The environmental community rightly recognizes global warming as one of the gravest threats to the planet. Global temperatures are already higher than they have ever been in at least the past millennium, and the increase is accelerating even faster than scientists had predicted. The expected consequences include coastal flooding, increases in extreme weather, spreading disease, and mass extinctions. Unfortunately, the environmental community has focused its efforts almost exclusively on reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Domestic legislative efforts concentrate on raising fuel economy standards, capping CO2 emissions from power plants, and investing in alternative energy sources. Recommendations to consumers also focus on CO2: buy fuel-efficient cars and appliances, and minimize their use. This is a serious miscalculation. Data published by Dr. James Hansen shows that CO2 emissions are not the main cause of observed atmospheric warming. Though this may sound like the work of global warming skeptics, it isn’t: Hansen is Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies who has been called “a grandfather of the global warming theory.” Global warming experts generally accept his results. The focus solely on CO2 is fueled in part by misconceptions. It’s true that human activity produces vastly more CO2 than all other greenhouse gases put together. However, this does not mean it is responsible for most of the earth’s warming. Many other greenhouse gases trap heat far more powerfully than CO2, some of them tens of thousands of times more powerfully. When taking into account various gases’ global warming potential—defined as the amount of actual warming a gas will produce over the next one hundred years—it turns out that gases other than CO2 make up most of the global warming problem. While CO2 may have little influence in the near-term, reductions remains critical for containing climate change in the long run. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sources of non-CO2 greenhouse gases are responsible for virtually all the global warming we’re seeing, and all the global warming we are going to see for the next fifty years. If we wish to curb global warming over the coming half century, we must look at strategies to address non-CO2 emissions. The strategy with the most impact is vegetarianism.
By far the most important non-CO2 greenhouse gas is methane, and the number one source of methane worldwide is animal agriculture. Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-CO2 greenhouse gases put together. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. While atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen by about 31% since pre-industrial times, methane concentrations have more than doubled. Whereas human sources of