original art work by Shyam Allard
How Our Dietary Choices Affect Climate Change
By Shyam Allard
When the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization released an extensive report on climate change called Livestock’s Long Shadow in 2006, in which it cited factory farming as the number one cause of greenhouse gases (“Rearing Cattle” 1), an initial wave of disbelief reverberated in the United States — even among vegetarians. Although it had been long established that becoming a vegetarian could help the world hunger problem, as it took approximately seven pounds of grain to create one pound of beef (Lappe 9-10), how could restraint from meat help to slow the worldwide problem of climate change?
While many vegetarians have become adept at answering the question “Then what do you eat?,” being well-schooled at debunking the myth that they do not get enough protein and well-aware about how the misuse of the earth’s resources in the farming and processing of meat causes food scarcity, they scratched their heads trying to figure out how factory farming was a bigger culprit for the “global warming” problem than automobiles. If this were initially a hard sell to vegetarians, then how much more difficult would it be to convince the world’s carnivorous majority that they should go veggie?
For most thoughtful people who read the report and the ones that followed, however, it all started to make sense: With all the land, water and transportation that it takes to produce meat at the staggering rate and quantities that we consume it (Steinfeld 7), and coupled with the tremendous amount of methane that is produced via the excrement of the animals who are raised for slaughter (Steinfeld 107) – meat eating was indeed a huge problem for the planet – even more problematic than gas-guzzling SUV’s and big trucks rolling down the American highways.
One of the major obstacles is that despite 97 percent of scientists agreeing that climate change is actually occurring and that it seriously threatens life on the planet, as we know it, there has been a very significant backlash of propaganda that claims climate change is a myth. Even with the hottest summers in recorded history in 2012 (Freedman 1) and the polar icecap disappearing (Masters 1) at an unprecedented rate, business interests and some conservative politicians still argue that there is no real proof that climate change is actually happening and that it is possible that we are just going through a cyclical weather pattern that has nothing to do with the lifestyle of human beings.
One would think with something like our planet, climate, eco-system and perhaps our lives themselves hanging in the balance, one would tend to want to err on the side of caution, even if there was some chance it were not actually happening. People bent on making money in the immediate moment, however, are near impossible to convince – even with the entire scientific community staring them in the face. To stop our oil-based energy momentum and gear toward cleaner solutions like solar, wind and electric, will take an enormous amount of cooperation and effort from an entire population.
With the predictions coming out of the scientific community today that we have to change our way of life and change fast or face dire consequences, the US, as the largest consumer in the world, continues to drag its feet, kicking and screaming – like a child who refuses to do what’s in their best interest. Belying warnings from environmental and scientific groups, who say that the earth could warm another 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the time this century is over if we keep up our current way of living, we continue to burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. And if we keep it up, there might not be.
When you take into account what has already happened to our planet, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or the next Nostradamus to figure out the direction we are heading. First of all, there is the biodiversity issue. The first animal to be added to the endangered species list due to global warming is the polar bear. According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), climate change puts 20 to 30 percent of the planet’s species at high risk for extinction by the end of the 21st century. (M.L. Pary 240)
Secondly, at least one-third of the CO2 emissions are absorbed in the world’s oceans, where it creates carbonic acid. According to a 2010 study in Nature Geoscience, if greenhouse gases continue at the same rate as they do now, the said emissions could be the basis of the acidification of the ocean unparalleled in 65 million years. (Rate of Ocean Acidification 1).
Next, coral reefs are ultra sensitive to changes in water temperature. When the water heats up, coral reefs shed the algae that covers and nourishes them, causing a bleaching effect that turns them white. In 1998, the world’s coral reef s suffered their worst year in recorded history as 16 percent of all coral in the world either died or became bleached. (ISRS Statement on Coral Bleaching 1) If this trend continues into the future, such bleaching could become an annual event, eventually wiping out coral reefs and its entire eco-system.
