Climate change expert reflects on stark environmental warning from scientists

24 February 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Efforts to tackle the world’s environmental problems must consider trade-offs and synergies between various conservation and development goals, says Christopher Martius, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Martius is one of more than 15,000 scientists who recently signed an article published in BioScience journal, urging action to curb environmental destruction and prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss. Without action, the article warns, the future of life on planet Earth is in jeopardy.

HUMANKIND IS FAILING

The article, spearheaded by ecologist William Ripple, reiterates a plea made in 1992 by more than 1,700 independent scientists. In taking stock of progress since 1992, it states that apart from stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make enough progress in efforts to solve other predicted environmental challenges, such as decreasing availability of fresh water resources, loss of forest cover, declining numbers of species, and increasing carbon emissions.

“Alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” state the authors, who are especially concerned about potential climate change resulting from rising greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels, deforestation and agricultural production.

“Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century,” they write.

In his reflections on the scenario described in the article, Martius, team leader of climate change, energy and low-carbon development at CIFOR, cites the existence of powerful coalitions that oppose climate action as part of the reason why insufficient action has been taken so far.

“The fossil fuel-based industry is very powerful, and commercial interests not seldom drive political interests,” he said. “Together these interests have colluded against scientific reality and relegated efforts to the negotiating table.”

INTEGRATED ACTION

To keep human impact on the planet under control, the authors of the article call for immediate action on 13 priorities, including the protection of native habitats, restoration of forest landscapes, the development of clean technologies and a reduction in food waste. These efforts require a concerted effort by scientists, media influencers and members of civil society to pressure governments to act.

Martius warns that these priorities should not be considered in isolation from each other. “You’ll have to understand how environmental problems are connected, and how they relate to the various aspects of development. Only then will you be able to devise effective measures to tackle the problems.”

To Martius, this first and foremost means that scientists will need to analyze environmental challenges from multiple angles, looking at biophysical, socio-cultural, political and economic factors, to establish an in-depth understanding of their complexity from a holistic landscape perspective.

But that is only half of the work, the CIFOR scientist stresses. After the analysis, the results must be brought back to manageable proportions. Government agencies neither have the time nor the resources to decipher long-winded analytical research reports. Instead, they require straightforward instructions that can be translated into immediate action that fit within the agency’s mandate.

SLOW PROGRESS

Although the message of the article in BioScience is somber, it is not all doom and gloom.

“People haven’t been sitting still,” said Martius. “Several developments are going in the right direction. It’s just that addressing challenges such as climate change involves complex international negotiation processes, which take up a lot of time.”

Observers are quick to conclude that negotiations are all talk and little action, he added.

“I understand that reaction. On the scale of a human life, 40 years of negotiations seems extremely long, but looking at the lifetime of the planet, it really isn’t. Especially considering the complexity of the matter.”

Martius also points at the success of the expired U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in aligning practices and policies of many organizations to combat climate change.

“The MDGs and the SDGs help us see where there are synergies between environmental and development goals, and where there are trade-offs.”

For Martius, finding solutions starts with science-based evidence. Research is especially required at the level of the landscape, where many synergies and trade-offs take place. For example, they can occur at the crosshairs of small-scale agriculture, large-scale commodity production, nature conservation, and climate change mitigation.

The findings should then inform action that involves governments as well as other actors, Martius said.