12 facts about climate change and why we must act now
Climate change is one of the world’s most pressing problems, and populations in the Global South are disproportionately affected by its impacts. Climate change describes the long-term aberrations in global temperature and water cycles brought on by human industrial activities, including animal agriculture and burning fossil fuels.
These activities have released greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat from the sun — a phenomenon called the greenhouse effect, which can cause global warming. With the resultant temperature rise and destabilization of weather patterns worldwide, human and animal populations are seeing rising sea levels, permanent changes to ecosystems, and more extreme weather events, including heat waves and floods.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming has already affected every region of the world. There is still a small window of time to take action and mitigate some of climate change’s worst effects, but this opportunity will be lost if immediate and significant actions aren’t taken to halt climate change.
Addressing climate change is a complex issue that requires global cooperation among many different groups and organizations. However, countries that are most affected often struggle to have their voices heard when climate change policies are being set. This can result in climate change policies that unfairly penalize and disadvantage countries in the Global South, while countries in the Global North produce high levels of greenhouse gases without taking on their share of the burden of mitigating climate change.
What are the causes of climate change?
Climate change is caused when greenhouse gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, are generated at high levels and accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere. These gases trap the sun’s heat and cause the Earth’s temperature to rise, leading to a wide range of weather changes.
While greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere via natural processes like organic matter decomposition (for example, decomposing bodies), the overwhelming problems caused by high levels of greenhouse gases are due to human activities. Among them, the way in which people use and exploit animals for food in animal agriculture has been a significant contributor to the current problem of climate change.
Animal agriculture drives climate change
Industrial animal agriculture, or factory farming, drives climate change by generating large amounts of greenhouse gases. Overall, food production is estimated to account for around a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which includes both animal and nonanimal sources. But of that, the animal agriculture sector’s share is significant. A recent analysis finds that animal agriculture contributes, at a minimum, 16.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide — nearly double the emissions of all other types of food production.
An estimated 70 billion land animals are killed for food every year, and these animals produce large amounts of waste. The main greenhouse gases generated directly by animal agriculture are methane and nitrous oxide, which have global warming effects that are 28 times and 265 times higher than carbon dioxide, respectively. These potent gases come from enteric fermentation — a natural process by which ruminants like cows and sheep digest their food — in the case of methane, and manure storage in the case of nitrous oxide. Within the agricultural sector, animal agriculture produces at least 37% of global methane and 65% of global nitrous oxide.
Animal agriculture destroys the environment
Greenhouse gas production is not the only way animal agriculture contributes to climate change. It also exacerbates the effects by polluting environments surrounding factory farms, damaging natural ecosystems, and promoting deforestation to clear land for animal grazing.
Farms release agrochemicals, drug residues, and organic waste into waterways, which in turn threatens local terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Ecosystems become less resilient and able to adapt to changing weather patterns, which heightens the harmful effects of climate change.
Forests are important for mitigating climate change because they serve as carbon sinks that absorb and store carbon emissions from the atmosphere. When forests are cut down, all of the carbon they’ve stored is released, leading to more carbon emissions in the atmosphere and less carbon recapture.
Cattle farming for beef production is a major culprit in global deforestation. Around 60% of the world’s agricultural land is part of the beef supply chain. In South America, where the Amazon rainforest covers more than 7.5 million square kilometers and provides one of the world’s most important stores of carbon, deforestation has been occurring at an alarming rate. Around 80% of deforested land is now used as pasture. An alarming recent study has revealed that the Amazon rainforest’s ability to function as a carbon sink is declining due to the level of deforestation that has occurred in recent years.
Crops to feed animals results in carbon loss
In order to feed the billions of animals being farmed for food, resources like land, water, and fertilizer are used to grow crops for animal consumption. More than 77% of global soy production goes to feeding animals, for example, and increased demand has further contributed to deforestation and clearing of biodiverse land in favor of growing single large crops.
The demand for soy-based animal feeds has led to the establishment of monocultures in farming, which employ heavy tilling, pesticides, and herbicides. The shift to crop monocultures destroys biodiversity, compromises soil health, and decreases resistance to pests and weather extremes. Monocultures contribute to climate change by creating unhealthy soil systems that release carbon emissions rather than maintaining nutrient cycles that trap carbon.
What are the effects of climate change?
