Environmental Groups as Climate Deniers
Most environmental/conservation groups are climate change deniers. Specifically, I am talking about the numerous organizations that give lip service to the threat posed by climate change, but don’t even mention to their membership or emphasize to the media the contribution that livestock production has with regards to rising global temperatures. While most organizations are calling climate change the environmental issue of our time, they avoid discussing the contribution of animal agriculture in climate change.
It is one of those topics that is avoided in any climate change discussions. We hear about the need to reduce fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. We are encouraged to drive more efficient vehicles or insulate our homes. We are told to turn down the thermostat in winter.
Not that these ideas aren’t worthy of action. However, the single easiest and most effective way to reduce one’s personal contribution to global warming is to change one’s diet. Consumption of meat and dairy is one of the biggest contributors to Green House Gas Emissions (GHG) but few organizations are willing to even discuss this problem, much less advocate for a diet change.
Indeed, many groups advocate and promote ranching and animal farming, especially if it’s “local” as if locally produced GHG emissions are better than ones produced far away.
Here’s the problem. Livestock, particularly, cows and other “rumen” animals have bacteria in their guts that assist in the breakdown of grass, and other forage. A by-product of this biological decomposition is methane.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and is far more effective at trapping heat than CO2. So, it takes a lot less methane to have a disproportional effect on rising temperature. Methane breaks down over time to CO2, but initially, its ability to trap heat is 100 times more efficient than C02.
This is an important nuance because the time factor affects how you view methane. If you use a 100-year timeline, the ability of methane to trap heat is only approximately 20 times greater than CO2 (because much of the methane has been converted to CO2), but if you use a 20-year horizon which is far more meaningful in our current situation, then methane is far more powerful and destructive.
Any number of recent studies have shown that livestock contributes anywhere from 14.5 percent of global GHG emissions in a UN Food and Agriculture Organization http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/themes/en/meat/background.html up to a World Watch study that includes more of the collateral impacts of livestock production estimates that as much as 51% of all GHG emissions are the result of livestock production.
And worse for the environment, many organizations promote “grass fed” beef and dairy as if that somehow negates the environmental impacts of livestock. Ironically, because consumption of grass and other “free range” forage is more difficult for rumen bacteria than converting higher quality forage like corn, silage, or soy into energy, grass-fed beef/dairy cows emit more methane over their lives than CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) produced beef/dairy.
This is not an endorsement of CAFOs, rather it demonstrates that meat/dairy consumption no matter what the source may be, is counter-productive if your goal is to reduce GHG emissions.
Either way what these studies suggest is that eating less beef and dairy is one of the dietary changes that anyone can implement to reduce the personal contribution to climate change. But most environmental organizations while they might be willing to fund campaigns like “keep it on the ground” or advocate for solar panels, refuse to discuss how a meat and dairy diet is destroying the global climate.
Another new study by researchers at Loma Linda University and elsewhere, have concluded that if Americans would eat beans instead of beef, the United States would immediately realize approximately 50 to 75 percent of its GHG reduction targets for the year 2020! https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170523081954.htm
Even better a change in diet would free up a substantial amount of agricultural land for restoration to native vegetation. Nothing destroys more biodiversity than growing crops (for livestock feed) and grazing livestock. Since livestock is an inefficient way of converting solar energy into food, substituting beans for beef would free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation — a total of 1.65 million square kilometers or more than 400 million square acres, which is approximately 1.6 times the size of the state of California.
Of course, the problem of livestock goes beyond climate change. There are the associated impacts resulting from livestock production. The annual dewatering of western rivers to provide forage (hay, etc.) for cows. The pollution of water from manure. The trampling of soils and riparian areas by cattle hooves. The removal of forage that would otherwise support native wildlife. The killing of predators like wolves, coyotes, and bears to protect domestic animals. The litany of ecological impacts associated with livestock production is long and significant.
Despite the obvious benefits of a change in diet, we have many organizations promoting “sustainable” ranching, predator friendly ranching,” local” dairy farms/ranches or promoting ranching to discourage subdivisions (the condos vs cows debate) while ignoring the much larger problem associated with livestock production. Many “health food” store promote “grass-fed” beef and dairy as if consumption is somehow environmentally beneficial.
