Eating As If the Climate Mattered
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Last week in our nation's capital, the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) held a climate change conference focused on solutions to the problem of human-induced climate change. And in Paris the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, held a press conference to discuss to discuss "the importance of lifestyle choices" in combating global warming.
Notably, all food at the NCSE conference was vegan, and there were table-top brochures with quotes from the U.N. report on the meat industry, discussed more below. And the IPCC head, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri declared, as the AFP sums it up, "Don't eat meat, ride a bike, and be a frugal shopper."
The New York Times, also, seems to be jumping on the anti-consumption bandwagon. First they ran an editorial on New Year's Day stating that global warming is "the overriding environmental issue of these times" and that Americans are "going to have to change [our] lifestyles..." The next day, they ran a superb opinion piece by Professor Jared Diamond about the fact that those of us in the developed world consume 32 times as many resources as people in the developing world and 11 times as much as China.
Diamond ends optimistically, stating that "whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable."
It is reasonable for all of us to review our lives and to ask where we can cut down on our consumption-because it's necessary, and because living according to our values is what people of integrity do.
Last November, United Nations environmental researchers released a report that everyone who cares about the environment should review. Called "Livestock's Long Shadow," this 408-page thoroughly researched scientific report indicts the consumption of chickens, pigs, and other meats, concluding that the meat industry is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global" and that eating meat contributes to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."
The environmental problems of meat fill books, but the intuitive argument can be put more succinctly into two points:
- A 135-pound woman will burn off at least 1,200 calories a day even if she never gets out of bed. She uses most of what she consumes simply to power her body. Similarly, it requires exponentially more resources to eat chickens, pigs, and other animals, because most of what we feed to them is required to keep them alive, and much of the rest is turned into bones and other bits we don't eat; only a fraction of those crops is turned into meat. So you have to grow all the crops required to raise the animals to eat the animals, which is vastly wasteful relative to eating the crops directly.
- It also requires many extra stages of polluting and energy-intensive production to get chicken, pork, and other meats to the table, including feed mills, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, all of which are not used in the production of vegetarian foods. And then there are the additional stages of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing transportation of moving crops, feed, animals, and meat-relative to simply growing the crops and processing them into vegetarian foods.
So when the U.N. added it all up, what they found is that eating chickens, pigs, and other animals contributes to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity," and that meat-eating is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."
And on the issue of global warming, the issue the New York Times deems critical enough to demand that we "change [our] lifestyles" and for which Al Gore and the IPCC received the Nobel peace prize, the United Nations' scientists conclude that eating animals causes 40 percent more global warming than all planes, cars, trucks, and other forms of transport combined, which is why the Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook says that "refusing meat" is "the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint" [emphasis in original].
There is a lot of important attention paid to population, and that's a critical issue too, but if we're consuming 11 times as much as people in China and 32 times as much as people in the third world, then it's not just about population; it's also about consumption.
NCSE, IPPC, and the U.N. deserve accolades for calling on people to stop supporting the inefficient, fossil fuel intensive, and polluting meat industry. The head of the IPCC, who received the Nobel Prize with Mr. Gore and who held last week's press conference in Paris, puts his money where his mouth is: He's a vegetarian.
The NCSE's all-vegan 3,000-person conference last week, also, sends positive signal that other environmentalists would be wise to listen to. Thus far, among the large environmental organizations only Greenpeace ensures that all official functions are vegetarian. Other environmental groups should follow suit.
It's empowering really, when you think about it: By choosing vegetarian foods, we're making compassionate choices that are good for our bodies, and we're living our environmental values at every meal.
Bruce Friedrich is vice president for campaigns at PETA. He has been a progressive activist for more than 20 years.