Governments Aren’t Doing Enough To Stop Catastrophic Climate Change – Here’s What We Can Do About It

About a month ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC for short) released a dark, multi-chapter report, on the future of our planet. Pulling data from over six thousand peer-reviewed studies, and with the help of thousands of government and expert reviewers from over 40 different countries, they concluded that it is an absolute necessity that we limit climate change to <1.5° C of what they were during pre-industrial levels. Failing to do, they warned, would result in what has been dubbed “catastrophic climate change”. [1]

In order to keep global temperatures below a 1.5° C of what they were pre-industrial levels, we will need to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by the year 2030. By the year 2050 we’ll need to reach “net zero” emissions. As Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group 2 and 3 points out, “Limiting warming to 1.5° C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics”, but the official UN press release emphasized that that this would require “rapid, far reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

This would mean that even our most ambitious political goals – such us stay below 2° C of warming, as is outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement – will not be enough.
Though it seems small, a .5 difference in average global temperatures is fairly significant. A global average temperature increase of 2° C would lead to rising ocean levels, heat waves, and storms, roughly a third more intense or longer than a global average increase of 1.5° C would.

According to NASA, farming could take an even bigger hit. If we reach a 2° C increase in global temperatures, compared to 1.5° C, we will witness double the number of droughts. Many of what are now our most fruitful farmlands will experience a 50% decrease in productivity. A 1.5° C increase might actually be beneficial for framing in some northern regions, whereas with a 2° C level of warming we might become unable to grow wheat, and it would become extremely difficult to grow soy. [2] This would likely lead to mass famine, especially in underdeveloped countries.

The risk of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free during the summer would be about once per century if we limit ourselves to a 1.5° C warming. With a 2° C increase, that would happen at least once per decade. This would create extreme weather patterns on a global scale, cause the destruction of Arctic ecosystems due to animals like the walrus or polar bears dying off, and could displace many northern communities.

To make matters worse, some scientists believe that this could trigger something known as the “runaway greenhouse effect”, a dangerous feedback loop that runs the risk of not only accelerating climate change, but also of making it a force largely out of human control. Without large ice sheets to reflect sunlight, the Arctic Ocean would absorb large quantities of the sun’s heat. This in turn creates more water vapour, which is a greenhouse gas, trapping even more heat in our atmosphere. The biggest danger though, is permafrost melting. If a sufficient amount of permafrost melts it could release large quantities of methane gas stored under its surface. This would warm the planet even further, which would melt even more ice, and the cycle would continue. [3]

If we limit climate change to 1.5° C, 70-90 of the world’s coral reefs will disappear. This sounds bad, but at least that means that there will be enough for the coral reefs to regrow, when and if the Earth ever starts to recover. However, the official UN press release warned that a 2° C rise in global temperatures will mean that over 99 percent of coral reefs will disappear, making it a virtually 0 percent chance of recovery. The coral reefs are like the Amazon rainforest of the ocean. If they disappear 25% of all marine species will disappear with it, and who knows what that’ll do to ecosystems.

And that’s just with 2° C average increase in global temperatures. If the planet gets even hotter than that (and there’s a very real chance that it will [4]), than our climate will become exponentially more unbalanced, leaving our planet even more inhospitable.

WHAT WE CAN DO

If we want there to be any hope of the planet surviving we need to see this as a wake-up call, but not everyone interprets it that way. It’s easy to fall to feel powerless and fall into the trap of fatalistic thinking after hearing this news. I’ve heard a lot of people, after talking about how sad or scary this all is, go on to talk about how “it’s too bad we can’t do anything about it.” This is simply not true. So, I decided to write this article to clear up this dangerous misconception. We can do stuff about this. There are tangible, attainable, and realistic steps we can take to make a significant change on an individual level.

This is thanks to a little something known as the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle states that for any given system, 80 percent of the output usually comes from 20 percent of the input [5] (roughly speaking). It’s sometimes referred to as the “80/20” rule, which has become a popular buzzword in Silicon Valley. Examples of the Pareto principle are: 80 percent of the bugs coming from 20 percent of the code, 20 percent of criminals are responsible for 80 percent of crime, 80 percent income coming from 20 percent of sales, 80 percent of wealth is owned by 20 percent of people, or like Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is just showing up”.

