Calling all Vegan Climate Scientists?

» December 9th, 2012

This piece came to me from Sailish Rao, whom many of you know from Eating Plants, where his work frequently appears. I’m grateful to have it and think you will find it to be a telling commentary in many ways. 

Note: I apologize for the misdirected links in what follows. Whenever I take content from my webmail and paste it into a post this happens. It’s a mystery, one that for now I’m choosing to live with. Anyone with advice on how to solve this problem is urged to come forth and save me from this frustration.

Here it is:

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little,” Edmund Burke.

The off-site social for the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Berkeley, CA, was standing room only. I was excited at the chance of connecting with many climate scientists who contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in particular, I wanted to find Vegan scientists to invite to the Veganic Summit that we’re planning next year.

There were none.

Thinking that perhaps such Vegan scientists did not attend the Fall AGU meeting, I wrote to a number of my contacts within the IPCC, but with the same end result:

None. Zero. Zilch.

In fact, Dr. Jim Hansen, the eminent IPCC climate scientist who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), is reputed to be such an avid meat eater that it is considered unlikely that he will ever become vegetarian, much less vegan.

It is clear that Veganism and the IPCC don’t go well together. The current head of the IPCC, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, was shouted down a few years ago when he suggested that the world should reduce meat consumption to address climate change and since then, the topic seems to have become taboo in IPCC circles. Witness the recent NY Times Op Ed contribution of another IPCC climate scientist, Dr. Ramanathan, on Short Lived Climate Forcers, wherein he highlights the methane emissions of rice production, but doesn’t write a word about the number one source of methane, the Livestock sector. Indeed, based on IPCC AR4 guidelines, the Livestock sector is responsible for at least 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as Goodland and Anhang have calculated, but the climate scientists who devised these estimation guidelines were blissfully ignoring these results at the AGU social. As typical scientists, they were deeply immersed in their own silos, but they were unconscious of the impact of their daily actions and the poor examples that they were setting.

I can understand climate scientists flying in airplanes to conferences or driving cars to work, because they don’t have the time to walk or bike the distance. But I cannot understand climate scientists deliberately choosing to put meat and other animal foods in their mouths when there are perfectly good, low-impact, plant-based alternatives widely available in every corner of the globe. In fact, even in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia, there are nuts, grains, vegetables and fruits available in supermarkets and there’s a Loving Hut franchise open serving organic, vegan food.

For me, watching climate scientists eat ham and cheese with crackers was like watching civil rights activists participating in a lynching or LGBT activists engaging in gay bashing. Is it any wonder that the general public is not paying much attention to their urgent messages on climate change?

Perhaps, Dr. Hansen really does have a lot of explaining to do to his grandchildren.


21 Responses to Calling all Vegan Climate Scientists?

  1. Karen Orr says:

    James Hansen does, indeed, have a lot of ‘spainin’ to do to his grandchildren.

    Hansen endorses destructive nuclear energy and dirty “biomass” incineration for electricity. He has even put his stamp of approval on specific “biomass” projects as he did on the biomass boondoggle, the incinerator for which is currently under construction, in my North Florida city of Gainesville. All it took was two incinerator supporters sending Hansen the biomass industry’s (American Renewables) pitch and he sent an e-mail of support through his assistant.

    On the climate and animal agriculture issue, however, Hansen has been quoted as suggesting diet change is the most effective thing we can do to lower greenhouse gas emissions. This Hansen quote is on Eco-Eating:

    James Hansen: There are many things that people can do to reduce their carbon emissions, but changing your light bulb and many of the things are much less effective than changing your diet, because if you eat further down on the food chain rather than animals, which have produced many greenhouse gases, and used much energy in the process of growing that meat, you can actually make a bigger contribution in that way than just about anything. So, that, in terms of individual action, is perhaps the best thing you can do.

