On a working holiday in London in 1970 I looked out my window and saw snow for the first time. The light dusting that fell overnight had settled on trees and rooves, and I thought it looked beautiful. Even the summer was chilly as I recall compared to Auckland, and the sky was mainly overcast.
More than fifty years later these memories come to mind as UK temperatures surpass 40 degrees C for the first time in history. Cases of heat exhaustion and heat stroke are increasing, and more people are drowning as they try to cool off at beaches, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
In Spain and Portugal, nearly two thousand people have died since the heatwave started at the beginning of July. In parts of southwestern France, ferocious wildfires are spreading through tinder-dry pine forests, and tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from homes and summer vacation spots. It’s as ‘hot and hell’, and it’s not only humans who are affected, but the whole biosphere.
The warming of the planet, including the intensity and frequency of wildfires, storms and drought, is negatively affecting not only us but all other beings – their lives, habitats and food sources. In Australia in 2019/2020, 97,000km2 of forest and surrounding habitats were destroyed by intense fires caused by climate change. Millions of animals, including kangaroos, koalas, possums and other endemic species burned in agony, died through smoke inhalation, or had their habitats destroyed. In the oceans, warming and acidification is causing cascading effects on marine life through changing developmental and growth patterns, mass migration, and coral bleaching to name just a few.
When it comes to containing global warming, the greenhouse gases that are of greatest concern are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. About a quarter – in New Zealand it’s a half – of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and land use activities, mostly in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. Deforestation to clear land that formerly hosted ecosystems in order to raise cattle or grow crops to feed animals is one of the direct causes, as when trees are felled they release carbon, increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Agricultural practices on animal farms also directly worsen climate change. Intensification of animal agriculture has led to billions of farm animals, mainly cows, emitting a large quantity of heat-trapping methane through their burps. Manure application, use of nitrogen in fertilizer, and nitrogen deposition are also major sources of nitrous oxide emissions in the agricultural sector.
Leading New Zealand climate scientist James Renwick warns if countries don’t get on top of their emissions the results will be “catastrophic”. I think the situation has become so critical now that it is individuals, not governments, who must lead the way. One of the easiest and most effective things we can do is to convert to a plant based diet.
Sandra Kyle is an animal activist, teacher and writer. She is the Editor of End Animal Slaughter