May 19, 2014

The Constant Conundrum: How Can One Person Mitigate Climate Change?

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

U.S. War Production Board, 1945 / Northwestern University Library

U.S. War Production Board, 1945 / Northwestern University Library

“Now, Judge,” said my 11-year-old daughter, “we can all agree on one thing. We have to do what we can to slow down climate change.” She was presenting her 1AC—first affirmative constructive—in a Baltimore Urban Debate League tournament about solar panels. “Judge,” she said, “Humans are the ones who made this mess, and so humans should be the ones to clean it up.” Thus spake the fifth-grader.

Over one semester and hundreds of hours, debaters from Baltimore City public schools spoke passionately about the need to cut down our use of fossil fuels and stop producing greenhouse gases. It’s refreshing to see the need to mitigate—or, as my daughter put it, “slow down”—climate change discussed so vigorously among the elementary school set. It’s a conversation that we adults seem to be tiring of. But who can blame us? News of impending doom from climate change has become this decade’s white noise.

Since the turn of 2014, three grave reports have been issued by heavy-hitting organizations. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and now the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) have all sounded the same alarm. We’re in trouble.

U.S. Food Administration, 1919 / National Archives

U.S. Food Administration, 1919 / National Archives

The reports explain what’s happening, why it’s happening, where it’s happening, to whom it’s happening, and when the manure gets real. The crux of their gist is that climate change is a fait accompli. With all the scary what-where-and-why, ennui sets in; it’s so hard to act when the ship has already sailed.

But for those of us who want to do something, maybe it’s easier to think about mitigating climate change in bite-size chunks. Literally. Here’s a simple proposal for how one individual acting alone can help: cut down on red meat. And by “red meat,” I mean beef, veal, lamb, and, yes, pork. (Here’s why the USDA considers pork a red meat, despite the advertising campaign to the contrary; to be fair, pork doesn’t have as huge a greenhouse gas footprint as the other red meats.)

Red meat exacts a heavy toll on our ecosystems. It takes a lot of energy, land, and feed to raise cattle and process the meat. In fact, pound for pound, beef has about six times the carbon footprint of poultry. The water footprint is also huge, about 1,800 gallons per pound of beef, where one pound of chicken uses 468 gallons of water. (Here’s a mesmerizing water footprint tool from National Geographic.) Land used to raise beef is sometimes carved out of forests, like the Amazon—and one of the things we really need to hold onto if we want to mitigate climate change is our forests. The other tricky thing about beef? The manure. Too often, we find it contaminating our water systems.

All these facts and more have been rounded up in “Strategies for mitigating climate change in agriculture,” released last month by Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates. The report also tells us that when the full life-cycle emissions of meat are considered, livestock account for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. (That fact is brought to you by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.) Pair that with the fact that red meat consumption is on the rise in developing nations, and that’s all the more reason to slow our roll with beef and pork. Maybe we can model better dietary behavior.

The best solutions to climate change, of course, will happen collaboratively at an institutional level, because they require systems approaches. A united, global, organized approach is the best approach for both mitigation and adaptation. But sometimes we just need to feel empowered on a smaller, more personal scale. Buying less red meat is a pretty easy personal action. There are millions of people out there who want to support that action. Want to feel the love? Need recipes? Check out Meatless Monday, which originated in the U.S., and Meat Free Monday, which originated in the UK.

I would be remiss if I made it seem as if the reports by AAAS, IPCC, and NCA focus on reducing red meat consumption; they certainly do not. In fact, they focus more on adaptation than mitigation. But they do give a nod to actions such as reducing food waste, reforesting, and, of course, using less energy overall.

In AAAS’s report, What We Know, there’s this on page 20: “The United States is one of the most resourceful and innovative societies in the world. We are a nation of problem solvers.” There are about a thousand young Baltimore debaters who’ve already argued this point. My daughter, the idealist, closes her 1AC with this: “Judge, doing what we can means doing everything we can.”

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