Climate Change: are we doomed unless the world goes vegan?

In a recent e-mail interchange including both vegans and non-vegan recipients, one of the questions raised was whether we (the vegans) thought that the world was doomed unless the world goes vegan.

This sounded like a rhetorical question, as if to say, “surely you don’t think the world is doomed unless we adopt your narrow, sectarian point of view?” However, I don’t think it’s a rhetorical question. It’s an important question for vegans as well as non-vegans. We need as vegans to know how to position ourselves in the coming world changes.

Strictly speaking, the answer is “no,” the world isn’t doomed. However, when you look into what would be required to save the world without veganism, you can easily see that there are some serious problems. Livestock agriculture is not only a key problem for our climate, but for human health and a whole host of resource shortage issues. In general, it makes our civilization increasingly risky, complex, and prone to failure. A vegan world wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it would make things a whole lot simpler. To fully explore all of these issues would require a book, or several books, but here is an outline of my thoughts so far.

Veganism Takes Over the World!

First of all, let’s define our terms. By “the world goes vegan,” I don’t mean that every last person on the planet has to become vegan, but certainly that it should be the normative ideal, at least with respect to diet. We are talking about most of the world ditching animal products and a drastic, drastic reduction in consumption of meat, fish, fowl, dairy products, and eggs. It’s got to be a lot more than “meatless Mondays.”

Countries which are well off (America, Europe, etc.) are currently consuming a lot of animal products, and should simply drop them. They have ample healthy plant food alternatives and lots of information technology to guide the transition. We can cut the Inuit and the Masai some slack, but their populations are minuscule compared to everyone else.

Second, let’s make our definition of what it means to “save the world” easy. “Saving the world” just means avoiding the very worst climate alternatives. We don’t have to preserve our standard of living, our culture, or anything like that. If we avoid the extinction of all life on earth, or a mass extinction event like the Permian-Triassic, then congratulations: you’ve saved the world. That’s all we’re going for.

The Basic Climate Change Argument For Veganism

There is significant evidence that livestock agriculture is our key problem in terms of climate change. Moreover, because of resource constraints (land, water, fossil fuels, etc.) we are heading towards veganism anyway. Instead of an increasingly technologically complex and risky set of engineering solutions to climate change, we should put a fairly simple dietary change into the mix of solutions.

According to James Hansen, we may have no more than a decade left to avoid catastrophic climate change. The melting of the arctic sea ice is a really bad sign, because it is not only a sign of warming, but in itself increases further warming. Further positive feedback would be inevitable: melting of the permafrost and the real possibility of a huge methane “burp” when the frozen methane hydrates start to melt. If we exploit both conventional and unconventional fossil fuels (like tar sands), a runaway greenhouse planet is the most likely outcome. Right now, both Republicans and Democrats are backing a plan to further the tar sands. It doesn’t look good.

“Livestock and Climate Change” (Goodland and Anhang) estimated that 51% of human-cause greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. Livestock methane has been undercounted, and even a lot of the carbon dioxide in the air is due to land-use changes and the almost total biological predominance of humans and their livestock.

Moreover, methane is of greater importance for climate change than most people think (see my post of September 25). It is likely that methane emissions and fossil fuel burning have about equivalent effects. Even though it has just about 1/3 of the effect of carbon dioxide, methane has indirect effects which generate warming, and fossil fuels have pollutants associated with them which actually dampen somewhat the effects of carbon dioxide. And livestock are the key source of methane.

We are beset by numerous resource issues anyway. Soil erosion is rampant, water shortages limit productivity, and peak oil is pretty much already here. These shortages will further limit what our agricultural system can do anyway, so we may as well make the best of the situation and go vegan.

Even if we all go vegan, if we keep burning fossil fuels, dig up the tar sands, and burn up every last piece of coal, we’ll still have a major climate catastrophe. Veganism is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for saving the planet.

What is this “doom” of which you speak?
And aren’t we doomed anyway?

Well, everyone has their own idea of doom. Some people don’t feel we’re doomed until all life in this sector of the galaxy has been completely eliminated. Others will view the failure of the Broncos to win the Super Bowl as “doom.”

Let’s look at one particular kind of doom, the runaway greenhouse effect. This could lead to extinction of all life on the planet as the planet turns into Venus, as Jim Hansen argues, or it might “merely” result in something like the massive Permian-Triassic extinctions of 251 million years ago, in which 95% of all species went extinct. Can we avert this without the world going vegan? I will consider three possible ways in which this could be done.

1. Aggressive development of renewable energy. Let’s assume that we adopt all the suggestions made for renewable energy, phase out coal by 2030, avoid unconventional fossil fuels, and reduce overall energy use. (You can imagine this either with or without nuclear energy, depending on your taste.) But we continue agricultural “business as usual,” continuing with consumption of animal products.

The first problem with this is that if livestock really is responsible for 51% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, this will deal with less than half of the problem. To bring down the total global warming effect, we’d need to push even harder and faster on fossil fuels in order to make up for the fact that we’re leaving half the job undone.

The relative importance of methane emissions is substantially greater than first appears — because of the indirect effects of methane, and because pollution associated with fossil fuels partially dampens the carbon dioxide effects (things which Goodland and Anhang don’t discuss, by the way). So any “results” we would achieve would need to come almost entirely through reducing fossil fuels.

