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Around three-quarters of Americans don’t think eating meat and dairy would have any impact on climate change, according to a new survey, compared to 6 out of 10 who believed recycling is a key climate action. This is despite multiple studies proving otherwise.
Conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland last month, the poll found that only a small majority of Americans believe their individual actions can reduce their impact on climate change, with most highly uninformed about which actions are the most impactful.
The poll highlights a gap in American public thinking about the impact of their actions on climate change, and proven climate science that says otherwise. For instance, 74% of consumers believe cutting out meat won’t alter their impact on climate change, and 77% feel the same about dairy consumption. This thinking is in line with a Newsweek poll that showed 40% of Americans don’t believe eating less red meat would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
But all this is in contrast with numerous reports that show that we can avoid 100 gigatons of emissions if three-quarters of people adopt plant-rich diets by 2050, and that veganism can reduce emissions by 75% compared to meat- and dairy-heavy diets.
American perceptions on meat, dairy and climate change
This knowledge gap can be explained by the underreporting of animal agriculture’s impact on the environment. A study by Faunalytics and Sentient Media found that 93% of all climate media coverage doesn’t mention animal agriculture, despite meat and dairy production accounting for about 11-19% of global emissions.
This is exacerbated by the amount of funding received by the animal agriculture sector. A recent study found that livestock farming in the US gets 800 times more investment than plant-based and cultivated proteins. Meanwhile, 95% of all research and innovation spending went to animal farmers, aimed at improving production.
In addition, the poll results underscore a troubling reality in US politics, particularly amongst Conservatives: at last week’s primary debate, not a single one of the eight Republican presidential candidates present said yes to a question asking whether they believed humans contributed to the climate crisis, and one called climate change a hoax.
This is despite US government data showing that humans have increased atmospheric carbon by 50% since 1750, and 97% of actively publishing scientists saying that climate change is happening and caused by humans. According to NASA, there’s “unequivocal evidence” that global heating is real, and that human activity is the “principal cause”.
Separating fact from fiction
Americans similarly overestimate the impact of recycling on the environment. 59% believe recycling has an effect on climate change, but one study placed the act as the penultimate on a list of 50 actions people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Moreover, one estimate says only 35% of all waste is actually recycled, with that number dropping to just 9% for plastic waste.
Experts say flying less could majorly help cut down carbon emissions, something that most Americans polled don’t realise, with 51% saying it would make a little or no difference.
However, there are certain actions where consumer thinking conforms to scientific opinion. 62% of Americans say installing solar panels would reduce their environmental impact, and experts agree Likewise, 51% of people believe driving electric vehicles would help reduce emissions.
“People are interested in taking action,” Ann Bostrom, an environmental policy professor at the University of Washington, told the Washington Post. “But if they don’t know what’s most effective, then they don’t know what they’re accomplishing.”
Moreover, the poll found that the number of Americans who feel they can personally make a difference when it comes to climate change has reduced, from 66% in 2019 to 52% this year. Chris Field, the director of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said governmental action is key: “The most important thing anybody can do is to vote for a climate-friendly government agenda.”