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Biodiversity loss: A needed prescription for environmental survival

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Mount Adrah, Australia on Jan. 10, 2020

Like Australia, the U.S. must face one of its most important threats — not war or crumbling democracy — but the demise of biodiversity.

The threat resides in the lack of understanding of biodiversity loss by many, including governments. For 40 years scientists have battled to explain climate change sufficiently to be bring action from governments. Instead, the direct experience of wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and floods, disappearing rivers and the increased potency of storms and hurricanes was apparently needed to breach entrenched minds.

What is the equivalent experience from the decline of biodiversity and its ecological services over the same 40 years? Superficial at most, for government decisions have been driven mainly by non-government organizations’ advocacy to save iconic species.

Concern in Australia is for the koala with the destruction of its habitat by development. In the U.S., its equivalents are the Florida panther, California condor and the red wolf (all three are endangered), but this is the limit of public understanding. Few recognize that these species are just a symptom of why soil is blowing away in the Midwest due to ecological damage. In reality, the koala and the red wolf are the recognizable faces of the destruction of thousands of unnamed species that form a vital part of our life support systems.

This problem has been recognized by leading scientists from both the U.S. and Australia, including in the scientific article “Underestimating the Challenges of avoiding a ghastly future.” They report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action. They must be regarded as the defining medical prescription to save the patient, humanity.

The authors note, “First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.”

“Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action,” they added. “Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public.”

“We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future,” they wrote. “The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends.”

The “lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges” must highlight the state of public education delivered by government and to some extent the media; the track record is abysmal. Education is vital to an understanding of the role of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change, environmental destruction, burgeoning population and the current consumptive economy. In the U.S., college textbook coverage of climate change is inadequate. In Australia, climate change has barely entered university teaching. For this reason, my organization, Doctors for the Environment Australia has developed a tool “for medical schools to incorporate climate change into doctors learning.”

What of the other three horsemen- most graduates have little formal knowledge of these threats. Surely, it is crucial that our colleges and universities have these topics as core subjects in every course, which will in turn demand their presence in school teaching.

Did the recent UN summit on biological diversity known as COP15 provide any answers as to what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters?

An article from the Yale School of the Environment asks the pertinent question: “The 30 Percent Goal: Is Bigger Always Better for Biodiversity?” Most countries have not demonstrated knowledge and ability to protect 30 percent, for the salient issue is whether crucial ecosystems are being protected.

Consequently, COP15 called for 20 percent of damaged ecosystems to be “under restoration,” reducing alien species invasions by 50 percent, and establishing a funding stream of $200 billion per year.

This brings the economy into the equation — as a successful economy leading to wealth is causing the greatest damage to ecosystems. As I’ve written about previously,  Australia’s recent State of the Environment Report detailed 19crucial ecosystems were under threat. Much the same will exist in the U.S. if we remind ourselves that the United States requires the natural resources of 5.1 Earths to maintain its standard of living and Australia requires the resources of 4.5 Earths. Economic progress currently depends upon consumption of the environment.

Let us be clear, each country is solely responsible for saving its own environment by correcting all damaging factors within its own borders. The responsibility for the impact of climate change on biodiversity is collective to all nations but the national decisions needed to preserve biodiversity relate significantly to land clearing for development and to the use and abuse of land for production of crops and forest clearing for meat production.

Current productivity of crops — which depends on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides — is a significant cause of ecological harm to the thousands of species that form healthy soil. As reform begins, we must remember that Rachel Carson with her book “Silent Spring” in 1962 conducted a courageous campaign against the pesticide known as DDT, and was attacked by powerful chemical industries. She was derided for being hysterical and unscientific and for being an unmarried woman.Today, these industries will be ready to thwart reform using the well-trodden paths of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.

At the close of 2022, let us ask the politicians of both our countries to honor Carson, a great American scientist, by reading Silent Spring again to give them courage to enact the key ecological needs listed in COP15.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is co-author of “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy” (2007) commissioned by the Pell Centre for International Relations and Public Policy.

Tags Australia biodiversity loss Climate change Endangered species Global warming wildlife

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