Earth Day Warning: The Link Between Meat Eating and Climate Change

Posted on April 18, 2007

Q&A With ALDF’s Future of Animal Law Conference Keynote Speaker Jeremy Rifkin 

From Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth to headline news stories across the nation, global warming is the hot issue this Earth Day. But it may surprise you to hear that the United Nations has identified animal agriculture as the largest single contributor to global warming. According to a new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock generate a whopping 18 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions–that’s even more than the gas-guzzling transportation industry.

The more than 300 attendees at ALDF’s March 2007 Future of Animal Law conference at Harvard Law School heard Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, deliver a keynote address on the devastating role factory farms are playing in the climate change crisis. Rifkin, who is the author of seventeen books on the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society, and the environment, identified agriculture’s role in global warming as the critical nexus between the animal rights and environmental movements.  

Jeremy Rifkin has been influential in shaping public policy in the U.S. and around the world. He has testified for numerous congressional committees, has a monthly column on global issues that appears in many of the world’s leading newspapers, and is a frequent guest on television programs including CNN’s Crossfire, Face the Nation, Larry King Live, 20/20, and Good Morning America. Mr. Rifkin took some time to answer a few questions for ALDF about vegetarianism and safeguarding the future of the Earth and all its animals.

ALDF: In your book Beyond Beef, which was first published in 1992, you argued that the mass production and consumption of cattle is responsible for significant environmental devastation, certain human diseases (heart disease, cancer, strokes) and global warming. What impact has this had on public policy?

JR: None in relation to climate. However, the book focused attention on the Amazon rainforest; there’s been discussion of habitat loss.

It is astounding when you think about the importance of this issue. The fact that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture (FAO) report lists livestock-raising as the largest single contributor to global warming is an eye-opener. It is astounding and shameful that it has not been reported by the media.

I was recently at a conference in Paris organized by French President Chirac, calling for the creation of a stronger agency within the U.N. to police nations that pollute the planet. I was invited to come and share solutions. They were talking about climate change and transportation, but no one raised the issue of raising livestock.

When I addressed the assembly, I said, “Isn’t it remarkable that there has been no discussion about the impact of raising animals for food? Perhaps we should be paying the same attention to capping livestock and meat consumption as we do with regards to a gas tax.” You could hear a pin drop.

The animal rights movement has a tremendous responsibility and challenge. You should be moving full tilt into the climate change debate. There is nothing more important than the future of the biosphere that all species live on.  

ALDF: Americans love their steak and hamburgers. How can we convince Americans to move away from this unhealthy reliance on beef?

JR: Get the facts out to them. If I had a wish list, it would be for the animal rights movement to come after the global warming issue with a vengeance: educational campaigns, protests, etc. This issue puts the animal rights movement squarely in the middle of the environmental movement for the first time. The UN’s message is enormous. If the animal rights movement doesn’t take up this issue, who will?

ALDF: Has your focus on the connection between meat consumption and climate change convinced you, personally, to become a vegetarian?

JR: I’ve been a vegetarian since 1977. I’ve not eaten any fowl or animal meat.  My wife, Carol Grunewald, comes out of [the Humane Society of the United States].

ALDF:  What message do you want our conference attendees and readers to walk away with?

JR: This is a moment for the animal rights community to go to the next stage of its development and to claim leadership in raising the critical correlation between climate change and the meat industry. If we’re looking at mass extinction of creatures in the wild because of climate change, why wouldn’t the animal rights movement address that? Our society must catch up with the reality of where we are. Because the animal rights movement understands this connection, you can help educate the environmental community and the larger public. I would like to see governments setting a target on reducing meat consumption, just as we do with educating ourselves on use of energy in the home or on transportation issues. We are way behind, and we have to become more aggressive.

Did you miss ALDF’s Future of Animal Law conference? Check out a clip from Jeremy Rifkin’s keynote address below.

The Future of Animal Law 2007 is available on DVD at our online store!