Vegetarian Week Analysis: How Our Food Choices Can Help Avert a Climate Catastrophe

There is good news and bad news. Unfortunately, the bad news is extremely bad, perhaps the most inconvenient truth one can imagine: the world is rapidly heading toward a climate catastrophe. This is the view of science academies worldwide and of over 97% of climate scientists.

Global temperatures have been rising. The 12 warmest years since temperature records have been kept in 1880 have occurred since 1998. Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade. Glaciers and polar ice sheets are melting far faster than the projections of climate scientists. There has been a major recent increase in the number and severity of severe climate events, including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods.

Many climate experts, including James Hansen, former director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, believe that a safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). Atmospheric CO2 recently reached 400 ppm and it has been growing by 2-3 ppm per year, making climate experts very concerned.

What has Hansen and other climate scientists especially worried is that climate change could soon reach a tipping point, unleashing a vicious cycle of rapid climate change leading to disastrous consequences — melted sea caps, flooded cities, mass species extinctions and spreading deserts, among other events — unless major changes in how humanity uses energy soon occur.

There is a very strong scientific consensus that climate change is happening, that it poses a major threat to humanity and that human activities are the primary cause, as indicated by many peer-reviewed articles in respected science journals and statements by science academies all over the world. These views were reinforced by a report released on September 27, 2013 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group composed of thousands of climate experts from many countries, that indicated, among other things that they were at least 95% certain that climate change is largely caused by human activities and that the oceans may rise by 3 feet by the end of this century. The conservative group ConservAmerica (www.ConservAmerica.org), formerly known as “Republicans for Environmental Protection,” is working to reduce denial among conservatives.

The good news is that shifts toward vegan diets can make a major difference. It may seem naïve to argue that a mere change of diet could be a potent prescription for combating climate change, but the evidence is incontrovertible, and slowly the public is getting the message.

Much of global warming discussions by governments, environmental groups and individuals over the past 20 years has focused on implementing changes in energy use and given little attention to the impact of our diets. This trend changed somewhat upon publication of a landmark 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), estimating that livestock production globally is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs, in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted from all of the world’s cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation combined.

The FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, also projected that the world’s current annual consumption of about 60 billion land-based animals will double by mid-century if current human population growth and dietary trends continue. The resulting increase in GHGs would largely negate reduced GHG emissions from conservation and improved efficiencies in transportation, electricity and other sectors, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach the GHG reductions that climate experts believe essential to avoid a climate disaster. While that doubling may not occur, it is troubling that in the face of livestock’s strong role in warming the planet, many countries are encouraging the expanded consumption of animal products. It is well known that animal-based products are not necessary for a healthy diet, on the contrary they are being discredited almost everyday by successive studies and scandals. Yet, they are still a symbol of wealth and status.

More recently, an in-depth analysis, “Livestock and Climate Change,” by World Bank Group environmental specialists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, was published in the November/December 2009 issue of World Watch magazine. The authors argue that there are sources of GHGs from the livestock sector that were overlooked, underrepresented or placed in the wrong sectors in the FAO report, and concluded that the livestock sector is responsible for at least 51 percent of all human-induced GHGs.

Leading climate specialists have focused increasingly on the role of food in global warming, pointing out that there is no more powerful environmental action that any individual can take than adopting a plant-based diet. Bottom line: it is essential that the consumption of meat and other animal products be reduced to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Such a shift would also have a tremendous impact on the health of millions of people worldwide, for animal-based products are the primary cause of many illnesses that affect people in developed countries, such as cardiovascular diseases, many forms of cancer, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, among many others.

In summary, the consumption of animal-based products has a devastating effect on the planet, human health and the lives of millions of animals. A shift towards a plant-based diet will, therefore, benefit the planet, humanity and all life on the planet. What are you waiting for?

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