear the overall scale of the problem in mind before imposing disproportionate burdens on individual economic sectors.

It’s no secret that climate change is a concern, particularly for those who live along the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Higher temperatures ultimately could mean higher sea levels and more intense weather.

Likewise, farmers and ranchers are closely monitoring issues related to climate change. More than any other industry, agriculture could be impacted by a changing climate, which is affecting snowpacks vital for irrigation, the timing of precipitation, insect and weed infestations, and other issues.

But along with report-writing, the folks at Ecology also like to choose climate winners and losers.

They particularly like to pick on animal agriculture. This comes from a long line of reports by United Nations agencies, environmental groups, vegetarians and others who maintain that cows and the methane gas they produce in some way overshadow the heavyweights in climate change such as transportation.

We were particularly interested in the most recent report because Washington state’s highways — particularly the stretch of Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Seattle — may be among the worst in the nation. It alone probably contributes as much to climate change as any other stretch of highway in the state.

Time was, a drive from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport took a few minutes. Nowadays, I-5 too often resembles a parking lot, with idling cars and trucks inching their way to their destination.

The poor job Washington has done on in keeping up with transportation infrastructure comes at a steep cost to climate change. According to the Ecology report, most of the carbon dioxide produced in the state — about 44% — comes out the tailpipes of cars and trucks, many of which are getting only slightly more than zero miles per gallon as they crawl along the region’s clogged highways.

On the flip side, the report writers at Ecology blame your food — beef, milk and dairy in particular — for contributing to climate change. What they left out of the report is the amount of methane produced by livestock in Washington and the rest of the U.S. is static. According to Frank Mitloehner, a University of California-Davis expert on animal agriculture and how it impacts the atmosphere, methane dissipates after about 10 years.

Carbon dioxide, which is produced by cars and trucks, lasts about 1,000 years in the atmosphere. That means Washington’s jammed highways are causing far more long-term problems for the climate than cows ever will.

For the record, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. But in places like Washington state and the rest of U.S., where livestock production is highly efficient, the overall amount of methane produced will not increase in the years to come. It will continue to dissipate almost as quickly as it is produced. On the other hand, cars on Interstate 5 will continue to pump out carbon dioxide, which will continue to accumulate for 1,000 years or more. That, no doubt, is something you won’t read in Ecology’s report.

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