The year is 2021, and the world is going down a pretty dismal street. Wildfires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other extreme weather patterns are popping up worldwide.
Climate change is real, and we are right smack in the middle of it.
But first, what is climate change?
The Earth’s climate is constantly changing. In the last 650,000 years, the planet has seen seven cycles of glacial advance and melt. After the last ice age, about 11,700 years ago, human civilization started to take shape.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most people were farmers or craftsmen like jewelers and blacksmiths. They worked as families or couples, rarely traveling beyond their villages.
The Industrial Revolution that started in the mid-18th century was a major turning point in humanity’s history. Machines did the work of people, factories popped up worldwide, and families moved towards the cities and away from their homes.
Because of the increased burning of fossil fuels to feed these new factories, greenhouse gases were already warming our oceans in the early 1800s.
However, the current warming trend is said to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century. It is now accelerating at an unprecedented pace. There is evidence that the current warming is ten times faster than it was just after the last Ice Age. In addition, we are emitting 250 times more carbon dioxide.
The most significant contributor to this warming is the emission of greenhouse gases into the world’s atmosphere.
The Greenhouse Effect
Certain gases like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other industrial gases collect in our Earth’s atmosphere and trap heat from the sun, similar to the glass windows of a greenhouse.
These gases are known as greenhouse gases, and they have been making our climate warm enough for habitation for millions of years. Without the greenhouse gases, the average temperature on the planet would be -18 Celsius.
Some greenhouse gases come from natural sources like water vapor from the air, carbon dioxide from the breaths of all living things, and methane from decomposition.
However, those gases are now out of balance and threatening all living things on this planet. Carbon dioxide emissions are at an all-time high, and together with methane, accounts for 90% of all greenhouse gases.
Key greenhouse gases include:
Carbon Dioxide – CO2 is responsible for 75% of all emissions and stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. It comes mainly from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gas, and wood.
Methane – CH4 makes up about 16% of emissions and comes from decomposition in landfills, the petroleum industry, and the animal agriculture industry.
Nitrous Oxide – N2O accounts for about 6% of emissions and comes from fertilizers, manure, and burning agricultural waste and fuel.
Industrial Gases – Fluorinated gases such as hydro-fluorocarbons are used in refrigerants and solvents. They make up about 2% of all gases.
The increase in greenhouse gases has caused the global warming trend we are in the midst of today. The typical weather patterns we have had over the last few decades are changing worldwide.
Deforestation and Climate Change
Trees have the unique capability to absorb carbon dioxide and create a “carbon sink”. Cutting trees releases the carbon they contain into the atmosphere, further contributing to levels of greenhouse gases in the air.
Deforestation on its own creates about 10% of all worldwide emissions annually.
Up until around 1980, deforestation was thought to be the leading cause of global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions have now surpassed it.
Deforestation also has a devastating effect on wildlife and biodiversity, with many habitats lost. Animals are pushed out of the forest and into surrounding environments, disrupting the ecosystems and increasing the number of endangered or extinct species.
The primary causes of deforestation today are:
Agriculture – Slash and burn agriculture is still practiced widely around the world, particularly in developing nations. Trees are cut and the remains set on fire, making the soil more fertile by providing nitrogen and other nutrients.
If the fire spreads accidentally to other areas, it burns through the canopies that protect the forest from sun exposure and results in a more vulnerable area to wildfires. In addition, the smoke rises above the land and prevents rainfall, making the area even drier.
Once the nutrients in the soil are used up, farmers pack up and move on to the next section of the rain forest, doing the same to other untouched areas.
Livestock – Many farmers raise cows and other livestock on deforested land. Corporations like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Burger King have been linked to causing deforestation in the Amazon rain forest for years before mainstream media highlighted it in recent years.
70% of the Amazon was cleared to provide enough room to raise animals and feed crops.
Logging – The demand for wood and pulp products has never been higher. The practice of “clear-cutting” is when a section of the forest is left entirely without trees. Some areas of cleared forests are possible to remediate; that is, to re-plant trees.
However, often, only one species of tree is planted in a clear-cut forest area. The environment can only support flora and fauna that grow in tangent with certain trees, leading to a loss in biodiversity.
Overpopulation – Housing areas are expanding, while infrastructure to support our ever-increasing population must be built. More towns and bigger cities being built means farmlands have to move outwards to more rural areas, clearing the forests in its path.
A 1% increase in population has shown to result in a 2.7% increase in deforestation.
Fewer Trees, Less Oxygen
In addition to increasing the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, deforestation decreases the amount of oxygen.
Trees emit oxygen due to a process called photosynthesis, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.
Approximately half of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean through phytoplankton photosynthesis, while half comes from land-based trees, plants, shrubs, and bushes.
Lower oxygen levels are a leading cause of poor air quality in deforested areas.
Effects of Climate Change
The years 2016 and 2020 are tied for the hottest years on record. Since the late 19th century, the average surface temperature rose about 1.18 degrees Celsius.
The oceans absorb some of the heat, with the top 100 meters of water showing warming of more than 0.33 degrees Celsius since 1969. The planet stores about 90% of the heat in the ocean. Warmer oceans contain less oxygen. Some areas in the Baltic Sea, Japan, and Taiwan see decreased fish populations because of the lower oxygen levels.
Between 2016 and 2017, half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef were killed by two separate heat waves. Almost three-quarters of the global reefs are affected by heatwaves.
When the glaciers melt, the sea levels rise. Data from NASA shows that Greenland loses 279 billion tons of ice each year while Antarctica loses 148 billion tons.
Glaciers worldwide are melting, including those from the Alps, Himalayas, Alaska, Andes, and Africa.
Permafrost is melting in Canada, Russia, and Alaska, disrupting ecosystems and increasing bacterial activity in the soil. These areas are now becoming carbon sources instead of carbon sinks. Eventually, permafrost melting will cause methane gas to release into the atmosphere.
Rising Sea Levels
As the oceans heat up, water expands. A combination of melting ice and more water is causing sea levels to rise. Scientists predict that by the end of the 21st century, sea levels could rise 0.4 to 1.2 meters, displacing millions of people and creating more “climate refugees”.
International laws do not protect climate refugees, so developed nations won’t have to grant them entry into their borders.
If Greenland melts entirely, which could happen in 140 years, half of the world’s population will have to move to higher ground.
Wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods, and intensified hurricanes are all a result of climate change.
Warming temperatures can change rainfall patterns and lead to more evaporation. Some parts of the world will experience more rainfall while other parts get drier.
The increased intensity of wildfires also leads to an increase in carbon dioxide. Australia, California, and British Columbia have all reported the worst cases of wildfires in the last decade.
Scary Facts About Climate Change
The 20 hottest recorded years have been in the last 22 years.
Extinction is a natural process that claims about five species of plants and animals a year. However, the rate of extinction has accelerated more than 1,000 times. By the middle of the 21st century, 30 to 50% of animals and plants might go extinct.
The last ten years have all made record books for the worst years in wildfires, with 2020 being the worst of them all. July 2021 is the worst July on record, beating the previous high in 2014.
Hurricanes are increasing in intensity, with more category 4 and 5 hurricanes have been recorded over the last 30 years.
The United States has 5% of the world’s population but contributes to 22% of emissions. The top four countries responsible for emissions are China, the United States, India, and Russia.
The agriculture industry contributes to 16% of emissions worldwide. This is roughly equal to every single vehicle on the planet.
In this study, NASA found that 2010 to 2019 was the hottest decade ever recorded.
There are about 600,000 fatalities directly attributed to climate change each year, with 95% of them coming from developing countries.
What Is Being Done?
It is fortunately not all doom and gloom. For decades, scientists have been studying the effects of climate change and proposing ways to reverse or slow the effects.
Humanity as a whole has acknowledged that the problem is real, and nations are taking steps to combat the looming threat.
Global efforts to combat climate change began in 1992 with the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and ratified in 2005. In a nutshell, it recognizes that developed countries are responsible for most of the emissions and commits these countries to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to individual targets. Currently, there are 192 countries in the Protocol.
The Protocol has a strict monitoring, review, and verification system, holding all countries responsible for compliance.
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 by 196 countries, the largest number to ever sign an international treaty. The main goal of the legally binding treaty was to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by lowering gas emissions.
As a follow-up to the Paris Agreement, world leaders will gather in Glasgow at the end of 2021.
More nations than ever have pledged carbon cuts and have put in place plans to achieve carbon neutrality, even China, one of the most polluting countries in the world responsible for 28% of emissions.
The UN estimates about 110 countries have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by the mid-21st century.
In addition, renewable energy has never been cheaper. Solar and wind energy sources are plummeting in prices, and some systems have overtaken fossil fuels in affordability.
If nations and businesses increased the usage and production of renewable energy systems, replacing coal and gas power plants with clean energy would soon make commercial sense.
On an individual level, more people are becoming more conscious of their own consumption choices. There are more vegans and vegetarians than ever before. An estimated 8% of the global population identify as vegetarian while 1% identify as vegan.
Eco-friendly living aimed to minimize waste has been adopted by millions worldwide. The demand for sustainable, environmentally responsible products is rising, and businesses are scrambling to meet the rapidly growing market.
A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study showed exponential growth of 71% per annum Internet search for sustainable products.
Digital technology has made it easier than ever to share information and demand action. However, the wheels of change still lie in the hands of governments, companies, and policymakers.
They can choose to go about their lives with the status quo but will no longer be able to ignore the clamoring voices of the people. We hope that the world leaders band together and secure us a clean, healthy future.
The Problems With Animal Agriculture
As mentioned several times throughout this article, animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change. In addition, the livestock industry is one of the most significant violators of animal rights and is responsible for the suffering of tens of millions of animals daily.
Animal Welfare – United States
The US is the world’s largest producer of beef, accounting for about 20% of the world’s production over the last five years.
While we lament the approximately 1.5 million dogs and cats euthanized in shelters each year, this is a fraction of animals raised in deplorable conditions and killed for food.
Americans donate about $1 billion to animal welfare groups annually, yet less than 1% of this money goes to nonprofits protecting farmed animals.
Worldwide, more than 70 billion land-based animals are killed for food each year, with over 9 billion from the US alone.
Most carnivores that don’t want to give up meat also don’t want the animals they eat to suffer, yet suffer they do.
Under most state and federal laws, animals are considered property and have little to no rights. Two federal laws do exist; the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Humane Slaughter Act.
The AWA applies to all practices involving the use of animals in research, exhibition, entertainment, breeding, and transport. It offers some protection and still does not protect animals adequately during their use for human benefit.
The Humane Slaughter Act requires that livestock be stunned before being slaughtered. However, bolt guns misfire, and slaughter devices frequently don’t work the way they are supposed to. Cows are shackled and hoisted with their throats cut while they are still alive.
In addition, cows and other livestock are often kept in unbearably cramped conditions and subject to painful husbandry practices like tail-docking, castration, and dehorning, often without anesthetic.
Cows are dehorned at birth to reduce the risk of injuries to other animals, damage to the facilities, and easier transport and handling. In addition, ears are tagged, tattooed, or notched, while some cows are branded with heated metal.
Extensive cattle farms raise their cows on pastures, allowing for some room to move around, feed and graze freely, and exhibit somewhat normal behaviors.
Raising animals in pastured systems has been the choice of consumers for a while, with the market growing rapidly in the last years.
The farm’s climate and infrastructure can also vary. For example, a pasture-raised cow on a small farm might be confined indoors and tethered during the winter in colder areas to protect from exposure. A larger farm might have an indoor, more cramped facility to house animals during the winter.
Although outdoor-raised cows tend to be healthier and happier, they still risk stress by predators, tick and parasite infections, heat stress, and painful husbandry procedures.
After the US, Brazil, the EU, China, and India are the world’s largest beef producers.
While Brazil and the EU have laws to protect livestock from blatant cruelty, India and China are developing countries that do not.
The animal welfare violations present in developing countries are well-known internationally. Without adequate equipment and slaughter devices, livestock are often hacked or beaten to death during slaughter.
Although specific animal rights movements have sprung up by local activists, China has no nationwide animal protection laws.
India’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in the 1960s prohibits causing unnecessary pain and suffering of animals during captivity and transport. However, enforcement is often difficult or impossible due to the country’s vastness and unique economic and social environment.
The Environmental Impact of Animal Agriculture
The increasing demand for meat and co-products of meat like leather has led to devastating consequences.
Animal agriculture takes vast amounts of resources and is responsible for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is the second most polluting industry after the oil and gas industry and significantly contributes to climate change.
The world’s population has increased by approximately 1 billion over the past decade, with an average increase of over 80 million annually. The global population is likely to reach 8.6 million in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050.
Combined with the growing population and high demand for animal-based products, the rate of global warming and decline in resources make animal agriculture dangerously unsustainable.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG)
Livestock agriculture contributes to 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, higher than the transport industry, responsible for 13%.
Carbon dioxide – The primary greenhouse gas, CO2 is released from animals when they respire. In addition, deforestation to make way for agricultural land lowers the number of carbon sinks in the environment and contributes to higher carbon dioxide levels.
In addition, when trees are felled, they release stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Methane – The livestock industry accounts for 35 to 40% of all methane emissions worldwide. CH4 is released when cows and other ruminants digest cellulose found in plants. Methane is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gases and consists of about 16% of all GHG emissions.
In addition, livestock excrement releases methane by decomposing in fields and pastures. Burning manure will convert methane to carbon dioxide.
Methane is not as prevalent in the atmosphere as CO2 and lasts only nine years compared to CO2 that can last hundreds of years. However, the global warming potential of methane compared to carbon dioxide is approximately 23 times.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, there has been a 37% increase in emissions from pigs and 50% from cattle in the last 15 years.
Nitrous Oxide – The livestock industry makes up 68% of nitrous oxide emissions. N2O can stay in the atmosphere for up to 150 years and has a global warming potential almost 300 times that of carbon dioxide. N2O makes up about 6% of all GHG emissions.
In addition, the synthetic fertilizers used to grow massive amounts of food for livestock are a significant contributor to nitrous oxide emissions.
Ammonia – Manure produced by livestock creates ammonia (NH3). Animal agriculture contributes to roughly 64% of total ammonia emissions. While not a greenhouse gas, ammonia negatively impacts surrounding environments and ecosystems.
When animal waste collects in waterways and lagoons, it breeds bacteria that form nitric acid. Nitric acid forms in the atmosphere and then returns to the earth’s surface as acid rain.
The minuscule particles in acid rain get into the lungs of living creatures and cause health problems like pneumonia and bronchitis, worsen existing conditions, and make existing conditions worse.
These particles also settle in water and forests, further polluting the ecosystem and harming flora and fauna.
Health Risks From Air And Water Pollution
In addition to releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the manure and urine excreted from industrial farms contain some 400 chemicals that get released into the immediate environment.
Because of the massive number of animals kept together, the concentration levels of these chemicals can be dangerously high.
In addition, particulates released from factory waste can include manure, feed, dander, and feathers. They travel miles through the air and worsen air quality for the surrounding environment.
The water runoff from the feces and urine of cattle, combined with the synthetic fertilizers used to maintain the pastures seep into waterways and pollute groundwater. Watersheds with vast livestock populations discharge high levels of pathogens that move from the water’s surface into the soil and ground.
