June 11, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

I have not seen Al Gore’s new movie, but I have seen videos of some of his slide presentations that were the inspiration for the film. I don’t want to wade into the science of global warming, but one thing that I think the film gets wrong is that there is a scientific certainty that the effects of global warming will be catastrophic; it is a possibility, but there is no consensus on this point. Regardless, most sensible people believe that we should begin decreasing greenhouse emissions in order to reduce the chance of catastrophic effects.

The major criticism that has been leveled at the movie is that it is short on actual solutions, as well as actions individuals can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s surprising since there’s a very simple thing almost everyone can do that would have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions: eat fewer animal products.

British physicist Alan Calverd has calculated that if everyone switched to a primarily plant-based diet we could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 21% because of all the energy that goes into animal agriculture, in addition to the methane emitted by the animals (which is orders of magnitude more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere). To put things in perspective, that’s more than four times the 5% reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol . The 21% reduction is such a startlingly high number it’s amazing that it has not received more press; even more amazing, it is rare to hear anyone even mention the link between diet and greenhouse gases.

The reason, of course, is that people don’t like being told that their habits have negative consequences for society, especially habits as personal as dietary choices. I have witnessed this firsthand whenever the environmental benefits of moving in the direction of vegetarianism come up in conversation (apart from the animal rights issues); people often get defensive and resort to anecdotes about unhealthy vegetarian friends, their own inability to contemplate a day without meat, proclamations that we are at the top of the chain for a “reason”, that we need meat to be healthy, and without fail the question “but how would I get protein?” Although the irrationality of the majority of these comments surprises me, their root cause does not. People don’t like hearing inconvenient truths. But the person of reason must look beyond personal biases and focus on the facts.

The facts regarding animal agriculture aren’t pretty. Just as many environmentalists (and those who care about our oil dependency on Middle Eastern despots) look with incredulity at people who drive Hummers and other huge SUVs, so too could you look with incredulity at people who every day consume hamburgers, bacon and other meat products; these people are engaged in equivalent behavior with respect to the environmental impacts. In fact, the marginal benefit of switching from your average compact car to a hybrid is significantly lower with respect to reducing greenhouse gas emissions than switching from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet. There are also myriad other environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption, including less use of pesticides, water, and fertilizer, less soil erosion and less sewage pollution.

Some people point out that the source of the problem is that animal agriculture is based on feeding grain to livestock. They argue that feeding grass to livestock is actually efficient, because livestock are the only animals that can digest grasses and turn them into protein. They are correct, but a couple of significant caveats weaken their arguments. First, there is no way that grass-fed animal agriculture could come close to providing the quantity of meat that is currently consumed. The price would be significantly higher, and the system would still lead to significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than from plant-based agriculture (due both to animal manure and to the energy required to refrigerate meat). So in the final analysis, while changing the way we produce meat could certainly make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, only a major reduction in overall meat (and dairy) consumption would lead to dramatic reductions. The best part is that these reductions would not only not be costly, they would probably save us money and could be accomplished with existing technology: an amazingly rare win-win situation that stares us in the face.

Because meat-eating is so much a part of the American psyche, it is doubtful that you will see many politicians, environmentalists, or climatologists speak out encouraging people to transition to a plant-based diet in order to combat global warming. Let’s be frank: in our macho culture meat is (wrongly) associated with virility and strength. In addition, the animal industry lobby is powerful; like all agricultural lobbies in this country, its power is vastly disproportionate to its share of GDP, mostly due to the perverse realities of the electoral college. This is unfortunate because moving away from our reliance on animal foods would not only help to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it would have tremendous health benefits as well.

Jason Scorse