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A diet to save the world

Justin Rowlatt | 22:48 UK time, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Worried about your calorie count? You will be.

breakfast_bbc226.jpgThis article is about why the calories we consume make it so difficult for democratic societies to tackle climate change. If that sounds ridiculous then please bear with me.

We normally only worry about what the calories in our food will do to our waistlines, but calories can also be used to measure the energy in fuel.

What do you think your total calorie count would be if instead of calculating the energy you need to eat to stay healthy you added up all the energy you use to keep yourself warm, to travel around, to produce the food you eat and the entertainment you enjoy?

The difference between those two figures - how much it takes to keep us alive and how much energy we actually use - is a measure of the challenge that tackling global warming presents.

It also explains why democracies may never be able to get to grips with the problem.

I'll come to the actual figures soon, first let's explore the link between calorie counting and the big issues.

hob_bbc226.jpgIt's pretty simple really. In most modern societies the vast majority of the calories we use come from not from food but from fossil fuels. And fossil fuels - as everyone now knows - produce greenhouse gases which, in turn, cause climate change.

We all now also know the risks that climate change presents. We know that, if unchecked, scientists expect it to cause droughts, floods and storms which will disrupt agricultural production around the world and lead to famines, mass migration and conflict.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking he's about to lay a dieting metaphor on me. And you are right - but only up to a point.

Of course a diet is the answer. Cut out all those fossil fuel calories we use and bingo! Problem solved. My question is whether our political systems will ever be able to put us on the diet the world needs.

Anyone who has been on a diet knows how unpleasant and difficult it can be. And make no mistake this fossil fuel diet is going to be uncomfortable too.

boymeasure226.jpgFossil fuels are an extraordinarily concentrated energy source and moving to alternatives will have a cost. It will mean we have to change the way we do things, and many people will find that difficult and unsettling.

Regulating or taxing fossil fuel use will raise the price of energy and -at least in the short run - that's going to push up the price of pretty much everything.

Bizarre as it might sound, that may not actually mean we pay more. If you improve the insulation in your home or drive a more fuel efficient vehicle then energy prices can rise and you still end up paying less.

What's more higher prices for energy from fossil fuels should spur a move to renewable energy sources and make them much cheaper in the long run.

But the key point is this. Along the way it will mean some sacrifices and some big changes and many people are going to find that uncomfortable.

What is more, the systemic nature of the changes that are needed mean we can't expect individuals to do it on their own. This diet is going to have to be forced on us by government - which is where the tricky little problem of democracy comes in.

The challenge for democracy is this: will we - the electorate - ever vote for a government that will force us to use less fossil fuel?

President Obama said he'd try and do just that. You can see what happened to his promise and follow my madcap journey around America on BBC2 tonight at 7.00pm.

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Of course, democratic societies have risen to some pretty big challenges in the past. They've overcome war, depression and social upheaval.

But climate change is a bigger challenge than even a world war.

Climate change requires people to recognise the need for a unique trade-off. We need to agree to make sacrifices now - the diet - to deal with a threat that lies way in the future.

And democracies tend to be poor at long term planning. Unpopular politicians don't get elected and telling people they have to make sacrifices is not going to make a politician popular unless there is a damn good reason.

Most voters would recognise that the German army threatening to invade is a good reason. The threat of global warming is a tougher proposition.

It requires that the electorate believe the science. They need to believe that the invisible gases produced by the very activities that make modern life so comfortable will slowly make the world less and less inhabitable.

And science is contestable. Just take a look what happened when I appeared on an American talk radio show.

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Like dieters who find excuses to have that one cream cake or another glass of red wine: people are going to find excuses to avoid a fossil fuel diet.

And the tougher the diet, the more likely people are to try and avoid it. So what's our calorie count?

The average woman needs 2,000 calories a day to stay healthy. Men get a bit more. We need 2,500 calories a day.

In America the average person uses the equivalent of 216,728 calories every day, not including food - over 100 times more.

In Britain we use around half the amount of energy - a which works out at around 106,000 calories a day. It is more modest, but still a huge daily diet of calories.

