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July 8, 2021, by lqxag13

Runner up of the ENQUIRE Blog Post Competition 2021 – Farmed animals in the context of climate action: towards a paradigm shift by Pablo Serra-Palao

It is widely documented that industrial animal agriculture is a major driver of climate change, deforestation, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Given that relying solely on technological measures is not enough for mitigating these environmental pressures (Springmann et al., 2018), the scientific community is calling for a shift towards more plant-based diets as a demand-side solution for climate mitigation (e.g., Aleksandrowicz et al., 2016; IPCC, 2019, pp. 487-491; Poore & Nemecek, 2018; Springmann et al., 2018). In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed several international organisations and institutions to timidly recognise the rising demand of animal protein as a key factor in the emergence of zoonotic diseases (UNEP & ILRI, 2020), therefore arguing for a reduction on meat consumption (IPBES, 2020).

While the livestock sector is receiving increasing attention, farmed animals are caught in the firing line of climate action: recommended sustainability measures focus almost entirely on addressing the environmental impact of this human activity, overlooking how farmed animals are affected by climate change or by implementing these measures. And when research deals with the effects of climate change on these animals, it is commonly framed in terms of livestock production, proposing adaptative measures such as genetic enhancement/selection of animals, changing diet composition or improving feeding practices (Renaudeau et al., 2012; Sejian et al., 2018). There are little exceptions to this economisist and anthropocentric perspective in the climate-related scientific literature (see, e.g., Stoddard & Hovorka, 2019).

Moreover, even when non-anthropocentric views finally manage to shape alternative approaches to industrial animal agriculture in the broader context of climate action —whether it be in the scientific, political or legal domain— they tend to adopt a holistic position, prioritizing collectives such as ecosystems over the interests of sentient animals individually considered. As a result, we have a scenario that perfectly illustrates what it is now a classical gap between ethical positions in environmental ethics and animal ethics: holistic positions in environmental ethics claim that ecosystems, species or populations are morally considerable, whereas individualistic positions in animal ethics argue that it is the sentient individuals who deserve moral consideration (Faria & Paez, 2019).

Even if these ethical positions might seem incompatible —especially when presenting opposing solutions to some practical problems— it does not necessarily follow that they cannot jointly shape an alternative approach to industrial animal agriculture in the context of climate action, at least to some extent. On the contrary, everything seems to suggest that what science has thought us about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals deserves a more relevant space in deciding which interests count in climate-related scientific research, policy and law. Marc Bekoff (2015), in advocating for the protection of animals as individuals in the field of conservation, stated: “a paradigm shift in our approach to other animals is vital because of what we have come to understand about their cognitive and emotional capacities and their ability to suffer and experience joy (sentience)” (p. 146). The same could be said for climate action.

This alternative approach in climate action could embrace the following conclusions made by animal ethicists, political and legal theorists: (1) sentient animals have morally relevant interests that generate moral obligations to them; (2) at least to some positions, the possession of these interests implies recognizing that they have certain moral rights; (3) by virtue of these morally relevant interests and our relations with them, sentient animals are members of our political communities; and (4) given the above conclusions, and in order to guarantee the protection of their interests, sentient animals should have some fundamental legal rights (for a comprehensive theorisation of legal animal rights, see Stucki, 2020).

Unfortunately, it does not seem that this will happen any time soon. Animal welfare legislation has not prevented the fact that the lives of farmed animals are full of suffering, so not having their interests considered as individuals in climate action simply joins a long list of injustices to these animals.

As mentioned before, the desired scenario would be deploying a novel approach capable of representing a sort of meeting point between the conclusions brought by animal scholars and the ecological —and more holistic— concerns of existing approaches in climate action. Reaching this meeting point is as difficult as it appears, but perhaps the vulnerability discourse could pave the way.

Several scholars from diverse disciplines have recently turned their attention to the notion of vulnerability and what it could contribute to the ongoing debate about the treatment of animals, both in the field of animal ethics (Huth, 2020; Martin, 2021) and legal theory (Deckha, 2015; Satz, 2013). Linking vulnerability with bodily existence and the ability to suffer, this notion could be understood as an inherent quality of all sentient animals. Once the transition from the descriptive to the normative realm is done, and given the existing relevance of human vulnerability discourse in climate action, a non-anthropocentric approach based on the protection and respect of sentient animals’ vulnerability could progressively integrate the aforementioned conclusions of animal scholars in the climate discourse.

Pablo Serra-Palao (Predoctoral Fellow, University of Murcia, Spain)


Twitter: @pserrapalao

Aleksandrowicz, L., et al. (2016). The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PloS ONE, 11(11): e0165797.

Bekoff, M. (2015). Rewilding Our Hearts: Making a Personal Commitment to Animals and Their Homes. In G. Wuerthner, E. Crist & T. Butler (Eds.), Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness, the Foundation for Conservation (pp. 144-153). Island Press.

Deckha, M. (2015). Vulnerability, Equality, and Animals. Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 27(1), 47-70.

Faria, C., & Paez, E. (2019). It’s Splitsville: Why Animal Ethics and Environmental Ethics are Incompatible. American Behavioral Scientist, 63(8), 1047-1060.

Huth, M. (2020). How to Recognize Animals’ Vulnerability: Questioning the Orthodoxies of Moral Individualism and Relationism in Animal Ethics. Animals, 10(2), 235.

IPBES (2020). Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES secretariat.

IPCC (2019). Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. IPCC.

Martin, A. K. (2021). Animal Vulnerability and its Ethical Implications: An Exploration. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 38(2), 196-216.

Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992.

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Satz, A. B. (2013). Animals as Vulnerable Subjects: Beyond Interest-convergence, Hierarchy, and Property. In M. A. Fineman & A. Grear (Eds.), Vulnerability: Reflections on a New Ethical Foundation for Law and Politics (pp. 171-197). Ashgate.

Sejian, V., et al. (2018). Review: Adaptation of animals to heat stress. Animal, 12(S2), s431-s444.

Springmann, M., et al. (2018). Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature, 562, 519-525.

Stoddard, E. A., & Hovorka, A. (2019). Animals, vulnerability and global environmental change: The case of farmed pigs in concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina. Geoforum, 100, 153-165.

Stucki, S. (2020). Towards a Theory of Legal Animal Rights: Simple and Fundamental Rights. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 40(3), 533-560.

UNEP & ILRI (2020). Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission. UNEP.

Posted in ENQUIRE Blog Post Competition 2021