Written by Philip Lymbery
Saturday, February 27th is International Polar Bear Day. A day to celebrate these magnificent animals whose plight has drawn the world’s attention to the threat of climate change.
Two years ago, in February 2019, the Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean experienced a mass invasion of polar bears. According to reports, as many as 52 polar bears were searching garbage and entering buildings in search of food. Adults and youngsters jostled for what edible pickings they could find amongst the bags, rags and plastic bottles strewn around. They got into dumpsters and even buildings where they were filmed making their way past children’s pushchairs parked in a residential hallway. Extra fences were erected around schools and other buildings to keep the hungry visitors out. Special patrols were mounted with cars and dogs to shoo them back to where they came from.
Commenting on the Novaya Zemlya polar bear invasion, WWF Russia said, the “number of human and predator encounters in the Arctic is increasing. The main reason is the decline of the sea ice area due to the changing climate. In the absence of ice cover, animals are forced to go ashore in search of food. And settlements with spontaneous waste deposits are the most attractive places.”
These real-world examples of accelerating climate change are increasingly catching the eye of those in positions of power; the question is whether they are prepared to do what’s necessary to save the future for people, polar bears and the rest of life on this planet?
Time is Running Out
“We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet,” Former General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) told world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in March 2019. She went on to stress that there was only a decade left to avert catastrophe from climate change. Garcés described the issue as one of “intergenerational justice,” one that would have a profound effect on future generations.
Garcés was pointing to the latest global assessment by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC report found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions, including in energy, transport and land. The latter – land – being shorthand for agriculture. Going just half a degree higher could mean drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
To many, the link between those dump-invading polar bears and the rearing of pigs, chickens and cows for food is far from obvious; however, drawing those links – and doing something about them – will be critical if we are to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
Food is responsible for 21–37 per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. In agriculture, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is farmed animals. Globally, the production of animal products is responsible for up to 78 per cent of all agricultural emissions.
As it is, the farmed animals sector produces more direct greenhouse gas emissions than the entirety of human transport.
In many a climate discussion, cows are cited as a big problem because of the methane they emit; factory farmed pigs and chickens on the other hand are wrongly overlooked.
Industrial pigs and poultry may not be emitting large quantities of methane directly in the same way as ruminant animals. However, their rearing still produces serious emissions. Carbon dioxide is released from the intensively managed soils needed to grow their feed. Added to this, intensive pig and poultry rearing also involves feeding soya from deforested farmland in South America, a major source of carbon, into the atmosphere. To get a sense of proportion here, scientists suggest that up to two-thirds of arable land globally is feeding factory farmed pigs, chickens and cattle, as well as biofuel-powered vehicles.
Growing feed for factory farmed animals is also causing substantial emissions of nitrous oxide – the most aggressive greenhouse gas – from fertilizers. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and it also depletes the ozone layer.
The world’s governments gathered in Paris in December 2015 to strike an historic deal to limit global warming within the 2-degree Centigrade temperature rise deemed by scientists to be the ‘safe’ maximum level. Even at this level, scientists believe we doom about a third or more of all land-based species of plants and animals to extinction.
For decades, polar bears have been the icon of many a campaign to curb climate change; yet still their numbers dwindle. Polar bears sit on top of the world on rapidly shrinking ice packs. As the world warms, they have nowhere left to go. Today, they number about 26,000. Scientists estimate that by the end of the century, polar bears will be all but extinct.
Pigs and poultry on the other hand continue to increase, their numbers already running into tens of billions, mostly living miserable lives on factory farms. As their numbers swell, so too does the burden of cropland to feed them and the consequent release of carbon into the atmosphere.
As the stakes ramp up and the consequences become ever more obvious, normally deadpan scientists are making statements that become ever-more shrill. One such assessment predicts a future “far more dangerous” than currently believed: “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.”
With the clock ticking fast, polar bears are increasingly seen as bellwether for not just animals high up in the remote Arctic, but also the wellbeing of generations of people to come.
In deciding what kind of future we create for polar bears, pigs and people, the question of food and how it gets produced could well be a defining one.