CLIMATE CHANGE: Global catastrophe or sustainable future? It will largely depend on our food choices!

 By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D

Vegetarian Voice, cover story, Late Summer, Early Fall issue

It may seem naïve to argue that a mere change of diet could be a potent prescription for many of today's worst crises, but sometimes complex problems do yield to simple solutions.
As most vegetarians already know, if the human species were to stop consuming some 60 billion farmed animals every year and switch to a plant-based diet, it would have a tremendously positive impact on human health, environmental sustainability, world hunger and, of course, animal welfare. What is much less well-known are the facts and figures about how such a dietary shift would fight climate change.

The Case for Human-Caused Climate Change
Despite decades of scientific evidence, there is still much public skepticism about climate change itself, never mind the potential impacts of dietary shifts. So let us consider the evidence and how our efforts can make a difference.

There is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that modern climate change is real, that it poses a major threat to humanity and that human activities are the primary cause.

A letter featured in the May 7, 2010 issue of the highly respected journal Science signed by 255 leading scientists who are members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (USNAS), including 11 Nobel laureates, stated, "There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend." The lead signer, Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick, noted, “It is hard to get 255 members of the [USNAS] to agree on pretty much anything, making the import of this letter even more substantial.”  

The joint science academies’ statement in 2005 “Responding globally to climate change” was signed by leaders of science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It urged the world’s governments to “acknowledge that the threat of climate change is real and increasing” and to “take prompt action to reduce the causes of climate change, adapt to its impacts and ensure that the issue is included in all relevant national and international strategies.”

Most recently, using an in-depth analysis of 10 climate indicators that all pointed to a significant warming during the past three decades, the July 28, 2010 annual "State of the Climate" report of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology stated that “global warming is undeniable," and it's happening fast.

The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, states: It is a greater than a 90 percent certainty that emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have caused “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century." According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the AR4 is the most comprehensive synthesis of climate change science to date. Experts from more than 130 countries contributed to this assessment, which represents six years of work. More than 450 lead authors received input from more than 800 contributing authors, and an additional 2,500 experts reviewed the draft documents.
Increasingly, climate change is about facts on the ground and not just predictions. Almost weekly there are reports of severe droughts, heat waves, storms, flooding, wildfires
and unprecedented melting of polar icecaps and glaciers. All of these are implicated by climate scientists as symptoms of a warming planet. The previous decade was the warmest since temperature records were kept beginning in 1880. This year, every month from January through June has seen global land and ocean surface temperatures warmer than in any previous corresponding month, again since the earliest records. This year has already surpassed 1998 for having the most "warmest months" in any calendar year. In addition, all of the Earth’s 10 warmest years since 1880 occurred in the previous 15 years.

While not all changing weather patterns can be attributed to global warming, most are consistent with projections for a warmer world. Since these events have occurred during an average temperature increase of slightly more than 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past 100 years, it is very alarming that global climate scientists, including those with the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC, are projecting an increase of from 2 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years if we continue on our present course of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If this increase is more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit ­-- a change that is increasingly likely as atmospheric GHG levels keep rising ­-- there is a consensus of concern among climate scientists, biologists and social scientists that this would have devastating effects on humanity and the current balance of life on the planet.

Many climate experts, including James Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), believe that a safe threshold value for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). We are already at 390 ppm and growing by at least 2 ppm per year.

Gradual warming is one concern. But what has Hansen and other climate scientists most worried is the prospect that global warming could reach a tipping point within just a few years, 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.

Scientists at the February 2009 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science indicated that global warming will likely increase more rapidly than expected because atmospheric carbon has increased faster than recent predictions, and increased temperatures are setting off positive feedback (self-reinforcing) mechanisms in global ecosystems. For example, when incoming sunlight strikes Arctic ice, up to 70 percent is normally reflected back into space. But once the ice melts, only about 6 percent is reflected and about 94 percent is converted into heat. Hence, the more ice that melts, the more heat is absorbed, creating a vicious cycle that increases shrinkage of the Arctic Sea ice. 

The Power of Our Food Choices

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) than the world's entire transportation sector combined (18 percent of worldwide human-caused GHGs from livestock production versus 13.5 percent from transportation).

