Making Teenage Climate Action Possible
As a recent high school graduate, my generation is faced with a daunting task: Save the planet. I've known this from a young age. My earliest memory of climate change is that of Hurricane Irene. The storm blew into New York City -- where I call home -- in August 2011 with such heavy rainfall that our apartment flooded. The very next year, Hurricane Sandy hit and we took shelter in the interior stairwell while our apartment building swayed with the wind. From news outlets to conversations with my parents, it was clear that these hurricanes hitting the East Coast had been made worse by climate change. These discussions made their way into my classrooms too -- science classes heavily revolved around the depleting ozone layer and Earth's endangered wildlife.
"Beef and dairy farms are the worst offenders because cows naturally release large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane, making them responsible for 10% of the GHG emissions associated with human activity."
As a young adult, it's hard not to be afraid of what lies ahead. Coral reefs are dying, millions of lives are threatened by sea-level rise, heatwaves and wildfires are rising in number and severity, and important pollinators are at risk of losing their habitat. On top of that, I'm worried about the future my children will inherit. Will the planet be inhabitable when they are my age?
Sometimes I feel helpless, especially in the face of climate deniers and the unconscionable slow action of our global leaders. Like many kids my age, the one way I feel like I can contribute is through my individual choices, which is why I became a vegan.
I had already been a vegetarian since elementary school -- mostly due to a pure admiration of animals. But when I learned more about the environmental impacts of animal products, it compelled me to go further. Beef and dairy farms are the worst offenders because cows naturally release large amounts of the greenhouse gas (GHG) methane, making them responsible for 10% of the GHG emissions associated with human activity.
"As of now, the government spends much of their agriculture subsidies to promote the red meat industry, rather than fruit and vegetable crop production. It's time to redirect this money to eco-friendly agriculture and transition away from the overproduction of beef."
By going vegan, I've reduced my own carbon footprint -- but I know my actions alone are not enough. A country-wide voluntary transition to vegetarianism would reduce per capita food and land-use related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 50%. However, I recognize this is not realistic or possible for everyone. Despite my determination to go vegan, I've opted to transition slowly, swapping out dairy for oat milk where I can. That same approach could be applied to phasing out beef by choosing alternate proteins. For example, pork and chicken are less resource-intensive to produce, meaning they are more climate friendly. By replacing a 5 oz. steak with a serving of chicken or pork once a week, a person can save around 270 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions annually -- that is about 2% of the average carbon footprint of a US resident, and 8% of the average global carbon footprint per capita. Were we to entirely replace red meat with such alternatives, the World Resources Institute estimates that global per capita GHG emissions would be reduced by 15 to 35% by the year 2050.
As part of the federal government's commitment to combating climate change, it could provide incentives to people who reduce their red meat consumption. Incentives, such as tax credits, are already in practice for solar energy adoption and a similar strategy could work for red meat. Imagine if the federal government offered tax credits for food producers of beef alternatives that could result in lower-cost food choices for consumers. And, imagine how much energy we could save. As of now, the government spends much of their agriculture subsidies to promote the red meat industry, rather than fruit and vegetable crop production. It's time to redirect this money to eco-friendly agriculture and transition away from the overproduction of beef.
" I still believe that there can be a place for meat on the table, but in greater moderation and not at the expense of our planet -- our shared home."
If a transition to more environmentally friendly diets was made collectively, it would make what might feel like a burden a lot lighter for all. Anyone with dietary restrictions can attest to the difficulties they can pose. At school, cafeteria lunches were unaccommodating of vegetarians, and I’ve been surprised by how few vegan options I've found at New York City food outlets and restaurants. If we were all to make the shift to vegetarianism and veganism together, this would change fast. For some companies, a shift to awareness is already happening, such as Epicurious, the online food magazine that recently vowed to no longer publish recipes featuring beef. Instead, they plan to provide more creative recipes involving grilled vegetables and meatless meat. Other companies and publications need to be similarly proactive.
With all this said, I still believe that there can be a place for meat on the table, but in greater moderation and not at the expense of our planet -- our shared home. Individuals are often willing to quit smoking and drinking alcohol when these habits pose direct and immediate threats to their health. While it may be difficult to see climate change in such intimate terms, ecological catastrophe is a direct and immediate threat. It is the ultimate health threat shared by all of us. As told to my generation constantly -- we don't have time left for self-reflection because change needs to happen now. To solve the crisis at hand requires the help of everyone, at whatever capacity they can. One way, as I’ve discussed here, is to start by swapping out red meat one meal at a time.