Another phenomena associated with climate change is the shifting habitat, with many species of animals moving north, toward the poles and toward higher altitudes, migrating patterns for many kinds of animals are becoming disrupted. (Ecosystems 80)
According to the United States Geological Survey, even slight changes in the climate could trigger sudden changes in the ecosystem that may be irreversible. Since the year 2,000, for example, 70,000 square miles (about the size of the state of Washington State) have died due to plagues of tree-killing insects that directly correlate with the increase of temperature over the last decade. (Robbins 1)
The IPCC says the melting ice caps and glaciers have accounted for 25 percent of the rise in sea level from 1993 to 2003. (Solomon 389) While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that summers in the Artic sea may be ice free in as little as 30 years. (Goldman 1)
Considering that there had been little change in sea level for 19 centuries, it could have been seen as a bit of a red flag when sea levels went up by an average of seven inches during the 20th century. In 2009, the USGS, the EPA and NOAA published a combined report that warned that most coastal wetlands from New York to North Carolina would be lost with a rise of the sea level by three feet or more. Rising sea levels would also leave low-lying cities like Boston, New York and Miami particularly vulnerable.
The World Glacier Monitoring Service found in a 2005 survey found that 90 percent of all the world’s glaciers were melting as the planets gets warmer. Over the last 100 years, Glacier National Park has lost 125 of their 150 glaciers, and scientists with the USGS say in their report “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park” that the park may become completely bereft of glaciers in just a few decades. (1)
The World Meteorological Organization stated in Geneva in 2009 that 2000-2009 was the hottest decade ever on record and that eight of those years were the hottest ever on record as far as individual years go. With the added heat, also comes the increased velocity of water cycling involving the ocean, air and land, which have resulted in increased intensity or both rainfall and drought.
According to the United States Global Change Research Program, the warming of the Southwestern United States has been among the worst region effected by climate change. Such warming, their report says, will cause “water supplies [to] become increasingly scarce, calling for tradeoffs among competing uses and potentially leading to conflict.”
According to a myriad reports, climate change has caused a number of alarming trends in climate throughout the world and scientists’ projections into the future include more intense hurricanes, more frequent and deadly tornadoes, record-breaking devastating heat waves, record droughts, increasingly worsening air quality, spread of disease among human beings and animals, and perhaps the appearance of new diseases that have yet to be seen by medical science.
Despite all this mounting evidence, the world has continued to respond woefully slow to the situation. The Kyoto Protocol, a UN connected protocol meant to set compulsory obligations to industrialized countries in order to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, was initially agreed to by the United States when President Bill Clinton signed the protocol in 1997. The United States Senate, however, refused to ratify it. As of 2011, 191 nations have signed and ratified the protocol, whereas the U.S. is among only a small handful of countries that have not – and it has always been mostly Republicans, who are largely connected to large corporations, that have been the ones absconding.
This is reminiscent of the George Harrison lyric from the song “Save the World,” off his 1981 album Somewhere in England: “Rainforest chopped for paper towels, one acre gone in every hour/Our birds and wildlife all destroyed to keep some millionaires employed.” According to the liner notes of the record, it was actually “fifty acres a minute in reality.” Whether those figures were correct or not, it goes to show that the idea of “saving the world” or its climate from industrialism has been around for many decades and no one has done much about it. As mentioned before, a staggering one-third of the world’s land is currently being for raising livestock. That means we are losing our trees in unprecedented numbers.
It has been said that when the European settlers first came to America, it was possible for a squirrel to travel from Maine to St. Louis by the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground — simply by moving tree to tree. Now the idea of that is amazing. In 1971 the children’s book written by Dr. Seuss called “The Lorax” was published. The main protagonist of the story was the horrified Lorax, who said, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues” and who tried in vain to warn the story’s main antagonist, “The Oncler” that his industry was destroying the planet. That book, although externally written for only children, was actually also aimed at adults and is what some people consider to be the birth of the modern day conservation movement.
