Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Sick animal lovers. We love them more than ourselves and each other. It is a kind of disease. People of Wills leave more money at will than the National Society to Prevent and Combat Violence against Children (NSPCC), and most famously, that in 2008, the Donkey Sanctuary received more donations than the top three domestic violence charities combined. When a video emerged earlier this year of West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma kicking his cat, nearly 200,000 people signed a petition calling for him to be sued. By contrast, the simultaneous petition that called for the dismissal of a footballer who lost a civil rape case had barely revoked 6,000 signatures. A recent YouGov poll found that 40% of the public believe that an animal’s life equals a human life. Last year, 173 cats and dogs were flown out of Kabul, while thousands of Afghans who helped the British government were left behind.
This is not an article calling on Britain to change itself psychologically – there is simply no point in doing so. Our problem is very deep. The British have always been like this. When rationing was at its height during World War II, people would buy pet food even when they and their neighbors were hungry. When the government wants to rally support, it simply passes another law against cruelty to animals — we’re running out of stricter ways to punish those who nap. On the contrary, the welfare of the people is more difficult from a political point of view. We are a very cruel and kind country with gentle creatures. We must accept that.
Surprisingly, however, is that we have not made better use of this national advantage. In the age of populist nudges and politics, our love for animals has become a psychological button that is largely unpressed. Especially where it can be used urgently and clearly – which makes us care more about climate change.
It makes sense to talk about animals in the context of climate change because the fate of the world’s creatures and temperatures are inextricably linked. Small changes in temperature can wipe out entire ecosystems and cause species to become extinct. Then feedback loops exacerbate the effects. This is what environmentalists refer to as “the cliff edge,” and right now we’re getting close to many.
Scientists have known for a long time that we have a series of critical points ahead. Ice cap melting is one such tipping point – a self-sustaining tipping point where the dark sea absorbs more heat than reflective ice. Another is the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, turning it from a carbon sink into a carbon source. Or, if certain plant species die, the soil loses cover, leading to erosion and thus the loss of more vegetation. According to research published in temper nature, if the global average temperature rises 4°C above pre-industrial levels, 15 percent of ecosystems will reach a “sudden exposure event”, killing a fifth of their species. The loss of one species disrupts and damages the rest of the ecosystem; Keeping habitats intact – jungles, forests – is what keeps the climate stable.
But this is not the aspect of climate change that we tend to focus on. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UK’s major green charities decided to adopt climate change – degrees of warming – as the main message of their campaign, rather than saving individual creatures like pandas, for example. This shift in focus, from animals to mathematics, has been a worldwide trend. Take Cobb, the annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences. There are two different types of cops: one is the blue rib event, and the other is the biannual convention on biodiversity. But most people have never heard of the second. In 2020, governments missed their biodiversity targets for ten years for the second time in a row, and one million species are at risk of extinction, according to a United Nations report. But it went largely unnoticed.
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Reliance on climate change campaigns to prevent warming has the benefit of simplicity, but it lacks other advantages. It is easier to suspect the devastation of the sea eagle, for example, which anyone can understand. Two decades have been wasted trying to convince people that climate change is real. Now we have another problem: it’s too abstract. While we are happy to tackle abstract problems in abstract ways, by talking about them and ‘raising awareness’, we find it more difficult when it comes to the concrete. Polls tell us that people now believe in climate change but are largely unwilling to make the sacrifices needed – such as reducing the number of flights – to prevent it.
But bring animals into the equation, and we might be able to. Dying and endangered creatures have an emotional power that just talk of “climate change” lacks. Consider the green movement’s biggest success in its half-century of existence: the ban on whaling. After a decade of “Save the Whale” T-shirts and parades, commercial whaling ceased in the 1980s. The World Wildlife Fund is another success story – its panda logo is one of the most popular environmental logos in the world. And it was the images of lone koalas after last year’s Australian fires, not the alarming data, that led to the start of donations and global debate on climate change.
The climate movement’s goals have become more precise over the years, which is useful (it’s very difficult to put in mathematically saving a species or an ecosystem) – but that also made those goals rather narrow. Political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz has called those who defend animal interests “the orphans of the climate movement.” In the US, splits have emerged in the green movement between those campaigning on a conceptual level – for clean energy – and older charities pushing for “nature first”.
This is a missed opportunity. Involving animals in environmental campaigns will not only spark interest in climate change – the goals of the two align. It would be a poor victory for the green movement if we got to net zero in a world of empty oceans and wastelands. We have a natural empathy for animals, and in Britain an unnatural empathy. This is a resource we must take advantage of.
[See also: Why Liz Truss would do well to listen to the IEA]