In Four More Years, Can Washington Avert both the “Fiscal Cliff” and the “Climate Cliff”?

257198by Robert Goodland

President Obama’s re-election competed for attention with Superstorm Sandy, which cost at least 200 human lives  and US$70 billion. If storms increase in number and strength with climate change, then much higher costs may result – yet the topic of climate change was glaringly absent in recent political campaigning. Perhaps that’s because candidates couldn’t think how climate change might be addressed alongside the more looming “fiscal cliff,” expected to result in long-term spending cuts.

Reversing climate change by replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy infrastructure is estimated to require US$18 trillion in spending in the next 20 years – while one expert group after another says the world must start reversing climate change by 2017 or it will be too late. So politicians might be justified in thinking that it may be impossible to avert both the fiscal cliff and the “climate cliff.”

But environmental specialists employed by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation have determined that there is one pragmatic way left to reverse climate change before it’s too late. I’m one of those specialists. Large-scale reforestation and regeneration of forest could absorb all of today’s excess atmospheric carbon – while sufficient land can be freed up by replacing at least 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives. That’s because a whopping 45% of all land on earth is now used for livestock and feed production.

So the key player in reversing climate change – at least in the next four years – is actually the food industry. It is more exposed to climate change than any other industry, as most of its production is outdoors, so it has a compelling commercial incentive to reverse climate change.  Food corporations develop better foods as a matter of course. They control lots of land on which livestock and feed production can be reduced, and they can sell carbon credits from reforesting land. Consumers have an equal role in their capacity to vote with their forks to replace livestock products (meat, dairy and egg products) withbetter alternatives.

No matter how the fiscal cliff is addressed, fiscal stress is projected to continue in the U.S. for a number of years.  If the warning of dire climate change provided by Superstorm Sandy is ignored, then fiscal stress is certain to worsen. Conversely, fiscal and climate cliffs can be addressed by replacing livestock products with alternatives that are better because they require no government spending while they can reverse climate change.

To communicate the scientific details of our environmental assessment, we’ve created a website with what we hope is a catchy name, “Chomping Climate Change” (www.chompingclimatechange.org). This site provides a wide range of citations of our assessment, including sources that both Democrats and Republicans normally trust. After all, everyone can enjoy eating better foods, and it is surely a bipartisan concern to prevent another Superstorm Sandy from happening.

Robert Goodland has served as lead environmental adviser at the World Bank Group, and recently had columns published in the New York Times and the Earth Island Journal.

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