The People’s Climate March

» September 21st, 2014


I collaborated on this piece with Kip Anderson, co-director (with Keegan Kuhn) of Cowspiracy

At this very moment, thousands of environmentalists are marching through the streets of New York. They do so to undertake what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “the biggest demonstration in the history of the climate movement.” The driving motivation for the first People’s Climate March is a fiercely grassroots message as inspiring as it is true: “movements can shift political power—in fact, little else ever does.”

History demonstrates that McKibben is correct—but with one critical caveat: the movement must be focused on the right targets. It is on this point that today’s march, for all its passion, could lead the environmental movement down a jagged path.

Modern environmentalism assumes that our ecological fall from grace began a century ago with the transition to fossil fuels. This assumption explains the movement’s focus on gas pipelines and university divestment from fossil fuel multinationals. While it’s certainly true that our reliance coal, oil, and gas remains endemic to our current ecological predicament, our original environmental sin is rooted in an older and more fundamental transition: the domestication of animals.

You often hear environmentalists claim that there are too many people on planet Earth–about 7 billion. Well, the industrialization of agriculture has culminated in a global agricultural system that annually domesticates and slaughters an astounding 70 billion land animals. Producing over 300 million tons of meat a year arguably represents the most destructive misallocation of natural resources in all human history, one that contributes disproportionately to the core issues that The People’s Climate March will address: global warming, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.

The most recent research on these issues pretty much ruins your steak dinner. We now know that at least 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to the production of land-based animals. Livestock are the leading cause of methane and nitrous oxide emissions—gasses phenomenally more potent than carbon dioxide. Scientists predict that the livestock sector alone might account for 70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions expected to raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees. If we allow business as usual to proceed, emissions from agriculture will rise another 80 percent by 2050.

When it comes to biodiversity loss, domesticated critters are equally culpable. No less than 75 percent of the planet’s agricultural land (30 percent of the world’s ice free surface) is used to raise animals for food. To really understand how this allocation endangers natural ecosystems, one need look no further than the Brazilian rainforest, where cattle are the direct cause of 70 percent of deforestation. When the global population hits 9 billion, as it’s predicted to do by 2050, if we all ate a western diet, 70-100% more cropland will be needed for agricultural production.

Then there’s the issue that’s on every environmentalist’s mind these days: water. From the perspective of fresh water, animal agriculture is inherently irresponsible. After all, the water footprint of any domesticated animal-based product is larger than that of any plant with the same nutritional worth. Plant-based food requires 8 times less water to produce than the caloric equivalent of an animal-based food. Our ongoing failure to acknowledge this inefficiency has resulted in feed production that uses 27 percent of irrigation water in the United States. If we do nothing, the water used globally to produce animal feed will double by 2050. This would make today’s water situation look like a period of abundance.

Environmentalists hate this news. To the limited extent that eco-leaders have addressed these concerns, they’ve suggested we eat animals raised under non-industrial conditions. Free range, humane, antibiotic free—that kind of stuff.  But for all the positive attention lavished on these so-called “regenerative” or “holistic” systems—systems that liberate animals from confinement and place them on pasture—there’s no evidence that they would work on global scale. Animals being animals, their impact on land, water, and air quality would remain greater than that of plants. After interviewing Allan Savory, the world’s leading proponent of pasture-based animal agriculture, The Guardian’s George Monbiot concluded: ”He makes claims about his techniques which are not only implausible but appear to be scientifically impossible.”

Here’s something that not at all implausible: transitioning to a plant-based diet would have a profoundly positive ecological impact. Eliminating domesticated animals for food would allow us to re-wild hundreds of millions of acres of land currently in production. Research shows that, in the UK, consuming just 50 percent less meat and replacing it with plant-based food would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent. On the level of the individual, the average meat eater would more than halve the carbon footprint of his diet by eliminating meat altogether. This option requires no leap of faith—just a dietary shift. It’s the most accessible option we have. And it happens to be the best.

Despite the preponderance of evidence that a plant-based diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve substantial amounts of water, and stem habitat destruction, leading environmental organizations have proven reluctant to advocate such a transition.  But if we truly care about the environment, this convenient “we don’t tell people what to do” attitude must change. If the modern environmental movement neglects to recognize the connection between climate change and the billions of animals we raise each year for food, it will wake up to find it has missed the swiftest and most elegant solution at hand while devouring our way into a climate crisis.  Today, as we implore global leaders to take action on climate change, let us not forget that the answer to today’s environmental crisis is directly in front us, right on our plates.



