THE BLOG
12/01/2014 02:12 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

The Solution to Climate Change Isn't Difficult -- It's Delicious

Mercy For Animals

Solution aversion. That's what Duke University researchers call our society's collective refusal to address climate change. Their recent study found that people don't deny a warming earth on scientific grounds -- they deny it because they just don't like the solutions.

But what if the solution to climate change isn't actually burdensome? What if instead of complicating and disrupting our lives it enriches them and makes us happier and healthier? What if it's delicious?

We don't have to relinquish our cars, move to the woods, and get off the grid to conquer climate change. The real solution is simple and easy: eat plants.

Though the figures vary, World Bank scientists have attributed up to 51 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the livestock industry. The cows, pigs, chickens and other animals raised for food across the globe -- and the industry of which they're a part -- contribute more to rising temperatures and oceans than all the planes, cars, trucks, boats and trains in the world.

How could this possibly be the case? Much of the impact stems from the process of growing grains to feed the many billions of animals that eventually reach our plates. Fields of corn and soy are heavily doused with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and then plowed, irrigated, harvested and transported with fossil fuel-powered machines.

Once these grains reach the farms, which are almost always massive facilities heated, cooled and lit by fossil fuels, animals digest them, and in the process, belch and excrete methane. Many times more potent than CO2 in climate change-causing potential, methane exudes from the animals and their waste, which is often stored in enormous, open-air pits. Finally, the animals are transported in trucks to petro-powered slaughterhouses, packed, shipped and stored with even more emissions.

All told, this process makes meat, dairy and other animal products far more carbon-intensive than producing plants for humans to eat directly. It takes an average of 28 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of meat protein for human consumption. Compare that to just 3.3 fossil fuel calories to produce a calorie of protein from grains.

That's why the United Nations has stated plainly that "a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products" is necessary to avert the worst environmental impacts -- including climate change.

This sounds daunting, but would such a global shift be so difficult? Is it something we should dread or embrace?

It turns out that eating vegan has never been easier or more enjoyable. The number of vegan and veg-friendly restaurants is skyrocketing across the world, as is the number, variety and quality of vegan products, like plant-based milks and meat alternatives appearing in grocery stores everywhere. Vegan food is quickly becoming a culinary phenomenon, enchanting even world-renowned chefs at the most famous restaurants.

But it doesn't have to be fancy or expensive, and it's certainly not a rarity. A bowl of rice, beans and veggies is one of the cheapest meals you could eat, and vegan fare is a feature of almost every global cuisine: Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian and even Italian.

Going vegan brings other benefits, too. Eating plants spares animals from a lifetime of suffering on factory farms and from often painful deaths. Cows, pigs, chickens and the other animals whose bodies and by-products we eat are just as sensitive and intelligent as the dogs and cats we love. It's also the healthiest diet: Those who cut out meat, dairy and eggs live longer and enjoy far lower rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.

In the race against climate change, there's certainly a place for electric cars and scaling back consumption. But the best solution requires neither cutting-edge technology nor a reclusive, monk-like lifestyle. It's something every individual can do -- and it's something we can all savor at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Nathan Runkle is the founder and president of Mercy For Animals, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies.