Our planet desperately needs us—needs us to make changes. As we approach Earth Day on April 22, we must reevaluate how we each play a role in our collective climate impact and how we allow our system as a whole to operate. Most people contribute to climate change in a variety of ways, and this makes us responsible for mitigating our effects. Our responsibilities cover not only our individual actions, but also our role as members of a university community. This is not simple, but it isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Learning about the individual impact you have and educating others can inspire real and meaningful change.
Climate change will, unfortunately, result in many deaths in the decades to come. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050 approximately 250,000 additional deaths will occur per year due to climate change. And if you think climate change poses an existential risk to humanity, then you should also consider the future generations who may not get to experience the world. But we don’t need to look to the future to see the impact of our actions. For example, the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves have been steadily increasing according to research published in Nature. These heat waves can cause hundreds of deaths from heat stroke. While this doesn’t compare to what we expect in the future, there are still hundreds of families grieving and suffering unnecessarily because of what our species has done to the planet.
These impacts are not only in the hands of large corporations and irresponsible governments. The responsibility lies—in part—on people like us, who drive the demand for harmful products. The role our community plays is relevant as well. By influencing your community and leading by example, large-scale change becomes more tenable. A careless approach to our actions will lead our lives and communities to have net negative effects on the climate, and we must do what we can to mitigate this. The plus side is that it’s within our power to reduce our and our community’s impact on the climate. With that, one of the best ways you can curb your impact on the climate is to reduce your consumption of animals and animal products and encouraging the University to do the same.
You may already know, to a certain extent, that today’s industrialized animal agriculture practices are not helping the environment. But understanding how dramatic the negative impacts of factory farming practices are on our planet can put the problem into perspective. Grasping the real problem at hand, one that’s been kept carefully hidden by the meat industry, can allow us to more accurately assess how our actions affect the world and the unfortunate effects our behaviors will have on generations to come.
According to research conducted at the University of Chicago, switching from the average American diet to a plant-based diet can reduce your carbon footprint by around 1.5 tons of CO2 per year. This would prevent the creation of about 1.5 times more tons of CO2 per year than switching from a Toyota Camry to a Prius would. In fact, a person who eats a Paleo diet and rides a bike only does slightly less harm to the environment than a Prius driver. The biker is powered by meat, the car is not.
There are countless ways that animal agriculture negatively affects our climate. Perhaps best known is that animal agriculture is responsible for 37 percent of methane gas emissions. While that’s disastrous, many aren’t familiar with the relationship between animal agriculture and deforestation. All the protein and other nutrients in livestock come from plants. According to the USDA, over 70 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are fed to animals. As soy is a good source of protein, it serves as an effective feed for non-human animals. That being said, our intense use of soybeans has led to 25 million hectares of deforestation in the Amazon. This is why, controlling for calories, purchasing soy products leads to less soy demand than purchasing animal products. We are already growing enough food for 9.7 billion people; the only issue is that we feed much of it to non-human animals.
As I’ve stressed, our impact can spread beyond our individual habits to the policies and behavior of the University. Since the University feeds a large portion of the student population, adopting a program like meatless Mondays has the potential to significantly reduce the University’s climate impact. Such a program would represent the equivalent of one-seventh of the University’s on-campus students becoming vegetarian. This would advantage the student body, the University itself, and the future inhabitants of our planet. As members of the University community, we have a responsibility to make our voices heard in an effort to reduce their harmful climate impacts and lead by example. For this reason, I’d encourage readers to respectfully email email@example.com informing them of your support for such a program.
So where does this leave us? Some may argue that the good taste of animal products justifies the environmental impacts. Let’s see how this argument holds up when we consider it a different way. If a friend told you that they enjoyed the beauty of burning 1.5 tons of CO2, you would rightly discourage their behavior. Imagine if the same friend told you that they enjoyed stealing calves from their mothers in order to listen to the mothers scream in distress. This would clearly be atrocious. However, this is mainstream practice in the dairy industry, and most people don’t consider it cruel to buy milk. Perhaps we should step away from our selfish pleasures and consider the broader impact they have.
Lastly, many people are concerned about the health risks of reducing or removing animal products from our diet. This would be unfounded. According to the American Academies of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, a well-planned plant-based diet is suitable for all stages of life. Yes, this even includes pregnancy and infancy. They also contend that a plant-based diet is appropriate for athletes and may have a variety of health benefits. The internet is also filled with helpful resources to help you change your diets in healthy ways.
So, if we’re serious about diminishing the climate crisis, then our actions should follow. What then is your seriousness worth? When we live off electricity, gas, and animal products, our climate impact is sure to be bad and we have a responsibility to improve it. Reducing or eliminating the demand for animal products—and encouraging our broader community to do so—is one of the best ways we can reduce our climate impact. We can improve the world, but it will be the work of devoted individuals and responsible communities who do so.
Yair Atlas is a third-year in the College.