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You’ve most likely heard by now that we’re living in a climate emergency. While none of us can know for sure what the world will look like in 10, 20, or 50 years, we’re heading for disaster if our current emissions of greenhouse gasses go unchecked, and a large quantity of those emissions are caused by the systems we use to produce our food.
As global temperatures rise, life on Earth is set to become much more difficult. The changes arising from climate change are also a social justice issue because people who have contributed the least to climate change, and the other animal species we share this planet with, will be the most affected by it.
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Climate change is real and is driven by human activity. We know this thanks to a vast body of scientific evidence that has helped to create a near-total consensus across the scientific community.
Climate change is a long-term shift in a location’s average weather conditions. While small changes in Earth’s climate can occur naturally, human activity over the past two centuries has caused an unprecedented rise in average global temperatures.
Climate change is one of the most urgent threats facing humanity today. The world we live in is around 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. Scientists say that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we would have to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
A 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, described by the United Nations Secretary-General as “a code red for humanity,” brought sobering news: even in the best-case scenario, we are expected to reach this average temperature threshold in the early 2030s. However, scientists are hopeful that if nations immediately start to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures could be brought back down to below 1.5 degrees Celsius before the end of the century.
Causes of climate change include any activities that release significant quantities of greenhouse gasses—including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses—into the atmosphere. In natural amounts, these heat-trapping gasses help keep Earth habitable, yet in their current high concentrations they are making the planet dangerously warm.
People in wealthy countries typically use far more energy, food, water, and other resources than they actually need. If current trends in consumption continued, we would theoretically need three planets to supply sufficient natural resources for the 9.6 billion humans who are expected to live on Earth by 2050.
The overconsumption of animal products is particularly unsustainable. Most meat, dairy, and eggs produced today come from vast, polluting industrial facilities known as factory farms.
Trees and other wild vegetation act as natural carbon sinks, meaning that they absorb more carbon than they emit. The world’s forests soak up around 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Protecting these ecosystems is therefore key to tackling the climate crisis.
Cutting down forests so that the land can be used for animal agriculture—the primary cause of deforestation in critical regions such as The Brazilian Amazon—releases massive quantities of stored carbon into the environment. Around half of all global greenhouse gas emissions from the Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector are caused by damaging and clearing forests.
Electricity, transport, and heating all require power, much of which is generated by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas). The combustion of fossil fuels for energy releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and is the primary source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The manufacturing of plastics, metals, electronics, clothes, and other goods consumes a lot of energy and resources. As a result, factories and mines are a significant source of greenhouse gas pollution.
Many stores, offices, schools, homes, and other buildings run on power from fossil fuels. In the U.S., office buildings are the biggest consumers of electricity and gas out of these nonresidential buildings.
From the minute an area of land is plowed to the moment when the food reaches your table, greenhouse gas emissions are released at every stage of food production. Industrially produced fertilizers are needed to grow crops, cows belch methane, and farm equipment requires fossil fuels. Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture are roughly equal to those of the transport sector as a whole. Regardless of whether or not they are locally produced, animal products have a higher climate impact than plant-based foods.
Many vehicle engines generate power by burning gasoline or other products made from petroleum (oil). Passenger vehicles traveling by road are the largest source of carbon emissions from the transportation sector.
Climate change is already having serious effects on the planet. Whether we are able to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or not, every fraction of a degree of warming risks making these changes worse.
Most of the excess heat in Earth’s atmosphere, which is caused by high levels of greenhouse gasses, is soaked up by the ocean. Each decade since 1958 has seen higher ocean temperatures than the previous.
As the ocean warms and ice melts, global sea levels rise dramatically. Between 1880 and 2020, average global sea levels increased by 8 to 9 inches.
As greenhouse gasses trap more and more heat from the sun, global temperatures are also going up. The decade between 2010 and 2019 was the hottest on record.
Worldwide, hotter temperatures are linked to the deaths of 5 million people each year. Humans are not the only ones affected. Heatwaves can also be lethal to farmed animals and wildlife.
In dry regions, rising temperatures cause greater evaporation, resulting in longer and more frequent periods of drought. As vegetation becomes parched, there is an increasing risk of wildfires in areas affected by drought.