So here's the big question, will democratic politicians be able to tackle climate change in societies as energy-hungry as ours?

The truth is that ultimately only you the voter can answer that question - at the ballot box.


  • Comment number 1.

    Like dieters who find excuses to have that one cream cake or another glass of red wine: people are going to find excuses to avoid a fossil fuel diet.


    You are supposed to be a journalist. Why not investigate the reality of global warming rather than accept the word of the BBC. You work for them, you know how trustworthy they are.

  • Comment number 2.

    I would think that history has shown that energy has been an evolving process. Each new type of energy has been a little more efficient and cheaper because each progression has provided for greater availability. What we have now is a problem with coal and oil providing a great deal of funds to elected officals to maintain their hold on the markets. This is what used to be called corruption in the past but now is done by registered lobbyist and for some reason makes this acceptable. If anyone would factor in the health costs assoicated with fossil fuels the figures would show that the costs, now paid by the public though health insurance, disability benefits and funeral costs, would make alternative fuels a viable alternative. But the coal and oil companies have their bought and paid for elected officals who block any attempt toward progress. Like the horse and blacksmith, one day coal and oil will disappear from the landscape but not until the corruption that maintains them can be unseated or become the paid agents for alternative fuels. Things change but corruption never does.

  • Comment number 3.

    Ironically, I run a carbon reduction programme, and our advisory manual is called Cream Cake Leadership.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why are you still spouting the untruth that there is a scientific consensus over climate change? The only consensus is that the climate DOES change; the cause of any changes or even if we are currently experiencing any change at all very much up for debate.
    There are serious holes in the MMGW theory and even more serious holes in the data.
    Go out and check the science and check the data - don't trust the likes of GreenPeace or Mann to do it for you.

    I live on this planet too, as do my children.

  • Comment number 5.

    mark 2002

    Is that when you were born, Then you are doing very well.

    For your age.

    Justin well done in not hitting that "shock jock" ( I have to say "expectedly thick as an old fashioned Ice shelf Jock" would be more appropriate) there is nothing shocking about the Thick not comprehending the complicated.

    Forum dud..

    " You are supposed to be a journalist. Why not investigate the reality of global warming rather than accept the word of the BBC. You work for them, you know how trustworthy they are."

    dud one. hate to tell you the BBC did not invent global warming.
    and apart from the american journalists that are so inquisitive that they forgot the rest of the world has been looking at the evidence for some years now but now think " this device used in Europe costs a quarter to run because it is so efficient , is great" the rest have been on board.

    You live in a nation that has "the coral ridge ministry" releasing a video on how the whole of Darwin can be called bull because there is a salt gland in a monitor lizard.
    An expensive production that is sold to americans as Science "based on christs teachings" and then you think the rest of the world should sit by as the same ignorant fools that thought palin was near acceptable(close election really) say Global warming "Ain't appening"

    THIS IS MY WORLD AS WELL AND IF YOU SCREW IT UP I WILL GET ANGRY. as many millions will. As it goes under there will be more immigrants to your neck of the wood than you can fight off with your M 16.

    PS some will have guns as well.

    So carry on ignoring Just in case it is false science.
    just as you probably carried on investing when Dick and George told you "the economy is strong"

  • Comment number 6.

    RE; the radio interview, he who screams loudest is right, take a megaphone next time, Justin! How pointless and pathetic, what was it someone said about empty vessels!
    Perhaps the scientific community is divided but something is happening to our planet and until we know more about exactly what we need to start to cut back on energy consumption. If one doctor says you have a serious heart condition and another who says you don't would you really carry on treating your body the way you have been, or would you take a more prudent and considered approach to your life until you find out for sure?

  • Comment number 7.

    You highlight an important issue. But what people seem to be missing is that food production is not the biggest contributor to climate change. It's Over-Consumption. That is truly the biggest issue we face this century. We in the western world simply consume far too much of everything, way beyond a sustainable rate. America especially. 99% of everything bought in America is consumed or thrown away within 6 months. We don't need all these things, we don't need to eat so much, but the government wont tell us to slow down because it is consumption that drives our economies.