So, it follows that it would only really take small lifestyle changes to make a significant difference in your carbon footprint. In fact, many calculations show that if you follow most of the steps I lay out in this article, you will reduce your carbon footprint more than 50%, use 1/11th less oil, 1/13th less water, and 1/18th less land. [6] This is all from making small adjustments to your lifestyle. No need to live in a mud hut or never fly in a plane again. The problem is people don’t know what these lifestyle changes are, and are stuck doing things that, while important, don’t make a whole lot of a difference, such as taking shorter showers or recycling.

WHY TAKING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY IS A NECESSITY

Some people, upon hearing that they need to make adjustments to their behaviour will get suspicious.  “Why should I change,” they ask, “when the majority of carbon emissions come from only a handful of corporations? Are the 1 percent deflecting their responsibilities by commissioning propaganda to put all the blame, on us, ordinary people?”

For the most part, that sentiment is true. Only a handful of corporations are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. (Which is in line with the Pareto principle.) I’m not excusing that. In fact, if it were up to me, the International Criminal Court would be trying all those CEOs and board members running those companies as we speak. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. If you want to start a revolution and take over the billionaire class, honestly, at this point, be my guest. But in the meantime let’s stop making these unethical business practices profitable by voting with our wallet. To do so is really only of minor inconvenience to us (if at all), and if we don’t, nothing will change.

Besides, to most of the world’s population, we, average middle-class people in the west, are those rich asshats ruining the planet. So let’s get our shit in order first before we start denying any personal responsibility.

Here’s what we can do.

VOTING

The political climate, in regards to Earth’s climate, is not looking good. Very few of the world’s major industrialized countries are on track for meeting their Paris Climate Goals. [7] Donald Trump, president of the United States – the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases – is pulling out of the agreement altogether. Brazil’s recently elected a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who promises to do the same. He also plans on increasing the destruction of the Amazon to make way for industry.

To top it all off, even if every country in the world did meet their Paris climate goals, it would only limit climate change to a 2° C change, rather than below 1.5° C threshold that is needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

Unfortunately, this is not very surprising. Polls have consistently shown, that in the US, England, India, and Brazil -all key players in our fight against climate change- the environment consistently fails to be considered a top political priority. [8In many countries, especially the US, the people who these policies will affect the most, young people, are increasingly choosing not to vote. So it’s clear that we need to get more young people to vote, and we need to make the environment a political priority while doing so.

However, given what’s on the horizon, this simply isn’t enough. As Debra Roberts, Co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 2 (IPCC for short) said, “these next few years are probably the most important in our history”. So we can’t waste them waiting around for countries to elect greener governments (assuming they will). Though it is absolutely essential we get our asses to the voting booth and even organize protests if necessary, it simply won’t be enough. We’ll have to do more.

TRANSPORTATION

You guys already all know this. Transportation accounts for 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. [9] Riding a bike and taking public transit are great ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Riding your bike is also really good for you, which is a bonus.

If you are feeling fancy enough, and you’re in a position to do so, it would also be a great idea to buy an electric vehicle. Not only will it reduce your carbon footprint, but also it will help bring down the cost and contribute to their popularity. It’s estimated that there are 1.4 billion cars in the world today, and that number is only increasing. Of those 1.4 billion vehicles, only 2 percent are electric. [10] This is bad news. The typical car stays on the road for an average of 11 and a half years. [11] This means that the transition to electric vehicles is inevitably going to be a slow one, so the faster we speed things up the better.

DIET

I’ll be touching on a touchy subject here, so prepare yourselves. I would like to propose that we eat more plants, as does the United Nations [12] and a host of other researchers.

