What We Can Do about the Climate Crisis
Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist and the author of the nonfiction bestseller Eating Animals, as well as the new book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Foer’s work explores the personal reckonings behind what is one of our most urgent tasks: fighting climate change. And while it’s true that many of the decisions that could save the planet must take place at a policy and regulatory level, We Are the Weather underlines the impact each personal choice (from what you eat for breakfast to having, maybe, one fewer kid) can have.
By Jonathan Safran Foer
In 1942, a twenty-eight-year-old Catholic in the Polish underground, Jan Karski, embarked on a mission to travel from Nazi-occupied Poland to London, and ultimately to America, to inform world leaders of what the Germans were perpetrating. In anticipation of his journey, he met with several resistance groups, accumulating information and testimonies to bring to the West. In his memoir, he recounts a meeting with the head of the Jewish Socialist Alliance:
The Bund leader came up to me in silence. He gripped my arm with such violence that it ached. I looked into his wild, staring eyes with awe, moved by the deep, unbearable pain in them.
“Tell the Jewish leaders that this is no case for politics or tactics. Tell them that the Earth must be shaken to its foundation, the world must be aroused. Perhaps then it will wake up, understand, perceive. Tell them that they must find the strength and courage to make sacrifices no other statesmen have ever had to make, sacrifices as painful as the fate of my dying people, and as unique. This is what they do not understand. German aims and methods are without precedent in history. The democracies must react in a way that is also without precedent…”
After surviving as perilous a journey as could be imagined, Karski arrived in Washington, D.C., in June 1943. There, he met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, one of the great legal minds in American history, who was himself a Jew. After hearing Karski’s accounts of the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto and of exterminations in the concentration camps, after asking him a series of increasingly specific questions (“What is the height of the wall that separates the ghetto from the rest of the city?”), Frankfurter paced the room in silence, then took his seat and said, “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say I am unable to believe what you told me.” When Karski’s colleague pleaded with Frankfurter to accept Karski’s account, Frankfurter responded, “I didn’t say that this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I cannot accept it.”
Frankfurter didn’t question the truthfulness of Karski’s story. He didn’t dispute that the Germans were systematically murdering the Jews of Europe—his own relatives. And he didn’t respond that while he was persuaded and horrified, there was nothing he could do. Rather, he admitted not only his inability to believe the truth but his awareness of that inability. Frankfurter’s conscience was not shaken.
Our minds and hearts are well built to perform certain tasks and poorly designed for others. We are good at things like calculating the path of a hurricane and bad at things like deciding to get out of its way. Because we’ve evolved over hundreds of millions of years, in settings that bear little resemblance to the modern world, we are often led to desires, fears, and indifferences that neither correspond nor respond to modern realities. We are disproportionately drawn to immediate and local needs—we crave fats and sugars (which are bad for people who live in a world of their ready availability); we hypervigilantly watch our children on jungle gyms (despite the many greater risks to their health that we ignore)—while remaining indifferent to what is lethal but over there.
Although many of climate change’s accompanying calamities—extreme weather events, floods and wildfires, displacement and resource scarcity chief among them—are vivid, personal, and suggestive of a worsening situation, they don’t feel that way in aggregate. They feel abstract, distant, and isolated rather than like beams of an ever-strengthening narrative. As the journalist Oliver Burkeman put it in The Guardian, “If a cabal of evil psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change.”
So-called climate change deniers reject the conclusion that 97 percent of climate scientists have reached: The planet is warming because of human activities. But what about those of us who say we accept the reality of human-caused climate change? We may not think the scientists are lying, but are we able to believe what they tell us? Such a belief would surely awaken us to the urgent ethical imperative attached to it, shake our collective conscience, and render us willing to make small sacrifices in the present to avoid cataclysmic ones in the future.
Intellectually accepting the truth isn’t virtuous in and of itself. And it won’t save us. As a child, I was often told “you know better” when I did something I shouldn’t have done. Knowing was the difference between a mistake and an offense.
If we accept a factual reality (that we are destroying the planet) but are unable to believe it, we are no better than those who deny the existence of human-caused climate change—just as Felix Frankfurter was no better than those who denied the existence of the Holocaust. And when the future distinguishes between these two kinds of denial, which will appear to be a grave error and which an unforgivable crime?
Just as surely as we know that the planet is warming because of human activities, we know how to change our activities in order to halt global warming. The method for preventing our collective suicide is not a mystery, a secret, or a point of scientific contention.