21 Responses to The People’s Climate March

  1. Teresa Wagner says:

    “Today, as we implore global leaders to take action on climate change, let us not forget that the answer to today’s environmental crisis is directly in front us, right on our plates.”

    This says it all! Thank you ~

    • Sofie Buyniski says:

      Teresa is absolutely correct. Many people at the Climate March didn’t even understand the connection between meat/milk consumption and the damages done to our earth. This doesn’t even take into account, the health, economic, and the ethics of torturing animals.
      What about accepting any responsibility for the condition of the earth and the spirit, we are leaving our children and grandchildren.
      Talk about “An Inconvienent Truth.” It is much easier (more concienent) to turn the water off as we brush our teeth than it is to look at what and who we are eating to reverse our damage.
      Thanks to all the wonderful people who were at the March to make their voice heard. Lets keep looking into the truth of what we do.
      Vegan for over 35 years and proud,

  2. Cindy Koczy says:

    Nice article James!
    I forward some of your thoughts to family and friends.I consider you a great resource. Thank You! The climate change debacle is a dead end, our world is being ruined.

    I concur with Sofie and Teresa. The answer is what we put on our plates!That is why we must continue to educate and make the world we want to have.

    I’m assuming we all want to stop the horrific things we do to cows,pigs,chickens,fish…get rid of the cages,liberate the animals, shut down all the factory farms and turn them into sanctuary’s and stop breeding sentient beings for food.

    Meatless;no animals or their products, and cruelty free sounds very delightful.

    Everyone go see Cowspiracy! It’s a great movie.If you happen to be in Portland, Oregon this weekend, go to one of the biggest VEG Fests ever! 10 YEARS STRONG!We will be showing the movie.

  3. Okay, no doubt poor grazing and other agricultural practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. No doubt there will remain a challenge in agriculture because even if we collectively zero all other emissions, convert 100% to renewable energy for electricity, and power all agricultural implements, like tractors, with electricity, it’s estimated the agriculture needed to feed the planet will still generate about 1 Gigatonne of Carbon per year. That’s still too much, and it has prompted some planners and visionaries to suggest we need a negative emissions plan, at least to 1 Gigatonne per year of Carbon.

    Thus, anything to reduce agricultural emissions is welcome. My wife Claire and I are vegetarians, so we simply don’t eat beef (or fish), although we consume dairy, which has its own impact. In full disclosure, we do have 3 cats who DO eat beef.

    But I must take GREAT EXCEPTION to the claim “Scientists predict that the livestock sector alone might account for 70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions expected to raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees.”

    First, it’s wrong. The Keeling curve shows THE ENTIRE BIOSPHERE, let alone agriculture, is incapable of handling the huge quantities of CO2 people are emitting. (See Also, see the readable review by West and Briske at

    Second, there’s research which shows that, as CO2 increases and temperature rises, microbial action in soils will increase, releasing more carbon dioxide to atmosphere. See

    Third, this is a DISTRACTION. If ANYTHING is a problem with conventional environmental wisdom on this problem, is that all environmental problems are see as equally important, from GM foods to Piping Plovers to Climate Change. A successful campaign needs to set priorities and triage, and Climate Change is the gorilla issue. Also, with (wrong) claims like “70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions” can be reduced by better grazing practices getting spread about, the cadre of environmentalists who are probably the most potent actors in moving policy and practice on fossil fuels are sidelined thinking that we don’t have to change our economy and use of fossil fuels wholesale, the proper thing to do is improve grazing practices. And to those who are not committed environmentalists, it perpetuates the myth that their habits needn’t change, that there’s a “genie waiting in the bottle” to solve all these problem when they get bad enough and someone decides to fix it.

    • James says:

      Here is my source for the claim you dispute: Pelletier and Tyedmers (2010). “Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock . . . .” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (43), 18371-18374.

      I’d be grateful to learn if I’m misinterpreting the study or how the study is inaccurate.

      • Recall the statement in James’ post I object to is:

        Scientists predict that the livestock sector alone might account for 70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions expected to raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees.

        I focus only upon GHG emissions, and set aside any association of land use change with agriculture, livestock or otherwise. Quoting Pelletier and Tyedmers (2010, p 18372):

        Based on the suggestion by Allison et al. (9) that per capita GHG emissions must fall below one metric ton per year by 2050 to prevent a potentially dangerously destabilizing increase
        in mean surface temperatures above 2 °C, as of 2000 we estimate that the livestock sector alone occupied 52% of humanity’s
        suggested safe operating space for anthropogenic greenhouse
        gas emissions (Fig. 1).

        There are two aspects of this calculation which makes it not what it seems. First, the actual method for P&T’s calculation is documented in their Supporting Information, on page 2 of 6, namely:

        GHG Emissions. By multiplying anticipated marginal livestock production by our conservative estimates of GHG intensity per unit production, we estimate an additional 1.82 Gt of CO2-e emissions from producing edible livestock products by 2050, which represents an increase of roughly 40% above current livestock-related emissions (Table S5), not including LULUCF.

        Thus, even if “anticipated marginal livestock production” projections for 2050 are to be believed, they get just 1.8GtCO2e more. Right away there appears to be something awry from expectations, since emissions in 2011 are 49 GtCO2e, and 1.8+2.0=3.8, and that’s just 8% of total emissions.

        What’s awry is that these comparisons are being made against standards put out by Allison, et al (2009, see quote above) and by Bishop, et al (2010):

        Similarly, relative to Bishop et al.’s (26)
        proposed sustainable scale for human-appropriated net primary
        productivity (which represents a more inclusive measure of NPP
        appropriation than does biomass use) in terms of biodiversity
        preservation, we suggest that the direct appropriation of biomass
        by the livestock sector accounted for 72% of our safe operating
        space in this domain (Fig. 1).

        The problem is that the “safe operating space” in both instances does not correspond to the IPCC safe zone of under 2 degrees Celsius. That link is provided by Allison, et al (2009). What do they do and say?

        If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 °C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – needs to be reached well within this century. More specifically, the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-95% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.

        The first part is pretty standard, but the business about “the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050″ leads to all kinds of trouble here, something (I personally think) Pelletier and Tyedmers should have pointed out. It’s possible to do the arithmetic to get a per-capita emission averaged, presumably, over the entire population of the planet. But the scatter in different countries is huge: Just consider the USA versus China. This means the IPCC limit is not at all the same as the Allison, et al (2009) limit. Moreover (on Pelletier and Tyedmers, not Allison, et al) to then assign “livestock consumption” in the same proportions is at least grossly misleading.

        To rectify, it’s good to get to the facts. To that end, I recommend Herrero, et al, “Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems”, PNAS, December 2013, 110(52), pp 20889-20993 but including a large and important Supplemental Information. Herrero, et al focus almost entirely upon nonCO2 GHG emissions, even if these are described as CO2e. They disagree with Pelletier and Tyermed, using a CO2e intensity more than twice than of P&T for kilogram of beef (41 kg CO2e per kg product), but report a wide scatter, including some meat and dairy which cost 1000 kg CO2e per kg product. In net,

        Our global estimates of GHG emissions are in broad agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (36) and the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) (37). Our tier 3 estimates of global enteric methane (1.6 Gt CO2 eq) are slightly lower than the EPA (36) and FAO (1) (range 1.8–2.0 Gt CO2 eq), but these sources use more aggregated methods for their calculations [combinations of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tier 1 and tier 2]. Non-CO2 emissions from manure management and manure applied to pastures are in close agreement to published sources using IPCC source categories (36, 37). Larger discrepancies are found with studies applying life-cycle analysis methods, which are more complete inventories of sources of emissions (i.e., ref. 38) and beyond the scope of our study.

        So, if 2050 global emissions are north of present 49 GtCO2e, as they must be under scenario RCP 8.5 (more or less, “business as usual”), even doubling the 2 GtCO2e (say, due to underestimation) only gives 4%. The rest looks like “moving the goalposts” to me. And, while clearly reducing GHG emissions from agriculture and livestock product is important, especially if we zero all other emissions, it is far making a big step on its own.

        Want to fix it? Figure out how not to commute, how not to fly, and how not to buy all that stuff during the holidays.


  4. Marc Bedner says:

    You are right, of course, that animal agriculture is one of the inconvenient truths the environmental lobbyists refuse to address. But there is another issue they now ignore. We no longer hear, as you suggest,”often hear environmentalists claim that there are too many people on planet Earth.” It is not a “claim” but another truth which almost every environmental organization, with the notable exception of the Center for Biological Diversity, refuses to address.
    It is probably not a coincidence that the Center also is a rare example of an environmental organization recognizing the problem with animal agriculture.
    Original sin goes back before animal agriculture, to the early human hunters who caused the Pleistocene Extinctions. All domesticates–humans, cows, pigs, cats, dogs and many others–are part of the overpopulation problem. It is too late for the animals we have already driven to extinction, but we have the power to save some of what is left on the Earth for the benefit of the species who lived here before us.

