James Cameron: Halting Climate Change is as Simple as Changing Our Diets

James Cameron: Explorer, director and climate change activist
Director James Cameron being interviewed in California on April 8, 2014, about the climate change documentary 'Years of Living Dangerously'. Cameron believes that if we cut down on meat consumption, we could reduce the impact of climate change. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The COP21 conference on climate change runs in Paris until December 11. Newsweek will publish a series of opinion pieces throughout the event.

As COP21 continues this week in Paris, we should all be very aware that climate change isn’t some hypothetical thing that our children are going to face in the future. It’s happening now, with worsening droughts, agriculture crashes, and rising sea levels that will prompt the mass displacement of millions of people. It’s insidious and a lot like rabies, as I always say. By the time you’re symptomatic, it’s too late for a cure. I hope I’m wrong about that; we’re already symptomatic.

Even if countries do meet the emissions reduction targets that are being proposed, it’s still not going to be enough. Climate negotiators may not realize they have an additional arrow in their quiver to make up for the overage in emissions. It’s simple: change our diets.

Animal agriculture is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions through its production of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides. If you look at the forcing effect of animal agriculture—and this is just animal agriculture—it’s actually larger than the entire transportation sector.

Most governments are looking at reducing fossil fuel power generation because that’s obviously the biggest sector for greenhouse gas emissions. We need transportation, of course. But we don’t need to eat animals. I’m not saying that from an ethical, animal-rights standpoint; I’m saying it from a health standpoint. Nutritionally, we don’t need to eat animals and animal products. And we’re actually much healthier if we don’t. This has been proven; there’s a depth and breadth of scientific analysis behind that statement.

So, cutting down on animal agriculture makes sense. It’s the thermostat we can grab the quickest and change the fastest. We can all reduce the impact of climate change immediately by changing what we buy at supermarkets, what we order at restaurants—by changing what we eat.

I find that a tremendously empowering message. People have a great deal of anxiety about climate change, which often manifests as denial or a sense of helplessness. They say: “Okay it may be happening, I accept that, but what I am I supposed to do about it?”

The single biggest thing an individual can do is to shift more towards a plant-based diet. It’s a win-win. It’s a win for your health. It’s a win for the environment.

And it’s not only about emissions. About 85 percent of Amazon deforestation is directly attributable to animal agriculture. Most people think logging is to blame, but it’s not. The real culprit is clearcutting to make space for farmland either as pasturage or to grow crops like soy that are used as animal feeds.

Some of world’s biggest carbon emitters are the ones changing most rapidly toward eating more meat. China is a prime example. Back in 2012, the country’s consumption of meat was found to have quadrupled over the last 30 years. China shouldn’t imitate us. Our diet is unhealthy for us and unhealthy for the planet.

Simply by making a conscious, ethical decision about what we put on our plates, we could quite possibly change the world.

James Cameron is an explorer, award-winning director and climate change activist. The environmental group he co-founded, Food Choice Taskforce, contributed to Chatham House’s research on the issue of animal agriculture and its environmental impacts and participated in the report’s external review process.