    Here’s the Supreme Master video from which it appears the quote is lifted

    DECEMBER 23, 2008
    Top climatologist Dr. James Hansen calls for less coal and less meat to stop global warming.

  2. Jamie Berger says:

    “But I cannot understand climate scientists deliberately choosing to put meat and other animal foods in their mouths when there are perfectly good, low-impact, plant-based alternatives widely available in every corner of the globe.”

    So well said. I’ve been upset and baffled by this for a long time, too.

    At the beginning of every year UNC’s Environmental Studies department throws a pizza party for current and prospective majors. They get the greasy, cheesy, meaty pizza delivered from Papa Johns or some local pizza joint.

    After receiving the invitation email from the listserv for the third year in a row, I emailed two professors who I know personally and who hold high positions in the department, politely pointing out the hypocrisy. No response.

    I don’t know of any faculty in the Environmental Studies/Science department who are vegan. One of my professors told my class that he had insulated and sealed his house so tightly (to save energy) that the lack of air circulation started making him sick. Yet he eats animal products. It’s amazing how far people who care deeply about the environment will go before they stop contributing to the number one cause of nearly every environmental problem they study, lecture about, research, and devote their careers to solving.

    Livestock ag’s impact on the environment was the main reason I first went vegetarian, and again a (somewhat less) important factor in my decision to go vegan. I can’t believe there are so many like-minded, passionate students and faculty at my university (and elsewhere) who have not made this obvious connection.

  3. Jennifer Greene says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve been trying for years now, in my small way, to spread the word about the diet-climate connection—I’ve promoted “Meat the Truth,” distributed brochures from MFA and COK, and donned NAVS’ “Help stop global warming: go vegan” t-shirt.

    But my efforts have been piddly.

    What’s needed is a professional publicist, a high-profile spokesperson, a funding angel, preferably all of the above, who will help Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland get their message out.

    Goodland and Anhang are the World Bank guys who, in 2009, recalculated livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and came up with an even higher number than FAO’s figure.

    (See “Livestock and Climate Change” at Sources and Q&A are here:

    But I’m less interested in debating what the actual percentage may be, and more keen on promoting the solution-oriented message of their website, “Chomping Climate Change.”

    They’re basically saying that we need a new approach to fighting climate change, because we’re running out of time. Right NOW, we could be reducing consumption of livestock products, and regenerating forests.

    We should, of course, also be converting our economy to renewables, but that will take a lot of time and a lot of money. So in the short term, it’s urgent that we heed their pragmatic advice.

    See Dr. Goodland’s latest blogpost, in which he highlights the reasons why the food industry may be the key player in reversing climate change—at least in the next four years.

    Also, they created this 3-min video to explain the situation, especially to youth:

    Let’s turn this crisis around.
    Can anyone help get the CCC message out there? If so, please contact them via their site.

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      “One issue I have with the CCC video message is that around 1:45, it states, “So while we need to make other changes in the long run, these days we need to more simply replace at least 25% of today’s meat, eggs and dairy products with better alternatives,” which makes it appear as if individual substitution of 25% of animal foods with plant-based alternatives would suffice.

      Clearly, such a simplistic model is flawed. If I substituted 25% of my animal foods with plant-based alternatives, I still leave the impression that animal foods are something to hanker after and someone else, who’s currently not eating much, if any, of animal foods, will consume the slack. Overall, the consumption of animal foods will continue to rise, since two-thirds of humanity are still primarily vegan.

      Barring rationing and such government interventions which are utterly unlikely given that most world governments are in the hip pockets of the Livestock industry, the only way to achieve a reduction in animal food consumption is for the economic elite to make it cool to go vegan, for animal foods to become taboo among elite circles.”

  4. Sailesh Rao says:

    James, I think your TxState email is automatically adding the firewall components in the links. It may be an admin setting that you cannot change and the only way out may be to restore the original links manually.

