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The Climate Activists Who Dismiss Meat Consumption Are Wrong

Narrowly focusing on greenhouse gas emissions isn’t enough.

Illustration by Sarah Wilson-Austensen

Last month, the United Nations set off a furor in the climate community when it clumsily tried to raise awareness about the global problem of meat consumption. “The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the world’s biggest oil companies,” it wrote on Twitter. “Meat production contributes to the depletion of water resources & drives deforestation.” The U.N. then implored its 12.7 million followers to “eat less meat” because “every climate action counts.”

The tweet triggered meat industry spokespeople, government officials, and a few academics, who pointed to consensus estimates showing that the livestock industry contributes 15 percent of global emissions, while the largest oil companies generate considerably more. Influential climate scientist Michael Mann called the tweet “not true by any defensible accounting.” The U.N.’s social media team might have been referring to a recent report suggesting that the largest meat and dairy companies’ emissions are on track to overtake the largest oil companies’, or more aggressive estimates suggesting meat and dairy make up as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally when you take related deforestation into account. But the U.N. didn’t cite its sources and, rather than debate the matter, deleted the tweet.

The broader discussion of meat’s environmental toll—the two-thirds of the tweet that was indisputably right—thus disappeared in an uproar over a questionable calculation. You could not find a more perfect illustration of the problem with modern climate discourse. All too frequently, activists, politicians, and scientists reduce the all-consuming crisis of global warming to a question of greenhouse gas emissions: what drives them up, and how best to bring them down. The natural world and its nonhuman inhabitants are reduced to a series of models and equations.

The modern climate movement has many advantages over the environmental movement of decades past—aggressively targeting fossil fuel companies, utilities, and other major emitters while striving to address earlier environmentalists’ failings on questions of race and social justice, for example. But in other ways, the climate movement’s scope has narrowed, mainstreaming its message by rendering it more mathematical and anthropocentric—paradoxically, more consistent with the capitalist mindset that has brought us here.

The Canadian political theorist Will Kymlicka has called those who champion animals’ interests “orphans of the left.” They are also orphans of the climate movement. Despite a growing scientific consensus that animal agriculture must be massively reduced as part of a comprehensive climate strategy, many prominent climate advocates have resisted working meat and food politics into the climate conversation. Mann, for example, pilloried Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2019 for removing beef from its on-campus menus as a sustainability measure; he and his op-ed co-author, Penn State history professor Jonathan Brokopp, have called veganism “virtue signaling.” Progressive climate writers like David Wallace-Wells have responded to plant-based dietary guidelines by arguing that “conscious consumption is a cop-out.” Others have gone further, advocating giant fish farms, championing “low-methane” cows, or arguing for the expansion of animal agriculture in the global south.

Agriculture gets sidelined in climate conversations—reduced to a laboratory for emissions-reducing tweaks—in part because it emits less than the energy and transportation sectors. But the discomfort with discussing meat also reflects the climate movement’s shift, as seen with Mann and others, away from the language of personal “sacrifice.” Virtuous personal choices, the argument goes, aren’t enough to save the world: What’s needed is comprehensive policy, which voters presumably won’t support if they think it involves giving something up.

Whether history justifies this dim view of American voters is debatable. But one thing is certain: If the politics of climate change reject the need for personal sacrifice from voters, then someone or something else has to be sacrificed instead.

Today’s climate pragmatism offers a frustratingly narrow vision of reform. Rather than challenging the instrumental view of nature that led us to this pre-apocalyptic moment, it asks us to imagine a world much the same as our current one, minus the climate change. That’s grim news for the other species with whom we share this beautiful, fragile planet.

From the 80 billion land animals and trillions of sea creatures killed annually for food, to unchecked deforestation displacing habitats and migrations routes, to biodiversity loss and accelerating rates of extinction, the Anthropocene has made the world hell for earth’s other inhabitants. Rapacious consumption by the world’s wealthiest humans has driven countless ecosystems into disorder. Runaway climate change may drive one out of every three plant and animal species to extinction over the next 50 years.

Australia, whose minister for agriculture condemned the U.N.’s tweet as “unfair and irresponsible,” perfectly illustrates this history (although it’s hardly alone). The land down under, built on coal, cattle hides, and violent imperialist land grabs, today is one of the world’s leaders in live-animal exports and the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. Ninety percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been lost to bleaching from warmer water temperatures. Recent wildfires, exacerbated by climate change and the use of poor land management instead of proven Aboriginal fire control techniques, killed or displaced close to three billion animals, in addition to killing over 30 people and causing at least $2 billion in property damage and lost business.

These are predictable results of conscious political choices about how to produce energy and food—part of a history of capitalist expansion rooted in the exploitation of land, animals, and vast swaths of humanity. Today’s climate advocates are eager to tackle the energy and social justice issues. But food is a sensitive subject: The main way most people interact with animals is by eating them.

The promise of sacrifice-free climate policy might seem like a smart public relations tactic, but in truth, a low-carbon world will require some degree of “eco-austerity” and checks on affluent consumption in particular. Instead of asking what that might mean for daily diets and challenging the broader ideology of consumer freedom that helped take us to the brink, climate advocates seem increasingly focused on implausible workarounds.

