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Vegetarianism and climate change

image: Paco CT flickr/creative commons

A friend of mine recently wanted to know how I could be so involved with climate change and still eat meat, and it got me thinking about the structural changes we need to achieve in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.

I’m a carnivore, and I knew I was never going to become a vegetarian when I was driving past a paddock of spring lamb in Australia and my second thought after ‘cute!’ was ‘yum’.  While there are many things I am willing to change about my lifestyle to lessen my environmental impact, you can pry the bacon from my cold, dead hands.


Cute or yum? Or both? (Adam Foster, flickr)

If this is the case for someone like me, who thinks about, writes about and studies climate change constantly, how are we going to create the shift we need?

This is where we can no longer keep asking people to do the right thing (which doesn’t work anyway). This is where we need to harness the power of market forces through carbon prices.

We cannot keep using the atmosphere as a free waste dumping ground for all of the things we do. It would be unacceptable for everyone to just dump all their garbage on the street and expect it to be dealt with for free, so why do we treat our atmosphere and climate any differently?

If the price of carbon is included in the things we do and the stuff we buy, our consumption patterns will change. A poorly made $5 tshirt from H&M will no longer be able to be sold so cheaply, because its price will now need to reflect the amount of carbon that was emitted to source the materials, make the tshirt, package the tshirt and ship the tshirt to the store. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means we’ll have less crappy quality clothes and plastic junk taking up space in our houses and our lives. Also, you’ll probably look after the tshirt much better when you’ve had to pay the true cost of it, rather than the current artificially low cost.


Less stuff – it’s not a bad idea (Trey Ratcliff, flickr/creative commons)

The current problem with the carbon tax in BC is that while it’s great, it only includes BC and this allows many industries to export their emissions which they are planning on doing at a great rate. We also need to move our focus away solely from tailpipe and smokestack emissions and look at the carbon through the whole lifecycle of the process.

Additionally, we need to be doing this on a large enough scale to have an impact – the true cost of producing something needs to include the carbon emitted, but it will only work if applied across all markets to start providing an impetus for behaviour change.

In order to try and save a liveable climate for my generation and those younger than me, we need to leave 80% of the current known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. If we fail to do this, we will have gone past 2oC of global warming by 2050, which means my retirement is going to be one full of yearly crazy hurricanes, unprecedented droughts and extreme floods. Weird will be normal and the weather we now consider to be normal will be an aberration between disasters.

The only practical way that we can do this is to make carbon too expensive to burn, through reflecting the cost of putting more carbon in the atmosphere in the price nationally, and eventually globally. Unfortunately I don’t have any great ideas for how we can do this and get the world to agree on a price for carbon other than trying to create political momentum that forces leaders to act, which is difficult given the well-funded campaigns being run by the fossil fuel industry in defence of the status quo.


(Forest Gilbakian, flickr/creative commons)

In order to give up carbon, we need to make it unaffordable for everyone – not just people who care about the environment and want to do the right thing.

I may not want to give up bacon, but if I can’t afford it I won’t buy it.

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