In between urging each other to "get real about climate change," world leaders and activists attending this week's COP26 climate change conference reportedly dined on a menu including venison, haggis, burgers, and farmed salmon. "It's like serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference," Joel Scott-Halkes, a spokesperson for Animal Rebellion, told The Big Issue, which broke the story. "As long as such illogical decisions are being made, the climate emergency will never be resolved."
I don't think Scott-Halkes is far off the mark. The optics of serving dishes that exceed the carbon footprint goals of the Paris Agreement by nearly sevenfold are profoundly stupid. But choosing this menu for a climate conference also emphasizes how little thought our supposed leaders on this issue have given to vegetarianism and veganism as responses to the unfolding climate crisis.
"Meat is basically fossil fuels, except more delicious," writes Emily Atkin in her essential newsletter Heated. Yet there are few subjects more touchy, particularly among Americans, than limiting meat consumption. Even progressive climate writers and activists have dismissed plant-based diets as "virtue signaling" or a "cop-out," despite mounting evidence that animal agriculture must be drastically reduced if we're to slow our planet's warming. As Atkin goes on to note:
Industrial animal agriculture is one of the largest sources of water contamination in the country. It is a massive contributor to drought in the West; the #1 reason for Brazilian Amazon deforestation; and responsible for up to 18 percent of global carbon pollution. It has been a huge source of suffering and death for workers, particularly during the pandemic. If meat and dairy consumption continue apace, there could be an 80 percent spike in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. [Emily Atkin for Heated]
Solving the climate crisis requires people and governments to go beyond what's merely convenient and take steps that are perhaps uncomfortable, unwelcome, or disruptive to the way we've structured our lives. Short of meaningfully recognizing that, climate conferences like COP26 amount to nothing more than flashy "greenwashing," as vegan climate activist Greta Thunberg accused officials of doing on Wednesday. Serving something like farmed salmon — one of the most egregious examples of an unsustainable and environmentally-damaging agricultural practice — suggests no one at COP26 wants to do real work when they can performatively finger-wag at China instead.
A vegan menu (or even one promoting the sustainable, underutilized, and surprisingly tasty consumption of insects as a meat alternative) could have sent a message about actually getting real about climate change. Instead, we're glutted on the empty calories of hollow promises.