According to the CDC, people living near farms tend to suffer from respiratory irritation, lung disease, asthma, and bronchitis.
Hydrogen sulfide is released when bacteria break down animal waste in stagnant water. Exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause sore throats, seizures, comas, and even be fatal.
Unsanitary conditions in farms and high usage of antibiotics in animals can also lead to the spread of disease. For example, the Swine Flu and the Avian Flu are airborne diseases that can quickly spread to surrounding communities.
Often considered a by-product, leather is intrinsically linked to the production of beef and cattle farming. However, the chemicals used in the tanning process contain massive amounts of dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde, cyanide-based oils and dyes, and arsenic.
The tanning process of turning animal hides into leather involves many chemicals like sulfur, nitrogen, and ammonia for dyes and finishes. Tanning operations are known to be a significant polluter of waterways, rivers, and surrounding ecosystems.
Finished leather products also contain hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic chemical that has been linked to cancer and eczema.
Studies from the CDC have shown that people working and living near tanneries are at greater risk of cancers. Near one tannery in Kentucky, residents showed five times the cases of leukemia than the national average.
Animal agriculture takes up between 20 and 33% of global water consumption. According to the Pacific Institute, a single egg takes 53 gallons of water to produce, a pound of chicken 468 gallons, and a pound of beef 1,800 gallons.
In contrast, almost a third of the world’s population has little to no access to safe drinking water.
Half the grain produced in the US and about 40% of crops grown worldwide goes to feeding livestock instead of humans. About three-quarters of the global supply of soy, a common ingredient in animal feed, is used for livestock.
Roughly 760 million tons of food are fed to livestock annually. In contrast, about 690 million people suffer from starvation and malnutrition globally.
Extensive land is needed for animal agriculture. Livestock farms take up about 26% of inhabitable land globally while accounting for a whopping 80% of agricultural land.
In the US, farms take up more than 41% of land for livestock, compared to 4% to grow plants to feed humans.
Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation, as farmers clear massive sections of rainforests to make way for factory farms, feed crops, and other facilities. Agriculture is listed as a threat to 24,000 species that are currently facing extinction.
The cattle farming of 80 million cows in Brazil is causing 80% of the deforestation of the Amazon. About 90% of all soy grown in Brazil goes to animal feed, while the figure is 75% worldwide. Only 6% goes to producing our food like soy milk and tofu.
Farm Worker Conditions
Most factory farm workers are overworked and underpaid. The animal agriculture industry employs about 700,000 people in the United States alone. These workers are constantly exposed to harmful gases and particulates, making them at risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Nearly 70% of all workers in pig farms report chronic respiratory illness from high levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide present in the air.
Ammonia is released from the urine and manure of animals and can cause eye irritation and respiratory distress.
Hydrogen sulfide comes from liquid manure and can cause eye irritation, nausea, headaches, coughs, and dry skin. Liquid manure is stored in “manure lagoons”, and many workers entering these lagoons for routine maintenance have been found unconscious or dead from exposure to hydrogen sulfide.
These same toxins are also released into the atmosphere and pollute the air, soil, and water supplies of the surrounding environment, usually poor rural communities with no option to move.
There’s no way to hide it. Animal agriculture is harming people, animals, and the environment. We don’t need to eat or use animal products in our daily lives. There are more humane alternatives that will spare the suffering of billions of animals each year.
In addition, animal products are terrible for health. While we will always need to eat, plant-based alternatives that taste exactly like meat are on the rise and readily available in grocery stores.
Animal-based fashion products like fur, wool, and leather are unnecessary with the availability of new, more sustainable fabrics like Tencel and bamboo.
The adoption of a plant-based lifestyle is fast gaining traction and is exciting to watch. Hopefully, industrial animal agriculture will be a thing of the past, or at least significantly reduced.