Save the planet by saving the pandas

Save the planet by saving the pandas

Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Lover of pathological animals. We love them more than ourselves and each other. It’s a kind of disease. People leave more money in their wills at the RSPCA than at the NSPCC and, most famously, in 2008 a donkey sanctuary received more donations than the top three 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 prosecuted. By contrast, a competing petition calling for the sacking of a footballer who lost a civil rape case garnered barely 6,000 signatures. A recent YouGov poll found that 40% of the public believe animal lives are worth the same as human lives. Last year, 173 cats and dogs were airlifted from Kabul, while thousands of Afghans who had helped the British government were left behind.

This is not a column calling on Britain to transform itself psychologically – it just serves no purpose. Our problem is too deeply rooted. The British have always been like that. When rationing was at its height during World War II, people bought pet food even when they and their neighbors were hungry. When a government wants to bolster its support, it just passes another animal cruelty law – we lack tougher ways to punish canines. People’s well-being, on the other hand, is politically more delicate. We are an insensitive country that is also deeply kind to fluffy creatures. We have to accept that.

What’s surprising, however, is that we haven’t made better use of this national quirk. In an age of nudges and populist politics, our love of animals is a psychological button that has remained largely inactive. Particularly where it could be used in the most urgent and obvious way – causing us to 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 its temperatures are inextricably linked. Small changes in temperature can wipe out entire ecosystems and cause species to become extinct. Second, feedback loops exacerbate the effects. This is what conservationists call a “cliff edge”, and we are currently approaching several of them.

Scientists have long known that there is a series of tipping points ahead of us. Melting ice sheets are one such tipping point – and a self-reinforcing one as 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 its cover, which causes erosion and in turn the loss of more vegetation. According to research published in Nature, if the global average temperature rises 4°C above pre-industrial levels, 15% of ecosystems will reach a “sudden exposure event”, killing a fifth of their species. The loss of a single species then disrupts and damages the rest of an ecosystem; keeping habitats intact – jungles, forests – is what keeps the climate stable.

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But that’s 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 their main campaign message, rather than, say, saving creatures individuals such as the panda. This shift in focus from wildlife to mathematics was a global trend. Take Cop, the annual UN conferences on climate change. There are two different Cops: one is the blue ribbon event, the other is the biannual Convention on Biological Diversity. But most people have never heard of the second. In 2020, governments missed their ten-year biodiversity targets for the second consecutive time, and one million species are threatened with extinction, according to a UN report. But it went largely unnoticed.

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[See also: Why Labour is going green at its conference]

Basing climate change campaigns on preventing temperature rises has the advantage of simplicity, but lacks other virtues. It’s easier to doubt than, say, the devastation of the sea eagle population, which everyone can relate to. 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 approach abstract issues in the abstract, 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 reluctant to make the necessary sacrifices – like taking fewer flights – to prevent it.

But bring the animals into the equation, and maybe we can do it. Dying and endangered creatures have an emotive power that the simple talk of “climate change” lacks. Consider the environmental movement’s greatest success in its half-century history: the whaling ban. After a decade of “Save the Whale” t-shirts and marches, commercial whaling ceased in the 1980s. The World Wide Fund for Nature is another success story: its panda logo is one of the environmental logos the most recognized in the world. And it was images of scorched koalas after Australia’s fires last year, rather than alarming data, that sparked donations and a global discussion about climate change.

The goals of the climate movement have become more specific over the years, which is helpful (it’s much harder to put saving a species or an ecosystem in mathematical terms) – but it’s also made these rather narrow goals. Political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz called animal advocates “orphans of the climate movement.” In the United States, divisions within the green movement have emerged between those advocating on a more conceptual level – for clean energy – and older charities pushing for “nature first”.

It’s a missed opportunity. Not only would coopting animals into environmental campaigns would spark interest in climate change, but the goals of the two are aligned. It would be a poor victory for the green movement if we reached net zero in a world of empty oceans and arid wastelands. We have a natural empathy for animals, and in Britain an unnatural empathy. It’s a resource we should be tapping into.

[See also: Why Liz Truss would do well to listen to the IEA]

#Save #planet #saving #pandas

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