Climate change has myriad effects on the environment and weather, which also lead to significant consequences for humans and animals. Effects of climate change include:
Rising worldwide temperatures, leading to heat waves
Changing precipitation patterns, causing flooding in some areas and drought in others
Melting of glaciers
Rising sea levels, which threaten the homes and livelihoods of coastal populations
Extreme weather events, like tropical storms and hurricanes
Increases in food insecurity from crop loss and supply chain disruptions
Mass population displacements from natural disasters and depleted natural resources
Increasing conflict threatening the health and safety of populations
Animal suffering when animals on factory farms are left to drown in floods or die in heat waves
12 facts about climate change
1. Extreme weather brought on by climate change causes death and suffering in humans and animals.
In Nicaragua, Hurricanes Eta and Iota resulted in the death of over 40,000 farmed animals and affected 1.8 million people.
2. Coastal cities in the Global South bear the brunt of rising sea levels.
The city of Jakarta in Indonesia has been sinking for a decade and by 2050 North Jakarta could be 95% submerged — leading to possible displacements and homelessness among the city’s population of 10 million.
3. Climate change increases food insecurity for some of the most vulnerable global populations.
In Central America, climate change has increased food insecurity for 8 million people, and a 2020 drought resulted in an 80% loss of maize crops in the Guatemalan highlands.
4. According to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, countries in the Global South are most affected by climate change.
From 2000 to 2019, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Myanmar experienced the most extreme weather effects due to climate change.
5. In 2019, the most affected countries were Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and the Bahamas.
6. Greenhouse gases generated by human activities, including animal agriculture, have raised the Earth’s temperature by 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1900.
7. According to the IPCC, if immediate actions are not taken, the planet’s temperature may increase to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius over 1900 levels in the next 20 years.
8. In 2022, deforestation in Brazil reached the highest rate ever.
9. Since the 1960s an estimated 15% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost — much of it due to agricultural expansion for animal grazing.
10. Use of land for grazing and raising animals can cause increased soil erosion and loss of soil stability. Healthier soils are one tool for mitigating climate change.
11. Twelve million hectares of arable land are lost every year to erosion, a process that is linked to changing rainfall patterns and land management practices related to climate change.
12. Agriculture accounts for around 70% of global water usage via crop irrigation, drinking water for animals, and other uses.
The animal farming industry also accounts for significant pollution of water and soil through runoff from farms or by directly discharging waste into the environment.
Climate change statistics
Around 60% of crops worldwide are used as feed or bedding for farmed animals.
Per capita emissions in the Global South average 3.4 tons per person, while in the Global North, the per capita average is 10.6 tons.
Over one-third of the world’s soil is considered to be degraded due to animal agriculture, monocropping, and other uses.
The top 10% of individuals globally are responsible for nearly 50% of all emissions. North America and Europe are responsible for almost half of all emissions since the 19th century.
China, the United States, and India were the world’s highest emitters of greenhouse gases in 2018.
Since 1961, use of fertilizers in agriculture has increased by 800% and water use by more than 100%.
Based on a 2021 survey, over 60% of respondents in Brazil, Panama, and Chile consider climate change a global crisis.
Why we must act on climate change
Climate change is a pressing global issue that, if allowed to continue unchecked, will result in greater environmental, social, and economic upheavals. Climate change is driven in part by the animal agriculture industry, which not only confines billions of animals in inhumane and distressing conditions, but also actively pollutes the environment, and threatens natural resources and biodiversity.
Climate change is not only linked to massive animal suffering, it is also connected to increasing food insecurity, poverty, conflict, gender and economic inequities, and population displacements and deaths due to extreme weather events. Additionally, climate change puts an estimated 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction.
Urgent actions are needed to halt the progress of climate change. If mitigation strategies are not implemented on both global and individual levels, the planet may become incapable of supporting modern societies as we know them. Human and animal suffering will increase in the face of shrinking resources, severe weather disasters, growing hunger, and loss of livelihoods and social cohesion.
The 2022 IPCC Report identifies unsustainable agricultural production and “unbalanced diets” low in plant-based foods as key factors contributing to climate change, and lists transitioning to a predominantly plant-based diet as a key mitigation strategy.
One of the most important actions an individual can take to help slow climate change is choosing a plant-based diet and not supporting animal agriculture. Individuals can also support activists and organizations raising awareness about climate change and advocating for plant-based diets.