“So my calculations are, that without using any gas, or oil, or fuel, ever again, from this day forward, that we would still exceed our maximum carbon equivalent greenhouse emissions of 565 gigatons, by 2030, without the energy sector even factoring into the equation. All simply by raising or eating livestock.” [13]
Dr. Richard Oppenlander, environmental researcher, author, during an interview in the documentary Cowspiracy

Many people don’t like hearing this, and I get it. Veganism has a PR problem, and you’re going to get resistance from people whenever you ask them to change their habits, no matter what it is.

However, we’re going to have to get past that if we ever want to make headway with climate change. The science is in: Animal agriculture is really, really bad for our planet, and to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you want to believe it.”

This is a simple resource management problem. In biology, there’s a concept known as the 10 percent law. It states that, as you go up each level in a food chain, you lose 90% of the starting energy. [14] So if a plant has 10, 000 J of energy, the animal that eats the plant will only get 1000 J, and the animal that eats the animal that ate the plant only gets 100 J, and the animal that eats the animal that ate the animal that ate the plant will only get 10 J of energy.

This makes raising and eating animals for food an incredibly inefficient way to feed ourselves. Coupled with the fact that livestock produces a ridiculous amount of methane and feces (methane is 25-100 times more destructive than CO2 [15]), it creates a recipe for disaster.

In 2006, the United Nations reported that animal agriculture is responsible directly responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is the accepted figure. [16] However, some researchers at WorldWatch have done assessments that suggest that animal agriculture is actually responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. [17] For perspective, the entire transportation sector is responsible for 13%.

Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. Things are going to get much worse if we don’t do something about this soon. Emissions from animal agriculture are projected to increase by 80% by the year 2050. [18] In comparison, another study projected energy-related emissions are expected to increase 20 percent by 2040. [19]
Animal agriculture plays a significant role in deforestation as well. A number of studies have suggested that animal agriculture is responsible for around 91 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction [20], with cattle ranching alone contributing around 70 percent. This is no surprise, as Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef. [21] So creating less of a demand for meat products will directly affect the rate at which the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed.

The Amazon rainforest has often been dubbed the lungs of the Earth, because it is the world’s largest rainforest (25 times larger than the UK), and accounts for a quarter of all land-based carbon dioxide absorption. Unfortunately, due to human activity, the Amazon Rainforest is now absorbing a third less carbon than it was a decade ago. [22] Slowing down, or even reversing amazon deforestation would be an indispensable tool in our fight against climate change.

A vegan diet requires about 1/11th less land use to sustain [6], which makes sense give on any given plot of land you can grow 15 times more protein by harvesting plants rather than raising animals. [23] In fact, according to research done at Oxford University, animal agriculture accounts for 83% of farmland. Their research suggested that if humanity collectively eliminated meat and dairy from their diets, global farmland would be reduced by over 75%. That’s an area of land equivalent to the EU, the USA, China, and Australia combined.[24]

Keeping in mind that the Amazon rainforest plays a large role in supplying the world’s animal food products, it’s more than fair to assume that a significant enough reduction in meat consumption would not only slow the destruction of the Amazon but cause reforestation. Not only would switching from animals to plants be much more land and energy efficient, but you would no longer need to grow feedstock to feed those animals.

The ICPP’s press release highlighted that reforestation, or some form of carbon capturing technology is a necessity in order to keep global average temperatures below a 1.5-degree increase. Unfortunately, carbon capture technology is in its infancy and has yet to be tested on a large scale. So putting the future of our planet in its hands would be a dangerous gamble. [25]

Reforestation is much more reliable and inexpensive, and the added benefit of restoring damaged ecosystems and preventing species extinction. It would be wise to consider reforestation our first choice.

OUR DIET IS THE FASTEST AND EASIEST SOLUTION

Methane, although a potent greenhouse gas, is generally removed from the atmosphere within about 12 years due to naturally occurring chemical reactions.
Carbon, on the other hand, is a different story. The world’s oceans absorb 65-80 percent of carbon in about 20-200 years, which causes ocean acidification. What’s left stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. [26It’s clear that reducing our methane emissions is one of the fastest ways to combat climate change, and the best way to do that seems to be reducing our consumption of animal products. Given the timescale we’re working on (reducing our emissions by 45 percent by 2030), lowering our consumption of animal products is a necessity.

