A Global Network of Animal Health Professionals Concerned About Climate Change and the Environment
Veterinarians are charged with the protection of animal health and welfare, prevention and relief of animal suffering, and promotion of public health. Climate change threatens all these - so as a veterinarian, it hits me where I live.
The loss of 173 human lives in Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in February 2009 was terrible. What many people don’t know is that in addition, over 1,000,000 animals lost their lives in the fires according to RSPCA estimates, including nearly 12,000 helpless livestock.
Many of the surviving wild animals were badly burned during the fire or afterwards, trying to return to their still-smouldering homes. And even later, they would struggle to survive in the devastated habitat.
So what's the connection between stories like these and climate change?
The Black Saturday fires occurred at the peak of a record-smashing heatwave that sat over south-eastern Australia in early 2009 generating the conditions that made the fires so devastating. Climate change didn’t directly cause the fires, but it set the stage for them to be so catastrophic when they broke out.
In Tasmania we have just witnessed similarly extreme bushfires – which scientists have directly linked with climate change - destroying 80,000 hectares of ancient habitat in the Wilderness World Heritage Area, along with the forest animals that called it home.
More severe fires, longer fire seasons, and more frequent and extreme heatwaves and droughts are predicted with climate change. That’s exactly what’s happening, and our animal friends are paying the price.
There’s no corner of the world - mountains, grasslands or seas - where animals are unaffected by climate change. The changes and species impacted are simply too many to list.
Wildlife veterinarian Dr David Phalen, Associate Professor of Wildlife Health and Conservation at the University of Sydney, says, “There are many examples of wildlife being impacted by climate change. Large fires have destroyed habitat for already endangered populations of wildlife. We’re also seeing coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef… the lowest numbers in recorded history of waterbirds breeding in the Murray Darling basin due to low water flow… koalas in Gunnedah and mid central Queensland impacted by prolonged heat and drought, with 20% of the koala population in Gunnedah lost to heat exhaustion a few years ago… Lots more.”
Phalen and his graduate student Dr. Silvia Ban de Gouvea Pedrosa and colleague Dr. Karrie Rose, of The Australian Registry of Wildlife Health have recently identified an increase in coccidiosis, a potentially fatal infection in green sea turtles along Australia’s east coast, and have linked this to climate change and changing rainfall patterns.
But it’s not just wildlife bearing the brunt of climate change. Livestock and pets die in bushfires and severe storms too. When people evacuate during natural disasters, many are unable to take their pets and must simply hope for the best.
Imagine sitting in a cyclone shelter wondering not only if your home will be there to return to, but whether your pets will survive - and what they’re going through.
And like in people, even though it’s less dramatic, heat itself is actually a bigger killer in animals - every year many pets die from heat stroke.
More subtle threats to animal health and welfare overlap with threats to human health. The World Health Organization predicts an increase in infectious diseases as a likely major consequence of climate change. These include Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus, Dengue fever, malaria, plague, parasites and cholera. Many of these are zoonoses – infections shared between people and domestic and wild animals.
“One Health” is a concept in veterinary and human medicine that recognizes the interconnectedness of human and animal health and the environment. This isn’t touchy-feely stuff – it’s very practical science about things like infectious diseases, and food production. Farmers and biologists know all about this. We all know it on some level, although most of us don’t usually make the connection in our daily lives.
At the recent Paris climate conference Australia committed to working toward keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. So we know what we need to do to achieve that and we know it’s economically and technologically feasible. We only need to choose together to make it a reality.
Climate change has many consequences, including a threat to the animals that as a veterinarian I’ve sworn to protect. From my perspective, there’s no problem more urgent or important; and no excuse for lagging a moment longer to take the strongest possible action to mitigate it.
(This piece was first published on onlineopinion.com in March 2016)