Environmental Groups as Climate Deniers

Most environmental/conservation groups are Climate Change deniers. Specifically, I am talking about the numerous organizations that give lip service to the threat posed by climate change, but don’t even mention to their membership the contribution that livestock production has with regards to rising global temperatures. While most organizations are calling, climate change the environmental issue of our time, they avoid discussing the contribution of animal agriculture in climate change.

It is one of those topics that is avoided in any climate change discussions. We hear about the need to reduce fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy.  We are encouraged to drive more efficient vehicles or insulate our homes. We are told to turn down the thermostat in winter.

Not that these ideas aren’t worthy of action. However, the single easiest and most effective way to reduce one’s personal contribution to global warming is to change one’s diet. Consumption of meat and dairy is one of the biggest contributors to Green House Gas Emissions (GHG) but few organizations are willing to even discuss this problem, much less advocate for a diet change.

Indeed, many groups advocate and promote ranching and animal farming, especially if it’s “local” as if locally produced GHG emissions are better than ones produced far away.

Here’s the problem. Livestock, particularly, cows and other “rumen” animals have bacteria in their guts that assist in the breakdown of grass and other forage. A by-product of this biological decomposition is methane.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and is far more effective at trapping heat than CO2. So, it takes a lot less methane to have a disproportional effect on rising temperature. Methane breaks down over time to CO2, but initially, its ability to trap heat is 100 times more efficient than C02.

This is an important nuance because the time factor affects how you view methane. If you use a 100-year timeline, the ability of methane to trap heat is only approximately 20 times greater than C02 (because much of the methane has been converted to CO2), but if you use a 20-year horizon which is far more meaningful in our current situation, then methane is far more powerful and destructive.

Any number of recent studies have shown that livestock contributes anywhere from 14.5 percent of global GHG emissions (in a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report) up to a World Watch assessment that includes more of the collateral impacts of livestock production estimates that as much as 51% of all GHG emissions are the result of livestock production.

And worse for the environment, many organizations promote “grass fed” beef and dairy as if that somehow negates the environmental impacts of livestock. Ironically, because consumption of grass and other “free range” forage is more difficult for rumen bacteria than converting higher quality forage like corn, silage, or soy into energy, grass-fed beef/dairy cows emit more methane over their lives than CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) produced beef/dairy.

This is not an endorsement of CAFOs, rather it demonstrates that meat/dairy consumption no matter what the source may be, is counter-productive if your goal is to reduce GHG emissions.

Either way what these studies suggest is that eating less beef and dairy is one of the dietary changes that anyone can implement to reduce the personal contribution to climate change. But most environmental organizations while they might be willing to fund campaigns like “keep it on the ground” or advocate for solar panels, refuse to discuss how a meat and dairy diet is destroying the global climate.

Another new study by researchers at Loma Linda University and elsewhere, have concluded that if Americans would eat beans instead of beef, the United States would immediately realize approximately 50 to 75 percent of its GHG reduction targets for the year 2020!

Even better a change in diet would free up a substantial amount of agricultural land for restoration to native vegetation. Nothing destroys more biodiversity than growing crops (for livestock feed) and grazing livestock. Since livestock is an inefficient way of converting solar energy into food, substituting beans for beef would free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation — a total of 1.65 million square kilometers or more than 400 million square acres, which is approximately 1.6 times the size of the state of California.

Of course, the problem of livestock goes beyond climate change. There are the associated impacts resulting from livestock production. The annual dewatering of western rivers to provide forage (hay, etc.) for cows. The pollution of water from manure. The trampling of soils and riparian areas by cattle hooves. The removal of forage that would otherwise support native wildlife. The killing of predators like wolves, coyotes, and bears to protect domestic animals. The litany of ecological impacts associated with livestock production is long and significant.

Despite the obvious benefits of a change in diet, we have many organizations promoting “sustainable” ranching, predator friendly ranching,” local” dairy farms/ranches or promoting ranching to discourage subdivisions (the condos vs cows debate) while ignoring the much larger problem associated with livestock production.  Many “health food” store promote “grass-fed” beef and dairy as if consumption is somehow environmentally beneficial.

It’s time for environmental/conservation groups to stop being climate deniers and begin to advocate for a change in our diets to help combat global climate change. One cannot be serious about climate change and still be a significant consumer of dairy and meat products.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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