This Week’s Gut Check Column: The Meat of the Problem


By Ezra Klein

The debate over climate change has reached a rarefied level of policy abstraction in recent months. Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Upstream or downstream? Should we auction permits? Head-scratching is, at this point, permitted. But at base, these policies aim to do a simple thing, in a simple way: persuade us to undertake fewer activities that are bad for the atmosphere by making those activities more expensive. Driving an SUV would become pricier. So would heating a giant house with coal and buying electricity from an inefficient power plant. But there’s one activity that’s not on the list and should be: eating a hamburger.

If it’s any consolation, I didn’t like writing that sentence any more than you liked reading it. But the evidence is strong. It’s not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it’s that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global transportation sector.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Some of meat’s contribution to climate change is intuitive. It’s more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the contribution is gross. “Manure lagoons,” for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas — interestingly, it’s mainly burps, not farts — is a real player.

But the result isn’t funny at all: Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius. A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. “How convenient for him,” was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “He’s a vegetarian.”

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5 responses to “This Week’s Gut Check Column: The Meat of the Problem

  1. yesterday, in responding to this article in the washington post, a commenter on your blog there, (azprogressive) left a very special thought.

    the person said that one day, people would be as concerned with their suffering footprint, as they would be concerned with their carbon footprint.
    why do the hearts of people melt, when they see pictures of dogs and cats in shelters, and not feel the same kindredness with a lamb, a calf, a pig , a duck?
    and how can a person feel heartbroken over the abandonment of a dog, and yet, not flinch when they eat an animal that has been subjected to sadistic treatment and a life of no dignity? especially, when the mass breeding of those animals even endangers the health of the whole planet?
    a sense of entitlement?
    disengaging from a sense of personal responsibility?
    turning a blind eye?

  2. I’m sympathetic to the climate argument for eating less meat – but i don’t see any way to achieve that in the short run. a meat tax, if you will, would be disastrous politically…

    the question, then, is: is there any way to make the the meat industry less of a producer of greenhouse gasses? do grass-fed cows burp & fart less? are there methods of livestock agriculture that don’t produce so-called manure lagoons?

    in essence – what can be done to make the process cleaner, knowing that there’s no cultural/political will to impose changes to the system through the tax code?

  3. do grass-fed cows burp & fart less?

    I’m told by farmers around here and ranchers from the extended family that the answer to this is “yes, absolutely.” And it’s always been my understanding that the manure lagoon is an artifact of industrial agriculture.

  4. The only way to make a difference here is for us carnivores to insist on humane and environmentally responsible treatment. The meat industry has no incentive to listen to vegetarians, but it damn sure listens to its market. Frex, there are two burger chains here in Austin — Mighty Fine and P. Terrys — that serve only humanely raised beef. P. Terrys serves organic chicken, too. It’s not perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. Insisting that everyone become vegetarians is only allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

  5. Pingback: Answer: Potpourri « The Why and Wherefore

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