When you hear the word nature, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the lakes of Southern Ontario, where I spent my childhood summers among the pink and gray granite cliffs and shady pine forests. I imagine the rock bass darting into the water through the sun’s rays and hear the crickets buzzing in the trees.
I grew up in the seventies and even then nature was far from pristine. Acid rain and water pollution have already made headlines. by Rachel Carson Silent spring had sounded the alarm in 1962. Seven years later, the Cuyahoga River was on fire for the 12th time. In 1970, the US Clean Air Act was signed.
However, I still somehow saw these issues as separate from our ordinary lives. It was caring for and on behalf of fish, plants or bees, I thought, not us. I took for granted clean air, abundant water, and adequate food, and a home that was not threatened by fire or flood.
Fast forward to today, and those early alarms have become a deafening siren. While air pollution in the US has refused, its effects have skyrocketed worldwide. More than today one in six deaths worldwide is caused by the pollution of our air, water and soil.
Then there’s climate change: an invisible but devastating force wreaking havoc on a planetary scale. The industrial revolution fueled our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels; but what we often don’t realize is that almost 80 percent of the CO2 the emissions from the combustion of coal, gas and oil, and almost 60 percent of all emissions of heat-trapping gases issued since 1970. Choices I’ve made in my own lifetime are the main reason why temperatures are now rising at a record rate unprecedented paceload the weather dice against us. Every day we witness the consequences: record-breaking heat waves straining power grids and health systems, supersized cyclones battering cities and refugee camps, wildfires choking continents, and floods displacing millions.
The urgency and injustice of the climate crisis forced me to become an atmospheric scientist. I am convinced that it is the most immediate threat to our civilization and many of the myriad species we share this planet with. But closely followed by climate change is another equally threatening crisis: the loss of biodiversity, which is looming all life on earth.
The biodiversity crisis is not new either. People have been riding for the past four centuries at least 680 mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species in danger of extinction; but as with climate change, the degree of impact has escalated. Since 1970, WWF has documented a drop of nearly 70 percent in populations of existing animal species; and about the more than eight million animal and plant species on Earth, the human-caused extinction rate is estimated at tens to hundreds of times greater than natural rates. With so many species still undiscovered, these numbers vary widely; However, enough is known about the impact of human activities on biodiversity for ecologists to label the era we are currently in as the “sixth extinction.”
All too often, many of us still think and act as I did when I was young: mistakenly assuming that, if our planet’s ecosystems collapsed, we could miraculously survive without the air, the water and the vital resources they provide. This perspective puts us all in danger. Climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity have escalated to crisis levels that threaten not only flora and fauna, but also humanity itself. It is our collective survival that is in danger.
Our ultimate goal is not just to solve these crises, but to ensure a better future: for ourselves, for our children and for everyone and everything we love here on this earth. However, this brighter future can only be achieved by overcoming our self-made crises. Our ecosystems are literally our life support systems. Without them, we cannot provide stable global food systems and economies, let alone clean air and unpolluted water for the eight billion people who populate this planet. Our well-being and that of all life on earth are fundamentally intertwined.
However, unlike other species, we have a choice. We can see what is happening; we know we are responsible; and we can still avoid catastrophe. But we don’t have much time. We cannot afford to deal with these crises with piecemeal solutions. We need comprehensive, multifaceted strategies, everything from clean energy to education for women in low-income countries, that address climate, pollution, biodiversity – and health, poverty and other inequalities – and we need them now.
The stakes are high: in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world agreed to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold now set at 1.5 degrees Celsius after scientists quantified the risks of additional warming. More recently, in December 2022, countries agreed on the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. It addresses the main causes of biodiversity loss and calls for 30 percent of land, ocean and fresh water to be protected by 2030.
Policies introduced since the Paris Agreement have already reduced projected warming by the end of the century from about 4.5 degrees C to 2.8 degrees C. That’s a lot: but it’s still not enough. To make these bold plans succeed, there can’t be any new development of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced and eventually eliminated through efficiency, improved land use and farming practices, and the transition to clean energy. We must invest in nature, which has the potential to absorb to one third of our CO2 emissions. And we need countries to write and implement their own National Biodiversity Action Plans, and funding for climate mitigation, climate resilience and biodiversity in low-income countries and key protected areas around the world, especially the most vulnerable and most representative of the world. ecosystems.
Nature provides a powerful ally in combating the catastrophic impacts of human-induced climate change and ecosystem disruption, and the path to a nature-positive zero-zero world is no stranger. The latest IPCC report shows how many solutions to climate change are already out there, from halting deforestation to accelerating electrification. Organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Project Drawdown provide resources such as the Biodiversity action guide and the Mapping signpostwhich illustrates how we can get started with actions that tackle multiple crises at the same time.
Implementing effective, nature-positive solutions is crucial in our fight against climate change. Greening low-income neighborhoods in major urban centers keeps them cool during heat waves, reducing socioeconomic inequalities in terms of health risks. But this action also filters pollution from the air; and absorbs rainfall to prevent flooding, making the neighborhoods more climate-resilient. It provides places for people to be in nature, improving both our physical and mental health; it increases habitats for biodiversity; and it even absorbs carbon. That’s at least six wins. Other solutions, from investments in public transport to climate-smart agriculture, have similar benefits for health and well-being, but also for pollution, biodiversity and climate.
Tackling the pollution, climate and biodiversity crises that stand between us and a better future is the biggest and most complex challenge we have ever faced. It requires an equally ambitious response from all of us: from the world’s largest countries and companies to each of us as individuals who can raise our voices to advocate for the changes we need.
Events such as Earth Day in April and World Biodiversity Day in May serve as a powerful reminder that the crises we face are just different sides of the same coin. That’s why I constantly strive to move beyond the artificial silos we impose on ourselves and others and focus on the end goal: saving ourselves and all others who share our home. Our future is in our hands, and together, I know, we can turn the tide.
This is an opinion and analysis article and the views of the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.