Ditch meat to fight climate change?

Story highlights

  • Yascha Mounk: Americans are unlikely to give up their steaks to combat climate change
  • Tying meat consumption to climate change is likely to polarize the issue further

Yascha Mounk is a Jeff and Cal Leonard Fellow at New America and the author of "Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany." He teaches classes on climate change and contemporary democracy at Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)There are a lot of good reasons why Americans should eat less red meat.

A more balanced diet saves money, lowers cholesterol and helps to avoid obesity . But soon, the federal government may officially add another, and altogether more controversial, reason to the list: Skip that steak to combat climate change.
In a report published earlier this year by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the authors point out that global food consumption is a substantial driver of greenhouse gas emissions. Producing a pound of beef emits far more carbon dioxide than producing a pound of kale, or even a pound of chicken. In order "to steward natural resources," the committee concludes, we should focus our eating on "sustainable food" such as vegetables.
    Yascha Mounk
    Over the coming months, Barack Obama will need to decide whether to water down the panel's recommendations or to incorporate them into federal nutritional guidelines. As Slate's Josh Voorhees explains, "if Obama does decide to press forward, it will open up yet another front in Washington's climate wars." But is this a battle worth fighting in the first place?
    It isn't. The government's advisory committee is right on the facts. But it is dead-wrong on the politics.
    Americans won't ditch beef to save the environment. On the contrary, linking healthy eating habits to the fight against climate change may actually wind up hurting both causes at the same time.
    The best way to ensure that voters refuse to act on climate change -- or even to believe in its existence in the first place -- is to tell them that they need to change how they live.
    Over the past few years, social scientists have started to study what shapes opinions about global warming, and how we might be able to prod climate change skeptics out of their complacency. What they have found is as striking as it is consistent: The standard environmentalist tactic of emphasizing how scary climate change is while asking people to cut down on personal consumption is deeply counterproductive.
    Part of the reason is what psychologists call "motivated reasoning."
    If people know that an argument would require them to make a painful sacrifice, they are likely to deny that the argument is true. So the more we tell people that climate change will require them to change their habits, the less likely they are to believe that climate change poses a real threat.
    This problem is particularly entrenched once an issue has become ideologically polarized. Most people do not think about the issues in an impartial way and then decide which party to support. Instead, they identify with a political party and then take their cue on particular issues from the talking points of its leading exponents.
    One of the most comprehensive studies on the topic show that public access to scientific information had no discernible impact on belief in climate change. But elite cues, such as public statements by leading Democrats or Republicans, did make a significant difference.
    Tying meat consumption to climate change is likely to polarize the issue further, making conservatives even less receptive to pro-environment policies. What's more, by needlessly politicizing dietary guidelines across partisan lines, people are less likely to follow advice that has real benefits for less controversial reasons.
    In another study, psychologists from the University of Queensland exposed climate-change deniers to three different kinds of messages.
    In the first version, they were told that scientists agree that climate change is a big threat and urgent action needs to be taken to combat it. In the second version, they were told that combating climate change would stimulate economic growth. In the final version, they were told that such polices "would create a society where people are more considerate and caring."
    Climate-change deniers who were exposed to the first way of framing the issue, which emphasized risks, were least likely to endorse policies designed to combat global warming; those exposed to the last frame, which emphasized benefits that had little to do with the environment itself, were most likely to do so.
    Strikingly, the same ranking order turned out to hold true among people who do believe in climate change. In other words, even people who are receptive to environmentalist messages are more likely to favor pro-environmental policies when politicians emphasize other benefits, such as economic development.
    So, the takeaway is: To be politically viable, action against climate change needs to respect the consumption habits of ordinary Americans. If Obama really wants to do something about climate change, he shouldn't be telling ordinary Americans to eat less red meat but rather focus on environmentally beneficial policies that will also produce tangible, nonenvironmental benefits.
    Thankfully, that course of action is more viable than a lot of people on both sides of the debate seem to assume. A recent report on the "New Climate Economy," co-chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern -- a prominent economist who has historically been more pessimistic on climate change than most of his colleagues -- shows that "we can achieve both better growth and a better climate." If we focus on the right issues, "good economic actions can take us most of the way."
    To make that happen, we need to put a price on carbon emissions, invest in clean energy technology, enforce strict regulations on coal plants and much more. Mustering the political will to implement these reforms will by no means be easy. That's the battle environmentalists should be fighting.
    The problem with asking people to eat less meat, then, is not that it is a purely symbolic act, unlikely to make any real difference.
    It is that this kind of moralizing is likely to erode political support for much more important policies. Asking people to eat less meat, or to be a little cold in the winter, and to be a little hot in the summer, is the best way to get them to oppose the climate action that really matters.
    Environmentalists who cut down on personal consumption to turn themselves into "ethical consumers" are fighting a battle that is noble but ultimately irrelevant. If you deeply care about the impact that your personal lifestyle has on climate change, by all means eat less beef.
    But if you also care about building the kind of political coalition that can actually help to avert the worst consequences of climate change, do not try to impose your personal preferences and virtue on others. If you do, you are secretly sacrificing the cause you claim to hold dear.