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  1. Environment
21 September 2022

Save the planet by saving the pandas

If the green movement wants to capture British hearts and minds, it should focus on animals, not abstract temperature rises.

By Martha Gill

Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Pathological animal lovers. We love them more than ourselves and each other. It’s a sort of sickness. People leave more money in their wills to the RSPCA than the NSPCC, and, more famously, in 2008 a donkey sanctuary received more donations than the top three domestic abuse charities combined. When a video emerged earlier this year of the West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma kicking his cat, close to 200,000 people signed a petition calling for him to be prosecuted. By contrast, a concurrent petition calling for the sacking of a footballer who had lost a civil rape case barely scraped 6,000 signatures. A recent YouGov poll found that 40 per cent of the public think animal lives are worth the same as human ones. 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 for Britain to psychologically transform itself – there is simply no point. Our problem is too deeply embedded. British people have always been like this. When rationing was at its height during the Second World War, people bought pet food even as they and their neighbours went hungry. When a government wants to shore up support, it simply passes another anti-animal cruelty law – we are running out of tougher ways to punish dog-nappers. Welfare for people is, by contrast, politically trickier. We are a callous country that is also deeply kind to fluffy creatures. We must accept that.

What is surprising, though, is that we haven’t put this national quirk to better use. In an age of nudges and populist policies, our love of animals is a psychological button that has remained largely un-pushed. Particularly in the place where it could most urgently and obviously be utilised – getting 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 make species extinct. Then feedback loops exacerbate the effects. This is what environmentalists refer to as a “cliff edge”, and at present we are nearing several.

Scientists have long known that before us lie a series of tipping points. The melting of the ice caps is one such tipping point – and a self-reinforcing one as the dark sea absorbs more heat than the 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 out, the soil loses 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 per cent of ecosystems will reach an “abrupt exposure event”, killing a fifth of their species. The loss of a single species then disturbs and damages the rest of an ecosystem; keeping habitats intact – jungles, forests – is what keeps the climate stable.

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But that is not the aspect of climate change that we tend to focus on. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the big green charities in the UK decided to adopt climate change – degrees in warming – as their headline campaigning message, rather than, say, saving individual creatures such as the panda. That switch in focus, from fauna to mathematics, was a worldwide trend. Take Cop, the UN’s annual climate change conferences. There are two different Cops: one is the blue riband 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 goals for the second consecutive time, and a million species are at risk of extinction, according to a UN report. But it has gone 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 benefit of simplicity, but it lacks other virtues. It is easier to doubt than, say, the devastation of the sea eagle population, which anyone can grasp. A couple of decades were wasted trying to convince people that climate change was real. Now we have another problem: it is too abstract. While we are happy to address abstract problems in abstract ways, by talking about them and “raising awareness”, we find it harder when it comes to the concrete. Polls tell us people now believe in climate change but are largely unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices – such as taking fewer flights – to prevent it. 

But bring animals into the equation, and we might be able to. Dying and endangered creatures have an emotive power that mere talk of “climate change” lacks. Consider the biggest success of the green movement in its half-century of existence: the whaling ban. After a decade of “Save the Whale” T-shirts and marches, commercial whaling was ceased in the 1980s. The World Wildlife Fund is another success story – its panda logo is one of the world’s most recognised environmental logos. And it was images of singed koalas after the Australian fires last year, rather than alarming data, that jump-started donations and a global discussion on climate change.

The climate movement’s targets have become more precise over the years, which is useful (it is far harder to put saving a species or an ecosystem in mathematical terms) – but that has also made those goals rather narrow. The political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz has called those who champion animal’s interests “orphans of the climate movement”. In the US, splits in the green movement have emerged between those who campaign on a more conceptual level – for clean energy – and older charities that are pushing for “nature first”.

This is a missed opportunity. Not only would co-opting animals in environmental campaigns garner interest in climate change – 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 barren wastelands. We have a natural empathy for animals, and in Britain an unnatural one. That’s a resource we should be tapping into.

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

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