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from the desk of dan ashe

Climate, Prosperity, and Extinction

By Dan Ashe
min read

The late Stephen M. Meyer was a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yes, political science. Likely, that’s the reason so few people listened in 2006 when he published The End of the Wild. Also, of course, because we—especially those of us in the wildlife conservation profession—didn’t like what he had to say.

He stated our failure in stark terms:

            “The extinction crisis is over. We lost … Over the next 100 years or so as many as half of the Earth’s species, representing a quarter of the planet’s genetic stock, will either completely or functionally disappear. The land and the oceans will continue to teem with life, but it will be a peculiarly homogenized assemblage of organisms naturally and unnaturally selected for their compatibility with one fundamental force: us. Nothing—not national or international laws, global bioreserves, local sustainability schemes, nor even “wildlands” fantasies—can change the current course. The path for biological evolution is now set for the next million years. And in this sense “the extinction crisis”—the race to save the composition, structure, and organization of biodiversity as it exists today—is over, and we have lost.”

He went on to say that we should not give up, but rather, tailor our work and aspirations for biodiversity conservation in view of this stark reality. But, in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, we put our collective hands over our ears and extinction has continued its grinding pace.

In 2019, the U.N. Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services concluded that the rate of extinction continues to increase and one million species are at risk. IPBES executive secretary, Anne Larigauderie said, “We can no longer say that we did not know.”

Now, envision a day, quite possibly in Glasgow, Scotland, in late 2021, at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. U.S. President Joe Biden is center stage with other world leaders, celebrating a binding and enforceable global agreement to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is a remarkable moment, and will fuel a revolution in alternative energy, energy storage, carbon capture, and transportation technologies—all backed by trillions of dollars in investment.

Finally, we seem to be on a path to addressing the climate crisis. Because we must. But also because it can be solved with engineering and technology. This revolution will allow us to build and deploy machines; to make and move and store electric energy; to transport people and commodities; to adapt infrastructure; to capture and use carbon from the atmosphere; to more precisely predict and prepare for disasters; and most importantly, to employ people and to make money. We do these things very well, and President Biden views this with clarity, recently saying:

“When I hear the words ‘climate change,’ I hear another word: ‘jobs.’”

At its heart, solving climate change is about how we make and use energy. Jobs and money hang in the balance. Businesses stand to profit and governments will gain new tax streams. And the philosopher, Voltaire, quite artfully summed up the convening power of money:

“When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”

Listen to these leading voices:

“These are win-win investments for communities, for cutting pollution and creating family-sustaining jobs.” (Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director)

“This is all about creating great jobs in the ocean and in our port cities and in our heartland.” (Gina McCarthy, National Climate Change Advisor)

“Climate change poses a major threat to U.S. financial stability.” (Rostin Benhan, acting chairman, Commodity Futures Trading Commission)

“Climate Change is an emerging risk to financial institutions, the financial system and the economy.” (Jerome Powell, Federal Reserve Chairman)

“I hope [to make] significant strides on lowering the emissions from greenhouse gases [and] doing it in a way where we’re creating lots of jobs.” (Michael Regan, EPA Administrator)

Addressing climate change is now mainstream economic religion because it is about jobs, technology, securities, finance, economic stability, risk and insurance, and infrastructure investments. All of which are about making money.

And it’s also about the nature of the solution.

Solving climate change is fundamentally a physics challenge: keeping the concentration of greenhouse gases in earth’s atmosphere at a level that will avert a 1.5 degree centigrade rise in average global temperatures. And we’re very good at physics. It can be analyzed using math; and we’re very good at math; and math is essential in engineering and technology.

So, at this international meeting, quite possibly in 2021, in Glasgow, there will be much hand-shaking and much celebrating. The prospects for Nobel Peace Prizes will linger in the air. All well-deserved, because climate change is an existential crisis, and we must solve it.

But, when the hand-shaking is done, Stephen Meyer’s prophecy will still hang like Greenland’s ice shelf. Although climate change is an important accelerant to extinction, except for species like polar bear or pika, it is not the root cause. Those are multiple and overlapping, like habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, and over-utilization, both legal and illegal. When the climate crisis is solved, the extinction crisis will still be grinding inexorably forward.

Extinction is not a math or physics problem; it’s not solvable with engineering or technology, at least not in any way that seems humane, moral, ethical or respectful to the vulnerable species. Like climate change, extinction is a human population and consumption problem, but it lacks a clear solution.

Wildlife conservation is biology, ecology, sociology, psychology and philosophy, all mixed with a big dollop of economics. And tragically, fighting extinction is not about growing economies, but rather, controlling and restraining their growth. That’s why we’re failing. Unlike engineering, technology, finance, math, and physics, we are not good at restraint. It doesn’t create jobs or make money.

And here’s another prediction: solving the climate crisis will democratize energy production. Sun, wind, water, waves, tide, and geotherms are everywhere. As the technologies to harvest them become more abundant and affordable, people will have more access to electricity—the lifeblood of modern human expansion. More people with more access to the things that create quality of life will, in turn, mean more people. More people asking more from the planet means less for what we know collectively as biodiversity.

Stephen Meyer was right. The die is cast. Human economy and ecology are the driving forces in the evolution of biological life on the planet, and we have lost the war to save biodiversity as we know it.

What does this all mean for wildlife conservation? How do we face this reality and develop a new, pragmatic conservation model that is achievable and provides future generations with a clear path to a healthy planet? 

This is the conversation we need to be having. 

DAN ASHE IS THE PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE ASSOCIATION OF ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS.

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