Meat and climate change

Jill Marshall | 12 years ago

As someone who has tried, and failed miserably in the face of a good plate of steak, to become a vegetarian, I am asking for help from Eric readers.

In the lead up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December, the Times newspaper recently reported on global warming guru Lord Stern’s claim that “meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases.  It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources.  A vegetarian diet is better.”  It was reported that methane emissions from cows and pigs are significant sources of greenhouse gases.

The aim of the UN Copenhagen Conference, to be attended by up to 20,000 delegates in December, is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow down the increase in global temperatures which threatens us all.  Lord Stern said a deal was needed to agree to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to 25 gigatonnes a year from its current level of 50 gigatonnes. UN figures suggest meat production is responsible for 18% of global carbon emissions including the destruction of forest land for cattle and producing animal feeds.

Of course, not all agree vegetarianism will improve the planet.  The National Farmers’ Union has lambasted this position: “We don’t have a methane free cow or pig available to us.”

So arguments about the immorality of eating meat now have added ‘green’ support.  Human Rights lawyer and academic, Professor Conor Gearty, has recently provocatively asked whether animals can have ‘human rights’ too? His tentative conclusion appears to be yes. With the strength of a human rights approach lying in its capacity to include previously excluded categories of people – slaves, women etc – “there is no reason in principle why this outward momentum should be permanently blocked at a species barrier that is after all only a human construct”.  Further we “should not be afraid of characterising [human rights] as a subset of a wider topic, that of animal rights…”.

Peter Singer has long been a supporter of animal ethics.  As a moral philosopher or ethicist, he bases his views on a version of utilitarianism founded by Jeremy Bentham – that is, what is the morally right thing to do is that which increases pleasure and decreases pain.  In this calculation, each person is to count as one and no more than one.  For Singer, all animals who feel pain should be included in this calculation, not just humans.  Indeed, extremely controversially, perhaps not even all humans, if they are incapable of feeling pain.
There are many more justifications for a vegetarian position. I would love to hear from readers on their views on the rightness or wrongness of eating meat, for environmental or any other reasons.

Further Reading:

The Times 27 October 2009 ‘Climate Chief: give up meat to save the planet’ p 1, 18 and 19

Conor Gearty ‘Can Animals have ‘Human Rights’ Too? 23 January 2008
P Singer Unsanctifying Human Life (Blackwell 2002)

About the author

Jill Marshall

Jill is now Professor in the law school at the University of Leicester having previously worked as a litigation solicitor at the international law firms Herbert Smith (now Herbert Smith Freehills), and Freshfields, Bruckhaus Deringer. She analyses legal issues surrounding personal freedom and identity, applying philosophical and moral theory to case law and statutes. Jill’s current research is investigating a so-called human right to personal identity, and includes how the environment we live in shapes who we are.