If you’re a self-described climate activist, you likely know that curbing carbon emissions helps offset global temperatures increasing 2-3 degrees Celsius to avert dust bowl conditions—which threaten large areas of North America, Asia and Africa—along with water shortages and rapid melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise ocean levels 16 feet.
You may also have heard that the difference between 2 degrees Celsius and 4 degrees is the difference between damaged coral reefs and no remaining reefs, between thinning forests and them being replaced by deserts–ultimately a choice between catastrophe and chaos. These are unsettling predictions, but they compel us to reduce carbon emissions because the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet becomes.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. Net zero means that, on balance, no more carbon is dumped into the atmosphere than is taken out. To reach net zero emissions, we need to do more than just reduce our emissions: We need to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or offset its effects.
The Union of Concerned Scientists believes the easiest way to do this is by planting new forests or restoring old ones. Other enhanced land management practices can help, as can new technologies that suck Co2 out of the air (direct air capture) or prevent it from leaving smokestacks (carbon capture and storage). Every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, we release increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, so environmentally sustainable energies are essential, and we need a government that supports that truth. And the truth is animal farming emits at least 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (methane) measured in carbon dioxide.
So, slaughtering 115 million pigs and 33 million cows in the U.S. each year contributes to climate change. So does dairy production. I don’t care how many jobs the meat industry creates, that’s an economic issue, but not a moral justification for the misery we impose on animals who are turned into products, not to mention the destruction of the planet.
Today, upwards of 2 million cattle graze public lands, and now the government is increasingly authorizing thousands of oil, gas and mineral extraction projects on properties overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The result truly is a crisis—these commercial activities will continue to substantially fragment and reduce the amount of habitat left for western wildlife. Human population growth impacts energy consumption too, so it’s smart to address human birth control rather than the use of fertility control pesticides like PZP to blast wildlife as though they’re the ones out of control.
We don’t need fewer wild horses, buffalo, wolves or deer, but a further scaling down of hunters and the removal of the meat industry’s hooks into our government agencies. Last winter, a New York member of Congress advised children to cut back on meat eating by eating a banana and peanut butter for breakfast. Fair enough, but the U.S. is responsible for the biggest share of global carbon emissions, so it needs the biggest solutions.
A Congressional solution could classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and regulate it as such. And there could be carbon taxes that invest in renewable energy and large-scale investment in research and development of decarbonization technologies. But we haven’t seen a serious effort to negotiate a binding global climate treaty, and its high time to take the long view to seriously consider the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our lives have passed.
We’ve been trained to overthink the present and ignore the future. Please think deeply about your personal choices and about your political ones in the elections ahead. We are living at a crucial time in human history: The decisions we make right now regarding our treatment of the planet and all its human and non-human inhabitants will affect future generations, for better or worse. We must resist the urge to be complacent.
Feral, president of Friends of Animals, has presided over the international, non-profit animal advocacy organization since 1987.