    That said, tackling over-consumption could easily make more positive impact of reducing climate change than carbon trading or whatever other silly ideas the government will come up with.

  • Comment number 8.



    Despite what they tell you on Blue Peter, not everyone who doesn't believe in AGW is an American right wing dude. It was Enron and BP that pushed Al Gore into putting carbon trading in article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol. Hint: Enron didn't use coal.

    It was Margaret Thatcher who created the CRU in order to further her anti coal agenda (her husband was a director of Britoil). It was Thatcher who made AGW a global issue in 1989 when she addressed the UN.

    Carbon trading will be a tens of trillion dollar banking derivative scam. That's right, it is a giant corporate fraud devised by individuals a lot smarter than the average Blue Peter viewer.

  • Comment number 9.

    Actually, 1st-world diets are a similie (sp?), not a metaphor, of swinish energy use. Those who take in too many & disease-causing calories are doing to their bodies what their all their purchases are doing to the atmosphere: too much input! Vast amounts of energy embodied in material consumer goods are hidden. Far more energy is wasted in transportation, and in the massive service sector.

    The tragedy is that with 1/7,500th of the energy reaching the surface (light, wind & hydro cycle), we are destroying the beautifully biosphere (btw, which the wasteful economic activity depends on) built using just 0.5% of that insolation. I.e., our destruction is utterly unneeeded!

  • Comment number 10.

    At this latitude, even cavemen burned wood to keep warm in winter. That takes you way over the 2,500 calories per man per day.

  • Comment number 11.

    What would you propose for those of us who cant reinsulate our houses or cut our costs?
    Im a student living in London, student properties generally arent the best maintained, energy efficiency isnt the first thing on a student landlords mind.
    If the price of living was to increase I dont know how anyone under 25 living independantly in London would cope, my income is generously supplimented by my dad but at the end of the day I still have a very small amount of money left after rent / bills and food.
    We arent all middle class, 30+, and in a comfortable financial position. A lot of us have more immediate things to think of.

    Also your diet analogy is flawed as the concept of the 'diet' is flawed as it generally causes more damage and can create viscious cycles, which presumably isnt how you want the climate to end up?

  • Comment number 12.

    That's all nice to lecture us and each other on how we will have to change but who is going to make that step? Is this economy actually geared up to change at all? One of you pointed towards Thatcherite economy. What is missing is that this type of economy is sustained by the throwaway mentality. You can't buy electric goods that barely last the 12 months guaranteed, usually they break down two days after and you can't find anyone who would repair them that would worth the price of not buying a replacement. Are we going to go all the way and leave all our cars and stop buying the latest flat TV or gadget? How about TopGear, Formula 1 and the whole petrol head culture? ITV every single year sends Lawrence McGinty or Mark Longhurst to lecture us on climate change from the Arctic while they could do this from the comfort of their studio for much less carbon consumed etc. I suspect that as with many things those who are in economic and social political power can more easily tell the others what to do. All of the capitalist economy is built on consumption. I am a bit worried that people just do not understand what is required from them to achieve real change. The scenario I am thinking of is more of a communist solution than a capitalist one.

  • Comment number 13.

    you must really be committed to your job to take on the stuborn belifes of the american public

  • Comment number 14.

    Just seen your BBC2 update on your American trip.

    Where do you get the 500k attendance number for the 9/12 rally from? What's your source? The only authoritative source was the DC Fire Department and they said 70k.

    I looked in depth about how the rally numbers became inflated but yours is a new number on me, thus my interest in your source

  • Comment number 15.


    Have a walk in the fresh air away from BBC house and try to think straight.

    The UN is having a conference to save the planet from imaginery dangers. Now just think it through. A conference where they will vote on how to save the planet from imaginary dangers.

    I've seen this before in the early 80s at uni. We had a committee to save the gay whales. We had conferences, meetings, petitions.

    And you know what ? It worked.

    I don't mean it worked for gay whales. It worked for us. We felt good. Noble. Open-minded. And I met my first wife there as well. She wasn't a whale, but you could see from a distance that she was a mammal.

    Wow, dude ! A conference to save the planet.

  • Comment number 16.


