Framing our future beyond the climate crisis

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
(Trevor Baker/iStock)
Beautiful sunrise at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina.

The United Nations climate conference COP26 in Scotland is upon us. While the action for the moment is in Glasgow, the international meeting is driving growing conversation here in the United States.

At a time when a majority of Americans now say they and their fellow citizens are being harmed by global warming, close to two-thirds believe it’s not too late to slow the climate crisis and begin to turn things around.

It is imperative to bring that message now to the U.S. Congress, where critical legislation now pends in the House and Senate. As the international community focuses on global commitments necessary to address the atmospheric changes responsible for greater storms, droughts, fires and sea-level rise, we have work of our own to do in Washington. Conservation groups led by zoos and aquariums are organizing now to do just that.

Why zoos and aquariums? These institutions have a long history of educating the public about conservation of wild places. The facilities that comprise the Association of Zoos and Aquariums collectively attract more than 200 million visitors every year.

Perhaps equally important, the climate crisis today is directly connected to a growing biodiversity crisis. The United Nations has suggested that as many as 1 million animal and plant species face extinction today. Driving the threat to biodiversity is the destruction and degradation of countless intact landscapes that provide habitat for species large and small and store carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

Such intact areas are likewise a key reservoir of viral pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 to which people have no natural immunity. The opportunity for “zoonotic” spillover of such viruses from wildlife to humans is greatly increased as the integrity of large swaths of forest is compromised — largely through the carving up of such areas for industrial agriculture, resource extraction, transportation infrastructure and via the illegal wildlife trade.

To confront the climate crisis driving the related extinction and pandemic crises, we must begin actively framing our future. At the heart of that response must be the employment of nature-based solutions. These are approaches that take advantage of — and protect — the “services” that nature already provides in helping us avoid, or adapt to, the changes brought by an increasingly warming planet.

Forests themselves provide our greatest natural protection against carbon emissions. They absorb roughly one-third of all fossil fuel emissions produced every year by physically storing, or sequestering, that carbon directly. Today, intact forests contain massive amounts of carbon, equivalent to about 11 years’ worth of human-related emissions. 

Intact forests also provide economic and cultural security to Indigenous peoples and local communities, whose land tenure must be secured to enable them to sustainably manage the 36 percent of the world’s intact forests they inhabit — notably in the Amazon basin. Nature-based solutions and human wellbeing should go hand in hand.

Our marinescapes play a critical role as well. Coastal mangroves and wetlands, along with oyster beds and coral reefs, help to naturally reduce the ferocity of surges resulting from increasingly powerful storms generated as the planet continues to heat up.

As the average global temperature moves with increasing speed toward 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we cannot afford to wait for our leaders to act. We need an active and informed citizenry to get off the sidelines and advocate for new policies designed to protect the planet at this critical hour.

The zoo and aquarium community across the country is rising now to the challenge. Using our collective voice and energies, we will work to double U.S. investments in global biodiversity conservation over the next four years, promote federal, state and municipal policies that support nature-based solutions to climate change, and ensure that U.S. and global climate finance folds in nature-based solutions and intact forests.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would support nature-based solutions to climate change, including the FOREST Act, sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), and the Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Reauthorization Act, sponsored by Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), among other pending legislation.

As we turn our attention to COP26 and the global response to the climate crisis, let’s remember that there is important work we can and must do right here in the United States. It will take the dedicated action not only of scientists and policymakers, but also of ordinary citizens from coast to coast. At time of national division, tackling the climate crisis is an urgent priority that unites us all.

John F. Calvelli is executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

This piece has been updated.

Tags Biodiversity Brad Sherman Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Schatz Chris Coons Climate change Conservation Earl Blumenauer Global warming John F. Calvelli Richard Burr Rob Portman Sheldon Whitehouse Steve Chabot wildlife

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