Human Civilization Is Under Threat. We Must Save Nature to Save Ourselves
By Susan Casey-Lefkowitz
This is a rough moment to read or listen to environmental news. As we're experiencing a seemingly unending parade of rollbacks and pro-polluter actions coming out of DC, the international science community is ringing the alarm bell on a series of issues that need attention — now. Most notably, last year's IPCC climate report made clear that action needs to happen fast if we are going to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
That report was scary. Now there's a new scientific assessment of global ecosystems on the verge of collapse — and it's downright horrific.
The United Nations' Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reflects the scientific expertise of 150 biodiversity experts from 50 countries on behalf of the Intergovernmental Science – Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report is organized around four key messages:
- Nature underpins and sustains quality of life, but its contributions to people are deteriorating worldwide.
- The issues and practices pushing us toward natural collapse have accelerated during the past 50 years. For example, over the past 30 years, global trade has increased eightfold.
- Short-term goals for protecting nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, but goals for 2030, 2050 and beyond can be achieved through transformative change, which means a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.
- Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through proven solutions and transformative change.
In short, the report says we need to protect nature — or nature is going to stop protecting us in some very frightening ways: disappearance of species we care about and rely on, like pollinators and freshwater fish; decline in agricultural yields due to severely damaged soil; eradication of forest ecosystems, along with all the carbon storage and wildlife home benefits they bring; and elimination of freshwater streams that provide drinking water for our survival.
As this report makes clear, our international framework for protecting nature is not enough: "The negative trends in nature and its contributions to people are projected to continue to 2050 and beyond in all scenarios except those that include transformative change, due to the projected impact of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms, and climate change."
It is hard not to read the assessment and just curl up in a ball. Like climate change, these issues seem huge.
But the reality is that there are solutions. And many are not new. This report just makes it more urgent for us to do things that we have known were needed for quite some time and push the envelope on some new ideas.
Taking the steps necessary to reverse the degradation of our natural world will not be easy, but there is a clear path. We must prioritize nature for itself and as the system that nurtures us and our children into future generations. We must set aside vast areas of land, waters and ocean from industrial development; we must adopt new laws and invent new mechanisms that elevate the needs of nature; and we must be bold in using existing tools to maximize protections for nature.
Protect vast areas of land and ocean.
We must expand the current network of land-based protected areas and marine protected areas, particularly in the context of climate change. Earlier this year, NRDC joined some of the world's biggest and most respected conservation groups to call for 30 percent of the world's lands and oceans to be made protected areas by 2030. And we need to stop doing wasteful things like chopping down the boreal forest in Canada for toilet paper, or the great forests of the American Southeast for exported wood pellets dirtying up the energy sector in other countries while worsening the environment in our own. The report makes clear these sorts of actions are even more necessary than we thought.
Sustainably feed the world.
We must do a better job at land-use planning and managing crop and livestock production and consumption. We must implement ecosystem-based fisheries management and spatial planning — including the expansion of marine protected areas — in a manner that addresses ocean stress from climate change, pollution and acidification. We also need to get far more serious about restorative agricultural practices that address the health of soils that our farms are utterly reliant upon.
To maintain adequate access to clean, fresh water, which is suffering from climate change, pollution and demand, we must improve efficiency, increase storage capacity, improve water quality and minimize the disruption of our natural water systems. We need to ensure that existing wetlands and source waters are protected by strong national laws, minimize pollution and nutrient flows into our waters by farming in ways that protect soil and minimize fertilizer use, and ensure that our rivers have enough water flowing through them to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations.
Disrupt current patterns of consumption and waste.
Simply put, we must reduce wasteful consumption.
Many of the tools to fix our global problems are there. We can address this global crisis by taking these aforementioned steps and building them out with new, bold initiatives. I hope the IPBES' assessment will be the signal we all need to start taking aggressive action. Rather than curl up in a ball in fear, I prefer to visualize the better, brighter, fairer, safer, more lovely world that will result from taking the actions necessary.
A UN-backed report says a million species are at risk of extinction, and warns #biodiversity loss and failure to conserve ecosystems has catastrophic effects on people as well as nature. @centerforbiodiv @laikenjordahl @billmckibben @IPBES https://t.co/gGYRNawuMo— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) May 6, 2019
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz directs NRDC's Climate and Clean Energy, Healthy People and Thriving Communities, Nature, and International programs.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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