Climate change is the single biggest issue the world faces, with ramifications for generations to come. Conservationists must unite to address this overarching threat--helping polar bears, rhinos, elephants, and, yes, people.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International.

9/1/2016 4:37:35 PM

Uniting Conservationists Around Climate Action

By Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, PBI Chief Scientist 

Over the next several days, delegates from over 170 countries will gather in Hawaii for the IUCN World Conservation Congress. The theme of this year's Congress is "a planet at risk." Exaggerated droughts and floods, reduced regional water supplies, and ever-longer wildfire seasons, make it clear we are overdue for major conservation organizations to apply strong focus to combatting global warming and its dangerous climate change symptoms. Yet, just as in other recent conservation conferences I have attended, agenda topics at this Conservation Congress seem focused on traditional "on the ground" conservation tools like anti-poaching efforts and setting aside protected areas of habitat.

Climate change is the single biggest issue the world faces, with ramifications for generations to come. While traditional conservation efforts remain important, no conservation plan is complete without simultaneous efforts to stop this overarching threat.

Some conservationists seem to think this is an "either/or" situation, or that there is a competition between addressing global warming and implementing on the ground strategies. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If we don't stop elephant poaching soon, there will be no elephants left for global warming to kill. Conversely, if we don't act soon to address climate change, the boundaries of new elephant reserves will no longer enclose the ecosystems they were designed to protect. Clearly, we need traditional on the ground efforts AND rapid efforts to reduce our use of fossil fuels. And, because we cannot fight global warming in the field, efforts to combat it must take place independently of ongoing efforts applied on the ground.

Combatting climate change requires a united front of conservationists and humanitarians to inform, enlighten, and inspire our policy leaders to take necessary action. This "enlightenment" can be done at the same time funds are focused on battling poachers.

For many concerned conservationists, climate change seems an uncertain and distant challenge. But there is no uncertainty in the ultimate threat. The laws of physics require the world to continue to warm as long as atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations rise. If we don't stop GHG rise soon, all of our on the ground conservation efforts will have been for naught. By the latter part of this century, for example, mean annual temperatures across most of Africa and the Middle East will be nearly 5°C warmer than now, and summer temperatures in most latter years of this century will be hotter than any summer ever recorded. We don't need computer models to appreciate that those conditions will result in human malnutrition on an unprecedented scale, and we know from experience that hungry people cannot do conservation. At the end of this century, between widespread famine and refugee problems that dwarf anything yet seen, governments will be too busy dealing with humanitarian issues to care about conserving polar bears or rhinos.

Yet, I continue to be dismayed by statements like "we don't have the mandate to address greenhouse gas emissions" or "we are a research organization, and pushing for climate action is beyond our purview." Such statements are like turning up the volume on your car's radio so you cannot hear a bad noise coming from the engine.

At the December 2015 Climate Talks in Paris nearly all nations of the world agreed that failure to stop GHG rise soon would assure numerous global extirpations and other future problems for all species, including humans. One unrecorded outcome from Paris was that avoiding the most dangerous of climate change effects is only likely if we adopt an international price for carbon emissions. Voluntary efforts simply will not get us to the Paris goals. This month, the World Conservation Congress has an opportunity to carry the Paris momentum forward with a full force push for a fair carbon price. Such a call from the World Conservation Congress could help unite the voices of people concerned about conserving everything from coral reefs to polar bears. That united voice could become an important tool needed to stop the ever-louder noise coming from Earth's engine compartment. I hope the World Conservation Congress will build that tool instead of cranking up the volume on the radio.

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