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

The one approach that can avert a climate catastrophe

It is increasingly clear that the world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe.

Some recent studies have shown that there is one generally overlooked approach that can potentially avert that catastrophe. Before discussing that approach, let’s consider how serious climate threats are and why they are likely to get far worse.

First, it is important to recognize how strong the scientific consensus about climate change is. 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 (IPCC), an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, warned that “unprecedented changes” are necessary by 2030 to have a chance at averting a climate catastrophe.More recent dire warnings by the IPCC led UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to state that that the situation is a “Code Red for humanity” and that “delay is death.”

The world has definitely been heating up. 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. The hottest seven years all occurred in the past seven years.

The increased temperature has already produced many negative effects. 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 greatly 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 that, “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 this increase might be 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 when climate spins out of control, with catastrophic results. One example is that the many recent wildfires in California and other areas result in the loss of CO2 absorption by the destroyed trees, CO2 released to the atmosphere as the tees burned, and the need for much energy to replace the structures and cars destroyed by the fires, making future wildfires and other severe climate events more likely.
  • 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, and that will make instability, terrorism, and war far more likely. Severe long term droughts have already sparked civil wars in Syria\ and the Sudan.

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 necessary 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, 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 two major advantages that the approaches mentioned above do not have.

1. It would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because there would be far less cows and other farmed animals emitting methane. This is especially significant because (a) methane is about 80 times as potent per unit weight in heating up the atmosphere as CO2 and (b) unlike CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for many hundred of years, most methane dissipates in 10 years and almost all is no longer in the atmosphere in 20 years.

2. It could dramatically reduce the CO2 presently in the atmosphere by 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 almost 420 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to a safe level below 350 ppm, a threshold value, according to climate experts, sharply reducing climate threats.

Taking this possibility into account, systems engineer Sailesh Rao, PhD, argues in his 2021 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 previous 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. 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 venues, 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 to helping avert a climate catastrophe, shifts to plant-based diets would also reduce other environmental threats; heart disease, cancer, and other life threatening diseases; the very inefficient use of land, energy, and other natural resources; widespread hunger; the potential for future pandemics; and the massive mistreatment of animals, thereby becoming more consistent with basic Jewish teachings. This should impel Jews to become vegans, or at least to sharply reduce their consumption of meat and other animal products.

Our future choices are between a mostly (if not completely) vegan world and a mostly (if not completely) devastated world. In order to leave a decent, habitable, environmentally sustainable world for future generations, it is essential that there be a society-wide shift toward vegan diets. There is no Planet B or effective Plan 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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