While Dr. Seuss and George Harrison were obviously before their time, it now appears that our time is running out for not listening to them. The world’s causeless unwillingness continues to this day. Although the United States has seen their emission number actually decrease with the rise of recycling and the use of fuel-efficient cars, they have still failed to sign and ratify the Kyoto Protocol up to the time of this writing. Now, rising industrial countries like India and China are balking at negotiations with the United States to curb their greenhouse gases, basically saying that the U.S. has built the might of their country up through industry and now its their turn. They also say that the US is acting downright hypocritical to expect them to do something that the U.S. has not for many decades. Indeed, for many decades the U.S. has been by far the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Now, China is poised to lead the world in that infamous category. (Foster 1)
Taking into account all the mounting scientific evidence, and considering the fact that people still are not giving up their fossil fuel consumption at the recommended rate, it seems difficult to imagine that people would stop eating meat and stop supporting factory farms anytime soon. But that’s precisely what they have to do if they really want to be true environmentalists. Sorting and recycling your garbage, driving more fuel-efficient cars and taking your own cloth bag to the grocery store is just not enough – and there’s still many people who don’t even do those things. Based on all the information out there about how factory farming contributes more to global warming than any other factor, going to the grocery store in your Prius or Volt and then bringing your own cloth bag to the checkout to buy meat is one of the most ironic and hypocritical things a person can do. While cutting down on your fuel consumption and use of plastic bags is laudable, it just goes to show that most people are either not sufficiently educated on the subject matter or just refuse to do anything or enough about it.
Worse still are the billionaire industrialists, the politicians who work for them by supporting their cause through Congress and the ignorant voters who put them into office in the name of freedom, reducing government, and via fear-mongering tactics make the white working poor suspicious of the minority poor – like blacks and Latinos.
Liberals, however, are not entirely innocent when it comes to global warming either. It can actually be said that while in general they are doing something (and certainly more than most conservatives), they are not even doing enough either.
When the musician Moby approached former Vice President Al Gore with the question why he didn’t include vegetarianism as a solution to global warming in his movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore was quite candid in his assessment about how people are too attached to meat-eating to even broach the important subject.
Moby: I asked Al Gore why he didn’t mention this [the importance of vegetarianism to stop climate change] in “An Inconvenient Truth,” (as animal production is responsible for more greenhouse gases than every car, bus, truck, plane, and boat combined on the planet). He answered honestly, basically saying that getting people to drive a hybrid car isn’t that difficult [but] getting people to give up animal products is almost impossible. I appreciated his honesty. So, I guess I’ll be talking about climate change tomorrow, and I guess I’ll have to mention the most inconvenient of all inconvenient truths, that you can’t seriously talk about climate change and global warming without looking at the role of animal production (animal production being responsible for 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and also the number one cause of deforestation in the rain forest. (PETA 1)
There does not appear to be any question from the scientific community that climate change is indeed happening and that factory farming is arguably, at least, the leading cause of this. It has been suggested that if people are going to eat meat, they should raise the animals themselves and only slaughter them for their own food or for bartering for the basic necessities of life. While this is not completely satisfying to animal rights activists, like ethics philosopher Peter Singer, who feel that animals have the right to live and pursue happiness, it would at least give the animals a better life (before they were slaughtered) and help to save the climate for the devastations of climate change to whatever extent is now possible.
When the inhabitants of the earth lived according to an agrarian lifestyle and were more harmonious with the cycles of nature there was no manmade climate change. According to data previously cited in this paper, the sea level has remained constant for 20 centuries prior to industrialization. The problem comes when the lesser qualities of man like greed has risen to the surface. While industrialization has made life easier and more pleasurable in many ways for those nations who have pushed industry, the rest of the world has suffered.
Before the white man came to the new lands with their manifest destiny and feelings of superiority over the “Native Americans” who were here before they came to pillage their resources and destroy their civilization – almost committing genocide in the process, the trees and wildlife, including the buffalo, were in abundance for many centuries. Since that time, it has taken relatively very little time to cause the Indian poster child of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign to have a tear coming out of his eye over a tin can on the highway from those commercials from the early 1970s.
When my father was growing up, he said that people would routinely throw their garbage out the window on the highway and industry would routinely pollute the air and nearby rivers until the Environmental Protection Agency increased regulations and vastly cleaned up the American landscape. With all that being said, there is still much to do. Perhaps it is already too late; perhaps we have gone past the point of no return, or perhaps world leaders will not do what it takes to by creating mandates to ensure that we are saved from cataclysmic climate changes, but we all have to do our part for ourselves and help to educate others if there is to be any hope.
When the atomic bomb was tested, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is credited to be its father along with Enrico Fermi ominously, quoted the Hindu Bible known as the Bhagavad-gita, “Now I am Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In another quote from that revered text it is said, “The demoniac who are lost to themselves and have no intelligence [common sense], engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world. (A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada 734).
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