Most British people don't believe that climate change is man-made, a recent poll established. Shame, really, considering that global warming left unchecked will almost certainly devastate the globe and has the potential to wipe us out as a species.
One thing there is no argument about is that the world is warmed by an insulating blanket of atmospheric gases that keep the temperature 33ºC warmer than it would be without that blanket – in fact, without it the world would be uninhabitable.
This insulating gas layer is becoming thicker so less heat is escaping from the atmosphere and the planet is starting to warm – and the change is comparatively sudden and dramatic. The cause is human activity such as power generation, transport, farming and so on, all of which produce copious amounts of warming gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide.
Oh no, it’s not humans that are responsible, says the counter argument, and if global warming exists at all it is minimal and entirely natural.
The same survey that found most people doubted human responsibility for the problem also believed that many scientists shared their beliefs. Again they were wrong. In the whole history of science there has never been such an overwhelming consensus of opinion – climate change is real, is accelerating and without urgent and immediate action is likely to devastate the planet. It is supported by almost every serious scientific organisation there is.
In fact, 2,500 concerned scientists came together to form the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Sharing the Nobel prize with the IPCC was former US vice president Al Gore, whose film, An Inconvenient Truth, pointed out that there have been nearly 1000 published scientific papers showing that humans are responsible for global warming while not a single paper has been published to show that it is from natural causes.
The US media has ignored the scientific consensus with 68 per cent of stories pushing the idea that global warming is a natural phenomenon, with only 32 per cent sticking to the science and blaming humans. It’s not that different in the UK but then nearly all media depend upon huge amounts of advertising to fund unbridled consumption. No wonder people are confused.
Much of the opposition to global warming is organised by the US Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) but if you look closely at its affiliated organisations you find not science but politics – Cato Institute, Hudson Institute, Heartland Institute, Free Market Foundation and the Locke Foundation.
They all have links with each other, all support an ultra conservative, free-market philosophy, have associations with the Republican party and some with Bush’s discredited ‘neo con’ cabal. Funders include Philip Morris tobacco and, of course, the oil company Exxon Mobil, whose hand can be found doling out cash throughout the denial industry.
To accept that climate change is real means accepting that over-consumption is gobbling up the world’s diminishing resources in an orgy of greed. It also means accepting the only solution that will work – an end to the philosophy of constant growth and free markets.
This politically motivated agenda is closely matched in the UK by some newspapers, the Daily Mail in particular. Even the BBC adopts an evenhanded approach on global warming, providing equal space for denial and therefore giving the impression that scientific opinion is equally divided – which it isn’t.
The sources of greenhouse gases are now well documented and the most widespread is carbon dioxide (CO2). The second most damaging is methane, 21 times more damaging than CO2 and which remains in the atmosphere for up to 15 years. Nitrous oxide is the third culprit, has 296 times more global warming potential than CO2 and retains its effect for 114 years.
In 2006, the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) spelt out animal agriculture’s contribution to these emissions in a breath-taking report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. They didn’t pull their punches:
“Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale… The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”
It then set out the detail, backed by more than 600 scientific references. As far as global warming is concerned, livestock are the second biggest cause, producing 18 per cent of all greenhouse gases. Compare this with the 13.5 per cent from the world’s different forms of transport – trains, boats, planes and cars. According to the UN, aircraft on their own contribute just three per cent.
A vegan driving a walloping great fourtrak is less damaging to the world than a meat eater riding a bike! With animals, CO2 is only part of the problem and comes from farm equipment, heating, ventilation, processing equipment and burning felled forests. Vast amounts of methane are produced by the digestive processes of ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats. Animal manure, along with nitrogen-based fertilisers used to grow fodder, produce nitrous oxide.
Across the globe, cattle are the animals of choice, essential to supply the insatiable hamburger demand that has overtaken the world. However hard multinational burger chains try to present themselves as greener than grass, the damage their product has caused – and is still causing – is profound.
And before you decide to switch to eating a different animal, all are highly damaging, it’s just a question of degree.
Seventy per cent of cleared Amazon rainforest land is now used for grazing cattle; most of the remaining 30 per cent is used to grow soya as fodder. It is the high-protein animal feed of choice and Europe imports a staggering 18 million tonnes of the stuff every year. It follows that every piece of meat that’s scoffed plays a part in this rape of the forests and spurs on global warming.
Rainforest soil is shallow and thin and animal agriculture quickly turns it to dust. Livestock farmers simply move on and more trees are felled. The richest habitat on earth made lifeless for profit.
How can a few animals have such a devastating effect on the globe? Because there’s a lot more than ‘a few’ – in fact about 55 billion are currently slaughtered each year and the number is increasing rapidly – although not in the UK where meat consumption has started to fall. Viva! can take some of the credit for this long-needed development.
We live in an age obsessed with efficiency but not where animal agriculture is concerned. Livestock demand 70 per cent of all the world’s agricultural land simply because they are so incredibly inefficient. It takes 17 kg of good-quality vegetable protein to produce just one kg of beef protein and to a lesser degree it is the same with all other farmed animals.
Deforestation and desertification are bad enough in their own right but forests and soil constitute two massive carbon sinks that absorbs CO2 and hold it captive. These carbon sinks are being destroyed by livestock producers and so the Earth is becoming steadily less able to soak up carbon. This makes livestock’s contribution much greater than its 18 per cent headline figure.
Does it matter? You bet it does! The phenomenon that’s increasingly concerning climate scientists is ‘positive feedback’. The more the planet warms, the more methane that’s released from defrosting tundras and even from the seabed of the Arctic ocean – potentially billions of tonnes of it. Its release causes more warming which triggers more releases and so on in an endless spiral.
This is why action is so urgent. Scientific models which predict what’s going to happen appear to be highly accurate except for one detail – the timescale. Phenomena that were not anticipated to start until the next century are already beginning to rear their ugly heads.
And, sadly, it doesn’t end there. Other developing environmental tragedies we can blame on livestock producers are, according to the UN, water and air pollution, the massive overuse of fresh water, antibiotic-resistant superbugs and pesticide pollution.
Viva!’s HOT campaign is leading the way in exposing the damage that eating animal products is doing to the planet.
Our 50-page report, Diet of Disaster, can be read on line (www.viva.org.uk/hot/dietofdisaster) or bought from Viva! for £3.50