Be the [Climate] Change You Wish to See

Don’t underestimate the ripple effects of small changes
Feb 2021
Civil and Environmental Engineering

“What were they thinking?”

That’s a common phrase we might say when we shake our heads at past generations for war, genocide, and slavery. As we eat our cheeseburgers in our air-conditioned cars while rolling past carefully manicured and fertilized lawns (otherwise called a climate change crisis), we might not think this phrase may one day be said about us.

“What were we thinking?”

During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting closures and stay-at-home advisory in the Boston area, I suddenly had a lot more time to slow down and think about other ongoing emergencies, including climate change. One of my housemates had been following a mostly vegan diet to reduce his carbon footprint, so I decided to try it out and see what it was like. I already did not eat beef---but did so for a more selfish reason: it repulsed me. I was vaguely aware that meat production and consumption were especially damaging to the environment, but I waved those concerns away as a necessary part of life for the sake of convenience and comfort. As Al Gore puts it, climate change is truly an “inconvenient truth.”

Trying out veganism led me to want to learn more about the environmental footprint of the agricultural industry---that and watching Cowspiracy one night with a group online (while coincidentally wearing a shirt from a creamery with a drawing of a cow on it). Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Thirty-six percent of calories in crops go to feeding livestock, and 12% of those calories arrive on your plate. Further, the World Resources Institute researched the greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein for various types of food. Their resulting “Protein Scorecard” does not discretize each type into the location or farming technique, but provides a comprehensive overview:

The chart above suggests that humans can get enough protein (probably less than you think) from non-meat sources for less financial and environmental cost. However, it can still be difficult and expensive to get the full needed amount of Vitamin B12 and proteins from non-meat sources. After I started to suffer dizzy spells possibly related to early anemia, I began to occasionally eat chicken and seafood and eggs. While the disastrous consequences of climate change demand a commitment to a reduction in meat consumption, this should not necessarily be an instantaneous all-or-nothing endeavor.

When you hear “non-meat,” you may automatically wince and think of tofu, visualizing bland rubbery cubes. Tofu is versatile and has a place in a wide variety of recipes, however, and there is a lot more than tofu out there. Over the past ten months, I have eaten all kinds of vegan dishes -- tofu cocoa mousse, seitan (which I had never heard of before), as well as jackfruit “crab” cake, veggie burgers, veggie crumbles, and veggie hot dogs. I also ate vegan ice cream. I have drank oat, nut, flaxseed, and coconut milk.

With that said, meat (and dairy) substitutes still have their own carbon footprint. For example, while 80% of soybeans grown on deforested land in the Amazon basin goes to livestock feed, your tofu or other meat substitute may come from there as well. There is a growing movement to buy locally grown and transported foods, but the climate change impacts may not be as significant as you think. One study found that food production makes up 83% of greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural industry, while transportation makes up 11% and retailing makes up 5%. On the other hand, some benefits to “buying local” include contributing more to local communities and economies and likely supporting more sustainable farming practices that reduce nutrient pollution. In other words, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to how to buy food to minimize environmental impact, but a commitment to reducing meat consumption will contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.

But is my personal reduction in meat consumption really making a tangible difference? Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy for me (and likely everyone else) to be cynical as crises and despair keep piling up. It seems there’s nothing we can do individually about them. Meanwhile it feels like climate change does not have a large impact on the time scale of days in which we live out our lives. Consider the privilege of being able to complacently ignore or deny climate change. In general, communities already suffering the most from climate change, which has benefited developed countries the most, will suffer disproportionately more as the climate crisis continues.

The responsibility to respond falls heavily on governments and corporations, but also on individuals as voters and consumers. It feels more comfortable to band together and lay the full blame on faceless entities, but they depend on and profit off of our shared way of life. It feels more comfortable to say that small lifestyle changes done by individuals will have little effect on mitigating the devastating effects of climate change. In one way or another, humans are social creatures, easily influenced by people we spend time with. Researchers found that social influence and norms can encourage others to change their consumption habits, without them fully realizing it.

Can we be open to learning from each other and trying new things? Many of our ancestors banded together to make sacrifices and hard decisions, often without being able to see the fruits of their labors. Can we together sacrifice some comfort and convenience to reduce our carbon footprint and sustain the earth for future generations? My housemate influenced me, perhaps I can influence you, and perhaps you can influence someone else. You have more power than you think.

Instead of scoffing at past generations and asking “what were they thinking,” we should be looking at ourselves and asking,

“What are we doing?”