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Biodiversity and Climate Change

Climate change is rampaging our planet, our region, and our communities like an unstoppable freight train that has gone off the tracks. We are no longer looking at a “predicted” future of possible highly variable extreme weather conditions and catastrophic events. That future is now.

The impacts do and will continue to affect each one of us. Our pocketbooks and our health will bear the scars.

Climate change is challenging our very ability to survive as a species.

In early August, NASA released a study co-authored by Jim Hansen, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. This study uses statistical analysis of recent heat and drought events and extreme weather patterns and concludes that climate change has arrived, is here on a disastrous global scale, and is worse than we thought.

The science has been clear for a decade. The atmosphere now includes nearly 400 parts per million of CO2, and that number is rising by about two parts per million per year. These increases are due to human activity. Climate scientists estimate that a healthy and stable atmosphere should measure 275 parts per million og CO2.

Currently we are not even slowing down global emissions, although, according to a new report issued by the US Energy Information Administration, in 2011 US energy-related carbon emissions declined by 2.4 percent, due to factors such as a poor economy and a glut of cheap natural gas.

The debate about what causes climate change is also over. The endless and obfuscating natural vs. human activity debate must be put behind us. If you do not understand that, your head is buried somewhere other than deep in the sand.

We must solve the most serious issue that has faced our species. To do that we need to identify and intelligently characterize how human activity has caused climate disaster. Most importantly we must change our ways.

The role of biodiversity

The evolution of life on earth coincides with the evolution of the atmosphere. Over the millennia, nature, biodiversity, and earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere have undergone ongoing substantial adjustments. At every level, vital exchanges between energy and life affect the atmosphere, including how gasses are stored and released.

Biodiversity is fundamental to the way our atmosphere has evolved, and to its stability. Life, collected in the oceans, forests, savannahs, wetlands, and literally all of the bioregions of the planet interconnect, interact, and depend upon each other. E. O. Wilson, the famed Harvard biologist, says that “nature achieves sustainability through complexity.” A stable atmosphere champions life, including the relatively recent rise of the human species.

As humans have risen to the top of the food chain, we have come to dominate and transform ecosystems at every level. One of the primary consequences is vanishing biodiversity. Wilson says, “Each millimeter, each acre, each square mile of natures ecosystem that is destroyed is a nail the atmospheric coffin.”

Human fecundity and our alleged ability to reason have been the foundations of our belief in human primacy on the planet. That may be a temporary adjustment. Many scientists are now recognizing that we are experiencing an extinction event on this planet, the Holocene Extinction, that rivals any previous extinction episode.

Generally accepted practices of human culture tend to view the earth from an essentially anthropocentric point of view. This centers on the belief that the earth is here to serve humans rather than the fact that humans are a part of a complex, interdependent ecosystem. This intellectual achievement by humanity centers around a fundamentally political failure that pits things like mainstream monotheistic religious beliefs and economic hegemony against science. The resulting conflicts have been consequential. It is a mismatch: Science wins. Humans and their paradoxical and often corrupting political philosophies are on the way out.

We cannot afford to think of the environment as something to be conquered but rather we must understand that our lives depend on our own healthy relationships with ecosystems. That means, fundamentally, we must defend biodiversity.

The Kaya Identity

Decades ago, Japanese energy economist Yoichi Kaya explained that human-caused CO2 emissions are explained by four factors: population, economic activity, how we obtain our energy, and how we use that energy. His resulting “Kaya Identity” ( Emissions=GDP x Technology) is a formula that has been a way both to recognize and predict carbon emissions, and to find ways to reduce these emissions. Economic activity, translated in the formula as GDP, externalizes by tradition fundamental environmental values. This egregious miscalculation has lead to a false hope that we can still work within the economic systems that have championed consumption and destruction of habitat.

This path has lead to climate disaster by forcing us to decide that we can only address the almost singular issue of “how we obtain our energy” while ignoring the results of expanding GDP on biodiversity and habitat loss. This strategy is not working.

So let’s propose a new formula, the Kaya Identity Redux: Emissions=GDP-Biodiversity x Technology.

It’s the economy, stupid

Until now the discussions and arguments have been filled with political obtusities. Science almost always takes a back seat to economic growth.

We have been through decades of failed global summits and conventions including Kyoto, Rio, Johannesburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and many others, with the focus ostensibly on sustainable development and climate change. One of the problems is that the term “sustainable development” is clearly an oxymoron. Another problem is that the primary concern of virtually every world leader that has attended any of these events is not the environment but instead economic growth and the GDP. According to our global leadership, sustainability is about the economy and not about the relationships between environment, society, and the economy, with the environment being the real bottom line. This is where the train has gone off the tracks.

Our generally accepted economic system declares natural resources to be commodities. The costs and values of the ecological services that these systems provide such as atmospheric balancing and clean water are externalities. In other words, a forest is measured by its value in board feet and its ecological services values are marginalized. The real costs and consequences of harvesting our ecosystems are “external” and are not the responsibility of the political entities that profit from exploitation. Instead the costs of water treatment facilities and healthcare associated with environmental degradation, are passed on to the public, and the measured consumer economy grows without the bother of accounting for environmental loss.

The political economic systems that we have intentionally deployed are directly responsible for eviscerating earth’s ecosystems.

The energy equation is not enough

How we obtain and use our energy is very important. The focus on renewable energy strategies is consequential, but identifying energy sources without taking into consideration consumerism, growth, and the externalities of the value of biodiversity and costs of habitat loss, and the social consequences of all of the above, flies in the face of sustainable problem solving.

Certainly a focus on “greener” energy and a “green economy” has its merits, but can anything that promotes consumer growth that ignores the basic reality of the value of biodiversity succeed? Can we stop this careening train?

Coming next: WNY Primacy: ways to think globally and act locally.

Jay Burney is founder of the Learning Sustainability Campaign and Greenwatch. Greenwatch provides a forum for discussion of a promotion of community literacy about issues related to ecology, sustainability, and biodiversity. Visit Greenwatch on Facebook.

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