In the Fight Against Climate Change, Humans and Wildlife Are Allies
By Jason Bittel
One million species could soon face extinction. Climate change is accelerating at a breakneck pace, already affecting about half of all threatened mammal species and a quarter of threatened birds. And according to a study published in Science last year, if nothing is done to curb our carbon emissions, nearly 50 percent of the planet's insects, which make up the foundation of food webs all over the globe, could disappear by the end of the century.
Until now, the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss have mostly been framed as separate issues. A 2018 study, for instance, found that climate change receives eight times more media coverage than biodiversity, despite the fact that scientists publish new studies on both subjects at about the same rate. (And to put that into broader perspective, climate change doesn't receive nearly as much press as it should.)
Clockwise from top left: A panther chameleon, a Harris's three spot moth caterpillar, a pale tussock caterpillar.
Simone Sbaraglia, Lance Featherstone, Nick Goodrum
Yet biodiversity and climate are inextricably linked. "We can't stabilize the climate without really addressing biodiversity, and we can't save biodiversity without staying below 1.5 degrees," says Eric Dinerstein, a wildlife biologist at the nonprofit RESOLVE, referring to the maximum increase in global temperature (in degrees Celsius) that scientists agree most species can survive. "You can't solve one without the other."
Dinerstein and his colleagues recently laid out a plan in Science Advances to address biodiversity loss and climate change as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Their Global Deal for Nature calls for the creation of formal, line-in-the-sand protections for 50 percent of the planet's biomes by 2050.
Dinerstein and his coauthors go into great detail about how to achieve this goal, but the heart of the effort comes down to one simple idea: By saving plants and animals, we can save the world.
One of the best strategies for combating global warming is to preserve those habitats that naturally lock up the most carbon. Tropical forests, where giant, ancient trees constantly absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then fix it into the soil, store around 40 percent of all the carbon on land. This is why protecting the lush expanses of the Amazon, the Congo River Basin, and Southeast Asia is so essential.
Clearly, cutting down nature's carbon sequestration machines is terrible for mitigating climate change, but so too is killing off the animals that spread the seeds that allow the forests to flourish. "In the tropics, these giant trees are often dispersed by things like tapirs and rhinos and elephants," says Dinerstein. "This is a critical point."
Seed dispersers aren't the only animals worth saving. Predators also help to conserve their forests—and sometimes, the bigger and scarier, the better.
A tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, India.
James Warwick / www.JamesWarwick.co.uk
Dinerstein has spent much of his career studying tigers. In one study, he determined that forested landscapes that still harbor functional tiger populations in India contain three times the carbon density of landscapes where humans have eradicated tigers. This is because areas that still have tigers are often much better managed and protected. "People tend to stay out of them more," Dinerstein says, "whereas once a forest has lost its tigers, people pretty much go in there all the time and start exploiting other species and cutting down firewood, and they become degraded more quickly."
Similar relationships are playing out in the oceans. For instance, seagrass meadows cover just 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, but they hold more than 10 percent of all the carbon locked up in the sea, thanks to deep roots that can keep the plants in place for thousands of years. Too many grazers, such as sea turtles and dugongs, however, can wipe out seagrass beds and the carbon storage services they provide.
But if you throw in a few tiger sharks, the hungry herbivores are forced to nibble and move on, lest they end up as dinner themselves.
Believe it or not, Dinerstein says, coastal mangroves sequester much more carbon than almost any other habitat. They also serve as nurseries for a huge number of tropical fish species. And they protect coastlines from storm surges and erosion—"a threefold benefit," says Dinerstein. Unfortunately, shrimp farming and other commercial developments have already cleared away large swaths of mangrove habitat, most noticeably in Asia and the South Pacific.
Yes, we need trees and seagrass (and coral reefs and peat bogs and tundra), but we also need the tapirs, tigers, and tiger sharks (and the caribou and the blue whales and the hornbills). Saving the world from mass extinction and climate change is a package deal. To quote the Global Deal for Nature, "It is no coincidence that some of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on land—natural forests—also harbor high levels of biodiversity." From predators and prey to decomposers, parasites, and pollinators, when every niche is full of life, carbon gets locked up like on an assembly line.
But it's one thing to identify the importance of protecting animals and their habitats, and it's another thing to do it. All told, the Global Deal would cost around $100 billion per year to reach the 2050 milestone. That seems like a hefty price tag considering that the international community currently spends $10 billion a year at the most on conservation. But that's the wrong way to look at it, says Dinerstein.
"In the U.S. alone, we spend $33 billion a year on pet food and grooming," he says. "If we just doubled that and included other countries in the world . . . if we love nature just as much, we can easily afford this."
This also isn't simply a case for charity. Numerous industries, the researchers calculate, stand to make considerable gains by mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss. According to the Global Deal for Nature, the global seafood industry could make an additional $53 billion per year. And the insurance industry, if it didn't have to cover losses caused by intensifying wildfires and flooding, could savean annual sum of approximately $4,300 billion.
To be clear, that's $4,300,000,000,000.
Here's another way to look at it: When you consider the amount of subsidies the United States alone gifts the fossil fuel industry each year, $100 billion starts to sound like chump change. As in, we'd be chumps not to invest in fixing our own planet for the cost of building a spaceship to visit another one.
We also, of course, can't afford not to.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.