Dear EarthTalk: I know that some people abstain from meat on Fridays for religious reasons, but what's the story behind "Meatless Mondays?"
—Sasha Burger, Ronkonkoma, NY
Meatless Monday—the modern version of it, at least—was born in 2003 with the goal of reducing meat consumption by 15 percent in the U.S. and beyond. The rationale? Livestock production accounts for one-fifth of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and is also a major factor in global forest and habitat loss, freshwater depletion, pollution and human health problems. The average American eats some eight ounces of meat every day—45 percent more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended amount.
An outgrowth of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future, the Meatless Monday project offers vegetarian recipes, interviews with experts, various resources for schools, organizations and municipalities that wish to promote the initiative—and regular updates on Facebook and Twitter. "Going meatless once a week can reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity," the group reports. "It can also help limit your carbon footprint and save resources like fresh water and fossil fuel."
The Meatless Monday concept actually dates back to World War I, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged citizens to reduce their meat, wheat and sugar intakes, since such foods took more energy to produce than others. Americans willing to cut back—even just one day a week—would be supporting the troops and helping to feed starving Europeans. To encourage participation, the FDA coined the terms "Meatless Monday" and "Wheatless Wednesday" and published vegetarian cookbooks and informational pamphlets. The campaign was resurrected briefly during World War II, but then died down.
But as Meatless Monday President Peggy Neu reports in a recent issue of E — The Environmental Magazine, today the initiative has transcended its war effort origins: "The focus for the first couple of years was health," Neu says, but the movement has begun to grow in part because of increasing awareness of the environmental impact of meat consumption.
Some of the municipalities and institutions that have signed on include the City of San Francisco, the Baltimore Public School System, and Harvard and Columbia universities (along with some two dozen other colleges). Similar campaigns have sprung up in two dozen other countries, while the city of Ghent in Belgium, Oxford University in the UK, and Israel's Tel Aviv University have also pledged to participate.
In May of 2010, a Washington Post article reported that the meat industry is feeling the heat. "Over the past year, lobbying groups including the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the Farm Bureau have launched a quiet campaign to try to reverse the momentum," reported the piece. The Animal Agriculture Alliance and the American Meat Institute have railed that Baltimore schoolchildren are being denied protein—and have urged citizens not to allow Meatless Monday to spread. But Neu says the movement is here to stay. "I want this movement to be sustainable prevention," she says, "not just a health or environmental fad."
Dear EarthTalk: I've heard of global warming, of course, but what on Earth is "global dimming?"
—Max S., Seattle, WA
Global dimming is a less well-known but real phenomenon resulting from atmospheric pollution. The burning of fossil fuels by industry and internal combustion engines, in addition to releasing the carbon dioxide that collects and traps the sun's heat within our atmosphere, causes the emission of so-called particulate pollution—composed primarily of sulphur dioxide, soot and ash. When these particulates enter the atmosphere they absorb solar energy and reflect sunlight otherwise bound for the Earth's surface back into space. Particulate pollution also changes the properties of clouds—so-called "brown clouds" are more reflective and produce less rainfall than their more pristine counterparts. The reduction in heat reaching the Earth's surface as a result of both of these processes is what researchers have dubbed global dimming.
"At first, it sounds like an ironic savior to climate change problems," reports Anup Shah of the website GlobalIssues.org. "However, it is believed that global dimming caused the droughts in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s where millions died, because the northern hemisphere oceans were not warm enough to allow rain formation." He adds that global dimming is also hiding the true power of global warming: "By cleaning up global dimming-causing pollutants without tackling greenhouse gas emissions, rapid warming has been observed, and various human health and ecological disasters have resulted, as witnessed during the European heat wave in 2003, which saw thousands of people die."
Just how big an issue is global dimming? Columbia University climatologist Beate Liepert notes a reduction by some four percent of the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface between 1961 and 1990, a time when particulate emissions began to skyrocket around the world. But a 2007 study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found an overall reversal of global dimming since 1990, probably due to stricter pollution standards adopted by the U.S. and Europe around that time.
Whether or not to try to reduce global dimming in a fast-warming world is a conundrum. Most climate scientists believe global dimming is serving to counteract some of the warming effects brought on by increased carbon emissions. "The conventional thinking is that brown clouds have masked as much as 50 percent of global warming by greenhouse gases through so-called global dimming," reports Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric chemist at California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He adds, however, that brown clouds have been known to amplify warming as a result of various environmental factors, especially in regions of southern and eastern Asia.
Some scientists have gone so far as to propose deliberate manipulation of the dimming effect to reduce the impact of global warming, in other words increasing particulate emissions. But Gavin Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist and one of the voices behind the RealClimate blog, argues that such a scheme would hardly provide a long term fix to our environmental excesses and ills and amount to a Faustian bargain, bringing with it "ever increasing monetary and health costs."
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