  5. Sailesh Rao says:

    I believe that there has been a concerted effort to muddy the waters on Goodland and Anhang’s estimate in order to advance the Livestock industry’s agenda. If people believed the original 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) estimate from the FAO, which is 18% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions, they tend to ignore diet as an issue since 82% of the GHG emissions are elsewhere. But Goodland and Anhang’s estimate is that the Livestock sector is responsible for AT LEAST 51% of all GHGs, which makes diet the NUMBER ONE issue. If that’s the case, diet needs to be addressed to mitigate climate change, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

    However, if the Goodland-Anhang estimate can be poked at, it gives people the impression that there’s still a raging debate going on in the scientific community as to whether the real number is 51% or 18% or something else altogether. Then people shelve the diet question altogether mentally and continue with their current consumption patterns.

    This is why the ongoing efforts to muddy Goodland and Anhang’s estimate have been insidious and greatly successful. The way it usually happens is that someone would publish a “Sympathetic but Skeptical” examination of Goodland-Anhang, portraying themselves as a Vegan advocate, but a Vegan with the “integrity to be scientifically accurate.” Then they pull some numbers out of their butts and claim that Goodland and Anhang are wrong. Of course, Goodland and Anhang cannot defend themselves against myriad such butt-originated estimates and the “sympathetic but skeptical” scientific “expert’s doubts” stay in the blogosphere. Then these “experts” troll around claiming that since Goodland-Anhang is not widely accepted, we should just stick with the FAO LLS estimate of 18%.

    It is classic Tobacco industry tactics of sowing doubt about the science, with “doctors smoking Camels.”

    In reality, it turns out that the primary authors of FAO’s LLS estimate are all scientists in the pay of the Livestock industry. They work for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and had an incentive to preemptively low-ball the numbers. However, theirs was the first estimate and it came out in 2006.

    In their 2009 paper, Goodland and Anhang pointed out all the flaws in the LLS analysis and came up with a conservative estimate of 51%. However, I didn’t start using their estimate until the LLS authors had a chance to refute the Goodland-Anhang analysis, which they tried to do in a peer-reviewed paper in the Animal Feed Science and Technology Journal in 2011. When Goodland and Anhang literally tore their refutation apart in a peer-reviewed response at , I began to use their estimate in earnest.

    Now, I respond to anyone who questions Goodland and Anhang to publish a paper in AFST or similar journal and undergo a proctol exam from Goodland and Anhang before I can accept their “alternate” estimate.

    • CQ says:

      Thank you, Sailesh, for following the peer-reviewed paper “trail” and for ferreting out the livestock-industry backers of the FAO’s LLS estimate as well as for sniffing out the pretend-vegan attempts to dismiss Goodland and Anhang’s truly expert analysis and conclusions.

      It takes a lot of effort on your part to keep the devious “snakes” in your sights, track them to their dens, pull them out, and dispose of them. No offense to real snakes, who, unlike the trolls you describe, are too wise and harmless (toward those humans who intend no harm to them) to play a part in poisoning the earth they inhabit.

  6. tom says:

    Capper, J. L. 2012. “Is Vegatarianism a Solution to Reduce Emissions?” Climate Change Research Strategy for Primary Industries, eds. R. A. Cady and D. E. Bauman. Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Government. Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, p. 31–32.

  7. Fireweed says:

    Readers here may be interested in contributing to The Elephant in the Room is a COW! on Facebook. There has been some discussion on the importance of not overestimating numbers regarding the impact of GHG’s from animal ag, as illustrated by comments from Dr. David Steele, who is with EarthSave Canada. Please visit, and become a member if, after reading ‘About’ in the tool bar on the page, the purpose of the group is up your ally. Thanks!

    • Fireweed says:

      I have to add that I am offended by the reference to the efforts of Dr. Steele to shed important perspective on the numbers in the Goodland-Anhang analysis, as ‘unreasonable’. AND the implication that concerns raised are made by ‘psuedo-vegans’!