    • James says:

      What do you propose to do to ameliorate the human population problem?

      • Marc Bedner says:

        I’m open to suggestions! The first step would be for environmentalists to once again recognize human overpopulation as a problem. Instead we see that corporate environmental lobbyists have dropped the issue, and even so-called anticorporate environmentalists like Naomi Klein write columns about the glories of motherhood.

        • Mountain says:

          Maybe governments and NGOs could stop wasting money fighting Ebola, and use that money instead to subsidize vacations to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other affected areas. That way, the death toll can be shared globally instead of concentrated in west Africa.

          I wouldn’t support that, but then, I don’t believe we are overpopulated. We can easily feed 9 billion people (projected world population in 2050 and 2100) without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. And with a population of 9 billion, we can push carbon emissions well below their current levels.

  5. Dave Brett says:

    Of course you are right, but you say that transitioning to a plant-based diet is “not at all implausible.” Unfortunately, for most people that’s exactly what it is – implausible. Everyone wants to solve the problem of global climate change (well at least everyone who believes that it is a problem) but few people are willing to make much of a sacrifice to do it.

    Bill Maher asked an interesting hypothetical question: if we could eliminate global climate change, but everyone would have to give up their television remote control for the rest of their lives, would people be willing to do that? Every day people would have to get up off their ass, and walk to the TV, then walk back, over and over and over again. Bill Maher surmised that most people – even environmentalists – would not be willing to make that sacrifice.

    To those who love eating meat, giving up meat would be even more of a burden then not using a remote control for the rest of their lives.

    On a personal note, I first came to believe in animal rights in 1990. Before that the idea of giving up meat would have seemed implausible to me, too.


  6. unethical_vegan says:

    it really depresses me to see vegans drive to vegan restaurants. indirect exploitation of habitat and our shared environment kills and harms as surely as any CAFO slaughter house. i do not understand how a vegan can profess compassion for animals but can live a destructive 1st world lifestyle.

    • James says:

      This kind of remark seriously makes me wonder if you are a troll visiting from the meat industry. It’s that absurd.

      • unethical_vegan says:

        as a vegan who believes that the ongoing environmental holocaust has greater ethical significance than animal agriculture i don’t think my comment is absurd. extreme, perhaps. but not absurd.

        this site is generally more civil than most so i’m disappointed in the ad hom.

  7. This business of environmentalists ignoring the meat issue is a huge pet peeve of mine. I would like to dispute one thing that you said though. You suggested that the environmentalists don’t want to tell others what to do. I would say that they actually tell us what to do all the time. They tell us what kind of cars to drive what kind of light bulbs to buy how far we should go on vacations and where we should buy our food from to reduce the carbon footprint. But for some reason they are afraid to take on big AG and the meat industry and tell us what we really need to know which is don’t eat meat. They are happy to instruct us on all the other aspects of our lives except for the most important and most contested one: what to eat. To me makes the omission even more glaring and hypocritical. ~linda

    • unethical_vegan says:

      environmentalists tell people what to eat as well. paul watson’s ships are vegan even though he rejects rightist veganism (as do i).

      • Paul Watson and sea shepherd are to be commended. However they are in a very small minority. Most mainstream high profile environmental organizations won.t touch the meat issue. They should but they don.t linda

  8. Charell says:

    I wouldn’t use George Monbiot as a source. He’s one who thinks Nuclear Power will save us from Global Warming.

    • James says:

      I think he’s right.

    • While nuclear isn’t the entire solution, for lots of practical reasons, no carbon free solution ought to be ruled out. Professor James Hansen blames major environmental organizations, and the Clinton-Gore administration, at their behest, for stopping what could have been the single most important advance on GHG-free energy production by stopping R&D on nuclear in the 1990s. His case has pretty good legs.

      The problems with nuclear are primarily that it requires huge capital investments, and we can’t build them as quickly as we (now) need to build them.

      I’d argue that to the degree a so-called environmentalist thinks we can pick and choose which GHG free energy source we can use is an environmentalist who isn’t taking the threat of climate change seriously enough.

      I have also heard Hansen say that the big E groups also don’t like a carbon tax because if they support such, they worry their political clout and funding will dry up.

      I for one consider climate change Problem Number One and will vote for any politician of any party, irrespective of their other views who will seriously address it, starting with a carbon tax.

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