The FAO report, “Livestock's Long Shadow,” also projects that the world's current annual consumption of almost 60 billion farmed land-based animals will double by mid-century if 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.

The FAO explains that animal agriculture's contribution to GHGs is so great because farmed animals, especially cattle and other ruminants, emit methane as part of their digestive processes (belching and flatulence). Methane is about 23 times as potent compared to CO2 in producing global warming, when measured in the standard 100-year periods.

The FAO also asserts that: (1) the production of animal products causes about 9 percent of total CO2 emissions, from the production of pesticides and fertilizer, use of irrigation pumps, extensive refrigeration and other processes;  (2) nitrous oxides are emitted from animals' manure and from chemical fertilizer used to grow feed crops and these gases are almost 300 times as potent as CO2 in producing warming; and (3) the burning of rainforests to create grazing land and land to grow feed crops for animals releases substantial amounts of CO2 and also destroys trees that would absorb CO2. 

More recently, “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 half of all human-induced GHGs. The article asserts that land use, including the destruction of tropical forests to produce land for grazing and to grow feed crops, not methane, is the prime reason for GHGs attributable to livestock. Still, methane is a powerful trapping agent, holding infrared radiation near the Earth’s surface. Goodland and Anhang state that methane is far more potent than estimated in the report due to the way the FAO makes its calculations.

The World Watch article calls for the replacement of livestock products with plant-based alternatives, based on the rationale that this would result in quick reductions in atmospheric GHGs, while also reversing on-going world food and water crises. It suggests that while there is an essential role for government, consumers and advocates, industry must be part of the solution when it comes to food, just as industry is considered part of the solution in every other economic sector.

Leading climate specialists have focused increasingly on the role of food in global warming. In the fall of 2008, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, which shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, called on people in the developed world to "give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease [meat consumption] from there.”

NASA’s Hansen, perhaps the most prominent scientific advocate of aggressive action against global warming, told an interviewer, "... if you eat further down on the food chain rather than animals, which have produced many greenhouse gases, and used much energy in the process of growing that meat, you can actually make a bigger contribution in that way than just about anything. So, that, in terms of individual action, is perhaps the best thing you can do."

More recently, climate expert Lord Nicholas Stern of Brentford agreed that people need to become vegetarians if the world is to conquer climate change.

Al Gore, though stating that he is not a vegetarian, has indicated that he has significantly cut down on his meat consumption and recommended that others also do so.

There is much evidence that a large-scale replacement of meat and animal by-products with plant-based alternatives could have a substantial and rapid effect in reducing atmospheric methane due to this gas’ relatively short life. In this way, ordinary citizens can have an immediate impact on global warming, rather than waiting for governments to decide how to reduce emissions. It appears that there is no more powerful environmental action that any individual can take than adopting a plant-based diet.

What Can Each of Us Do?

Recognizing the world’s current very perilous path to a potential climate catastrophe and the major role that animal-based diets play in increasing climate change, it is essential that we do all we can to increase awareness of the urgency of the problem – and that must include advocating a major societal shift to plant-based diets.
Here are just a few of the ways you can get involved:
1) If you’re not yet a vegetarian, learn about all the benefits (health, animal welfare, food security and environmental sustainability) and start moving toward a plant-based diet. You might start with such a diet one day per week and increase it as you learn how enjoyable and healthy it is.

2) If you are already vegetarian, you’re setting a good example, but don’t stop there. Engage in any activities (such as Meat-Out, World Vegetarian Day, food demos, potlucks, etc.) that help people move toward meat-free diets. It’s important to educate people about the livestock/global warming connection, but keep in mind that health and ethical issues may be more motivating for some people. Also, consider giving up dairy and eggs, since the production and consumption of these products has negative effects on animals, human health and the environment.

3) Other ways to get the word out include:
· starting discussions with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers;
· writing letters to editors;
· calling radio talk shows;
· speaking to religious leaders, educators, politicians and other influential people;
· urging any groups you’re involved with to serve green (meatless) meals at their functions;
· asking restaurants to offer (or to offer more) vegan options and promote them as “climate friendly”
· contacting food companies and urging them to develop and market vegan options;
· posting on blogs, Facebook and other social networks;
· using your creativity to come up with other innovative outreach options.

