Planning Needed – Climate Change Impact on Animals

by Johanna Rahkonen & Richard (Dick) Green

Animal populations will be uniquely impacted by the increasing, changing, and compounding disasters attributed to the rapidly advancing effects of climate change. Companion animals will face displacement, livestock will suffer from physiological stressors, and wildlife may face localized extinctions. Animals from all sectors may experience increased instances of negative health outcomes such as infectious diseases. Emergency and disaster planners must take steps to proactively assess the impact of climate changes on animals within their communities as they work to improve their climate resilience.

Johanna Rahkonen headshotIn December 2017, millions of people from around the world viewed a viral video depicting a starving polar bear struggling on atrophied legs to make its way across the Canadian arctic, rummaging through refuse in search of something to eat. Critics were quick to point out that climate change could not definitively be blamed for the dying bear’s condition, but others noted that the risk of starvation from melting sea-ice, driven by climatic warming, has a long history of being regarded as a threat to polar bear populations and other arctic species. Polar bears living in the southern Beaufort Sea in Canada, between 2001 and 2010, are thought to have undergone a population decline of at least 25% and possibly as much as 50%.

The Beaufort Sea is also the location of the longest recorded polar bear swim. Less ice means more water, and in 2008 a female polar bear swam for nine days straight, traveling across 426 miles of water, losing 22% of her body weight and her cub along the way. Certainly this does not mean that all polar bears will meet this same fate. What it does mean is that the time for action for some of these bears has already passed. When Paul Nicklen posted the viral video of the starving polar bear, he wrote, “This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. It’s a slow, painful death.”

With climate change already affecting animals of all types and classifications, steps must now be taken to appropriately identify new threats and risks. The rapidly evolving nature of climate change requires the need for preparation activities to address the damaging impact felt by animal populations as disasters and emerging threats develop and intensify.

Impact of Extreme Weather & Temperatures on Animals

Climate change has been identified as an emerging risk to global communities. According to the World Economic Forum’s The Global Risks Report 2018, extreme weather events, natural disasters, and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation have been identified as three of the top five global risks in terms of both likelihood and impact. According to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will likely boost temperatures over most land surfaces, though the exact change will vary regionally. NASA has estimated that the planet’s average surface temperature has already risen about 1.1°C since the late 19th century. Extreme temperatures will also occur more frequently.

Rising temperatures will lead to melting ice and subsequent increased instances of flooding, particularly along the coast. By 2050, the expected rise of 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) could more than double the flooding frequency in places such as the tropics. Long-term sea level rise may have been underestimated, as it is now believed warming may be twice what prior models have suggested. Because warmer air can hold more water, increases in global temperatures can result in increased intensity of storms, including tropical cyclones with higher wind speeds and more intense mid-latitude storms.

From 1949 through 2016, tropical-cyclone translation speed has decreased globally by about 10%, leading to increased rainfall totals. As more rain travels more slowly over a given area, higher rainfall totals should be anticipated. The damaging consequences of these sorts of developments have already been seen. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey stalled after making landfall in Texas, remaining partially over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for four days and resulting in unprecedented rainfall rather than moving inland and dispersing.

Planning Needed – Climate Change Impact on Animals

A review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) database of disaster declarations revealed that 73% of the presidential disaster declarations from 2008 to 2017 were flood-related events. During this same period, eight of the ten states with the most flood-related presidential disaster declarations were inland, with Arkansas having the greatest frequency. Nevertheless, the potential for coastal flooding remains significant. All of the top 10 states most at risk for devastating floods over the next 100 years are along the U.S. coastline.

Climate change has also been projected to increase very large fire (VLF) potential in historically fire-prone regions in the United States. This will have greater impact in the intermountain west and northern California due to an increase in frequency of conditions conducive to VLFs and an extension of the seasonal window. In December 2017, California’s Thomas wildfire became the largest known in state history, burning roughly 281,893 acres. In the past 10 years, California has experienced 9 of the 20 largest fires on state record.

Impact on companion animals. Few studies have been done on the direct impact of climate change on companion animals. However, due to their close relationship with human populations, many of the effects of climate change felt by humans will be felt by the companion animals who cohabit and live among human populations. The 2017 Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s Global Report on Internal Displacement found that, in 2016, there were 24.6 million new displacements from disasters. China had the highest number of displacements with over 7.4 million, the United States was 5th with over 1.1 million, and small island states (like Puerto Rico) were found to “suffer disproportionately” after making considerations for population size. As people are displaced from their home communities, they may lose financial stability, food and/or water security, and the capacity to take care of themselves and their animals. Structures need to be implemented within and between governmental and state entities in order to accommodate displaced humans and their pets. An increased population of abandoned pets should also be anticipated.