      I have known Dr. Steele as a devout vegan and committed animal activist for many decades, and he has contributed an amazing amount of consciousness raising on the topic for decades, even before his long association with Canada Earthsave. He is a highly respected scientist who is dedicated to raising consciousness about these very issues…. in a way that can be taken seriously! And that means that peer-reviewed studies are important!

      Even Dr. Andrew Weaver weighed in on the thread on this topic on the Elephant in the Room is a COW, and concurred with Dr. Steele that the 51% figure is a gross exaggeration.

      Fellow activist bashing does not lend credibility to the message that animal ag and climate change must be addressed as swiftly as possible!

      • Sailesh Rao says:

        There was a lot of ad hominem bashing of Dr. Goodland and Jeff Anhang on that “Elephant is a COW” thread, which I found to be truly counter productive.

        As far as I can tell, neither Dr. Steele nor Dr. Weaver are Environmental Assessment specialists, unlike Dr. Goodland and Jeff Anhang.

        The FAO assessment in Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006) is obviously incorrect and not just for the methane cycle error. It is a gross underestimate since it didn’t include many Scope 2 and Scope 3 contributions of the Livestock sector, per IPCC guidelines. To make matters worse, the FAO has now entered into partnerships with the Livestock industry as well:

        Therefore, for the reasons I cited above, I will continue to use the Goodland-Anhang estimate as the benchmark, since it is the only estimate that has undergone peer-reviewed scrutiny.

        • Fireweed says:

          Sailesh, the exchange on the Elephant in the Room is a COW thread includes disagreement with the Anhang-Goodland estimates, not rude name-calling and slanderous accusations. Ad hominem attacks are not tolerated there (please refer to the group guidelines on that page about removal of inappropriate postings).

          Also, anyone who takes the time to read the article Dr. Steele has posted above, will see that he has expressed his disagreement with the A-G estimates with diplomacy and tact, and appreciation for their good intentions. And he concludes with a revised estimate that the figure is indeed higher than 18%! As he has stated more than once in these recent exchanges, referencing the lower figure with confidence is a strategic choice.

          As for dismissing Dr. Weaver’s opinion out of hand as well, he may not be an Environmental Assessment specialist either, but he is also another scientist who has every right to have his knowledge on this subject respectfully considered. He was a lead author on the UN Environmental Panel on Climate Change, and has co-authored nearly two hundred peer-reviewed studies, written a book about climate change, and was also chief editor of the Journal of Climate for four years. Among many other accomplishments in this arena.

          Your conclusion that those who don’t agree with the A-G figures are somehow not in favor of the public understanding the import of the issue of livestock on climate change is simply wrong, Sailesh.

          • Sailesh Rao says:


            Please see my response to Dr. Steele below. As for Dr. Weaver’s opinion, I will definitely consider it if it is published in a peer-reviewed journal which provides Goodland and Anhang an opportunity to respond.


  8. David Steele says:

    While i am no climate scientist, i did make a good faith effort in critiquing Goodland and Anhang’s article a few years ago. Goodland and Anhang’s inclusion of all farm animal breathing in their estimate is the fundamental problem.

    Having been dedicated to bringing the most accurate information that i can to the public in my writings for Earthsave Canada, i find it disheartening and hurtful to be attacked in this way. I live an extremely simple lifestyle. I am vegan. I have no car. I do not fly. I am trying very hard to help make this a better world. Disagreement founded on different interpretations of the data should not lead to ad hominem attacks.

    This kind of attacking others is very hurtful and all too common in our movement.

    David Steele

  9. David Steele says:

    At Fireweed’s request, here is a link to the article i wrote that is in question. There are aspects of it that i don’t like… i was grossly overprecise, for example, in the numbers given the large error bars on the data, but it was a very sincere effort.

    • CQ says:

      I should have asked for links to the critiques and threads that were being referring to before adding my two cents. It is always wise to be silent when one hasn’t read both sides. Apologies.

