Al Gore’s Inconvenient Diet

Why is the world’s foremost environmental crusader not a vegetarian?

“The rule of reason,” Al Gore ’69 declared to a packed Tercentenary Theater a Wednesday, “must dictate our actions towards the environment.” His speech pushed this theme, urging listeners to take drastic actions now for “the survival of our human civilization.”

As the world faces the existential threat of climate change, the former Vice President has embarked on an admirable quest to reform carbon-heavy habits. Yet despite his talk of making inconvenient choices, Mr. Gore continues to indulge in one of the most environmentally irrational habits of all: eating meat.

A 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that meat production generates almost a fifth of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions—more than the world’s cars, planes, and trucks combined. Moreover, the report cited meat production as a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, and lost biodiversity. The scientists concluded “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

To put this in perspective, a University of Chicago study concluded that an individual American can do more to reduce global warming by going vegetarian than by driving a Prius.

Mr. Gore, a Prius driver, spoke at length on Wednesday about achieving energy independence. But one third of America’s fossil fuel consumption is used solely to raise animals for meat, according to the estimate of E, an environmental magazine.

Moreover, factory farms emit large quantities of methane and nitrous oxide—pollutants with, respectively, 23 times and 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. That’s why the organizers of the Live Earth concerts—at which Mr. Gore spoke—wrote in the Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook that “refusing meat” is “the single most effective thing you can do to reduce global warming.”

It might seem odd that Al Gore’s bacon and eggs breakfast could have more impact on the environment than his choice to avoid SUV’s. But meat production’s inherent inefficiency creates its large carbon footprint.

Feeding animals for meat production requires growing ten times as many crops as producing directly for a plant-based diet. The land needed for these crops contributes to deforestation—a major cause of global warming. In 2006, Greenpeace unveiled a “KFC: Amazon Criminal” banner across the Brazilian rainforest to highlight the effect KFC’s huge demand for chicken feed has in deforesting the Amazon Basin.

So why is Al Gore not a vegetarian?

Mr. Gore’s spokespeople have consistently denied media requests to answer this question, but a few brave acolytes have tried to defend him. Their answers fall back on two points: that Mr. Gore’s unique messenger status means it is his political actions, not his personal choices, that matter; and that his summit-filled lifestyle would make it hard to be a vegetarian.

Yet Mr. Gore’s credibility hangs on embodying his political beliefs in his own lifestyle. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who as Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Gore, is a vegetarian. Citing studies showing that producing 2.2 pounds of meat causes the emissions equivalent of 80 pounds of carbon dioxide, Dr Pachauri has publicly stated that the two best things an individual can do to fight global warming are to drive less and adopt a vegetarian diet.

But even if Mr. Gore finds it uniquely hard to go vegetarian, why does it matter? “An Inconvenient Truth” stresses that individuals must make bold changes to combat global warming. And on Wednesday, Mr. Gore spoke movingly of the need to approach the environment with “questions of fact, not questions of power.” Today, the powers of custom and convenience support eating meat. The facts suggest that adopting a vegetarian diet is the single most powerful step an individual can take to combat climate change.

For the sake of the planet and his own credibility, Mr. Gore should follow those facts.

Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.