According to the United Nations, nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gases released worldwide each year can be attributed to livestock, mostly cows. That’s roughly the same as what’s produced by all cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships combined.
In recent decades, worldwide beef production has skyrocketed from 62 billion pounds in 1961 to 150 billion pounds today. That’s partly because the global population is rising. Plus, higher incomes in countries such as China mean more people can now afford meat. In the United States, the average American eats a whopping 58 pounds of beef each year (the equivalent of about 230 burgers!).
This rising global demand is contributing to humans’ disastrous impact on the environment—and scientists warn that it could get a lot worse. If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, they say, droughts, heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent—and severe. Tens of millions of people globally could be forced to flee their homes as a result.
“That’s why it’s really important that we act immediately,” says Gidon Eshel, an environmental scientist at Bard College in New York. “One way we can help is by changing our diets, particularly by eating less beef.”