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When your views on climate change conflict with your chosen career path
  1. Simon Coghlan and
  2. Adam Cardilini

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Simon Coghlan is a veterinarian and has a PhD in philosophy. He currently works in the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He writes on veterinary ethics, animal ethics and applied ethics.

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Adam Cardilini, graduated from Deakin University and has a Phd in ecology, evolutionary biology and genetics. He is currently an associate lecturer in science communication at Deakin University.

The dilemma

Jenny is approaching graduation, at which point she hopes to begin her career in animal production. However, she is deeply concerned about climate change and has previously marched in protest of the government’s lack of action. When speaking with a fellow veterinary student she was told, ‘We should avoid working in animal production, its role in global warming is increasingly apparent. Personally, I’m going to work with companion animal medicine or research instead.’ Jenny is now concerned that while farm animals need care, going into this field will make her complicit in damaging the environment. As her mentor, what would you advise?

Issues to consider

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that nearly 29 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions arise from forestry and agricultural practices (IPCC 2019). Without drastically reducing deforestation and livestock production, the IPCC claims climate disaster will most likely ensue, affecting millions of lives and driving mass extinction. According to the report, plant-based diets ‘present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.’

So, is there evidence to suggest that meat and dairy production can also become more efficient and sustainable? An article by Statham and others (2017) on the effects of cattle production on climate change identified three main areas to reduce the impact that cattle farming has on the environment:

  • Instigate resource efficiency and environmental management measures;

  • Nutrition and modification of enteric fermentation;

  • Improved health and productivity by reducing the waste caused by disease and reproductive inefficiency.

However, will this have a sufficient impact on our environment, climate and public health?

A 2018 paper on assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change, revealed animal agriculture’s carbon opportunity cost (Searchinger and others 2018). It discussed how land used for different types of animal production loses far more carbon per kg of production than land used for cereals, vegetables and legumes. Therefore, ‘reforesting pastures, biofuel production and diet changes…can have much greater implications for the climate than previously understood because standard methods for evaluating the effects of land use on greenhouse gas emissions systematically underestimate the opportunity of land to store carbon if it is not used for agriculture.’ The situation is complicated, but there is an argument that there is a vital need to reduce our planet’s animal agriculture to avoid further harming the environment.

Possible way forward

Consider that Jenny is a utilitarian. Utilitarianism is focused on maximising human and animal wellbeing. Therefore, since climate change gravely imperils wellbeing, Jenny should take the necessary actions needed to implement this in her everyday life, including adopting a largely plant-based diet and continuing to protest against inadequate advances in tackling climate change. Although utilitarianism takes farm animal welfare very seriously, it must also consider the wellbeing of billions of animals and people threatened daily by climate change. For this, along with other reasons, utilitarianism would likely support the rewilding of much agricultural land. Therefore, to put words into action, Jenny should avoid working in animal production and be vocal about her reasons in doing so, in order to inform and motivate other people also considering this line of work.

This section gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute their approaches for dealing with ethical dilemmas in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved. In addition, a possible way forward is suggested. However, there is rarely a cut-and dried answer and readers are invited to suggest alternative approaches at vet.inpractice{at}bmj.com.

The section is coordinated by Steven McCulloch, senior lecturer in human animal studies at the Centre for Animal Welfare, University of Winchester. Articles aim to provide a framework that will help practising veterinarians find solutions when faced with similar dilemmas.

Now, suppose Jenny is a virtue ethicist. Virtue ethics emphasises benevolence and courage, acknowledging that actions have consequences. Although virtue ethics does not insist on maximising global wellbeing, it may demand individuals strive to protect the planet against climate change. However, in advocating benevolence, virtue ethics may also encourage compassion to farm animals and people whose livelihood depends on the production of livestock.

Although working as a large animal vet would benefit farmers and animal welfare, Jenny’s conviction that animal production is affecting the climate may induce moral distress (Fawcett and Mullan 2018). To minimise personal distress, Jenny could focus on other aspects of her everyday which will benefit the environment. For example, she could adopt a meat-free diet, as well as actively promote an awareness of climate change to the public and to local politicians, by highlighting the role of livestock production in today’s climate crisis.

Any thoughts?

We welcome views on this article. Please email your comments by November 18, 2019 so we can consider them for inclusion in the next issue of In Practice. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

vet.inpractice{at}bmj.com

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