Is meat really "essential," though?

Welcome to America, where we consider pork chops more important than preserving the planet's livability.

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Credit: The Economist


COVID-19 has infected more than a million people across the world. It has fundamentally altered the lives of billions. And it has shown us the dire consequences of failing to act quickly and decisively on scientific warnings about global threats.

We would be wise to learn from this mistake and apply it to the climate crisis. Because the climate crisis is not slowing down while we deal with the pandemic, and our window of time to address it is running out. If we don’t act quickly and decisively to reduce carbon emissions, climate scientists tell us millions of lives will be lost; billions more will be fundamentally altered; and economies across the world will crumble. This time, our entire habitat is at risk.

(ICYMI: We produced six-episode podcast series about the connections between coronavirus and climate change. Check it out HERE.)

Fortunately, COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to tackle both crises at once. Because the pandemic has ruined the economy, massive public investment is now required to stabilize it. We have two choices on how to use that investment: restoring the pre-coronavirus economy, or creating a new, sustainable post-coronavirus economy. We need to do the latter to solve climate change anyway, and we need to do it quickly. So why not do it now?

In addition, two of the hardest-hit industries by coronavirus are two of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry and the meat industry. Both are hemorrhaging so much cash that they’ve asked for what essentially amount to public bailouts.

If we were learning our lesson about listening to scientists, we would grant public funding to ensure worker livelihoods in the short-term—but only on the condition that the industries shift over time to become more sustainable. We would use this opportunity to protect people from health and economic devastation both now and in the future.

But we’re doing the exact opposite. Last week, Trump tweeted that his administration planned to make public funding available for the crumbling oil and gas industry; no sustainability measures mentioned.

And on Tuesday, Trump signed an order requiring meat plants to stay open during the pandemic—even though 20 meatpacking workers have died of the virus, and 6,500 meatpacking workers have already been diagnosed or placed into quarantine. The administration’s order reportedly includes funding for additional protective gear for employees, as well as health guidance; but no enforceable safety standards for workers.

The meat must keep flowing, though—because according to the Trump administration, meat is “essential” to the safety of this country. The order he signed on Tuesday invokes the Defense Production Act to classify meatpacking plants as “essential” and “critical” infrastructure. That means these facilities must remain open during the pandemic, and local health officials can’t force closures where there are COVID-19 outbreaks.

The White House says this is necessary to making sure there aren’t food shortages in America. “We see it as an urgent need, and there should not be a panic on food supply at a moment when our country is embarking on the path of recovery from the fallout of COVID,” an administration official told Axios.

But there is no evidence that a “panic on food supply” is imminent due to coronavirus’s impact on the meat industry. Yes, at least 20 meatpacking plants have closed in recent weeks because of outbreaks, the Washington Post reported, and about 25 percent of pork production is offline. But for now, that just means you might not be able to find certain cuts of pork or boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store. You know what else is hard to find at the grocery store right now? Toilet paper. But there’s no national panic over our inability to wipe our own butts. We can use tissue paper. We can eat beans.

As Judd Legum wrote in his Popular Information newsletter this morning, “If large quantities of meat do not reach a particular grocery store, it does not ‘disrupt the supply of protein’ because there are plenty of other foods with protein. No one should get sick or die, so someone else can eat a hamburger.”

Trump’s meat order not only does little to secure the nation’s food supply. It also encourages the meat industry to overproduce and emit more at a time when emissions would otherwise likely be going down. It’s been shown that people eat less meat during economic downturns; as the New York Times reports, “Americans cut back on meat in favor of eggs, nuts and legumes” during the 2008 financial crisis. “The average person went from eating more than 200 pounds of meat per year down to around 185 pounds by 2012.” Emissions associated with producing food fell roughly 10 percent over that time.

The same thing is happening with the oil and gas industry. Trump’s expected bailout comes at a time when there is significantly reduced demand for fossil fuels. Left to their own devices, emissions would likely go down, buying some time to prevent the next global health and economic catastrophe.

But in Trump’s America, it isn’t “essential” to prevent the next global health and economic catastrophe. It isn’t “essential” to protect workers, either. In Trump’s America, the most “essential” activity is bolstering the industries that financially support Donald Trump. By doing this, we are buying Trump’s re-election—and digging our own graves.

OK, that’s all for today. Thanks for reading HEATED!

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