Can climate catastrophe be averted? - opinion

The scientific consensus regarding climate threats is extremely strong, possibly unprecedented.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, in November. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, in November.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

The impending climate catastrophe that threatens all life on our planet is the most critical issue facing the world today. This article considers the seriousness of the threats, why they are likely to become increasingly severe and suggests an approach that can help avert this looming catastrophe.

The scientific consensus regarding climate threats is extremely strong, possibly unprecedented. Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists and virtually all the peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals agree that climate change is largely caused by human activities and poses severe threats to humanity.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, warned that unprecedented changes are necessary by 2030 to have a chance at averting a climate catastrophe. The organization’s latest warning in an August 2021 report was so dire that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called it a “Code Red for humanity.”

Every decade since the 1970s has been hotter than the previous decade and all of the 22 hottest years since temperature records were kept in 1880 have been since 1998. 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year worldwide. June 2021 was the hottest June, July 2021 was the hottest month and the past seven years are the hottest seven years on record.

The world is already seeing the harmful effects of climate change.

 DELEGATES CONFERRING at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow earlier this month. (credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS) DELEGATES CONFERRING at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow earlier this month. (credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

Glaciers worldwide are rapidly melting, threatening future food production that depends on glacial water for irrigation. Greenland and polar ice caps are also melting rapidly, raising sea levels and increasing the potential for future flooding. Coastal cities, including Miami, have already experienced sunny day flooding during high tides. Permafrost is also starting to melt, potentially releasing massive amounts of trapped greenhouse gases, which would greatly accelerate climate change.

There has also been an increase in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms and floods. Many such events happened during just a few weeks during the summer of 2021. California has been subjected to so many severe climate events recently that its former governor Jerry Brown stated that, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.”

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why prospects for the future are even more frightening, including:

The recent severe climate events have occurred at a time when the global average temperature has risen about 1.1 °C since the start of the industrial revolution, and climate experts project that this increase may at least triple to 3 °C by the end of this century, triggering far worse climate events.

Climate experts fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) could result in an irreversible tipping point when climate spins out of control, with catastrophic results.

Military experts are warning that there will likely be tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from severe heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events, which will make political instability, terrorism and war far more likely.

Israel is especially threatened by climate change. The Middle East is becoming hotter and drier than most areas, increasing the potential for future violence, and the coastal plain where most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located could be inundated by a rising Mediterranean Sea.

Clearly, averting a climate catastrophe must become a central focus for civilization today. Every aspect of life should be considered in terms of reducing carbon footprints. Among the many positive steps are shifting away from fossil fuels to solar, wind and other renewable forms of energy, designing more efficient cars, lightbulbs, and other items, improving public transportation, recycling and composting.

HOWEVER, THE approach that has by far the greatest potential to help avert a climate catastrophe is a society-wide shift toward vegan diets. Such a shift would have several distinctive advantages compared to the approaches mentioned above.

For starters, animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, in part because cows and other farmed animals emit methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with about 80 times greater potency than CO2 per unit weight. Even more importantly, a global shift toward vegan diets would dramatically reduce CO2 currently in the atmosphere to a much safer level by permitting the reforestation of the over a third of the world’s ice-free land area that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals.

Many people don’t realize that climate change is primarily a consequence of animal agriculture, in part because major organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have close ties to animal agriculture industries. Their estimates of the effect of animal agriculture on climate change have failed to consider several means by which animal agriculture promotes climate change, particularly the opportunity cost of not permitting reforestation of lands currently used for animal agriculture.

Systems engineer Sailesh Rao, PhD did this in his paper, “Animal Agriculture Is the Leading Cause of Climate Change,” published in the Journal of Ecological Society, and concluded that animal agriculture accounts for at least 87% of greenhouse gases.

An obvious response to these facts is to adopt a vegan or near-vegan diet and encourage others to do the same. Arguably, veganism is the future or there may not be a future anything like one we would enjoy.

Fortunately, it is much easier to be vegan today because of the abundance of plant-based substitutes for meat and other animal products in supermarkets and other food venues, some with the appearance, texture and taste so similar to those of animal products that even long-time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference.

In addition to helping reverse climate change, plant-based diets and agriculture have environmental benefits such as water, land and energy conservation; reduce the risks of heart disease, cancer, other life-threatening diseases, the risks of future pandemics and reduce hunger, and enhance food security and avoid the shameful, massive mistreatment of animals inherent in modern industrial animal agriculture. All these benefits accord with basic Jewish values and teachings.

If you aren’t already a vegan, I urge you to consider becoming vegan or at least sharply reducing your consumption of meat and other animal products. Future generations will thank you for helping leave them a decent, habitable and environmentally sustainable world.

There is no Planet B, or effective Plan B.

The writer is author of Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World; Revitalizing Judaism; Judaism and Vegetarianism; and over 250 related articles at JewishVeg.org/schwartz.