The climate carnivores’ analysis of the beef industry—which contributes 6 percent of all global greenhouse gases before you even get to the carbon released when forests are cleared for grazing—has been, to quote Mann again, “We don’t need to ban burgers; we need climate-friendly beef.” In the service of this goal, a growing chorus has cheered so-called regenerative grazing, which advocates claim can make beef and dairy production carbon-neutral. A scientific cottage industry has also sprung up to reduce conventionally produced cows’ methane emissions, leading even progressive climate champions to suggest growing algae monocrops for cow food.

But claims of carbon-neutral beef are disputed, and even if such beef were possible, it probably couldn’t be scaled, since it requires much more land. Carbon-neutral doesn’t mean environmentally friendly, either. Even relatively low-impact grazing has historically led ranchers to exterminate other animal species, including wolves. Nor does carbon-neutral beef address the other problems identified in the U.N.’s deleted tweet: Cattle and their feed crops like soy are major drivers of global deforestation. Through fertilizer and manure run-off, they pollute waterways, causing ecosystem destruction downstream, such as the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s not to mention the meat industry’s role in breeding superbugs, the noxious politics that force workers into Covid-infested slaughterhouses, or the industry’s pervasive cruelty toward the animals themselves.

Replacing beef with chicken or fish might be enough if you only care about emissions. But most of the nine billion chickens slaughtered in the United States each year come from confined animal feeding operations, where animals bred for rapid growth go from chick to slaughter in just over a month, living out their brief lives crammed wing-to-wing on fetid, disease-ridden factory farms. And the chicken processing industry has its own problems with pollution, and labor exploitation, and zoonotic disease. Increased fish farming, both offshore and through mass-scale, land-based salmon agriculture, isn’t the paragon of sustainability either, raising its own questions about pollution, disease, and the ethics of raising migratory fish in confinement. To suggest that better factory farms are environmentally desirable—or just—solutions is to efface all ecological and ethical concerns in the name of greenhouse gas reduction.

And it’s not even clear this is a good political strategy. Climate advocates defending burgers because they think it makes their messages more palatable might want to consider research showing that reducing their own carbon footprint increases the public’s support for their message. It’s true that climate change needs policy, not just individual actions, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that individual actions—and the norm changes they can lead to—are a distraction. This may be part of Greta Thunberg’s appeal, in addition to the obvious impact of a teen scolding adults for imperiling her future: As a non-flying vegan, she practices what she preaches.

So what might this more holistic version of climate politics look like? There’s a strong ethical and environmental case for eating entirely plant-based diets, where possible. At a policy level, eliminating factory farming—which could be paired with better food assistance and affordability programs and planned transitions for meat workers to less hazardous jobs—would reduce meat production, and therefore consumption, in the U.S. by over 90 percent. Not only would this help animals and reduce toxic runoff, but a plant-forward diet would increase our capacity for total food production and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the high-income countries most responsible for global warming.

Meat doesn’t have to disappear entirely. Cellular agriculture and plant-based protein will eventually offer an affordable mass-market solution if people insist on having cheap burgers. And in specific local contexts at small scale, we might still have animals in our food system without reducing them to mass-produced math equations: So-called agro-ecological farming, for instance, integrates animals mostly as providers of manure into diversified cropping systems. Indigenous land-management approaches, like efforts to reintroduce the buffalo in Montana, which combine cultural meaning with conservation and rewilding but include limited hunting, offer another path.

Embracing measures beyond emissions statistics would also allow the climate movement to reincorporate the rewilding and reforestation programs it has largely dismissed in recent years. While reforestation is the easiest and cheapest way of capturing carbon and creating healthier ecosystems, the debate about it has, like the meat debate, boiled down to whether it can do enough fast enough. Just as many climate experts argue cutting out meat won’t save the world, many add that reforestation won’t either, dismissing such proposals as distractions.

Of course, large-scale reforestation and rewilding are nuanced processes and don’t guarantee climate resilience. But they can give species and ecosystems a fighting chance. Even relatively small efforts at promoting biodiversity, like reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park, have shown that diverse ecosystems are not only healthier, but more climate-resilient, too. Preserving biodiversity and animal habitat would also benefit humans in numerous ways: Not only do healthy ecosystems help sequester carbon dioxide, but they also mitigate the risk of zoonotic pandemics like Covid-19 by reducing human-animal interaction and protect potential sources of new medicines. Beyond these benefits, there is an inherent, nonquantifiable value in building a world where other species flourish, where whales roam the oceans and bears roam our forests. If the environmentalists of old got anything right, it is this romantic vision of a politics of expansive caring—not just for our own species but also for the glory of the natural world.

Climate politics should broaden our horizons. Climate justice advocates have done that, fighting for low-carbon public housing, for example, as well as coastal conservation efforts that benefit poorer communities rather than just protecting the ocean views of the ultrarich. In doing so, they’ve offered powerful proof of concept: Climate campaigners don’t need to accept the mindset that nature is just a series of resources for us to use, or deny that some sacrifices might actually serve the common good.

We need to decarbonize and fight the oil giants. But we can also think bigger, challenging the instrumental, utilitarian view of nature that brought us to this point. Radical new imaginaries of a less anthropocentric earth hold out the promise that if we do manage to save the world, we will have built a world worth saving.