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HEAG's Corner: Sandy's friend, the Cheeseburger

By Risa Nagel '16

November 29, 2012

What if I told you that the cheeseburger you had for lunch did more than tighten your jeans and harm your heart? What if it caused the devastating disaster of a hurricane that flooded the northeast up to its skyscrapers? That’s right. America’s addiction to meat could be the reason behind the vicious Hurricane Sandy, and a significant contributor to future climate change disasters as well.

Global warming is no longer debatable. Among scientists, it is now considered to be proven fact. Also proven are the various effects that climbing temperatures will be sure to bring, like the melting of Arctic ice and the rise of sea level. But that is not all. As the planet warms, oceans warm as well, increasing the amount of water vapor escaping into the atmosphere. Since water vapor fuels tropical storms, warmer-than-usual oceans are the perfect breeding ground for high intensity “superstorms”, such as the infamous Sandy.

But how does that burger play into all of this?

Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas plaguing our atmosphere, is a major byproduct of the livestock industry. Animal farming companies commonly use slash-and-burn methods to inexpensively clear land of dense vegetation, later developing these scorched regions into grazing areas for cattle. But burning down trees releases high amounts of carbon dioxide. Also, forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere, but when forests are destroyed, they are no longer a carbon sink. Companies’ expansion of cattle pastures destroys the Earth’s air-purifying vegetation at a time when carbon clouds the sky, leaving us in desperate need of some natural cleansing.

But carbon is not the only pollutant; in fact, it’s not even the most dangerous one.  Livestock also release massive amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, which have 23 and 296 times the potency of carbon dioxide, respectively. In fact, in 2010, cattle accounted for 31 million tons of methane emissions in the United States, while passenger vehicles, the prime example of everyday pollution, only emitted 1onemillion tons.  Similarly nitrous oxide emissions from factory farms were nine million tons greater than those from automobiles (“Inventory”). These nasty greenhouse gases are simply the consequence of animals’ natural biological processes: methane results from livestock’s digestion and nitrous oxide from their excrement. However, the immense quantity of animals necessary to feed America’s carnivorous tendency is the true problem.

Meat eaters certainly accelerate global warming, even more so than gas guzzling car owners. By switching to a hybrid, car owners would reduce their carbon footprint by one ton per year, but if an omnivore switched to a vegan diet, that person would annually reduce their carbon emissions by 1.5 tons.

Alas, most people will not give up their Mickey D’s double bacon cheeseburgers, and suddenly convert to the appealingly ecological, not to mention incredibly healthy, vegan lifestyle. It would be just as if those unfortunate souls still driving a Hummer were to happily drop 20 thousand bucks on a neat, new Prius. Not impossible, but definitely improbable. A gradual transition is a probable solution though. If every American gave up one serving of chicken per week, which means just one veg-friendly meal every seven days, it would save the same amount of carbon dioxide as if 500,000 cars were taken off the road. That is certainly doable.

As global warming rears its sweltering head, we must realize Sandy is simply the beginning. Stronger storms are surely impending, dipping their toes in the heating waters. At this point climate change cannot be ceased, but it can be slowed.  For our long term stability, America must finally accept that meat is neither a sustainable nor intelligent food choice. And since it’s the food we eat that’s furthering this phenomenon, the future of our society relies on our own personal choices. I for one know that my menu will never include Sandy’s friend, the cheeseburger.

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