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September 20, 2014


How NPR’s Science Friday Goofed

by Anne Paddock

On NPR‘s Science Friday program (“your trusted source for news and entertaining stories about science”) yesterday, Ira Flatow, the show’s host, aired a segment entitled “The People’s March Against Climate Change.”  The two guests on the show were Bill McKibben (author of Eaarth, co-founder of and distinguished scholar at Middlebury College) and Peter deMenocal (an environmental scientist and professor at Columbia University) who both spoke about the importance of the People’s Climate March to be held this Sunday in New York City to bring a public voice to the climate change discussion. McKibben is one of the organizers of the march and deMenocal was on the show to explain why he, as a scientist has decided to participate in the march.

The segment lasted about 12 minutes with both guests emphasizing the importance of the upcoming march – not because they believe any specific solutions will come out of the event but because the march will bring attention to climate change ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York next week. As the environmentalists pointed out, most people don’t see the prospect of a 2-3 degree temperature change really affecting them but if we collectively look at what is happening around the globe – the floods in Manila and Pakistan and the severe drought in California – then we gain a better understanding of why we need to take action. Turning the discussion away from global warming and towards what people care about: access to food, water, and shelter and having sustainable energy is deMenocal’s recommendation because all the individual problems are wrapped up in the big picture of climate change.

When asked by Flatow what any individual person can do and if any one person can really make a difference, McKibben said (and I paraphrase) that you as an individual can’t really do that much. Change your lightbulbs, yes but more importantly “join together with other people in a movement big enough to change what is a structural systemic problem.” But, what exactly is a structural systemic problem?

I was waiting to hear one of the guests say that each of us can individually make a difference by reducing his/her reliance on animal agriculture because the livestock industry is responsible for at least 51% of the greenhouse emissions (according to the World Watch report “Livestock and Climate Change” authored by Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland) or because animal agriculture uses 10 times as much water as domestic home use and requires anywhere from 20 – 100 pounds of grain and upwards of 2,500 gallons of water to make one pound of meat, but animal agriculture was never mentioned and in not being mentioned, the guests missed a huge opportunity to get listeners to think about how their eating habits affect the environment.

Why wasn’t animal agriculture mentioned? Peter deMenocal spent time talking about how scientists rarely participate in marches that support their research either because they are too busy or because they don’t have the courage. In the movie “Cowspiracy,” the filmmakers criticize the environmental organizations (The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Oceana, Amazon Watch and more) for not being more vocal about the effects of animal agriculture on our environment for fear of alienating their core and potential donor base, most of whom consume animal products. To risk alienating these supporters would put their funding sources in danger and so they focus on the other issues, similar to talking about lightbulbs instead of animal agriculture on NPR‘s Science Friday program yesterday.

People are not going to stop eating animal products but they can be encouraged to reduce their consumption to save our environment. Instead of consuming animal products every day, a person could switch to every other day replacing meat and dairy products with more grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and non-dairy milks like almond, soy, rice, or hemp milk. What seems impossible, really isn’t. Change doesn’t happen overnight; progress can be gradual but first the knowledgeable need to be courageous enough to inform the public of what they may not want to hear.

If you see something, say something.                                                                                                                                   ~Peter deMenocal

  1. Sep 20 2014

    James: I don’t know if you are affiliated or work within the animal agriculture industry which provides a counter argument to Goodland and Anhang’s study in the form of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report in 2013 ( that disputes the 51% and claims the emission figure is 18%. Whether the figure is 18% or 51%, animal agriculture is having a negative (both numbers support a negative conclusion) impact on the environment. Even if the emissions figures are disregarded and instead, we look at how much water and grain it takes to make 1 pound of meat, it would be difficult for anyone to argue we should continue to consume animal products over plants.

    The point of my post is this: there was an opportunity for the environmentalists on Science Friday’s program to say that individuals can make a difference by reducing their consumption of animal products, and they didn’t even mention it. If you have an argument to support the conclusion that animal agriculture is not harming our environment, please feel free to share the data.

  2. James
    Sep 20 2014

    What makes you think that the Goodland and Anhang study is “science”? They obtain their figure in part through inconsistent accounting (despite arguing for the use of the higher 20 year global warming potential for methane, they only adjust the 37 percent of human methane emissions from livestock using the higher figure and despite using emission figures from the year 2000 as their starting point, they only adjust for subsequent increases until 2009 for livestock emissions). They also misrepresent the Kyoto framework (which expresses targets explicitly in terms of the 100 year GWPs and adopts IPCC GHG inventory methodologies, which explicitly exclude livestock respiration) and misuse Calverd’s back-of-the envelope calculation to obtain an estimate of respiration that is three times higher than that reported in the FAO study they criticize (while never even mentioning that thisestimate exists).

  3. Sep 20 2014

    Thanks Sherry.

  4. Sherry
    Sep 20 2014


  5. Sep 20 2014

    Thanks Kathy. Science Friday is one of my favorite shows. As I was listening to the segment yesterday I kept waiting and waiting to hear them mention animal agriculture and the topic wasn’t even mentioned. I even pulled over to the side of the road to try and call in but I had no cell service.

  6. Kathy Lubin
    Sep 20 2014

    Excellent, Anne!

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