Faces of Climate Change: Cause and Effect

by Karen E. Lange

Our way of life, including heavy consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products, is a major contributor to global warming. Just as cars and power plants release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so does animal agriculture. CO2 emissions are produced by the clearing of forests for farmland, and by the burning of fossil fuels to power machinery and produce fertilizer to grow grain for animals. Nitrous oxide is generated by these same fertilizers, used to boost nitrogen in soils. Methane is released by farm animals and their manure. According to a U.N. estimate, one-fifth of human-caused greenhouse gases worldwide—9 percent of carbon dioxide, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide—come from livestock production. Methane has more than 20 times the global warming potential of CO2 over 100 years; nitrous oxide has about 300.

The resulting changes in climate may affect every creature on the planet. Not just animals in exotic locales, but people, their pets, and backyard wildlife. Hurricanes, floods, mudslides, wildfires, and blizzards may strike more often and with greater severity, putting human and animal lives at risk. Ranges and migrations will shift. Habitat for many species will shrink.

While the issue of climate change has divided many lawmakers and members of the public, the consequences—and potential consequences—for wild animals are too great to ignore. Along with actions like reducing automobile usage, here’s how you can make a difference.

FIGHT FACTORY FARMING: Reduce the amount of animal products you eat. A shift to more plant-based foods can cut greenhouse gas emissions. Urge your members of Congress to move forward with meaningful legislation to curb global warming. Insist that they allow the Environmental Protection Agency to help address the crisis through actions like measuring the amount of greenhouse gases released by factory farms, says Mimi Brody, director of federal affairs for The HSUS.

HELP WILDLIFE: Observe birds in your backyard. Researchers depend on data from citizen scientists to see what’s happening over large geographical areas, says Ben Zuckerberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Get involved by signing up to participate in projects such as Cornell’s Project FeederWatch and eBird and the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Also landscape with native trees, shrubs, and grasses, says John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife for The HSUS. Animals have already lost so much living space to expanding cities and suburbs, pollution, logging and mining, and the conversion of forests, grasslands, and wetlands into farms. “The more habitat that exists that is supportive of diversity, the more these species can take a hit,” says Hadidian.

DEVELOP A DISASTER PLAN: Be prepared to take pets with you during evacuations or to care for them indoors if you take shelter at home. Create a pet emergency kit with enough food, water, and medication for three days. Take pictures of your pets and put collars on them so you can find them if they become lost.

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