    You really do need to get out more. Fresh air and real people. Maybe a walk in the park with your family.

    Then do something useful like helping an elderly neighbor with shopping or calling someone who lives alone.

    That would be more ethical than all this solipsism. Honest.

  • Comment number 17.

    There's something that crops up again and again on any blog that touches on climate and AGW (= Anthropogenic Global Warming), which I always find very frustrating. It's this: to judge whether there is scientific consensus on an issue does not involve reading an article or blog posts on the subject (although feel free to make an exception for this post if you wish!!), you need to be immersed in it. And this means working in a scientific establishment for a period of time. I wonder how many people that comment on this actually fit the bill here.

    Scientists are fiercely defensive of their status as free thinkers, and are specifically trained not to blithely accept what they see and hear, but to investigate and to challenge. I really can't stress this enough.

    But the science behind the theory that man is influencing the climate is long-established and simply isn't controversial. Moreover, as Justin rightly points out, the existence of natural variability far from rules out manmade influence. Oddly enough, scientists have spotted this!

    My experience comes from years of research in a single large, active and pretty prominent university biology department. I cannot recall a single instance in which I have come across anti-AGW sentiment in the department - and I really can't see why it should differ in that respect from any other establishments. Moreover, although papers are published that do run against the mill, their numbers and conclusions (and sometimes validity) have been insufficient to really challenge the ever-growing body of work that, collectively, supports AGW very strongly. And meanwhile, criticism of climate models and research is not just accepted, climate scientists recognise that it is only through this process that the science and the models have been improved over the years.

    The consensus is real. Justin's experience is a neat (if extreme) illustration that sometimes the non-consensus view just shouts louder.

  • Comment number 18.

    Great article Justin. The point you made very well is that unless pretty much the majority of people trust the science that has concluded that mankind's activities are leading to global warming. For the record, I'm a scientist at UC berkeley, who contrary to many people posting here, has examined the evidence, arguments, hypothesis and data and has to conclude man-made global warming is a reality. But that is besides the point. Seeing the rather heated reception you had on that radio show, the scientific community still has a long way to go to convince the majority of the population. I still believe that people will believe, after all people could be persuaded to use seatbelts, but scientists will have to convince them, and prove the various other hypothesis (sunspot activity, cyclical changes, etc.) wrong.

  • Comment number 19.

    Leaving aside the debate about whether global warming exist and whether it is man made..... I mean, let's assume for a minute both those things are true..... so what?

    So WHAT?

    OK, it is getting warmer. I can dig it. Loads of folks doing their thing. And the world is getting warmer.

    I just can't see the leap of faith from this point..... and it is only a hypothetical at this stage.... to the bit where the self appointed experts start raving and ranting about the end of the world.

    We go from "It is getting a bit warmer, and humans are a part of that" straight to ... DOOOOM!! DOOM! WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!!! DOOM!!

    How does that work? This is where the really heads in the fridge crazy weirdness posing as science comes into play. OK, i can see why folks think global warming is real. Myself, I understood the earth routinely goes through ice ages and warm periods. Indeed, the greenhouse periods are precisely how the fossil fuels are created. So ok, i get the warming bit. And sure, there are a lot of folks doing a lot of stuff. And sure, that may generate some extra heat. Now I don't think it is enough to affect the natural cycles of heating and cooling for the globe,..... but what the heck! Let's just agree that is DOES affect the natural cycles of the earth.

    Cool. All cool and groovy. So how do we then get to THE END OF THE WORLD IS COMING!!!!! DOOOM! DOOM! EVERYONE IS GOING TO DROWN!!!! ALL THE CROPS WILL DIE!!!!



    Even if it were true, how would these people know one way or another? Last time I heard, global warming made the air warmer. It didn't give idiots crystal balls. So where does all the doom shouting come from? What is the origin of the panic?

    I'll tell you: Global warming is the new stupid. It is the new BIG STUPID IDEA. A lot of fundamentally stupid people have become embarrassed with their beliefs in UFO's and the god thing, and now they have found a new stupid. A big one.

    And what do stupid people do? Right! They scream DOOM!!! whensoever their preacher tells them the end of the world is nigh.