Impact on livestock. The global human population is expected to increase from 7.6 to 9.8 billion in 2050, an increase of 29%. As such, demand for agricultural products are projected to increase over 40%. Research indicates that grazing systems may be directly impacted by extreme weather events and temperature changes, such as droughts, floods, productivity losses, and water availability. Further, grazing systems may be indirectly affected through issues related to fodder quantity and quality, disease epidemics, and host-pathogen interactions. In general, warmer conditions make disease transmission more likely between hosts. Non-grazing livestock production systems may be directly impacted by water availability and extreme weather events, and indirectly impacted by increased resource pricing, disease epidemics, and increased cost of animal housing due to changing needs such as cooling systems. As rising demand encourages production growth and intensification, a greater number of animals are subsequently at risk.

Impact on wildlife. The effects of climate change on wildlife species has been broadly and increasingly researched in recent years. Even with an average global warming of only about 1°C, scientists have recognized climate change impact across every ecosystem on Earth. Out of 94 processes primarily involved with ecosystem functioning across terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems, 82% were found to have been impacted by climate change. Negative impacts from climate change have also been measured for individual species, as many are threatened and may face extinction due to climate change effects. Biodiversity is also threatened, with hundreds of species already experiencing climate-related local extinctions, including 47% of one study looking at 976 species. Though incidence was similar across climatic zones and habitats, extinctions were significantly higher in tropical species (55%) compared to temperate species (39%), animals (50%) compared to plants (39%), and freshwater habitats (74%) relative to terrestrial (46%) and marine habitats (51%). As climate change places new and intensifying stressors on wildlife, a departure from noninterventionist wildlife management approaches may be needed to mitigate these and other impacts.

Planning & Response to Increased Threats

In many regions across the United States, emergency management has already addressed the importance of including animals in their preparedness and response activities. However, without accounting for rapid developments of these changes, appropriate mitigation, preparation, and subsequent response may lag behind need. Agencies, organizations, and individuals must be prepared to rapidly respond to “snowballing” events that affect a multiplicity of animals groups. For example, a wildfire that required wildlife rescue may lead to a mudslide requiring companion animal rescue. Climate change science and preparation will help targeted planning objectives in the emergency management field better plan and subsequently respond and recover from anthropogenic-induced climatic events that affect humans and animals alike.

Despite increased legislative and subsequent agency attention to animal issues in disasters, risk-driven preparation linking animals and climate change impact remains stagnated. As of 2018, FEMA has removed all reference to climate from its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, detracting from the severity and focus, which increasing climatic shifts will demand from the emergency management and response fields. The word “climate” does not appear at all in the document, and emerging threats are primarily attributed to terrorism and cybersecurity. It ignores one of the driving factors in change when it comes to the evolving nature of disasters presently and in the future.

The increasing and evolving risk of climate change requires a shift in perspective from those responding to animal-related emergencies in the face of disasters. As Adaptation Manager Missy Stults pointed out in a 2010 article, “for emergency planners and response personnel, it becomes really important to start planning for a changing paradigm. We can’t plan based on historical situations anymore because history is literally being changed.” Relying on reactionary assessment and response planning strategies could potentially lead to substantial harm and loss of life. Emergency planners need to:

  • Identify hazards and threats that are facing communities;
  • Recognize how those threats may be affected by changes in climate; and
  • Understand how these changes may impact animals.

It is not too late to start planning for climate change impacts on animals, but immediate steps are needed to mitigate these effects.

Johanna Rahkonen (pictured above) is currently completing her master’s in Animals and Public Policy at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, where she has studied state and federal policy, animal welfare, animal law, and other issues involving the intersection between animals and society. She is presently interning with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), where she has been able to explore her interest in animal emergency and disaster response. Before entering her current program, she obtained her master’s in English Composition and Literature from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and worked for several years in bank operations.

Richard (Dick) Green is the senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Before the ASPCA, he was the emergency relief manager for disasters at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He has responded to international and national disasters, and his teams have rescued thousands of animals from floods, tornadoes, fires, and hurricanes. Recent international responses include typhoons in Taiwan, Philippines, and Australia, volcano eruptions in Philippines and Iceland, and earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Japan. He has trained hundreds of responders in disaster prevention and response and has developed training curricula and texts for Slackwater Rescue, Water Rescue for Companion Animals, and Rope Rescue for Companion Animals. He is the past chair of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, is on the Board of Directors for the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs, co-chairs the Animal Search and Rescue Best Practice Working Group, and is a member of the Evacuation and Transportation Best Practice Working Group. His doctorate is in education with an emphasis in kinesiology and biomechanics. He was an educator for 27 years, the last 10 at Gonzaga University in the Department of Exercise Science.