The second problem is that reducing fossil fuel use will, in the short term, make the climate hotter. That’s because the pollutants we get from burning coal and oil partially counteract global warming effects. But when we stop burning coal and oil, the pollutants would drop out of the air quickly, while the carbon dioxide that was already there would be around for centuries. We’ll have cleaner air but a hotter climate, at least for some centuries.

The only greenhouse gas which we could get down quickly is methane, and the key source of methane emissions is livestock agriculture. So there are two disadvantages to aggressive development of renewables (by itself); it leaves out half the problem, and you can forget about quick results. In fact, for perhaps several hundred years the climate would actually get somewhat worse.

We might get lucky. It may be that actually, we are nowhere near a tipping point. Or, pollution will turn out to have had virtually no effect. But if we are close to a tipping point in climate, aggressive development of renewables without bringing down methane emissions may actually be fatal. Soon the arctic sea ice will be gone, the permafrost will melt, and feedback mechanisms will kick in eventually leading the melting of methane hydrates and a runaway greenhouse. If we can continue “agricultural business as usual,” there will be little chance of substantially reducing methane emissions.

2. Geoengineering. The above scenario does not necessarily mean “doom.” There may be other (albeit increasingly desperate) ways of keeping global temperature down.

One fairly crude way would be nuclear weapons. During the 1980’s, there was a lot of discussion of the idea of “nuclear winter,” the sudden dramatic drop in temperatures after a total thermonuclear war because of the polluted atmosphere. There’s even a web site devoted to cataloging the effects of such a war.

We wouldn’t need a total thermonuclear war to achieve this effect. A few bombs would probably do the trick, which could be periodically be blown up. A single nuclear power, sufficiently disgruntled at the lack of climate progress, might take matters into its own hands and blow up some weapons on its own soil. Of course, then you’d have all that radiation and fallout to deal with.

An alternative is to deliberately introduce pollution into the atmosphere. Massive amounts of sulfur dioxide could be manufactured and injected into the atmosphere, leading to a temporary cooling trend. This would be rather expensive and might create problems with acid rain or with destruction of the ozone layer. Other effects of high carbon dioxide levels, such as the acidification of the oceans, would continue. Scientific research might discover other particles that would have the same effect with less serious results. But in the meantime, these methods would enable us to avoid the destruction of the planet while we get control of the situation.

Joseph Romm doesn’t like this type of geoengineering because the results are so unpredictable, and we could be stuck with some really bad results. He refers to it as “an experimental chemotherapy and radiation therapy combined.” If we didn’t face the absolute certainty of otherwise encountering a runaway greenhouse effect and end of all life on earth, it would be difficult to justify.

3. The collapse of civilization. In the peak oil community, there is a class of people who are called “doomers.” Generally, “doomers” hold that because of resource shortages of oil, metals, and other things, that some very bad things are going to happen to the economy, and there is really nothing we can do about it, and there is no point in trying. It may be that fossil fuel emissions will come down of their own accord. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a reduction in emissions; the collapse of the United States will have the same effect. We’re doomed anyway, so — no problem!

Gail Tverberg, in her blog “Our Finite World,” does not make this argument, but does say that a steady-state economy is impossible except at a very low level. She suggests the technological level of the world in the year 1750, as indicating the level she has in mind. In 1750, there were very few fossil fuel emissions. Give it long enough, and we will be at a 1750-level of technology without even trying.

I think that it would be a serious mistake to count on being “saved” through the collapse of civilization, even if we rather like the idea of going back to a primitive state of hunting and gathering. The problem is that civilization might take quite a while to collapse, perhaps a century or more, and in the meantime someone would be burning fossil fuels and grazing cattle. To be effective, such a collapse would need to be relatively quick and relatively total.

This collapse may not be quick or total at all. It may be fairly far into the future in a heavily polluted world, and it may occur in some parts of the world without happening in other parts. We’ll probably wind up burning all the fossil fuels, and getting into the unconventional fossil fuels (like oil from the tar sands) as well, just as Hansen warned, and get a runaway greenhouse effect anyway. The only difference would be that with our industry and technology gone, even chances for geoengineering solutions would be dim.

Other disasters might intervene to save us. Some heretofore-unknown plague might wipe out 95% of the human population, allowing the remaining 5% to start over with drastically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This, however, is not the sort of thing you can count on to save the planet.

How does this compare with veganism?

Strictly speaking, it is not true that we’re necessarily doomed if the world doesn’t go vegan. Nuclear explosions, bioengineering, massive plagues, general industrial decline, or just plain luck might intervene, either accidentally or through human design. The planet is not necessarily saved even if we do go vegan, although obviously it will improve our chances.

Given this situation, we are comparing a vegan world to increasingly complex, volatile, and unpredictable technologies applied to an already dangerous and unpredictable situation. The thing which is striking about veganism is that as solutions go, it is pretty simple. A vegan food system is actually quite a bit less complex than our current food system. It would considerably lessen our ecological footprint on the earth. It would greatly simplify our health system.

We need a revolution in how we approach the earth. Veganism is not the entire solution, but it is an integral part of the solution. Veganism is the way to get quick results on climate, by reducing methane emissions, taking a substantial bite out of the rest, and giving us room to maneuver as we deal with the other considerable difficulties of getting past the age of fossil fuels.