Not to mention, eating more plants is, relatively speaking, an incredibly easy solution. Sure, starting new habits is always hard, but compared to switching to renewable energy it’s a walk in the park. In order to switch to renewable energy, first, we need to get the political will to make the change. Looking at how things are going now, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Assuming we eventually do get our act together politically, it would take us over 20 years to switch entirely to renewable energy, if things go well. [27] In comparison, eating more plants is something you can do today, and going vegan, or close to it, only requires a few edits to your grocery list.

Don’t get me wrong, we need to switch to renewables eventually, but we don’t have time to wait for that to happen. Changing our diets would act as a buffer, stalling climate change long enough for us to get our act together. Besides, we’re going to have to make this switch eventually if we truly want to reduce our emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and have net zero emissions by 2050. Again, to quote the official UN press release “These next few years might be the most important in our history” so let’s start acting like it. The future of life on Earth is at stake.

That being said, though it would be ideal, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go vegan. This isn’t an all or nothing situation, every little bit counts. Buying free range/organic won’t do much, as often times these products use more land. However, cutting out only meat, or just beef alone, would make a significant difference.

If you are considering going vegan, or close to it, I’ve compiled some footnotes at the bottom of this article with information on how to make the transition, at your own pace.

THERE’S HOPE

It’s not all bad news, though.

China, the world’s largest polluter though making extremely vague and modest goals for the agreement, pledged to peak their carbon emissions by 2030. However, some experts think they may have already peaked, over a decade ahead of schedule. [28]

India, the world’s third largest polluter, didn’t agree to very much for the agreement either. It said that other countries needed to shoulder more responsibility, due to the fact that they are still developing. However, it looks like they are on track to meet their goals 12 years ahead of schedule. [29]

Tesla Motors, despite having a few hiccups, has managed to break into the highly competitive automobile market while keeping their patents open. In fact, in America, they have outsold Acura, Audi, Infinity, and Mercedes-Benz. [30] Many other large automobile companies are following suit, and coming out with their own electric vehicle models.
In Canada, where I live, one of our most popular fast food restaurants, A&W, released a new veggie burger called the Beyond Meat Burger. It sold so well, that the franchise ran out of them nationwide and we all had to wait a few weeks until they had it again. [31] It’s not because Canada has an unusually high number of vegans. Non-vegans were buying it too, because, it’s indistinguishable from the real thing, it tastes the same, so why not give your health and the planet a few extra points?

Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, the founders of Twitter, and several well-known investment firms have invested in Beyond Meat, the company that makes the burger patties. [32]

You don’t need an animal to create meat. Meat is very understandable — it’s lipids, it’s trace minerals and it’s water. None of those have exclusive residence in the animal, so why use the animal to organize them?
Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat

Beef might become to beyond meat what dairy is to plant milk like almond milk; which more than doubled in market value since 2010, [33] and caused the sales of cows milk to decrease by 22 percent in ten years. [34]

Veganism is becoming mainstream. The number of vegans has grown 600% in the USA in three years, 400% and 350% in Portugal and England during the last decade, respectively. Google trends show a significant global increase in veganism in the past few years. Both the Canadian and Chinese governments have changed their dietary guidelines to encourage less meat consumption. [35]

We are heading in the right direction; we just need to speed up the pace dramatically. Humanity has proven, over and over again, that when we really put our minds to something we can accomplish anything. Hopefully, history books in the future will look back at catastrophic climate change as one of those times the world almost ended, but didn’t, like how we view the Cuban missile crisis or that time your mom tried to add you on Snapchat.

Let’s be on the right side of history, and make that happen.

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FOOTNOTES

HOW TO GO VEGAN

If you feel you can’t do it [be vegan] right away, and I would disagree with you, you can, but if you feel you can’t, then go vegan in stages. Go vegan for breakfast for three weeks. You’ll see that you’re not gonna die, your arms and legs don’t fall off, you don’t go blind, and then you go vegan for lunch for a couple weeks, and then you go vegan for dinner, and then boom, there you are. You’re vegan.
Gary Francione, professor at Rutgers School of Law and animal liberation activist

How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick

Check out Happy Cow, to find out which restaurants in your area are vegan-friendly.

