Climate and extinction crises require urgent change

Climate and extinction crises require urgent change
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The U.S. is fighting a battle on many fronts: a public health crisis, an extinction crisis, a climate crisis — each compounded by the last and by policies that declare some people, species and places disposable. 

Scientists, disease ecologists and other experts warn that we could see more pandemics unless we act quickly to protect, not exploit, habitat and wildlife. One million species are at risk of extinction and hundreds of the 1,471 United States’ endangered species are vulnerable to climate change. The interconnectedness of all life is on full display. If our elected officials fail to act to prevent the exacerbation of these crises, the economic, political and environmental downfall will be tragic.

While the challenges ahead are daunting to say the least, they are not insurmountable. Just as these crises and their causes are inextricably linked, so are the solutions to address them. But the need to act is urgent. 

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To halt both the extinction and climate crises, we need to protect nature to a much greater extent, and faster, than we have in the past. That includes protecting public lands, forests and waters that provide important habitat for wildlife, and restoration and “re-wilding” of additional areas to ensure that species have room to roam and adapt to a changing climate. At the same time, conserving these places will also mitigate the climate crisis by storing carbon and taking pollution out of the air, while helping our communities breathe easier. 

We need to follow the science and build on what we know works. Restoring and fully implementing the Endangered Species Act is vital. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, species including the Florida manatee, California condor, even the bald eagle, have been brought back from the brink of extinction. Just in my lifetime I’ve seen grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rockies regions rebound from just a few hundred to approximately 1,700 today thanks to endangered species protections. And while recovery for many animals, including the grizzly bear, isn’t finished, the vast majority of species currently protected by the act are on the upswing. The Endangered Species Act is essential for protecting imperiled plants and animal species and the habitat they depend upon. 

Yet, the Trump administration has doubled down on efforts to gut our nation’s most effective tool for saving wildlife from extinction. Already the administration has allowed economics instead of science to drive decisions about which species need protection, has made it harder to protect threatened species, has willfully ignored the threat climate change poses to endangered wildlife and has opened the door to industrial projects in habitat critical to species’ survival. Now the Trump administration is going even further to rollback protections for critical habitat. This despite warnings from scientists around the world who have identified habitat loss as the single largest driver of species extinction and a major contributing factor to pandemics, such as COVID-19.  

Safeguards like the Endangered Species Act, deeply rooted in sound science, help restore balance to a system that too frequently ignores our interconnected reality. We cannot afford to neglect science and our place in the natural world. When the natural balance is upset — by habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal wildlife trade and other types of wildlife exploitation, pollution and climate change — the risks to both people and wildlife dramatically increase, as we’re seeing clearly now. 

Instead of rolling back regulations, the protection of intact lands in their natural state should be the priority. Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson and many other scientists, Indigenous leaders and the UN International Convention on Biodiversity say that in order to preserve clean water, clean air, wildlife and a stable climate, we need to protect 50 percent of the planet by 2050. To meet that goal in the U.S., we need to protect 30 percent of our natural areas by 2030 — and connect those areas to each other so animals can survive.

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Protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 will require immense political will and aggressive policy-making. Thankfully the policies that need to be implemented are not complicated. We can protect roadless forests, keep destructive drilling out of wildlife corridors, conserve open lands, parks and waterways. Right now, 60 percent of lands in the continental U.S. are mostly in natural condition or could realistically be restored to a natural condition. Despite being one of the top five countries in the world with wilderness-quality lands, we’re losing about a football field of nature every 30 seconds

We know how to protect wildlife and their habitats. We know that by doing so we can help stabilize the climate. And we know that as people dependent on intact, functioning natural systems we protect ourselves when we protect nature. Together we can, and must, protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030. 

Bonnie is the senior representative for the Sierra Club's Greater Yellowstone campaign. Her work focuses on land conservation and wildlife management.