Global warming goes way beyond “an inconvenient truth”. We are overheating our planet to alarming levels with catastrophic consequences. Thirteen of the past fourteen years have been the hottest on record and 2010 is on a sizzling pace to break another record. Picture an overheated car (and what we drive), an overcooked dinner (and what we eat), and someone sick with a fever (and how we act). Now imagine that on a planetary scale.
Global warming is perhaps the biggest social, political economic, and environmental problem facing our planet and its inhabitants. Global warming refers to the increasing average temperature of the Earth’s air and water. People are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about global warming and its serious consequences — despite corporate misinformation and right-wing obfuscation — due to frequent reports regarding record heat waves, blazing wildfires, an increase in the number and severity of storms, the length of droughts, the melting of glaciers, permafrost, and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, flooding, changes in wind direction, acidification of the oceans, endangered species, spreading diseases, shrinking lakes, submerged islands, and environmental refugees. While not all climatic changes can be directly attributed to global warming, most are consistent with the scientific projections for the warmer globe we are creating. Earthlings may be standing at a global precipice.
In recent years, we have been experiencing waves washing across and submerging islands, massive ice shelves breaking off in the Arctic, and the threatening of endangered species, most notably polar bears. Global warming is also endangering penguins, seals, walruses, salmon, elephants, frogs, butterflies, birds, and many other animals, threatening up to one-third of all species. In contrast, increases in carbon dioxide and heat levels will lead to an increase in the number and range of mosquitos, further spreading discomfort and disease.
In 2010 alone, we are witnessing many countries experience unprecedented heat waves, raging wildfires in Russia, profound drought in Australia and Israel, massive flooding in China and Pakistan, along with the continuing disappearance of glaciers — about 80% of the world’s glaciers are shrinking — and the snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and other ominous signs of disaster. In August 2010, an “ice island” more than twice the size of San Francisco calved from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland into the sea (earlier, the Ayles Ice Shelf calved entirely in August 2005 and the Markham Ice Shelf broke up in 2008, just to mention a couple of other such alarming events). “Such a path is not merely unsustainable”, according to John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “it is a prescription for disaster.”
Humanity is threatened as perhaps never before and major changes have to occur to put our imperiled planet on a sustainable path — soon. Even though some individuals still deny the reality of global warming, there is a complete scientific and environmental consensus — among all major scientific and environmental organizations, journals, and magazines, and all peer-reviewed scholarly articles — that global warming is real, serious, worsening, and caused or exacerbated by human activity. The evidence is overwhelming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fourth Assessment Report in February 2007, which was researched and written by about 2,500 climate scientists over a six-year period and then vetted by over 130 governments. The Report carefully delineates clear trends and potentially catastrophic consequences associated with climate change, warning of the possibility of irreversible change, unless we make concerted efforts to counter global warming. The IPCC makes it plain that the current and projected climate change is not simply “natural variation”, solar activity, or other cyclical phenomena, but “very likely” (meaning at least 90% certainty) the result of human activity. The case is closed on the problem of global warming, with only the mitigations and solutions to still debate.
It therefore should not be surprising that the U.S. Pentagon states that global warming is a larger threat than even terrorism. “Picture Japan, suffering from flooding along its coastal cities and contamination of its fresh water supply, eyeing Russia’s Sakhalin Island oil and gas reserves as an energy source”, suggests a Pentagon memo on global warming. “Envision Pakistan, India and China — all armed with nuclear weapons — skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared river and arable land.” The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has said that climate change needs to be taken as seriously as war and, further, that “changes in our environment and the resulting upheavals from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable land are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict”. Fighting global warming may be one way to prevent future wars, simultaneously increasing energy security and physical security.
Progressives have additional causes for concern. The people disproportionately affected by global warming are the poor and socially disadvantaged, since they are in the weakest position to guard against environmental damages and will likely suffer the most harm. In the underdeveloped world, and perhaps especially in China, India, and Southeast Asia, as well as much of Africa and the Middle East, global warming will negatively affect urban drinking water systems, agricultural output, and commercial and other transport on rivers.
Further, increased suffering and increasing numbers of environmental refugees, along with greater anxiety over access to food, water, land, and housing — the material essentials of life — often lead to unstable conditions that give rise to anger, ethnic violence, terrorism, fascism, and war. “It’s the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit,” states IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri. Those who needlessly degrade and destroy the environment to satisfy their own selfish pleasures are like the pre-revolutionary Queen Marie-Antoinette, declaring “Let them eat carbon dioxide”!
Yes, we need our governments, corporations, schools, religious institutions, and other organizations to get actively involved in fighting global warming. Yes, we need to stop deforestation and increase reforestation. Yes, we need more resource conservation and more energy-efficient buildings, houses, cars, appliances, electronics, batteries, and light bulbs. And, yes, our society needs to switch away from fossil fuels and toward renewable ones, such as solar, wind, tidal, wave, biomass, hydrogen, geothermal, and others. But while we are struggling for these important and positive large-scale social changes, we also need to say “yes!” to personal changes.
In fact, the latest IPCC report states that “Changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns that emphasize resource conservation can contribute to developing a low-carbon economy that is both equitable and sustainable.” A major study showing how personal “changes in lifestyles and consumption” can affect global warming is in the 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” [www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448]. It states that animal-based agriculture causes approximately 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (in CO2 equivalents), which lead to global warming, an amount greater than that caused by all forms of transportation on the planet combined (about 13.5%). A 2009 report for the respected WorldWatch Institute entitled “Livestock and Climate Change” [www.worldwatch.org/node/6294] determined that the FAO underestimated livestock’s contribution by excluding important phenomena and, instead, calculates livestock’s contribution at 51% — a absolute majority of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.
