A storm we must face by Dr Margi Prideaux, International wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic.
A massive storm is coming; a converging crisis unlike anything we’ve experienced before. The combined forces of climate change and political upheaval will be a tempest of our own making, at a time in human history when knowledge will not permit us to pretend we didn’t see it coming.
Global warming is not hypothetical. It is happening now. Wave after wave of data confirms it. Each of the past several decades has been significantly warmer than the previous ones. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts all report that, like the four years before it, 2016 was the hottest on record. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events like heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall around the world. It has already impacted all continents and all oceans.
Global average sea level has risen by about 17 cm between 1900 and 2005 at a much faster rate than in the previous 3,000 years. Arctic sea ice is retreating at a visible pace. After lifetimes in harmony with the ocean, people of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are looking across the waves to a bleak future. The homes of their ancestors will soon disappear: the sea engulfing their history. Europe’s glaciers are retreating. The United Kingdom is flooding. The Sahara Desert is encroaching on farmland across the African continent, forests are disappearing from the Congo to Madagascar and rising sea levels are swallowing homes in West African river deltas. North America is facing severe heat, heavy rain and declining snowpack. In 2015 the World Meteorological Organization Hurricane Committee reported that the Eastern North Pacific experienced nine major hurricanes above Category 3 levels—the most since reliable records began in 1971. In 2015, India and Pakistan suffered the traumatic and devastating effects of heat waves. Thousands of lives were lost. Record rainfall led to flooding that impacted tens of thousands of people across South America, West Africa and Europe. At the same time, unseasonal dry conditions in southern Africa and Brazil exacerbated multi-year droughts. Thirty per cent of the fertile land in the world has vanished in the past 30 years.
While society tends to focus on the human impacts, the natural world is also lurching. The current rates of species extinction are already one thousand times the pace that would be expected if humans were not a factor. At the global meeting of governments to discuss the state of the world’s biodiversity in late 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported that, of the 85,604 species that have been assessed on their ‘Red List’, 24,307 species are threatened with extinction. In the near future, rapid shifts, caused by climate change, will exceed the ability of many species to migrate or adjust.
If we continue as we now are, the dawn of the next century will grieve the loss of icons—gorillas, polar bears, lions, tuna, warblers and orangutans, and with them the silent demise of thousands of species hardy known.
We stand at a point in history where kakapo, hairy-nosed otters and red wolves exist with a shadow of their former numbers. Polar bears, forest owlets and Philippine eagles face uncertain futures. Lesser known, but just as important species like the brown spider monkey live on the thin margin of survival. Yellowfin tuna may not survive ocean acidification. And, with each of these species are the communities of humans that share the landscape and seascape with them.
When I wake in the morning the sound I hear is a magpie warble. These birds, and their unique and haunting song, as well as the kangaroos that stand on the ridge at dusk, are a part of the culture I live within—the community to which I belong. People in Argentina, Japan, Cameroon or Norway will wake to different sounds and have different wildlife as part of their communities. We all know our non-human kin, the animals we live amidst. We know the seasons we share, what grows when and where. We know the ebb and flow of life in our shared place. For some, our vistas are forests. Others look out to the sea and some on endless frozen horizons. These are not empty places. They are filled with wildlife, with which we commune.
For hundreds of generations, we have managed our relationship with this wild part of our community. Some human communities have done better than others. Some, especially in the developed world, have done poorly with many local species and ecosystems already footnotes of history. But, the political shift towards globally centralised decisions is taking any choice about that association away from all of us. Decisions are now made elsewhere—in an international political space. We have become, in many respects, as helpless as the wild community we live among.
This converging crisis is hampered by our commitment to a system of independent governments programmed to protect their national interest and their market driven agenda—an agenda that believes the market is the mechanisms that should government the world. This is why governments are gambling with climate change. But the stakes are very high. Left on our current path, we will fail to protect what we need and what we cherish. And so, the desperate grip on the current world order will become the lifting force that feeds the thunderhead. We will have a perfect storm.
The more I look, the deeper I delve, the less I believe that the market is the answer. What happens if a corporation thinks the minerals under the mountain are more improtant than the mountain ecosystem and watershed? What happens if a species is too elusive or maybe not interesting enough for international tourists? What happens if a region is unsuitable for moving people in and out on a mass scale? What happens if a community wants to be left alone? What happens if the global economy takes a nose-dive or the price of travel climbs? What happens if a donor decides to change their focus and moves money elsewhere?
I believe that ultimately, progress in conservation effectiveness needs to be defined in terms of equity and the cooperative engagement of local custodians rather than a percentage of territories set aside as protected areas or new major international tourism ventures.
The physical presence of communities, who depend on healthy ecosystems for their lives and livelihoods, can make them effective stewards. This ethic is more than hiring local people as park rangers or ecotour guides or systematically enabling them to monitor and blow the whistle on illegal hunting. Driving traditional communities away creates large vacuums where commercial operators find it easy to operate. Truly acknowledging their connection to the place and wildlife—recognising these forests, grassy plains, arctic tundra or wetlands are their home—can build powerful local conservation initiatives, that don’t need big powerful conservation organisations to swoop in and save them or multinational corporations to determine they have a value.
The tempest is coming. That cannot be changed now. How we prepare and what we do during the period to come will dictate what survives the storm. We can choose to save birdsong, but the choice must be a conscious one.
Margi Prideaux is an international wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic. She has worked within the conservation movement for 27 years. You can follow her on facebook or twitter @WildPolitics. Her books, including Global Environmental Governance, Civil Society and Wildlife and Birdsong After the Storm, can be seen at http://www.wildpolitics.co/books