Changing temperatures in many parts of the world are altering habitats and making it difficult for wildlife to survive. If we do not act now to curb greenhouse gas emissions, researchers estimate that around one-third of Earth’s animal, insect, and plant species could be lost to extinction by 2070.
According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the single biggest global threat to human health. Extreme weather events caused by rising temperatures can lead to injuries and early death. Other climate-related health risks include respiratory illness, heart disease, anxiety, and depression.
The hotter the atmosphere, the more moisture it can hold. As a result, storms and heavy rainfall are set to increase in frequency and severity. Extreme weather events that now only happen very occasionally could become commonplace in the future.
Extreme weather, drought, soil degradation, and rising sea levels caused by climate change are making it increasingly difficult for farmers in some parts of the world to grow crops. Prices are likely to rise, making food even less accessible to people in low-income communities. Cutting down on meat consumption can help food systems to adapt to the worsening effects of climate change.
Climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest communities and is forcing tens of millions of people into extreme poverty. It also leads to displacement. In 2020 alone, more than 30 million people left their homes as a result of extreme weather events made more likely by climate change.
The world has witnessed numerous examples of the effects of climate change in recent years. In 2021, deadly heatwaves hit western areas of the U.S. and Canada, while severe flooding devastated Germany and China.
Policy change is desperately needed, but don't underestimate the power of individual action. Making climate-friendly choices about what you eat, what you buy, and how you travel can go a long way in reducing your individual carbon footprint. Below are some steps you can take to help tackle the climate crisis.
Powering people’s homes accounts for around 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. If your home is powered by natural gas or fossil fuel-generated electricity, think about how you can reduce energy use or potentially switch to a renewable source of energy such as electricity from solar or wind power.
If you frequently take flights or long road trips, consider whether there are ways you could cut back on your travel, such as having a staycation or attending a business meeting virtually. If you feel you have no other option than to travel, think about going by train to lessen your journey’s emissions.
Eating less meat and more vegetables is one of the most effective ways to help fight climate change. According to one global study, giving up animal-based foods has the potential to reduce your dietary emissions by as much as 73 percent.
A separate study in 2020 found that swapping just half of all animal products eaten in the U.S. with plant-based foods could, by 2030, have stopped more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere. Following a plant-based diet made up of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds can also help bring an end to the factory farming of animals.
Try to only buy what you need and shop secondhand where possible. Before you throw anything away, ask yourself if you could use it for another purpose or recycle it. If you have an old laptop that still works or a T-shirt you never wear, consider donating it to a charity shop, selling it online, or giving it to a friend.
One way to reduce your household’s energy consumption is to seal up any gaps around your doors and windows to prevent heat from escaping. Other simple ways to save small amounts of energy include switching off all electrical devices when they are not in use and turning down the brightness on your screens.
According to a life-cycle assessment by the independent nonprofit organization the International Council on Clean Transportation, electric vehicles in the U.S. produce 60 to 68 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cars run on gasoline. As electricity becomes greener, electric vehicles are set to become more climate-friendly.
Households in the U.S. collectively throw away 150,000 tons of food per day. This not only wastes the food itself, but also the resources that went into producing it. For that reason, throwing away meat and dairy products is worse for the climate than throwing away plant-based foods.
Planning out your meals and only buying the food that you know you will eat is one of the most effective ways to reduce the amount of food you throw away. Swapping animal products for plant-based alternatives can lessen the environmental impact of any remaining food waste.
For people who can do so, walking, running, and cycling are the lowest carbon ways to travel. Because the energy that powers you when you pedal a bike comes from the calories you eat, people who follow a plant-based diet are likely to be more climate-friendly cyclists. Taking public transport also results in less greenhouse gas emissions than driving.
Climate change has the potential to be catastrophic but we’re not doomed yet. Taking action now rather than later will give us the best possible chance of avoiding the worst effects of global warming. While the climate crisis has no single solution, ending factory farming in favor of a sustainable plant-based food system is key to protecting the humans, animals, and ecosystems at risk from climate change.
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