Maybe you were shocked by the “heat dome” temperatures in Juneau, Stockholm and Moscow. It was 90°F (32.2°C) inside the Arctic Circle. One billion marine animals died. A mountain town in British Columbia got hotter than Las Vegas has ever been and set new heat records for all of Canada on three consecutive days. Then it burned down.
Or maybe you are contemplating the massive droughts, wildfires and mortality in Australia, Brazil, and the American Southwest. Maybe you’re thinking about no longer buying beachfront property on Miami Beach. Whatever this is, it is not how the future once seemed. You have been shaken from complacency.
Many people are suddenly leaning in and looking for something they can personally do to tackle climate change. I was in a Clubhouse room last week and Gen-Z people were seriously asking, “Why isn’t there already an app for this?”
Well, I thought, they might try giving up red meat a few days every week. There are vegan cooking apps. Maybe they could join a car-share co-op or use Uber. Sell the clunker car and buy a newer phone. Maybe they can even afford solar cells for their roof. But, honestly, there is no easy way out of climate change and we better start getting used to that. I actually did download an app called Joro and filled out the profile only to discover that rather than help me reduce my carbon footprint, it was just a scam giving cookie cutter advice (none of which applied to me) designed to suck users into in-app or sponsored purchases while they gathered my juicy juicy data. Thanks, techies.
The hard choices will not be found in the app store. You may have to give up flying. Or have fewer children. But the last thing Gen-Zers would want to hear is that they’ll have to give up their pets.
In Week 47, I pointed out that to reach a carbon footprint of net zero, we will need to cut the US pet population by some 10 million dogs and 10 million cats every year for a decade and then by some 200,000 per year in the out years towards mid-century. We’ll have to get down to one dog and one cat for every 300 people, and then beyond that. I went on to describe why dogs are so difficult to part company with because of our interwoven social history and their special genetic endowments of trust, loyalty and love. But what about cats? Might cats be easier?
Anyone who has ever had a cat knows how aloof they are. They can show love for an owner, but is it real affection or merely seeking a benefit for themselves? Let’s take a deeper dive into their evolutionary biology.
Cats are a relatively recent fruit on the mammalian tree. All types of cat descend from a common ancestor 11 million years ago but pet varieties are considerably more recent. The earliest house cat we know comes from an archaeological dig in Cyprus that unearthed a skeleton in a 9500-year-old human cemetery. Cats were not in the island’s fossil record before then, so this one either swam or was in somebody’s carry-on.
Hair color and pattern, size, tails, and ears are all that differentiate wildcat ancestors from modern tabby cats. There are only 40–50 genetically distinct breeds from eight geographic lineages, but all have been selected for their looks rather than for qualities as mousers, stew meat, or furry slippers.
When I say cats have been bred for looks rather than function that does not mean to suggest they are without other redeeming talents. Many people will say that they keep a cat to control rodents or other pests and that public health is a very important function for cats, going back to Medieval times. All cats hunt small prey by instinct. But contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific evidence that cats are an effective means of rodent control and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. You may get some very fat barn cats but you’ll still have a healthy population of barn rats.
One needs to ask whether the cure is worse than the disease. In 2015, there were an estimated 77.8 million dogs and 85.6 million cats in the USA (although cats may fabricate on their census forms more than dogs do). Every house cat has a hunting territory of 1480 acres — 2.3 sq miles, 6 sq km or 20 city blocks. While they may live in packs of up to 20 females, they are solitary hunters for reasons of stealth. They fan out and sweep up all prey.
Domestic and feral cats cause billions of deaths to native animals each year — more than a billion endangered songbirds each year just in North America. In Australia, cats drove at least 20 native mammals to extinction, and continue to threaten at least 124 more. Their introduction has caused the extinction of at least 33 endemic species on island chains like Hawai’i, the Seychelles, the Marshall, and more. To save endangered Albatross chicks from sea level rise on Midway Atoll, biologists first had to clear 1500 feral cats from Guadalupe Island. Only then could they safely transplant the baby birds.