We need structural change. We need a global shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. We need to enforce something akin to a carbon tax, mandate environmental-impact labels for products, replace plastic with sustainable solutions, and build walkable cities. We need to ethically address the West’s relationship to the Global South. We might even need a political revolution. These changes will require shifts that individuals alone cannot realize. But putting aside the fact that collective revolutions are made up of individuals, led by individuals, and reinforced by thousands of individual revolutions, we have no chance of saving the planet if individuals don’t make the very individual decision to live differently.
It is good to recycle, good to plant trees, good to avoid waste. But there are four activities that matter far more than the rest, activities that we have no hope of saving the planet without: eating plant-based diets, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having fewer children. The most urgently important of these (because it is the leading producer of methane and nitrous oxide, the two most powerful greenhouse gases), is also the easiest to act upon: reducing our consumption of animal products, especially beef and cheese. According to the research director of Project Drawdown—a collection of nearly 200 environmental scientists and thought leaders dedicated to identifying and modeling substantive solutions to address climate change—eating a plant-based diet is “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming.”
The UN has said that animal agriculture is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global… It should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.” How massive? It’s impossible to say with precision, as the systems in question are complex and linked and quantifying them requires making significant assumptions—even the most neutral scientists face that challenge. It is dangerous to pretend that we know more than we do. But it is even more dangerous to pretend that we know less. The most recent comprehensive estimates of CO2e emissions suggest that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything else combined: all transportation (planes, trains and cars), the electrical grid, industrial and residential sectors.
So do we all need to become vegans in response? No. (I am not a vegan.) The best way to excuse oneself from a challenging reality is to pretend there are only two options. Between veganism and unchecked carnivory are many diets that, while they might not have easy names to describe them, are both possible for most people and necessary to save our planet.
The most comprehensive assessment of the livestock industry’s environmental impact was published in Nature in October 2018. After analyzing food-production systems from every country around the world, the authors concluded that while undernourished people living in poverty across the globe could actually eat a little more meat and dairy, the average world citizen needs to shift to a plant-based diet in order to prevent catastrophic, irreversible environmental damage. The average US or UK citizen must consume 90 percent less beef and 60 percent less dairy. Approximately the same figures apply to mainland Europeans.
This probably sounds like a real drag to most readers. Most people like the smell and taste of meat, dairy, and eggs. (I do.) Most people value the roles animal products play in their lives and aren’t prepared to adopt new eating identities. Most people have eaten animal products at almost every meal since they were children, and it’s hard to change lifelong habits, even when they aren’t freighted with pleasure and identity. Those are meaningful challenges, not only worth acknowledging but necessary to acknowledge. Changing the way we eat is simple compared with converting the world’s power grid or overcoming the influence of powerful lobbyists to pass carbon-tax legislation or ratifying a significant international treaty on greenhouse gas emissions—but it isn’t simple.
Yet this is our situation. It is unambiguous, and it is urgent. Climate change is not a disease that can be managed like diabetes; it is an event like a cancerous tumor that needs to be removed before the cells fatally multiply. The planet can handle only so much warming before positive feedback loops create “runaway climate change.” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has said, “The maths is brutally clear: while the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence [before] 2020.”
It is not enough to be honest about the science of climate change; we need to be honest about our responses to it. Decrying the bad guys is no more of an action than marching with the good guys or forwarding the latest studies or engaging in exactly the right dinner party op-eding while eating exactly the wrong foods. “We have to do something.” It’s the phrase that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, the unofficial slogan of our moment. And yet almost no one does anything beyond reiterating the need to do something—as if complaining about our leaders’ inaction were itself an action.
We cannot save the coral reefs. We cannot save the Amazon. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to save coastal cities. The scale of inevitable loss is almost enough to make any further struggle feel futile. But only almost. Millions of people—perhaps tens or hundreds of millions—will die because of climate change, and the number matters. Hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, will become climate refugees. The number of refugees matters. It matters how many days per year children will be able to play outside, how much food and water there will be, how many years average life expectancies will shed. These numbers matter, because they are not just numbers—each corresponds to an individual, with a family, and idiosyncrasies, and phobias, and allergies, and favorite foods, and recurring dreams, and a song stuck in her head, and a singular handprint, and a particular laugh.
We know what we have to do. We have to eat fewer animal products, fly less, drive less, and have fewer babies. Perhaps our minds and hearts really are made in such a way that we can’t accept what we know to be true. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending to care. Each of us will make his or her own decision. The sum of those decisions will be our future.
Originally commissioned in America revue, © 2019 by Jonathan Safran Foer. All rights reserved.