Well, this kind of deflates whatever bubble of green-y optimism you might have had after Earth Day (if, in fact, you experienced any such bubble): The Earth’s atmosphere appears poised to surpass carbon dioxide levels it has not seen in over 2.5 million years.
The amount of carbon dioxide fluctuates somewhat around the globe, but as the Los Angeles Times reports, scientists are alarmed that levels of 400 parts per million are being recorded regularly in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, “far from major pollution sources.”
So what did the planet look like the last time carbon levels started to get this high? “Scientists estimate that average temperatures during the Pliocene rose as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea levels during that 2.8-million-year epoch ranged between 16–131 feet higher than current levels.”
What does all this have to do with food? Well, this click-friendly headline at AlterNet proved irresistible: “Would You Give Up Eating Hamburgers to Stop Climate Change?”
It’s a tease, of course. I’ll just fess up right now that if you stop eating hamburgers, it’s not going to stop climate change. But having written about environmental issues, including global warming, for several years now, I sympathize with the overeager editor who slapped that puppy on there: It’s hard to get people to pay attention to stories about climate change, even good, well-meaning, environmentally conscious, bring-your-own-bags-to-the-grocery-store folks.
The story that follows the AlterNet headline overreaches by a fair degree too. Writer David Sirota asserts: “The fastest way to reduce climate change shouldn’t seem impossible, because it requires no massive new investments, technological breakthroughs or long-term infrastructure projects…it just requires us all to eat fewer animal products.”
As if any solution to climate change lends itself to a “just”...
Sirota relies on a 2009 report by World Bank advisers Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang that asserts scientists have been underestimating the amount of greenhouse gas pollution tied to raising livestock—and underestimating it by a lot. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2006 that worldwide livestock production contributed 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Goodland and Anhang argue that number is more like 51 percent.
It should come as no surprise that both numbers are widely disputed.
Whatever the actual figure, the underlying point remains: Consumption of meat drives global warming to no small degree. Giving up hamburgers isn’t going to reverse it, but it’s a practical, tangible action we all can take (versus, say, all banding together one weekend to build a community wind farm). It may not make for the splashiest headline, but at least it’s news you can use.