It’s time for environmental/conservation groups to stop being climate deniers and begin to advocate for a change in our diets to help combat global climate change. One cannot be serious about climate change and still be a significant consumer of dairy and meat products.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
16 Responses to Environmental Groups as Climate Deniers
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Not only do “they” omit – deliberately or out of ignorance – livestock agriculture’s contribution to global warming (or climate change, whichever you want to call it), but “we”, including almost all of us in the environmental community, refuse to even mention the biggest cause of virtually all our environmental problems : the fact that THE HUMAN POPULATION OF THE EARTH HAS LONG SINCE EXCEEDED ITS SUSTAINABLE CARRYING CAPACITY.
The only way to really solve that problem is to educate and empower women, and let them have access to free contraception. Too many forces arrayed against that right now for that to happen though.
+1 (or +360,000 births every hour)
oops that’s 360,000 births every day.
Ok, I generally agree the planet would be in better shape if we reduced consumption of red meat. Fine and good. It would be helpful for the scientific discussion to compare cattle to other native ungulates for methane production on native grasslands. I’m not entirely buying the removal of cattle will result in a net reduction of methane if they are replaced by native ungulates (don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to see that happen on our remaining native publicly grasslands). I could be convinced by some scientific studies though. The real question is what would the alternative be for private ranch lands? If they can’t make money raising cattle, what do they raise? My concern is that the alternative would be subdivision or conversion to irrigated row crops, which I think would be worse for the landscape. On private lands, would you rahther see CAFOs or cattle grazed on grass (which I think would provide more habitat overall than cornfields). This is a nuanced issue, and I think conservation organizations recognize the solution can’t be simplified into a sound bite. I think that is why it hasn’t been very well addressed.
Patrick, a very good read on those issues and questions is “Welfare Ranching” by George Wuerthner. I believe most of your questions would be answered.
They could go out of business, and we could buy the land for the public, cheap.
Not Just that they actually think that grazing is ok….. Because we speak against grazing the biggest groups in California dont offer any assistance period….
Worth a listen:
From the new book by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff, titled “The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age,” which argues that the science of animal welfare needs to be replaced with the science of animal well-being. “Welfare science” is not science in the service of animals, it patronizes them and doesn’t really give them protection, but rather it serves industry and makes the public feel good. The science of animal well-being focuses on individual nonhuman animals (animals) and would not allow animals to be used and abused in the way that welfarism allows. The authors further state “We had both assumed, earlier in our careers, that the scientific study of the emotional and cognitive lives of animals would lead to a sea change in how humans treat animals—how could it not? Once people see that animals are intelligent and feeling creatures, just like us, they won’t be able, in good conscience, to inflict suffering and deprivations.” That said:
“Just as it is wrong, in our view, to deny the reality of climate science in shaping government policy, industry, and personal behavior, it is wrong to deny the reality of the science of animal cognition and emotion. The reality of climate change is, as Al Gore says, an inconvenient truth, because it urges us to move beyond our highly profitable reliance on fossil fuels and alter our daily lives, to give up things like conspicuous consumption. The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”
Why won’t environmentalist writers talking about how bad livestock raising is propose solutions besides just personal choice?
I don’t get it.
Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown places a plant-rich diet as the number four solution to the pesky problem of our times.
No question that the industrial system of animal-based food production is in need of serious revamping, especially the large scale operations. The revamping would clearly have additional benefits.
Yet the vested interests aren’t about to seriously address issues unless and until there is more significant pushback. Any environmental organization unwilling to push is operating in an alternative reality.
I think my older generation needs to make sure the next generation knows all the issues. There seems to be a knowledge gap once you get beyond Claim Change, like the state of US waters before the Clean Water Act. Also knowledge about beef production, dams and even DDT are not fully understood.
Ironic, while living in the Information Age.
Also we need everyone’s help with Trump in the White house even the National Parks aren’t safe.