RANT: Climate change, Copenhagen, and why vegans should give a shit  »

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard something about the climate conference in Copenhagen this week. The media declared it a failure before the conference even started, but leaders from all over the world are, at the time of this writing, still meeting to figure out how to stop the world from drowning/boiling to death. They may have even reached a meaningful but still incomplete deal to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C, thanks to some down-to-the-wire discussions between President Obama and China, India and Brazil. (Obama was reported as having “bursted into” the closed door meeting of developing nations in “a dramatic moment,” which sounds like he literally kicked the door down and pushed over the conference table, but what really happened was probably not quite so cinematic.) And while even the incomplete deal won’t result in a legally binding treaty, nations will have plenty to get started on, so they can wrap up negotiations for next year’s sequel in Mexico City. It is, believe it or not, significant progress.

The goal of the conference was to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol with a new agreement that would cut greenhouse emissions by 80 percent before 2050. And for all the drama over how to meet that 80 percent cut, many climate activists are warning that even 80 percent may not even be enough. Yikes.

But it’s like this: imagine getting your entire family around a dinner table and starting a political debate about guns or welfare, or arguing about whether or not people should eat animals. No one will agree, tempers will flare, and at least one of you will storm out of the room or clam up for the rest of the night. Now take that and imagine the same thing except with 194 different nations, each with their own priorities and political systems, all trying to protect their own interests while debating how to fundamentally change their economies from top to bottom. You get every divide imaginable: left vs right, oil producing vs oil consuming, Europe vs America vs China vs. the ghost of George W. Bush, and the stickiest of all, rich countries vs. poor countries. Poor countries see climate change as something that rich countries are doing to them, while rich countries are skeptical of shoveling aid money to poor countries to adapt. And if you’re from a low-lying island nation like Tuvalu, it’s you vs everyone else, because your country will literally submerge if sea levels keep rising. That no one has stormed out of the room (well okay, some nations really did storm out—but they came back) is remarkable.

What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
But what does any of this have to do with veganism or animal rights? Plenty. Climate change isn’t just for the Prius-Ecorazzi set. There’s plenty for animal lovers to care about. Habitat loss and extinctions just for starters. Or changes to how we use farmland, whether or not we stop clear cutting forests, whether or not nations continue to produce more and more meat, and problems like oil spills that kill birds right here in the San Francisco Bay.

The bottom line, if you care about animals, then you care about all animals, not just kittens and puppies and cows and chickens. (Though we still love them too.) The right of wild animals to just keep on living is also an animal right, and that’s why climate is so freakin’ important. Sold yet?

Okay, then how about this. Fighting global warming and fighting factory farms are the same fight. A 2006 study pegs livestock at 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. 18 is a lot of percent! It’s roughly the same amount as all of transportation. If people stopped eating meat overnight, that would be the same as taking every car off the road and every airplane out of the sky. While we’re not going to get the entire world to stop eating meat by 2050, if we’re going to hit that 80 percent, we’ll need cuts everywhere, including factory farms. And it just so happens that cramming animals together in smaller and smaller spaces so they can get killed in larger volume and more profitably is exactly what’s causing rising methane emissions from livestock. That’s a huge opportunity for the vegan/AR world to join forces with the climate movement.

PETA: bringing a knife to a chess match?
PETA has, to some extent, capitalized on this, by pointing out that cutting meat would be as good for the environment as cutting all of transportation. But, in typical PETA style, they’re missing the big picture while making enemies in the process. Cutting meat by itself isn’t anywhere near enough. And, unfortunately, it sends the message that driving your Hummer is all cool as long as you stop eating meat. Nothing could be further from the truth. A vegan world would be only 18 percent of the way there. If we’re going to save animals (and human animals) from the effects of climate change, we’re going to need much more than a pack of noble vegans resting on their laurels. And don’t expect that message from PETA. They’ve been busy making common cause with environment-hater Glenn Beck to mock Al Gore.

Al Gore, to his credit, is getting the message about meat, but all this does is point out the limits of “personal responsibility. Global warming is a global problem, not a personal moral failing. Right-wingers love to fixate on this by harping on individual hypocrisy, because it pulls the conversation away from the need for collective action—collective action, like what’s wrapping up in Copenhagen, is what frightens right wingers and climate deniers the most. You say “collective” and they hear “OMG SOCIALISM”—is it any wonder why they’re trying to change the subject to Al Gore’s dinner?

Real climate action is about upgrading how civilization works, not about how awesome and moral you are in the broken civilization we have now. So what about all that stuff like changing out your light bulbs and biking to work? Yeah that stuff is great, and you should do it. Trade in your car for a bike, or a MUNI pass, or a seat in a carpool, save some cash with more efficient lighting, take shorter showers, etc. You probably know what you’re doing already, and you don’t need yet another green nag telling you what you already know. If it’s practical to make those changes and you can afford it, then what are you waiting for, do it now. But the biggest green bang for your buck is the messy and unsexy work of collective action, like hounding your representatives in Congress, changing how businesses run or starting better ones, and just good old fashioned public persuasion.

Saving the forests for the trees
The biggest victory this week is an agreement to, essentially, save all forests on earth. The agreement is based around REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, which stops deforestation by paying countries to leave their forests standing. If it sounds like just throwing money at the problem, it is. But if the agreement sticks, it’ll create a massive mega-fund to stop deforestation. Some of it will be paid into by polluters that can’t or won’t reduce greenhouse emissions, by allowing them to purchase credits. This has two effects: it saves forests, which capture CO2 and keep warming in check, and it saves the habitats of animals who live in the forests. Yes, even Bambi and Thumper.

Let that sink in for a moment. We just reached an agreement to save all the forests on earth. The hard part will be getting that agreement to stick, and it’s going to need ongoing support, especially from people in rich countries (that’s us) who might start feeling squidgy about throwing money at poor countries to basically do nothing. But the reality is that trees have a cash value, and poor countries are not going to give that up, not unless we pay them to leave their forests alone. Legalized bribery? Neoliberal market economics gone wrong? Whatever you want to call it, saying “pretty please” isn’t going to save forests, but tens of billions of dollars just might.

Another side effect? Less clear cut rainforest = less land for grazing + less land for growing feedstock for cattle. Not bad for a week’s work.

The enemy of Sarah Palin is my friend
Still not convinced climate is an AR issue? Just ask the polar bears, or the 1 million or more species at risk of extinction due to climate change. And if we can get rid of oil through a climate change agreement, we can avoid endless repeats of the Cosco Busan spill that killed tens of thousands of birds. Or ask the birds that die with plastics in their stomachs what they think of petroleum products. I mean, assuming you speak bird. Or polar bear. Or ghost-bird.

Here’s the thing. Our best chance to fight for animal issues like deforestation and factory farms is to stop looking at these issues in silos, and to also fight for them in the broader context of climate. Policies like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes seem dry and boring, but going after factory farms by going after greenhouse gas emissions will be one of the most powerful tools we have. And if we solve all the other stuff, like heating, lighting, manufacturing, driving, and flying, we can save animal habitats and avoid mass extinctions. Mentos!

Seriously guys, the world is fucked and it’s going to take more than sniping about Al Gore’s steak dinner to unfuck it. So expect a lot of media chatter about whether or not Copenhagen went far enough, or whether the conference was a sham, or who flew their staff in a private plane to the conference, or whatever. Progress is progress, and for the first time, America and China are finally on board. This is the time to step it up.


Photo credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times.

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