      Dr. Steele, thank you for your important work with Earthsave Canada.

  10. CQ says:

    correction: “… that were being referred to …”

  11. Sailesh Rao says:

    Dr. Steele, I don’t know you and I’m sorry to have offended you. As a human, I’m always prepared to be shown up as wrong. However, here are your comments in the “Elephant is a COW” thread that triggered my construction of the situation:

    “I find them (Goodland and Anhang) malinformed unfortunately. These guys are shockingly weak in their understanding of the carbon cycle and they convincingly quantify nothing. I strongly suggest using the FAO figures and noting that they are a minimum estimate.”

    Having corresponded with Jeff Anhang extensively, I disagreed with that assessment of Goodland and Anhang and considered that an ad hominem attack on two reputable scientists. Also, Goodland and Anhang obviously quantified everything and with sources, which can be found at

    “animal feed science and technology, btw, has an impact factor of a bit under 2.4. Not exactly an indicator of a quality journal.”

    Herrero et al. chose to respond to Goodland and Anhang’s estimate in AFST, to which Goodland and Anhang also responded in AFST. It appears to be an appropriate journal to conduct the debate. Herrero et al. also declined to continue the debate in any peer-reviewed journal, including AFST.

    “And again, why not cite the lower estimates, point people to the highly credible – from the general public’s point of view – sources like the FAO and let them know that these are minimum estimates.”

    The World Bank (which employed Dr. Goodland) and the IFC (which employs Jeff Anhang) are also highly credible UN bodies like the FAO, while the FAO is now known to be in bed with the Livestock industry. I considered this to be an attempt to push the obviously low-balled 18% figure from scientists employed by the Livestock industry.

    Your article also contains arbitrary reductions in Goodland and Anhang’s estimates (for example, “In order to err on the side of caution, I’ll arbitrarily make a low estimate, 4%,” etc.)

    As I said in the Elephant is a COW thread, if you have a different estimate for the admittedly enormous contribution of animal agriculture to Greenhouse Gas emissions, please publish it in a peer-reviewed journal. This would give Goodland and Anhang a chance to defend their work before their peers, instead of it being subjected to unscientific, facile dismissals.

    Thank you,

    • Peregrin says:

      Sailesh Rao has a very strange view of how peer-review works. Greenhouse gas inventories are measured according to a set of conventions which are established by scientists working with the IPCC. Herrero et al. are correct in claiming that Goodland and Anhang are including things (e.g. animal respiration) that do not belong. As a consequence, what Goodland and Anhang are calling “emissions” are not the same emissions that the IPCC and other bodies following IPCC conventions refer to. (By extension, David Steele also includes things that are *not* included in official GHG inventories, such as unrealized sequestration potentials from alternative use of lands -e.g. converting pastures to forests or reallocating feed as biofuel feedstock).

      The AFST exchange was methodological and does not address some specific errors by Goodland and Anhang, including applying the 20 year GWP to only livestock, or adjusting emission figures for the year 2000 to incorporate subsequent increases in livestock tonnage from 2002 to 2009, without updating emissions for other sectors.

      Goodland and Anhang’s confusion may arise from an important but subtle distinction. Official GHG inventories attempt to measure the net flux into the atmosphere in a given year. Given issues around land use, the actual emissions from a given activity in a given year will not map 1:1 to mitigation potentials. If
      a farm that was emitting direct emissions is subsequently shut down and the land is allowed to revert to forest, in the IPCC accounting framework, the change will be larger than just the direct emissions, since the carbon being sequestered by the forest will be treated as a *negative* emission. Note however, that these are only measures when the sequestration potential is *actually* realized.

      The FAO is attempting an attribution of actual emissions rather than a measure of full mitigation potentials. I think Goodland and FAO are attempting to measure the latter, but unfortunately their accounting framework confuses the two. Their decision to only make adjustments for the livestock sector also creates a very strong impression that they are seeking to inflate their numbers.

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