This Week In Climate: The climate crisis is the biodiversity crisis

Monday, September 5th, 2022: We take a look at the biodiversity crisis, how it intersects with climate and why it's so hard to see the forest from the trees.

It’s been a slow couple of weeks for climate news if you look beyond simultaneous climate-driven disasters. Even so, a significant event last month largely slipped under the radar in climate media.

Special UN negotiations on a treaty to protect ocean biodiversity failed to come to an agreement in mid-August despite months of preparation and two weeks of meetings.

All but 1% of the world’s “high seas” are unprotected, allowing harmful practices like trawling and overfishing usually deemed illegal along national shorelines to continue beyond the horizon. The negotiations, endorsed by a group of nations calling itself the High Ambition Coalition, sought to protect 30% of the world’s oceans.

Apparently, the parties couldn’t reach an agreement because they “ran out of time”— a curious rationale considering the long-term implications of the treaty. The real issue is a continuing disagreement over fair profit-sharing from a proposed common tax fund.

The failure of the talks, and their absence from the news, speak to a biodiversity crisis that is still largely an after-thought despite ever-increasing awareness of climate change.

Part of the reason why the biodiversity crisis is excluded from mainstream climate discourse is that it is considered a separate matter.

But in light of the news this week, the separation between climate change and biodiversity decline is a distinction without a difference, adding another layer to the dilemma of perceiving long-term human impacts on the planet.


Different but the Same

The Sustainable Development Goals put climate action (#13) and land biodiversity (#15) in different buckets, and squeezes ocean biodiversity between them (#14).

That’s because, strictly speaking, each crisis has distinct causes. Climate change is the result of greenhouse gasses that heat the planet and disrupt stable weather conditions. Rising extinction rates, meanwhile, are largely driven by habitat loss, poaching, hazardous waste pollution and all manner of degradation on land and at sea.

But the fact is, both crises are the result of exploitative economic practices that typically go hand-in-hand.

Deforestation is both a driver of habitat loss and a carbon bomb in the making. Droughts in tropical areas are evidence of fossil fuel burning and an insurmountable threat for a growing list of insect species.

Solutions to the twin crises will require unique approaches. It's tempting to assume that decarbonization solutions are always ecological solutions since a boiling planet would be hostile to all life forms.

But there’s no guarantee that returning the planet to pre-industrial carbon levels means that ecological changes already underway will respond in kind.

Still, many climate solutions are also biodiversity solutions, and approaching them together helps raise awareness around problems that are difficult to see to begin with.


The Forest from the Trees

One perception problem is that, as with long-term climate impacts, the ecological effects of a single dying species are non-linear.

Take the case of dipterocarp trees. The extinction of one species of tree might seem unfortunate, but not enormously consequential when there are other species to replace them.

Research released this week shows that’s not true in forests where dipterocarps have disappeared, as a domino effect of fire, pests and disease tends to follow.

Those escalating impacts make waves throughout the food web. Forests are home to 75% of all bird species, 68% of all mammals, and millions of invertebrates, each of which face adaptive challenges when they’re forced to improvise.

Last year, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International released its first State of the World’s Trees Report with a grim top-line figure: nearly one-third of all the world’s tree species are at risk of extinction.

Considering the impact of a single tree species extinction, the losses entailed by not protecting forests worldwide are virtually incalculable. The economic impact would at the very least threaten the $1.1 trillion forests contribute to the global economy each year.


No Snow Crabs

This leads to a second perception problem that parallels climate awareness: humans tend to notice a biodiversity crisis only once it affects profitable life forms.

That’s the case with the sudden disappearance of Alaskan king and snow crabs this year, where researchers confirmed this week that snow crab stocks declined no less than 90% since last year.

Locals expressed their horror at this abrupt drop-off, understandably, in economic terms. The community of St. Paul, Alaska receives 85% of its revenue from a fishing tax that is virtually guaranteed to dry up until the crabs return.

Among the most deeply affected are the 450 members of an indigenous Aleut community on the remote island chain.

The speed of the crabs’ decline also means local scientists need time to offer a definitive explanation, but climate change is an obvious culprit.

An extreme heatwave in 2019 pushed several species north into cooler waters and out of the normal range for fishing activities.

But sensors show the area’s biomass hardly changed after the event. That suggests the crabs are either sheltering in deeper water, or, more likely, that a massive underwater die-off struck faster than they could migrate.

Either way, the region’s biodiversity is guaranteed to undergo complex rearrangements that will have implications up and down the food web.


Solutions

These challenges are steep, but they present opportunities for action like plans for a biodiversity credit system announced in Australia this week.

The Australian plan would offer credits for projects that restore biodiversity and offer measurable improvements to the environment.

Hard work is still ahead. Experts from different fields have come up with a framework that incorporates data from a variety of complex systems and unwieldy data sets.

When completed, Australia’s system will be a market-based solution, which has its fair share of critics.

Still, building the scheme will force a welcome approach: understanding how systems in the natural world work before deciding how we should impact them.



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