The other day, I went out with some friends to a burger restaurant. After getting my cheeseburger, someone suggested I should have ordered a burger that is 100% plant-based, especially since I wanted to write this post about the Green New Deal. If you look up what actions you can take to address climate change, you will find many posts about the need to reduce waste, limit dairy and meats, and decrease plastic use. We all create a carbon footprint that arises from the actions we take as individuals. To my surprise, the average carbon footprint per person in the U.S. is almost 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the consumption of meat is, by far, the most significant contributor to our carbon footprint1,2. So, should the whole world go vegan to prevent the climate crisis?
Indeed, the effects of everyone going vegan would be impactful, and not only regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Some estimate this would result in a drop of 70% of all food-related GHG emissions by 2050 and a significant increase in farm space, since about 80% of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock rather than producing to feed humans3,4. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is way more urgent, and the time for incremental change is gone. Since 1988, only 100 companies have been responsible for an astonishing 71% of the world’s GHG emissions5, yet we are continually reminded of how our actions can “stop” climate change. Of course, we, as individuals, should be moving toward an eco-friendlier way of living, and we should be promoting the use of low-carbon alternatives. However, while we think of ways to become more sustainable, fossil fuel corporations are making such efforts insignificant, treating the world as their dumpster while creating hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. This situation should come to no one’s surprise, as it is the result of many decades of fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks for such corporations. The estimated subsidies for direct production are about $500 billion annually, without accounting for indirect subsidies, which include the unpaid costs on health and climate. If we were to consider those, the global subsidies would skyrocket to $5.3 trillion6.
More Than Just a Climate Crisis
Although the climate change crisis is primarily due to excessive GHG being thrown into the atmosphere, the core issues go way deeper. Our quest for a solution to climate change has revealed that the world faces a crisis of lifestyle, economy and system, which too often sees humans as consumers rather than citizens. This consumerism has created a culture of hyperindividualism, moving away from the interdependencies that hold everyone together. Neoliberalism has framed the climate change crisis as a personal choice issue. This mindset weakens the power of collective action to demand drastic and unprecedented changes, which is just what this crisis demands. Individual steps are essential and necessary, but in a system with such wealth inequality, expecting an equal responsibility for the crisis is unjust. We need to create an economy and global system that allow for these personal lifestyle changes to have significant impacts and, most importantly, that helps all people afford such changes. The Green New Deal (GND) addresses not only the climate change crisis but also the underlying issues in our economy, health care system and lifestyle. Additionally, it lays the steps for how to transition to a better system that considers inequalities — from racial to economic ones. So, what is the GND, and what does it hope to accomplish?
The Green New Deal As a Transformative Framework
The GND is the first plan in Congress that acknowledges the magnitude of the climate change crisis and draws from two main bases for further policy proposals: 1) what America has to do and 2) how to protect people from such a drastic transition. It’s not a bill or policy proposal, yet, but a first step upon which to build policy. So, first, what does America need to do?
Established in 2015, the Paris Agreement aims for countries to limit the global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, just two years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned us of the consequences of letting the Earth warm to 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels. This report reshapes the investments and actions countries need to make. Although many people believe global warming only means the Earth will get hotter, in reality, climate change will affect almost all aspects of life. Severe weather events caused by climate change will lead to decreased food and water availability, severe loss of biodiversity in our ecosystems and an increase in vector-borne diseases. Climate change and its consequences will impact already vulnerable communities and populations the most. They have contributed the least to this crisis, and inequalities in an already unequal world could be exacerbated.
To prevent this result, reaching net-zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 is a sine qua non, and this can only happen if America, and the whole world, move away from fossil fuels. The GND builds upon the idea that it is too late to move away incrementally from fossil fuels — drastic and unprecedented change is needed. We, as a society, need to rethink the way we use energy, transportation, food production and housing. Decarbonizing the economy will have severe consequences for people whose jobs depend on those industries and, therefore, will impact their health care and, possibly, housing accessibility. The GND acknowledges that transitioning to a new economic system will generate instability in American society, and as such, its second part consists of a series of promises to protect Americans during the transition. These protective measures include high-quality universal health care, a guaranteed job, affordable and safe housing, and high-quality training and education. These promises, however, consider what it entails to build a new economy and prevent existing inequalities from exacerbating. Think of it this way: People who face the fewest barriers to specific training and education will most likely get the best jobs. Communities and populations that have been impacted by decades of injustices will face more barriers, and the existing disparities will be aggravated. What is so transformative about the GND is that it not only recognizes the oppression that many communities have faced over decades, but it builds upon that basis. The GND uses the needed economic and social transition as a chance to address such inequalities, and to promote and develop a new economy in which opportunity flows more equally and wealth is radically redistributed.
What Can Graduate Students Do to Help Prevent Climate Change?
This section brings me back to my previous dilemma: Will the climate change crisis be solved with just individual actions or collective ones? Most likely, the answer is both. We, as students, can take many actions to reduce our impact on the climate, regardless of our busy schedules. Here are some suggestions:
- Opt for public transportation. In 2017, cars were the biggest CO2 source in the United States7. Using public transportation provides an alternative to lower GHG emissions by 33%, to a maximum of 62% less than with the use of private vehicles.8
- Use renewable water bottles. Although most plastic bottles for water and soft drinks are recyclable, the world produces about 20,000 plastic bottles per second. This is the same as producing the entire weight of humanity in a year9. Current efforts to keep these bottles from polluting the oceans are insufficient, affecting its ecosystem and the human food chain.
- Buy local. Buying at your neighborhood local market means the produce is fresh and comes from nearby farms, cutting transportation and storage energy. Additionally, buy food that is in season — it is the only way to ensure it hasn’t been stored long term, exponentially increasing the energy needed for maintenance.
- Reduce meat consumption. Livestock is responsible for about 15% of GHG from human activity. Meat production, therefore, is a great contributor to climate change. It also is a factor in deforestation and water shortage10.
- Join the Science Policy Group at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This organization aims to advance science and safeguard public health through implementation of evidence-based policies at the local, state and federal level.
Don’t forget to vote and call for change! Because what is radical about climate change is not doing anything about it.
- Richter, Felix. "The Global Disparity in Carbon Footprints." Statista, Statista Inc., 2 Dec 2019, https://www.statista.com/chart/16292/per-capita-co2-emissions-of-the-largest-economies/.
- Heller, M., and Keoleian, G. “Greenhouse gas emissions estimates of U.S. dietary choices and food loss.” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19 (3): 391–401, 2014.
- Springmann, Marco, et al. “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.15, 4146–4151, 2016.
- “Animal Production.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019.
- Griffin, Paul, and Heede, Richard. “The carbon majors database: CDP carbon majors report 2017.” CDP Report, 2017.
- Coady, David, et al. “How large are global energy subsidies?” No. 15/105. International Monetary Fund, 2015.
- Milman, Oliver. “Vehicles are now America’s biggest CO2 source but EPA is tearing up regulations.” The Guardian, Jan. 2, 2018.
- Hodges, Tina. Public transportation’s role in responding to climate change. Diane Publishing, 2010.
- Laville, Sandra, and Taylor, Matthew. “A million bottles a minute: world’s plastic binge ‘as dangerous as climate change.’” The Guardian, June 28, 2017.
- Key facts and findings. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/.
- When Doing Science Isn’t Enough: Critical Issues in Science Policy
- On How and Why Science Is Political
- Would You Eat Lab-Made Meat?
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