    If you listened to these idiots carefully, we would all be dead already from AIDS, from god, from Alien abduction, from nuclear power station meltdowns and from .... from everything!! Sooner or later, the hoards of idiots make anything and everything the new big stupid fashion craze.

    So keep shouting about the doom, you freaks. Keep shouting it, and make sure we can see who you are.

    Pretty soon you are going to work out everyone is laughing like hell at you, and then you are going to slink off into the idiot rooms and find the next big stupid idea.

  • Comment number 20.

    We can do it. "More carbon is generated growing animals for food than all of transportation combined." It takes 18 lbs of grain for 1 lb of beef, 8 lbs of grain for 1 lb of pork, 4 lbs of grain for 1 lb of turkey, ... Just eat the grain. A fraction of the carbon will be generated. Well, really, vegetables including green leafy & legumes, fruits, whole grains, some nuts. Benefits galore. In 1917 Albert Schweitzer noted that cancer was virtually unknown in Africans on plant food diets. Evidence & research pile up, check Jane Plant CBE and also "The China Study" both on Amazon. The meat, egg, fish, and dairy "Industry Inc." are more dedicated to profit than to global warming. Plant food diet would go a long way to addressing the arable land shortage in view of increasing overpopulation.

  • Comment number 21.


    Here's an ethical dilemma:

    What is the ethical position for 50% atheists living with 50% religionists ?

    What if the god-botherers want to blame you for the gods getting angry ? Do you humour them or tell them to shove it ?

  • Comment number 22.

    How, in the light of your article, do you justify calling yourself an "Ethical Man" when you have three children. The overwhelming problem of the world is too many people, and you have personally set the world on course for a 50% increase in population.

    If we all decrease our impact on the planet by 50% we will still not keep up with the increasing impact of the projected population.

  • Comment number 23.

    Mr Rowlett would not be very ethical if he trying to reduce the number of children he has now.

    And just like Mr Rowlett, there is not much the world can do about population. China still grew from 1 billion to 1.2 billion under a one child rule.

    Our only real choice, is to reduce our 'impact' on the planet by 100%
    (use sewage for fertilizer, eliminate pollution, end habitat destruction, etc.)

    People do not pollute, cars, trucks and factories do.

  • Comment number 24.

    I just watched your programme 'Can Obama save the planet'. It is an unashamed, unalloyed, unvarnished, absolute propaganda exercise designed to massage you own ego!
    Biased is not a strong enough word to describe the content....out of a 60 minute programme, less than 6 minutes was given to the opponents of AGW.
    But this is hardly surprising when viewed in the context of the BBC report: “From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel-Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century” published June 2007 which concluded,
    ‘There may be now a broad scientific consensus that climate change is definitely happening and that it is at least predominantly man-made… the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus’.
    Presumably this is the reason why we cannot expect the BBC to investigate (with the same vigour as 'Can Obama save the planet')the outrageous behaviour of the (so-called) scientists at the Climatic Research Unit in Norwich.

  • Comment number 25.

    Peter #17

    "But the science behind the theory that man is influencing the climate is long-established and simply isn't controversial".

    Oh yes it most certainly is controversial. As a physicist I know it is full of flaws (and the climate obeys the laws of physics).

    I have immersed myself in physics for years, but not at a taxpayer-funded university, where scientific enquiry seems (according to you) to have gone by the board in favour of consensual science. Shame on you for following the herd-instinct and not your scientific, enquiring, sceptical instinct.

    Scientists are sceptical by nature and should be by training. Remember, if you are not sceptical, then the opposite of sceptical, which is gullible, may apply.

  • Comment number 26.

    This whole article by Justin Rowlatt is a load of scientific nonsense and an appeal to authority. Is there no-one in the BBC who understands science.

    Why, Justin aren't you investigating the biggest scandal in modern science - Climategate, the scam involving scientists at the CRU, in the USA and now revealed in New Zealand?

  • Comment number 27.

