Deep pockets certainly provide the wherewithal to think big, it seems.

In politics, seven- and eight-figure campaign contributions apparently arrive with Constitutional Amendments stapled to them, presumably with detailed instructions for the recipient to follow.

In the activist community, the deepest pockets belong to the Humane Society of the United States, and they’re well-known for pushing the envelope: Launching state-by-state ballot initiatives to rewrite the rules on farming and livestock production and conducting brazen fund-raising campaigns to suckers affluent donors into bankrolling animal shelters and pet adoption programs, when in fact the organization supports neither.

Now, in an interview with the online eco-news website Yale Environment 360, environmental writer Marc Gunther got HSUS President Wayne Pacelle talking about the organization’s latest caper: Linking the treatment of farm animals to the impact of climate change.

“We’re also the biggest advocate for animals,” Pacelle said (and by big,” he’s referring to the group’s bank account, not its stature in the non-profit world). “That leads us into many different domains of human interactions with animals, whether agriculture or wildlife, animal testing and research, equine protection, and companion animals” (notice he mentioned agriculture first). “Animal agriculture has an enormous global impact. There are about 70 billion terrestrial animals raised for food every year, and we cannot sustainably raise nine billion animals in the United States.”

At first blush, connecting livestock production to global warming may not seem like much of leap. Various activist coalitions have been working both those angles in anti-industry campaigns for the better part of a decade, and everyone from the United Nations to academic researchers to advocacy think tanks has been spreading that message quite visibly.

But what’s troubling about this apparent HSUS strategy—in addition to the multi-millions they’ll have to underwrite whatever activities they launch—is that animal rights has long been a separate bailiwick with the movement. AR activists have always had many causes—livestock handling at the top of the list, to be sure—including passionate campaigns against dog fighting, puppy mills, lab rats, “canned hunting” and marine mammal slaughter.

Usually, animal rights advocates were so passionate that they had neither the time nor the inclination to wander off-message, or take detours into related campaigns that only tangentially affected animals.

Likewise, environmental activism has typically been characterized by a kind of tunnel vision that identifies litigation as the principal leverage for change. Many environmental proponents I’ve interviewed over the years were actually somewhat agnostic on animal welfare issues. They were engaged on land use, water quality and resources depletion, and that impact agriculture, but many could care less about whether somebody should be a vegetarian or a total vegan or if it was inhumane to use mice for experiments in medical science.

Crossover move

Bringing global warming and animal abuse together bridges that gap, bringing together groups and individuals that were nominally on the same team but had historically pursued parallel—if not separate—agendas. If this HSUS gambit works, it will be possible for diehard animal activists to embrace a narrower anti-meat industry vision without compromising their purity, and for eco-advocates to weigh in on the “horrors” of factory farming as a legitimate extension of their mission to save the planet.

I give Pacelle credit for being savvy enough to capitalize on this potential expansion of the group’s affiliations. It’s like a country singer who crosses over to become a pop star. He doesn’t lose his country fans, but he gains a whole lot of new ticket buyers and music consumers to fatten his bottom line.

Philosophically, it’s relatively easy to merge animal abuse with global warming—just keep pounding away at the “cut back on beef” message touted by such initiatives as the Meatless Mondays campaign.

Physically bringing together the people and the energies of what have traditionally been separate movements, however, is a challenge of a different order.

Whether HSUS has the clout to get it done will be an intriguing story to follow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.