Animals: The Forgotten Victims of Climate Change

By: Emily Lively

For many, human-induced climate change is most commonly associated with vehicle emissions and industrialization. However, it is our exploitation of animals in the agricultural industry that poses one of the greatest threats.

Industrial animal confinement is one of the leading contributors to anthropogenic climate change.[1] In fact, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production at industrial confinement facilities far exceeds emissions from transportation.[2] Animal confinement operations emit substantial amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.[3] It is estimated these operations account for roughly 18% of worldwide emissions each year.[4]

Globally, approximately 56 billion animals are raised for food annually.[5] It takes approximately 80 percent of global soybean crops and half the world’s corn to feed these animals until they reach a suitable weight to be slaughtered for their meat.[6] This unnaturally high-protein diet leads to roughly 86 million metric tons of methane emissions released from animal waste annually.[7]

Global meat demand continues to skyrocket and with it the number of animal confinement facilities. The industrial confinement agriculture industry is growing at double the rate of traditional farming and six times the rate of animal grazing facilities.[8] Livestock inventories at animal production facilities are anticipated to double by 2050.[9] As the animal agricultural industry rapidly rises, so too do greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, propelling the Earth that much closer to irreparable harm.[10]

Beyond animal confinement operations themselves, deforestation associated with animal agriculture is a driving source of greenhouse gas emissions as well.[11] Livestock production operations cover roughly one-third of the Earth’s landmass.[12]  Forest conversion into cropland and grazing pastures for these operations contributes approximately 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.[13] Not to mention, soil cultivation required to prepare cropland emits an additional 28 million metric tons.[14]

Lost in this seemingly endless cycle of demand, production, and emissions release are the animals. Not only are they exploited as drivers of climate change by humans, but they also find themselves vulnerable victims to the consequences of anthropogenic climate change.[15]

Earth’s sixth mass extinction event is already underway as a result of human-induced climate change.[16] Since 1970, nearly half the world’s mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, and aquatic species have all gone extinct.[17] It is estimated that approximately 24 percent of all animal species on Earth will be on track for extinction by 2050.[18]

In addition to biodiversity loss, animal populations are particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather events associated with climate change. Wild, captive, and domestic animals all face threats from wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves, floods, and other natural disasters.[19]

Disaster responses are primarily centered around humans, leaving many animals stranded.[20] Unlike humans, animals have no means to plan for the effects of climate change.[21] When a natural disaster strikes, wild animals often drown, burn to death, find themselves buried alive, or suffer severe smoke inhalation.[22] Even when wildlife survives a natural disaster, they often suffer major injuries, long-term respiratory disease, or malnutrition.[23] In the wake of some natural disasters, animals can end up poisoned by contaminated food and water sources.[24]

Domestic animals rarely fare better, with many owners willing to abandon their pets to fend for themselves when disaster strikes.[25] In the aftermath of hurricanes, for example, rescuers routinely find animals stranded on rooftops or clinging for their lives on floating debris.[26] Thousands more perish in the resulting floods.[27] Even more tragic, some animals are left tied up or confined in cages or pens, with no possible means to escape and no chance to survive.[28] During Hurricane Katrina, the death toll of companion pets totaled roughly 250,000.[29] This number does not even include farm animals or animals used for research and entertainment purposes.[30]

Animals undergo immense suffering in industrial confinement facilities to satisfy the world’s insatiable desire for meat products. Such intensive livestock production operations release millions upon millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, leading to increasingly intense natural disasters, which in turn leads to more animal suffering. And on and on the cycle goes. Yet, despite being at the forefront of such a vicious cycle, animal suffering is routinely absent from the climate change discussion. Much like their companions left clinging to debris in the middle of a flash flood, when it comes to climate change, animals across the globe are routinely left on their own – abandoned and forgotten.

Image from FIREPAW

[1] Jonathan Lovvorn, Climate Change Beyond Environmentalism Part I: Intersectional Threats and the Case for Collective Action, 29 Geo. L.J. 1, 40 (2016).

[2] David N. Cassuto, The CAFO Hothouse: Climate Change, Industrial Agriculture, and the Law, Animals & Society Inst. 1, 6 (2010).

[3] Id. at 5.

[4] Id.

[5] Gowri Koneswaran & Danielle Nierenberg, Global Farm Animal Production and Global Warming: Impacting and Mitigating Climate Change, 116 Env’t Health Persp. 578, 578 (2008).

[6] Id. at 579.

[7] Id. at 580.

[8] Cassuto, supra note 2.

[9] Id; Koneswaran & Nierenberg, supra note 5.

[10] Cassuto, supra note 2.

[11] Koneswaran & Nierenberg, supra note 5.

[12] Id. at 579.

[13]  Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Lovvorn, supra note 1.

[16] Id. at 43.

[17] Id. at 42.

[18] Id. at 48.

[19] Id. at 50.

[20]  Id.

[21]  Lovvorn, supra note 1.

[22] Animal Ethics, Animals In Natural Disasters, Animal Ethics, https://www.animal-ethics.org/wild-animal-suffering-section/situation-of-animals-wild/animals-natural-disasters/ (last visited Feb. 27, 2021).

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id; PETA, Urgent! Cruel and Criminal to Abandon Animals During Hurricane Florence, PETA (Sept. 10, 2018), https://www.peta.org/media/news-releases/urgent-cruel-and-criminal-to-abandon-animals-during-hurricane-florence/.

[26] PETA, supra note 24.

[27] Animal Ethics, supra note 21.

[28] PETA, supra note 24.

[29] Lovvorn, supra note 1.

[30] Id. at 50.

 

3 comments

  1. It is a shame the lack of regulatory assistance for confined animals within CAFOs. A recent proposal, the Federal System Reform Act (FSRA) attempts to further regulate CAFOs responsible for such extinctions. Yet, the Act makes no mention of animal welfare.

  2. Hi Emily!

    I thought your connection of how one kind of animal suffering leads to another totally different kind of animal suffering was really interesting. It is unfortunate that we as humans have not only subjected animals to suffering but then put our planet in jeopardy for our own desire to eat those suffering animals. And the first time you try to tell someone that them eating meat is part of the reason their house flooded, they will laugh and continue to eat their hamburger. In addition, it is so true that these poor animals do not have the resources to cope with the changing climate that we humans do, and it is terrible that we continue to turn a blind eye to all the animals suffering as a result of our choices.

  3. What an important contribution! The loss of biodiversity has become increasingly important in the age of zoonotic diseases. The protection of animal health is vital in the protection of human health.

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