50 Easy Vegan Recipes for Beginners

Is being vegan expensive?

How to Stay Vegan

Plant-based food are less calorically dense than animal-based foods. When you first go vegan you might need to eat a bit more than you’re used to to get the same amount of calories. As long as you’re eating a relatively nutritious diet cravings for non-vegan foods usually only persist if you’re not eating enough.

VEGANISM AND HEALTH

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
The American Dietetic Association

It does not require a lot of effort to stay healthy or be even healthier than you already are, on a vegan diet.

Check out nutritionfacts.org to learn more about the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Check out this list of every nutrient the human body requires, and a vegan source for it.

Information on vitamin B12.

Check out cronometer.com to help you track what nutrients you are getting while you transition if that is something that you are concerned about.

Check out Forks Over Knives, and watch their documentary.

Recommended reading:

THE ETHICS OF VEGANISM

“We all say we love animals, and we all are against animal cruelty, but we pay people to mutilate, torture and slaughter animals. And it’s not for any necessity. It’s not because we need to for our health. It’s just because we like the way they taste. ”
James Aspey, animal liberation activist

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Jeremy Bentham

Check out adaptt.org for a comprehensive overview of the moral arguments for veganism.

Check out Earthlings, a documentary on humanities treatment of animals. Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix.

Recommended reading:

MORE ON VEGANISM AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Check out this list, or this infograph, that summarize hundreds of studies done regarding animal agriculture’s impact on the environment.

UN Urges Global Move to Meat and Dairy Free Diet – The Guardian

The Most Effective Way To Save The Planet – Forbes Magazine

Check out the documentary Cowspiracy. It is available on Netflix in all territories, and the Netflix version has Leonardo DiCaprio as their as an executive producer.

Cowspiracy may be the most important film made to inspire saving the planet.
Louie Psihoyos, Oscar-Winning Director of “The Cove”

Copyright © 2018, Adrian Jones
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[15] Methane is 25-100 times more harmful compared to CO2, on a timescale of 20 years
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[20] Animal Agriculture is responsible for 91 percent of Amazon deforestation
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[22] McSweeney, Robert. “Amazon Rainforest Is Taking up a Third Less Carbon than a Decade Ago.” Carbon Brief – Clear on Carbon, Carbon Brief, 4 Feb. 2016.
[23] On any given plot of land 15x more plant protein can be produced than animal protein
Raw beef has a protein content of 95.34 g per lbs, beef is produced at 205 lbs per acre
Schwab, Denise; Smith, Margaret; Sellers, H. Joe; Munsch, Jim; Paine, Laura; and Gompert, Terry (2012) “Grass-fed and Organic Beef: Production Costs and Breakeven Market Prices, 2008 and 2009,” Animal Industry Report: AS 658, ASL R2684. DOI: https://doi.org/10.31274/ans_air-180814-675 Available at: https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/ans_air/vol658/iss1/16
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60 lbs of soy are produced per bushel, with an average of 52.5 brussels per acre. Dry soybeans contains 163.44 g of protein per lbs
[24] Carrington, Damion. Avoiding Meat and Dairy Is ‘Single Biggest Way’ to Reduce Your Impact on Earth. The Guardian, 31 May 2018, Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.
[25] Minx, Jan Christoph, and Gregory Nemet. “The Inconvenient Truth about Carbon Capture.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 31 May 2018.
[26] Clark, Duncan. “How Long Do Greenhouse Gases Stay in the Air?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Jan. 2012.
[27] “Infographic: How Much Would it Cost for the Entire Planet to Switch to Renewable Energy”. Inhabitat. 24 September.
[28] Guan, Dabo, et al. “Structural Decline in China’s CO2 Emissions through Transitions in Industry and Energy Systems.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 2 July 2018.
[29] “India.” India | Climate Action Tracker, 2018.
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[35] Vegan Statistics: Why The Global Rise in Plant-Based Eating Isn’t A Fad. Food Revolution Network, 7 May 2018.

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