Letter to the Editor: Why vets should care about climate change

Dear sir;

It occurred to me recently that talking about climate change is a lot like talking with a client about their pet’s cancer… “Come in, please have a seat. I’m afraid I have some bad news. I know this is upsetting, but we have some options to help and they’re not as bad as you may think…”

The problem
We’re trained in interpreting the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that climate change is already occurring as predicted and will continue to worsen without timely action. This is certainly compelling – but what makes it a veterinary issue?

Veterinarians are charged with the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, and the promotion of public health. Climate change threatens animal health, welfare and public health, and risks domestic and wild animal suffering.

Wildlife exposed to flood or bushfire, or whose habitat is changing excessively (climate change doesn’t cause floods or bushfires; but it increases the frequency and severity of both) are at risk of suffering. Heatwaves stress koalas and platypus, and individuals cannot extend their ranges sufficiently to adjust. Hot weather also reduces the nutritional quality of eucalyptus leaves, and when koalas travel for better conditions they become vulnerable to predators and trauma. Domestic pets and production animals also suffer in heatwaves, floods and bushfires: over 1,000,000 animals are estimated to have died in the Black Saturday fires.

Less immediate threats to animal health and welfare overlap with threats to public health, and centre on food production and infectious disease. The World Health Organization predicts increased infectious disease transmission (including Lyme disease, leptospirosis, West Nile virus, Dengue fever, malaria, cholera and others) as a major consequence of climate change, caused by several factors including increased range and numbers of arthropod vectors. In August, the WHO hosts its first global conference on climate and health. Plants are also vulnerable to increasing pests and diseases; and the productivity and nutritional quality of key food crops including corn and wheat are reduced by heat stress.

Finally, severe weather events cause substantial economic losses to individuals and communities. A healthy pet population relies on a thriving society, and in the face of economic stress pets lose out. And, when financial stress drives families to cut the costs of caring for their pets, the economic viability of companion animal medicine as a profession is also at risk.

 

The solution
So, “something” needs to be done, and soon. On an individual level we focus on areas where we can make a difference – our patients, our families, our communities. These are absolutely important, but unfortunately the larger issue of climate change persists. The concern and efforts made on an individual and grassroots level are essential, but they’re not sufficient because they are not matched by concern and efforts at industry and government level.

The most important tool we have to combat climate change is “carbon policy”. It makes sense to focus on CO2, because although it’s not the only “greenhouse gas” it contributes a major proportion to warming and it’s the most likely to be controllable with achievable policy measures. We’ve all heard plenty about carbon policy in the past few weeks, but it’s confusing, and news reports and political debate unfortunately don’t help. In light of this, it may be helpful to have an explanation of the 3 main types of carbon policy options:

The simplest and most powerful policy type is a “price on carbon” (“polluter pays”). It’s human nature that the strongest disincentive for any action is having to pay for it. This is most likely to reduce emissions in the shortest time, and can result in a flow of funds from emitters to taxpayers, albeit via the government. The Australian carbon tax was an example of this policy type and was in place for 2 years. In 2013, approximately 185 companies paid for excess emissions and decreased their CO2 emissions approximately 7% while still earning profits. It was recently repealed despite opinion polls showing that the majority of Australians wanted it kept; and now Australia’s next carbon policy is uncertain.

The least powerful incentive for reducing emissions is a “baseline and credit” system. In this system companies receive a reward (“credit”) for polluting less than they did at an earlier time (“baseline”). The proposed Direct Action Plan is an example of this, and could drive some emissions reductions; but the two main weaknesses lie in how the baseline is determined and how the credits are paid. If the baseline is determined by the companies’ emission levels just before the plan takes effect, there is no incentive to start reducing emissions earlier. In fact, a polluter would be nmotivated to increase emissions, set the highest possible baseline, and then start claiming reduction credits easily when the plan begins. The credits in the Direct Action Plan are paid by the government via the Emissions Reduction Fund, so this results in a flow of funds from Australian taxpayers to CO2 emitters.

“Cap and trade” systems, or “emissions trading scheme” (ETS) are complex, so it has been easy for opponents to confuse voters. Put simply, the government limits emissions (“cap”) and then within that, companies that pollute less can take some of the load from companies that pollute more – for a consideration of course (“trade”). Thus, big emitters still pay, so there’s still an incentive to cut back; but instead of paying a penalty to the government, they pay other companies for a service. The price is determined by the market: the more emissions are occurring, the more demand there is, so the more expensive it is. In this way a vibrant ETS promotes business while discouraging emissions. This is the prevailing policy type in place and being adopted around the world, including in four of Australia’s five biggest trading partners.

The British Veterinary Association states “The effects (of climate change) on the weather patterns of our planet impact on agriculture, animal and human health and the economy. Veterinary surgeons will play an important role in responding to and mitigating the effects of climate change.”

What, then, can veterinarians do to reduce the risks of climate change to our patients, their human families, and our profession? Minimizing our personal “carbon footprint” is important; most Australians are already acting on this and should continue. But even better is to contact MPs with a reminder of the importance of good carbon policy, and explaining that rather than the Direct Action Plan, a robust and timely ETS should be reconsidered as the most favourable of Australia’s carbon policy options.

 

Angela E. Frimberger, VMD, MANZCVS, Diplomate ACVIM(Onc),
Registered Specialist in Veterinary Oncology, N7516
Wauchope, NSW.