A conservation emergency

Conservation emergency
The World Conservation Congress is being hosted at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.

This post is the second in a series of reports from the World Conservation Congress, where the NRS is showcasing its international programs.

Honolulu, Hawaii—The 2016 World Conservation Congress kicked off September 2 with a clarion call to act to heal Earth’s environment.

At the opening ceremony of the congress Forum, a five-day opportunity to debate, learn, and develop ways to solve environmental challenges, leaders of the conservation community underscored the urgency of the task facing attendees.

This year’s conference theme, Planet at the Crossroads, highlights the reality that the world’s people “have choices to make. We can’t leave it to the next generation” to address earth’s burgeoning environmental problems,” said Inge Anderson, Director General of IUCN. “We can’t wait.”

Friedman agreed that acting now to heal the environment is imperative. “Later will be too late. We should eliminate it from the dictionary,” said New York Times reporter Tom Friedman.

conservation emergency
Hurricanes, dust storms, droughts and fires are all visualized on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “science on a sphere.”

Friedman described three phenomena that are experiencing exponential acceleration. One is the rise in atmospheric carbon concentrations driving global warming, as depicted in the famous hockey stick-shaped graph. Another is the rate of marketplace globalization. The third is the stratospheric increase in the abundance of new technologies.

The acceleration of all three of these ideas at once mean that while earth is facing planet-scale problems, “all of us together could fix everything,” Friedman said. “What we must do now is scale up to rise to the challenge.”

“Somewhere within us, the sense of urgency is rising,” said Allison Sudol, a goodwill ambassador for IUCN.

IUCN director general Anderson summed up the need for conference attendees to move to heal a warming, overexploited, ailing globe. “We’re done talking. We have the agreements,”, referring to the Paris climate agreement, the Montreal Protocol to halt ozone-depleting chemicals, and a long list of other environmental compacts. “It’s time for action.”

Climate refugees

In the world of conservation biology, an umbrella species is one that, when protected, indirectly saves other organisms living in its habitat.

Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, likened his low-lying Pacific island nation to a kind of umbrella island in the present era of rapid climate change. “If we save Tuvalu, we save the world,” he said.

conservation emergency
Many conference pavilions were constructed entirely from corrugated cardboard, from walls and couches to side tables and podiums.

Faced with the impending loss of his homeland to rising seas, Sopoaga feels the need to move the world toward a more sustainable future more keenly than most.

“We can’t just ask countries like Tuvalu to adapt. We must all mitigate our emissions. If we don’t act quickly to implement solutions, impacts will be felt in all parts of the world. We have been warned. The signals are there,” he said.

At the next United Nations General Assembly, Sopoaga says, he plans to introduce a resolution to protect people displaced by climate impacts. He was all too aware that his own people could face just such a tragic future.

“Conflicts around the world aren’t purely political. It’s a fight over resources,” he said. “We feel for those people. We don’t want to be in that situation, labeled as refugees.”

The wisdom of native nations

Sally Jewel spoke of the opportunities she has had to meet indigenous communities since becoming Secretary of the Interior. Her position places her in charge of administering programs involving Native American, Alaskan natives, and native Hawaiians.

conservation emergency
Convention attendees go diving in Raja Amput, Indonesia, with help from virtual reality headsets. Able to be played on a smartphone VR app, Valen’s Reef  is designed to give everyone a chance to immerse themselves in nature.

entitled Valen’s Reef

Meeting people whose ancestors cared for North America and the Hawaiian Islands for millennia, she said, helped her respect the “knowledge, insight, and traditions of indigenous people about living in concert with nature.”

She acknowledged the need to manage natural landscapes with an understanding of native traditions in conjunction with the findings of science.

The state of biodiversity

Harvard professor and conservation thinker E.O. Wilson described the widespread problems facing today’s conservation community. These are a few highlights from his forum opening address:

conservation emergency
Photo op with a green troupe of greeters at a conference reception.

Each of the three levels of biodiversity is declining precipitously:

  1. Ecosystems, which include physical spaces such as rivers, forests, coral reefs
  2. Species that make up ecosystems
  3. Genes that prescribe the traits of species

The species level is the portal for understanding the trajectory of all three levels.

Extinction of species is approaching a thousand times what it was prior to the global spread of humanity; half of known species will be gone by the end of the century unless we take drastic action.

We are at risk of losing a heritage that took billions of years to develop.

Gathering like a Polynesian hurricane on the horizon is the loss of the stability of the environment.

If we save the living world, we also automatically save the nonliving world.

How are we handling diversity and stability of the living environment? A scientific summary:

Number of species characterized/described to date: > 2 million
Number of species statistics suggest exist: 8 to 10 million.

At the present rate of species discovery and description, we will complete our species census in the 23rd century. 

conservation emergency
The indoor-outdoor Hawaii Convention Center is an ideal place to hold a conservation meeting.

Of the vertebrate species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, only a tiny percentage have slowed or reversed their rate of decline. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of species extinction. We should concentrate on stemming habitat destruction and raise the areas reserved for natural species from 15 percent on land and 3 percent of the seas to half of dry land and half of the oceans.

On land, such protected areas can be cobbled together now without removing people or challenging property rights. Such measures could save 80-90 percent of earth’s remaining species and ecosystems, especially if those protected areas include hotspots.

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