Richard H. Schwartz
Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

Can We Avert a Climate Catastrophe?

The most critical issue facing the world today is the possibility of a climate catastrophe that threatens the viability of human civilization. This article discusses the seriousness of the threats, why it is likely to become far more severe in the future, and what needs to be done to avert the looming catastrophe.

First, it is important to recognize the scientific consensus about climate change. Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists, and virtually all the peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals agree that climate change is largely caused by human activities, and poses great threats to humanity.  In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, warned that “unprecedented changes” are necessary by 2030 to avert a climate catastrophe.

The world is already seeing the effects of climate change. Every decade since the 1970s has been hotter than the previous decade, and all of the 22 hottest years since temperature records were kept in 1880 have been since 1998. 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year worldwide. June 2021 was the hottest June on record and July 2021 was the hottest month on record, putting 2021 on track to possibly becoming the hottest year on record.

There have been many negative effects of the increased temperature. Glaciers worldwide are rapidly melting, threatening future food production which depends on glacial water for irrigation. Greenland and polar ice caps are also melting rapidly, raising sea levels and increasing the potential for future flooding. Already coastal cities, including Miami, Florida, have experienced “sunny day flooding” during high tides. Permafrost is also starting to melt, potentially releasing massive amounts of trapped greenhouse gases, which would accelerate climate change.

There has also been an increase in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods. Many such events happened over a short period in the summer of 2021. California has been subjected to so many severe climate events recently that its former governor Jerry Brown stated, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.”

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why prospects for the future are even more frightening, including:

  • While all the recent severe climate events have occurred at a time when the global temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius (about two degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial revolution, climate experts project that ithis will triple to at least three degrees Celsius by the end of this century, triggering far worse climate events;
  • Climate experts fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) could result in an irreversible tipping point such that global warming will rise uncontrollably,  with catastrophic results;
  • Military experts are warning that there will likely be tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from severe heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events, which will promote social and political instability, terrorism, and war.

Israel is especially threatened by climate change because the Middle East is becoming hotter and drier than most areas, increasing the potential for future violence, and the coastal plain where most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located could be inundated by a rising Mediterranean Sea.

Because of the above factors, averting a climate catastrophe must become a central focus for civilization today. Every aspect of life should be considered in terms of reducing “carbon footprints.” Among the many positive steps are shifting away from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and other renewable forms of energy; designing more efficient cars, lightbulbs, and other items; improving public transportation so that more people will use it; recycling; and composting.

However, there is one approach that has the greatest potential to help avert a climate catastrophe and that is through a societal shift toward vegan diets. Such a shift has a major advantage that the approaches mentioned above do not have. They provide the only approach that not only significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, because there would be far less cows and other farmed animals emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with up to 120 times the ability to heat up the planet as CO2 per unit weight. It also has the potential of dramatically reducing CO2 presently in the atmosphere by permitting reforesting the over a third of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. This could reduce the current 420 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to a much safer level below 350 ppm, a threshold value according to climate experts.

Taking this possibility into account, systems engineer Sailesh Rao, PhD, argues in his paper, “Animal Agriculture Is the Leading Cause of Climate Change,” published in the Journal of Ecological Society, that shifts toward vegan diets could, in effect, reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases by at least 87%, greatly lessening climate threats.

There have been other studies that show how important dietary shifts are to efforts to reduce climate change. As long ago as 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” concluded that animal-based agriculture emitted more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all the world’s transportation systems combined, and a 2009 cover story in World Watch magazine, “Livestock and Climate Change,” by two environmentalists associated with the World Bank argued that the livestock sector is responsible for at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, it is much easier to be a vegan today because of the abundance of plant-based substitutes for meat and other animal products in supermarkets and other food markets, some with the appearance, texture, and taste so similar to that of the animal products that even long-time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference. In addition, animal-based diets and agriculture seriously contribute to climate change and other environmental threats; heart disease, cancer, and other life-threatening diseases; the very inefficient use of land,  water,  energy, and other natural resources; widespread hunger; and the massive mistreatment of animals, thereby seriously violating many basic Jewish teachings. This should impel Jews to become vegans, or at least to sharply reduce their consumption of meat and other animal products.

Bottom line: To have a chance for a decent, habitable world for future generations, there must be a societal shift toward vegan diets. Every effort must be used to make this happen, and shifts to plant-based diets are essential. There is no planet B.

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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