Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

More carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere today than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Models suggest that even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tomorrow, the warming effects of almost two centuries of pumping tons of carbon into the air will last decades, with devastating consequences. Given that we’re neither eliminating nor reducing carbon emissions, those increasingly severe effects will likely last long into the next century and indeed may even lead to further release of GHGs independent of any anthropogenic factors.

Because of the potential for runaway climate change (the rain forests dry out and catch fire; the melting tundra releases its vast stores of methane) to reduce the ability of Earth to sustain human life at all, it’s no longer alarmist to think that 200,000 years of homo sapiens and our various civilizations may come to an end within a lifetime, unless we start genuinely thinking beyond what is currently “acceptable,” “feasible,” “sustainable,” and so on.

It’s happened before; Jared Diamond has written about human societies that fell into rapid decline and eventual extinction after consuming too many resources and being unable to sustain that consumption or replace those resources through conquest or colonization. But these losses were local and not planetary. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility offers the kind of realization that Samuel Johnson said “concentrates [a] mind wonderfully.” We must either face difficult, unpalatable, and even excruciating choices now over who gets to live where and how, or we must take the risk and potentially face challenges where there is no element of choice available.

For several years, Brighter Green has been studying the globalization of industrial animal agriculture through the lens of climate change. Animal-based agriculture—both intensive and extensive—contribute anywhere from 14.5 to 51 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. A March 2016 report by Oxford University and the American Academy of Sciences suggested that a vegetarian diet—and even more so a vegan one—would dramatically reduce GHG emissions, lower the cost-burden on public health, and allow human beings to be much more productive, among other benefits. So, simply as a means of reducing climate change, veganism is good to think (with).

A few people reading the above will declare that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by careerist scientists eager for government grants who for ideological reasons depress data that contradict the models. The more reasonable skeptics might point out that climate change is real but that humans don’t cause it; or, if we do, that its effects are unknowable and may, indeed, benefit some regions at the expense of others. Some of these might say that veganism is merely a personal choice—as are all diets and lifestyles—and that the rest of the world’s rush to eat more animal products shows that meat-eating is natural. They might add that denying those in the developing world the possibility of eating animal products is, in fact, unjust and imperialist—as is the effort to stop countries from industrializing using the same fossil fuel–based technologies that developed nations employed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Obviously, the Vegan America Project resists such arguments. But our purpose is not to argue the case for climate change or the validity of veganism. As my previous blog suggests, it’s not only a means of thinking about how we might mitigate or adapt to climate change, but it conceptualizes how we’ll mostly likely need to think about a host of other issues: access to potable water, land use, fossil fuels as a whole, energy sources, population pressures, and the rights of the individual and liberal democracy (broadly conceived) in a time of mass migrations and collapsing nation states. These will be realities in the future, because they’re realities now.

As I suggested in an earlier blog, it certainly could be argued that there are more moderate ways to achieve lower GHG emissions through diet, by, for instance, eating less meat, as the Chinese government is currently urging its citizens to do. Likewise, “improvements” that bioengineer food animals to stop belching or farting and producing methane, or hooking these animals up to methane-extractors to utilize their GHG emissions for energy, might help. Eating only chickens instead of cows would reduce the carbon footprint somewhat. We might bioengineer we animals as well! And these supposed “solutions” to reduce GHG emissions could, of course, be accompanied by improvements in efficiency in the energy, transportation, and building sectors so we can continue to eat more meat and dairy products and hold or reduce GHG emissions.

At the moment, a general scattershot ameliorism may be all we have available to us. The financial and short-term policy requirements for those seeking election and re-election; the need for publically traded corporations to satisfy the stock market and share holders each quarter, which may depress necessary but expensive and uncertain investments in research and development; a global population eager to consume meat and other products associated with status and success, and a rush to provide as much energy as necessary to meet those aspirations; the task of figuring out how to develop long-term and resilient infrastructure using current technology given the unforeseeable needs of greater human populations in a more uncertain physical environment in two or three decades:—all these work against the systemic change and long-term planning that are necessary in favor of a “do-able” hodge-podge of half-measures and even conflicting impulses that, the data suggest, might not be enough to avert the catastrophe that a seven-degree Celsius global temperature increase would unleash.

Now, it’s true that technology may solve some of our problems, whether we invest substantially in the short run to shift the course of climate change now, or do so through incremental change that would alter outcomes much further down the road. It’s possible that in fifty or a hundred years we may be able to engineer our way out of future warming, and even (unlikely as it may seem now) not merely mitigate but reverse the effects of climate change. But these are enormous and very risky wagers to place.

In the interim, we’re still using finite natural resources on a planet with ecological limits. Do we really want to produce food that is inexpensive and widely available only because of cheap fossil fuels, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water that are either now running out or need to be left in the ground if we are to meet even the most limited of our goals for reducing global temperature rise? Given the reality that many tens of millions of us need to eat fewer animal products, and many tens of millions want to eat more of them, who will decide who eats less and who gets to eat more? How much meat and dairy is enough for us to be well fed, or feel successful, or will be made sick by before we say “enough”? How can the real price be set, how will the externalized costs be paid for, and who will bear the burden of paying for them?

These are genuinely complicated and challenging questions, involving issues of food supply and equity. But am I wrong to feel there’s something wrong-headed or defeatist about saying that they’re too complicated or challenging to be considered? Why should we assume that human behavior and appetites are unchangeable? We’re an adaptable species: why can’t cultures evolve or change to reimagine the status we assign to meat and dairy? Why be so parsimonious and fragile in our vision of the possible when confronted with a challenge as broad and encompassing as climate change? In other words, why not insert equity, animal rights, and a bold imagination into a vision for the future? Why not toughen and tighten the demands that we assign to notions of “sustainability” and “resilience”? Why not offer proscriptions and prescriptions that might be less inadequate to the task at hand?

To that extent, might run a different kind of objection, why only Vegan America? Why not Vegan Earth? As indicated earlier, Brighter Green has conducted many analyses of the role of meat and dairy in developing and industrialized countries, mainly through the lens of climate change. So, we’re aware the world is integrated and trade and communication becoming still more globalized. We know that borders are porous and nation states combine and recombine in trading regions, political unions, and defensive or offensive blocs. Climate change will enhance the need for international cooperation and also exacerbate local, national, and regional tensions.

Furthermore, we know that air or land migration doesn’t stop at national borders, or that pollution and water usage can be contained within political boundaries. Any policy on wild birds, large predators, and marine animals will, of course, necessitate transnational engagement. Nonetheless, we thought it was necessary to choose a country (yes, our Canadian friends, we know that America isn’t a country, but Vegan USA or Vegan United States just isn’t as catchy) because it’s a defined geopolitical unit and, therefore, provides some means of delimiting what is, obviously, an enormous and expansive undertaking.

To that extent, therefore, both “vegan” and “America” are, like the Project itself, essentially heuristic: a way to think somewhere so we might think anywhere. Every nation state is going to have to grapple sooner or later with the very meaning of the nation state in a world where independent survival will require interdependent governments, industries, and peoples to think their way into the future utilizing their own cultural realities and social, natural, political, and financial capital. Vegan America offers one kind of model.

In the next blog, I offer some thoughts on why the United States might be a good place to start this project.