Double-Edged Leaf:
Cannabis and Climate Change

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Plants have long held sway over the future of human societies. They are our symbiotic partners on the planet, absorbing the carbon dioxide we breathe out and emitting the oxygen we breathe in. Plants supply us with food, shelter, and medicine—we return the favor with reproduction, granting them abundant progeny.

It is ironic, then, that the industrial revolution, an event that precipitated massive cuttings and die-offs of all kinds of plants across the globe, was in large part fueled by plants. Millions of years of the sun’s energy lay in the dead, compressed bodies of ancient ferns, reeds, and seaweed, crushed or sludged with other organic matter into underground deposits of coal and oil. Humans tapped and burned these masses of photosynthetic energy, harnessing their awesome power for wealth and comfort.

Now, we have reached the age where the promise of fossil fuels has yielded to peril. Hundreds of years of burning fuels is changing almost everything about our world and ushering in an era of accelerating climate change. Heat or rising seas may render large swathes of land uninhabitable. Mega-droughts, mega-storms, and mega-fires rage across entire continents, destroying homes and communities, killing people, sowing political unrest, and polluting air and water. Ready or not, we are being forced to confront the disastrous legacy of our own uncritical faith in the technology and “progress” of the industrial age.

It might seem strange to bring cannabis into this conversation. But, as is typical with cannabis, we find the plant on both sides of this major societal issue. On the one hand, hemp farming can be a powerful weapon to help ameliorate the effects of carbon emissions. On the other hand, industrial cannabis production has a formidable and growing carbon footprint. With the ongoing legalization of the plant and the expansion of its impact on the American economy, it is worth exploring how cannabis might be both a potential cure for and a contributor to climate change—and considering whether the plant can be more beneficial than harmful in this regard.

Cannabis Indoor Grow Operation
Medical Cannabis Growing Operation in Oakland, California, in 2012. Image Courtesy of Rusty Blazenhoff on Flickr.

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