    Justin: What's ethical about cutting your carbon emissions? CO2 is good for the plant life and hence for us humans. Anyone who is arrogant enough to think we can tackle climate change has to be a tiny bit .... Don't you know how powerful the forces of nature are? If you were really interested in ethics, you would be after the people at CRU who break the law with regard to the FOIA.

  • Comment number 28.

    Cat got your tongue, Justin?

  • Comment number 29.

    Hang in there Justin. Just because a few vocal skeptics are too stubborn to see the truth, does not mean that you need to respond to questions you have already answered.

  • Comment number 30.

    23. At 11:06am on 26 Nov 2009, Donald Rennie wrote:
    People do not pollute, cars, trucks and factories do.

    Agreeing with your earlier point totally, but I do have then to move on to the last and wonder what the emissions from these inanimate entities are in the service of, if not ever more consumers? There seems a quaint disconnect between people, GHGs, reductions and economic targets.

    Also appears that, along with many closed minds, not only the science is settled, but the media is too.

    Perhaps not the best foundations to head into major negotiations on behalf of a public who might be wondering what tune or politicians and major media are dancing to?

    I'm sorry, but this quaint habit of the establishment of 'moving on' when things get inconvenient is tainting already rather soiled professional integrity and reducing my confidence in giving any mandate to act on my behalf accordingly.

    Questions do need to be asked. And more are arising. Especially when what is 'true' seems often an elusive target. I have not heard anything like the answers I'd like answered, much as some may wish it.

  • Comment number 31.

    Some Climate Change sceptics try to rubbish talk of a scientific consensus. I think they should stop and look at all the scientists who do believe that climate change is happening, and the massive amount of CO2 mankind has pumped into the atmosphere over the last 100 years or so is responsible for it. Theres an enormous amount of scientists, and scientific bodies who believe that after having looked at the evidence. Theres probably more dissenters about the link between smoking and lung cancer than there is for man-made climate change. There will always be people (even eminent people with qualifications) who will dissent, but truly, in the whole of scientific hisotry, there has never been this amount of consensus. A point I often make to members of the public who show scpetism about man-made climate change is this: Isn't it a good idea to reduce energy consumption to save money? Isn't it a good idea to find alternatives to finite limited resources? Isn't it a good idea to leave our planet in teh same state we found it in? Of course it is. If we do all those things, we also solve something which some people think is a problem and other people don't. But either way, the planet is better off.

  • Comment number 32.

    An American said recently, "We don't need less energy, we need different energy".

    We don't need this diet, we need nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels until atleast 2050, after which time other possibilities may exist.

    We need to use this electricity to heat our homes instead of gas, and to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, the former to fuel our road transport.

    At 2009 prices it might be more expensive, but given the expected price increases in fossil fuels by 2015, when new nuclear power stations come on stream it will actually be cheaper. Further new nuclear power is much safer than the old 50 year old technology - I mean you wouldn't watch a 1950's TV.

    The Eco-terrorists tell us wind power can meet all of our needs, but then their definition of our needs are based on getting up when the sun rises going to bed a few hours after it sets and none of todays electronics.

  • Comment number 33.

    Before you get excited about global warming lets reflect on the year 2000 when we were conned into believing our computers would destroy the world or something like that.
    Before we spend billions of dollars lets work out what will give us the best outcome.
    Certainly paying for carbon as a tzx will only benefit the tax collectors.

  • Comment number 34.

    A lot of people do not understand latent heat. This is the heat absorbed during a change of state from solid to liquid that is not measurable by temperature change. In the example of ice to water, 100 calories is absorbed per gram of ice to change to the water state without recording any temperature change.

    Apply that to all of the glacial melt, all of the polar ice melt and all of the permafrost melt, and think of all the heat that has been absorbed to do that without significant increase in temperature.

    When the ice disappears from the earth the rapidity of temperature rise will be at a rate to make it evident, even to the most skeptic among us,that some behavioral changes are necessary. Oops it will be to late.

  • Comment number 35.

    Thanks a lot for the great and informative post. I am very interested in all diets so it was really useful to read your post. For me burning calories is the main aim in the life for the moment. Well reading your post I have found some useful things and I will definitely use them in my diet. thanks a lot one more time.

  • Comment number 36.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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