That’s the extinction threat to birds. To grasp the extinction threat to humans you need to look at cat food that pet owners buy. Cats are obligate carnivores — meaning, they depend upon the nutrients present in animal flesh. It is no surprise that cats relish freshly killed meat from rodents, rabbits, amphibians, birds, reptiles and fish, and will go out of their way to obtain it. They will reluctantly eat cooked food or dry food if it is palatable (but they can be finicky). Cats require nutrients (including arginine, taurine, arachidonic acid, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and niacin) coming mainly, and only easily, from meat sources.
If you are vegan and you have a cat, don’t imagine you will feed it scraps from your table. The natural diet of cats does not include any vegetable matter. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, although suggesting a supplemented vegetarian diet for dogs, recommends against vegetarian and vegan diets for cats.
Wild bird and lizard catch by domesticated and feral cats pales next to the environmental impacts of canned tuna. An estimated 2.48 million metric tonnes of fish are used by the cat food industry each year. While pet food is made predominantly using byproducts from human food production, there has recently been an increase in popularity for human-grade and byproduct-free pet food. Only the best for Max, Sassy, Oreo, and Princess, right?
The USDA and EPA say that 50% of US agricultural greenhouse gas emissions comes from livestock. A more recent estimate is 87% of all greenhouse gases coming from agriculture and land use change. Each year the amount of that livestock being raised to feed cats gets higher. Livestock and fish protein has a much larger impact than vegetable protein. The consumer desire to feed their pets premium foods which advertise healthy and human-grade ingredients, coupled with more pet ownership, requires more meat. This means more land for raising livestock, more salmon farms being fed wild fish catch at 10:1 loss ratios, pound for pound, and more ocean, climate and biodiversity impacts.
In the US, dogs and cats consume about a third of the animal-derived food produced. They produce about 30 percent, by mass, of the feces of USAnians (5.6 million tons vs. 19 million tons), and, through their diet, constitute about 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impacts from farm animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and toxic agro-chemicals. Dog and cat foods are responsible for release of between 80 million and 5.8 billion tons of CO2 and CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, depending on which study you read.
At the lower end of the estimates, dogs and cats produce more greenhouse gases than 174 separate countries. At the high end of that estimate, pets would be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions each year than energy-related emissions from the manufacturing of fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, refrigerants, and oil and gas extraction, combined. Twice as much as commercial air travel. Twice as much as cement. More than all the freight trucking. Twice as much as freight maritime transport and cruise ships. More than greenhouse gas emissions from Russia, Africa, or South America. More than any of 197 separate countries. More than Mar-A-Lago.
If just a quarter of all animal protein used in the food of American pets was human-grade, it would provide the caloric intake average for 5 million USAnians or 50 million Syrians or Venezuelans. Dog diets are estimated to be composed of 33 percent animal protein. Cats need 99 percent. We will explore all these calculations in finer detail in next week’s post.
The next time you think the perfect gift for your child would be a cuddly little kitten, consider all this. Which would you rather have: songbirds greeting you every morning, a climate your children can live with, or a warm ball of fur to snuggle next to in bed? (It’s a trick question. If you are willing to skin the cat you can have all three).
On January 25, 2019, Greta Thunberg gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. She warned global leaders that “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire — because it is.” People don’t like to hear this, but their pets are stoking that fire. If we want to get serious about this, we need to put them out.
“Tackling Feral Cats and Their Impacts — Frequently asked questions” (PDF). Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy.
Loss, Scott R.; Will, Tom; Marra, Peter P. (2013). “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States”. Nature Communications. 4: 1396. doi:10.1038/ncomms2380.
Morelle, Rebecca (29 January 2013). “Cats killing billions of animals in the US”. BBC News.
Edward Howe Forbush, “The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wildlife: Means of Utilizing and Controlling It”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State Board of Agriculture, Economic Biology Bulletin 42, 1916.
Okin, Gregory S. (2017–08–02). “Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats”. PLOS ONE. 12 (8): e0181301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181301.
Kumcu, Aylin; Woolverton, Andrea E. (2014). “Feeding Fido: Changing Consumer Food Preferences Bring Pets to the Table”. Journal of Food Products Marketing. 21 (2): 213–230.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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