Questions for the man behind "biological diversity"

Thirty-four years later, biologist Tom Lovejoy, the man who coined the expression, says the world is a giant living library and we should start reading already

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      The following article was originally published by the Daily Climate

      If climate change impacts are appearing on our doorsteps, what about climate solutions? Could an answer to climate change be sitting right in our backyard?

      Thomas Lovejoy, one of the world's leading conservation innovators, thinks that part of the solution is exactly that: Personal engagement.

      Our biggest problem is as a social primate, we spend far too much time in mutual grooming and ignoring the biology and ecology that supports civilization.

      Lovejoy, now a senior fellow at the nonprofit UN Foundation and environmental science professor at George Mason University, helped bring attention to tropical deforestation in the 1970s and published some of the earliest estimates of extinction rates. 

      But he is best known for suggesting new ways of looking at the nature—he coined the term "biological diversity"—and for solutions-oriented thinking. (He introduced the concept of debt-for-nature swaps.) He talked to The Daily Climate about the hope he sees in the power of nature, with our help, to clean the atmosphere.

      What do you say to folks who think climate change is something we won't really see until a half-century from now?

      The first thing I say is that you don't want to see what it's going to be like a half century from now. 

      But wherever in the world you are, you can see the fingerprints of climate change on the natural world.  

      Plants and animals are changing their annual cycles. Plant and animal species are changing where they occur geographically. Joshua trees are moving out of the Joshua Tree National Park. It's everywhere. 

      I like to refer to those as relatively minor ripples in the fabric of life. But we're seeing some big changes too:  The coniferous forests of western North America are about 70 percent dead trees now, simply because summers are longer and winters are milder, and that's tipped the balance in favor of the bark beetles. 

      If we're seeing that at 0.8°C to 0.9°C [warming], imagine what 2°C will be like.

      Coniferous forests may not be something we interact with in our daily lives. Why should I care, if I'm living in a high-rise in New York City or a suburb?

      All those things are parts of ecosystems that are doing things for us all the time that we just take for granted. Most people think water comes out of a tap. They have no idea that it comes out of a watershed. As for New York high-rise dwellers, a lot of them had no electricity when [Hurricane] Sandy wreaked its havoc.

      The diversity of life is actually a gigantic living library. And on a fairly constant basis, somebody plucks one of those books off the shelf that apparently had nothing to do with anything before, and suddenly, they're very useful. 

      My latest favorite example is  a tumor paint that can tell [the physician] exactly where the tumor is. Why does this work? Because of a molecule found in the venom of a scorpion from Middle East, with the most wonderful name, the Deathstalker. 

      Our biggest problem is as a social primate, we spend far too much time in mutual grooming and ignoring the biology and ecology that supports civilization.

      What do you think of the job journalism has done in telling the story you're talking about?

      Journalism overall, as opposed to notable exceptions, has done a pretty poor job. 

      It's hard to fault journalism. It deals with the day-to-day, what's news today: the latest event in the adventures of the social primate. As a consequence, some of the big overarching issues don't get much attention. 

      What's a key climate change question in conservation biology?

      This gets to what I call my terminal quixotic dream. If you go back and look at the history of the atmosphere and of life on Earth, there were two times when, for geological reasons, there were unbelievably high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. 

      Biology has tremendous power to help us with this challenge. But we don't have tens of millions of years, which is what the process took the last time.

      And both times, living processes brought that screamingly high level down. The first time was the arrival of plants on land—a lot of photosynthesis happening. And the second time was modern flowering plants doing it more efficiently. 

      So we know that biology has tremendous power to help us with this challenge. But we don't have tens of millions of years, which is what the process took the last time. 

      The little appreciated fact is that a significant portion of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere at the moment actually came from three centuries of destruction and degradation of ecosystems—not only from fossil fuel burning. 

      It is quite possible, through ecosystem restoration done at scale, and done carefully, to actually pull maybe 0.6 °C  of impending climate change out of the otherwise inevitable future. It's pretty exciting, and it involves recognizing that the planet works as a biophysical system, not just as a physical system. 

      Talk about an ecosystem service! 

      I think one of the other great things about it is that it does have the potential for a lot of individual contributions, almost like victory gardens, [with a focus on taking actions like planting trees.] Suddenly this huge, impossible-to-deal-with, humongous problem is something that individuals can contribute to a solution for. 

      Once this realization gets recognized, it changes people's attitudes about nature, and gets us a little bit off of this social grooming stuff, and gets us into grooming the planet.




      Oct 25, 2014 at 5:17am

      The single best way for individuals to contribute to ameliorating global climate change is by switching to a healthy, tasty, plant based diet. "Our food choices don’t just have an impact on our own health, but also on the health of the planet and other species. Meat production is one of the most environmentally damaging systems in the world, a major contributor to habitat loss, resource depletion, pollution and climate change. You can take steps toward an Earth-friendlier diet by eating less or no meat [and dairy products].... Nearly 60 percent of the carbon footprint of the average American diet comes from animal products, and meat is responsible for land degradation, water pollution, and the direct endangerment and death of wildlife... According to the United Nations, meat production is responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — more than cars, trains and airplanes combined. From growing feed crops to livestock grazing to handling the 500 million tons of manure generated by U.S. livestock each year, meat production destroys natural habitat and ecosystems at an alarming rate..."
      In short, less meat and dairy means more trees, less greenhouse gas production, and a healthier and less unstable global ecosystem as a result.