The essential point is to stress the urgency of the situation and that we have very little time left to act to make the changes necessary, including dietary changes, if we are to have a chance to shift our very imperiled world to a sustainable path.

SIDEBAR: Social Chaos in an Overheated World
Gwynne Dyer, the award-winning veteran Canadian military scholar, journalist and author of Climate Wars provides a very frightening glimpse of a future world in which climate change causes major heat waves, droughts, severe storms, flooding from rising seas and storm surges, wildfires and other problems, resulting in waves of climate refugees, failed states and potential warfare. A 2007 report by 11 retired U.S. generals and admirals came to a similar conclusion, stating that hungry, thirsty, desperate refugees fleeing the effects of climate change would make instability, violence, terrorism and war more likely. Military and intelligence strategists in many countries are revising their planning to take climate change effects into account.

SIDEBAR: Why the Skepticism
In view of the powerful scientific evidence confirming climate change, one might wonder why there is so much public skepticism. In 2009, only 57 percent of Americans accepted that climate change was a problem and only 36 percent thought human activities were a factor. According to James Hoggan, author of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade To Deny Global Warming the oil, coal and other industries that are profiting from the status quo are willing to go to great lengths to mislead people so that they can continue receiving huge profits. Hoggan, who was initially a skeptic himself, claims that it is a “story of betrayal, a story of selfishness, greed, and irresponsibility on an epic scale…a story of deceit, of poisoning public judgment …” 

Another answer may be drawn from the results of a study called, “Balance as Bias,” which considered a random sample of 636 articles about climate change in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. More than 50 percent of the articles gave weight to both the scientific view and the scientifically discredited view (that humans do not play a major role in climate change). 
In addition, some public commentators downplay the significance of climate change, including, for example, U. S. Senator James Inhofe, who calls it the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." No wonder people are so confused. On one side you have vociferously opinionated media pundits, bloggers and politicians like Inhofe (who received close to one million dollars from the oil and coal industries between 2000 and 2008). On the other side, are the real experts, typically cautious in their assertions. This problem was addressed in a letter signed by 255 leading scientists that appeared in a May 2010 issue of the journal Science:
We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. [Their emphasis.] For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Because there are such a large number of climate scientists involved in this issue, it’s not surprising that there have been a few examples of scientific error and misbehavior, and these have been greatly played up by climate change deniers. Further investigations have shown that there were no efforts by the scientific community to mislead the public.

Climate change skeptics seem to be ignoring the many collateral benefits of working to reduce climate change. These would include a less polluted world, increased employment opportunities as a result of the creation of “green” jobs and less dependence on oil from foreign countries. Recently one cartoonist put it well by depicting a climate skeptic saying, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Climate expert Lord Nicholas Stern of Brentford, former chief economist at the World Bank and former advisor to the UK on economic matters, concluded in a major study of the potential economic effects of climate change, that spending 1 percent of gross national product now to reduce climate change could prevent the necessity of spending 5 to 20 percent of gross national product later to address the many negative effects of climate change.

The key point here is that if we follow the recommendations of climate scientists, we have the potential for a far better, sustainable world. However, if we follow the advice of the skeptics and do not try to address climate change soon, we will likely end up with a climate cataclysm with all its related problems.

Five groups – Veg Climate Alliance, In Defense of Animals, Farm Animal Rights Movement, A Well-Fed World and Anima Naturalis  (the latter a Mexican animal rights group) – are working together to increase awareness of the urgency of using dietary changes to reduce climate change. One of their major goals is to get delegates to the upcoming U.N. climate conference in Cancun, Mexico in December to put the diet/climate-change connection on the agenda, where it deserves a prominent place, not a footnote. If you would like to help in this effort, please contact the author, Richard Schwartz, at:

Further resources:
 VegClimate Alliance:

Stop Eating Meat – and Heal our Planet Petition:

Farm Sanctuary’s Green Foods Resolutions: 
A group led by author/activist Bill McKibbin, educating the public on the importance of reducing carbon dioxide levels to 350 ppm:

“Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch magazine, November, December, 2008:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

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Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and over 150 articles located at He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) at, Director of the Veg Climate Alliance at www.vegclimatealliance.orgs, President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) at, and can be contacted via