Cars are still problematic, of course, but cows and other animals raised for human consumption are contributing more to global warming, thereby causing more damage to our existence and, indeed, to life on Earth. Therefore, what we eat is actually more important than what we drive and the most important personal change we could make for the environment, as well as for our own health and for the lives of animals, is a switch to vegetarianism.
The world is feeding nearly 60 billion farmed animals, while millions of people, disproportionately children, starve to death each year. Almost 40% of the grain produced worldwide — and about 70% in the U.S. — is inefficiently and immorally diverted to feed farmed animals, simply to satisfy the lust for money and meat. The FAO study reports that the livestock industry, in total, uses and abuses roughly 30% of the planet’s surface, thereby “entering into direct competition [with other activities] for scarce land, water and other natural resources.” Further, overuse of the land by livestock, leading to overuse of fuel and water, also degrades the land and pollutes the water around it, contributing to additional environmental and health problems. While factory farms may be the worst offenders, similar dynamics occur with free-range livestock as well. In fact, free range livestock actually occupy and potentially pollute a greater amount of land.
An animal-based diet also uses energy very inefficiently. Grains and beans require only 2 – 5% as much fossil fuel as beef. Reducing energy consumption is not only a better choice in terms of fighting climate change, it is also a better choice in terms of being less dependent on foreign oil and the vagaries of both markets and dictators.
Additionally, the editors of World Watch (July/August 2004) concluded that “The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Lee Hall, the legal director for Friends of Animals, is more succinct: “Behind virtually every great environmental complaint there’s milk and meat.”
While growing concern about global warming is welcome, the many connections between the increasingly globalized western-style diet and global warming have generally been overlooked , marginalized, or outright denied. The production of meat contributes significantly to the emission of the three major gases associated with global warming: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as other eco-destructive gases such as ammonia (NH3), which contributes to acid rain, and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which has been implicated in mass extinctions.
Indeed, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, Unit on Climate Change, “There is a strong link between human diet and methane emissions from livestock.” The 2004 World Watch publication State of the World is more specific regarding the link between animals raised for meat and global warming: “Belching, flatulent livestock emit 16% of the world’s annual production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.” Likewise with the July 2005 issue of Physics World: “The animals we eat emit 21% of all the carbon dioxide that can be attributed to human activity.” We now know that these statistics are actually underestimates. With the accumulation of scientific studies, the climate picture is getting increasingly — and frighteningly — clearer.
Eating meat and other animal products directly contributes to this environmentally-irresponsible industry and its devastating impact on the environment, including the dire threat of global warming. People who still deny the critical link between meat and global warming are not fundamentally different than those who still deny the critical link between fossil fuels and global warming. Either way, the climate change deniers are fooling while Earth burns.
While carbon dioxide is the most plentiful greenhouse gas (currently about 35% higher than pre-industrial atmospheric levels), methane and nitrous oxide are much more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming potential. Methane is at least 23 times, and possibly as much as 72 times, more powerful (and about 150% higher than pre-industrial atmospheric levels) and nitrous oxide is a whopping 296 times more potent (and about 20% higher than pre-industrial atmospheric levels). With the livestock industry emitting such a huge amount of methane and given that methane degrades relatively quickly in the atmosphere (in approximately 12 years as compared to hundreds or even thousands of years for carbon dioxide), a sharp decrease in animal consumption, and therefore subsequent livestock (re)production, would provide the necessary near-term alleviation from global warming potentially “spinning out of control”.
Changing from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a vegetarian or, better yet, vegan diet, according to geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin at the University of Chicago, does more to fight global warming than switching from a gas-guzzling Hummer to a Camry or from a Camry to a Prius. It has been said that “eating meat is like driving a huge SUV… [and] a vegetarian diet is like driving a [hybrid]”, while local, organic, vegan eating (LOVE) [www.truth-out.org/love-environment59878] is like riding a bicycle.
Shifting away from SUVs, SUV lifestyles, and SUV-style diets, to energy-efficient, life-affirming empowering alternatives, is essential to fighting global warming. Planetary sustainability and the well-being of humanity are greatly dependent on a shift toward plant-based diets. One easy and effective way to fight global warming every day is with our forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks! If we don’t, the “procrastination penalty” will be painful.
It is increasingly clear that eliminating, or at least sharply reducing, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is imperative to help reduce global warming and other grave environmental threats, in addition to greatly benefitting one’s physical and spiritual health and the lives of animals. For some people, this means becoming vegetarian or vegan; some vegetarians are leaning towards or becoming vegans; many omnivores are engaging in Meatless Mondays or otherwise increasing their number of meatless meals; others are becoming “weekday vegetarians”, “vegan before dinnertime”, or other types of flexitarians. Which path are you on?
Are you taking global warming personally? You should. Mark Twain once quipped that “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Now you can!
Dan Brook, Ph.D., is an author, poet, photographer, activist, and instructor of sociology and political science. He also maintains Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg, The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg, No Smoking? at www.brook.com/smoke, and welcomes comments via [email protected].
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and over 150 articles and interviews located at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) at www.JewishVeg.com, Director of the Veg Climate Alliance at www.vegclimatealliance.org, Coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) at www.serv-online.org, and can be contacted via [email protected].