One of the benefits of kids growing up is that, if given the chance, they stay in bed. So, between Christmas and New Year, while my 14 and 11 year old children slept soundly I had the mornings to myself which meant I read “The End of the End of the Earth” by acclaimed author and birder Jonathan Franzen.
Through this collection of essays, Franzen offers a mix of hope and despair about the state of the planet – despair at our ability to tackle climate change and hope through the work that conservation organisations are doing to improve the natural environment.
Ben Andrew's image of razorbills (rspb-images.com)
At one point he suggests that democracy is not well suited to tackle long term problems such as climate change or biodiversity loss. This implication is that the voting public is self-serving and wants policies that will directly benefit them meaning that politicians, who need our votes, are reluctant to do things where the benefits will only be realised by future generations. Instead we have policies which reinforce negative environmental behaviour – greater consumption to fuel our economy resulting in continued exploitation and erosion of natural resources.
An example of this vicious circle is provided by political response to climate change. Globally, despite making considerable strides in the past decade culminating in the 2015 Paris Agreement, we continue to fail to make the necessary changes to our economy (which require massive changes to energy generation and consumption as well as to land-use) so that we avoid global temperature rises above 1.5°C (above pre-industrial levels) in order to create a tolerable existence for future generations. Current government pledges and targets to reducing greenhouse gas emissions will only limit global warming to c3-3.2°C.
Equally, our short term and utilitarian approach to policy-making explains why wildlife continues to lose ecological space thanks to human consumption. IUCN now report that more than 26,500 species are threatened with extinction - more than 27% of all assessed species.
While there is clearly some truth to Franzen’s theory that we are self-serving, there are people that care about inter-generational equity and about the fate of the millions of species with which we share this planet. And history has shown that there have always been courageous leaders prepared to challenge the status quo and make the case for investment in a different future.
Decision making at present isn’t just ignoring the needs of future generations, it’s ignoring common sense about what we need today for our own prosperity and well-being, as well as ignoring the moral imperative to act.
So, civil society must continue to make both the utilitarian and the moral case for action, to encourage political leaders to be honest about the scale of the challenge and offer a policy response that matches the scale of the challenge.
That policy response must not only be shaped by science but also by what works. And here, we have a track-record to share.
As the Earth/Conservation Optimism movement has shown, rather than simply documenting decline, conservationists now have numerous examples of cases where we have improved the natural environment (such as the creation of wetlands at RSPB nature reserves Lakenheath and Ham Wall) and shown that it is possible to meet the needs of nature alongside those of humans (such as our work at Hope Farm, Gola Rainforest or through the BirdLife International Albatross Task Force).
Franzen rightly points out not all conservation solutions will be transferable because of the differing social, environmental and economic contexts which means we need more examples which are locally relevant showing how to decarbonise the economy and show that humans can coexist in harmony with wildlife.
We also know that when done at scale, conservation of our natural habitats – especially high carbon habitats like peatlands and tropical forests - is also one of most important and urgent things we can do to tackle climate change. Without protecting and restoring ecosystems and transforming how we grow food we have no chance of keeping global temperatures below 1.5°C. That’s why I applaud the NFU President Minnette Batters’ call (at the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday) for net zero greenhouse gas emissions from farming by 2040.
Because our mission remains to inspire a world richer in nature, this thinking underpins the RSPB’s work and will drive our agenda for 2019.
We want a world where wild birds and other wildlife will no longer be declining, where nature is being restored, enriching and sustaining the lives of people as a result. Such a world would guarantee future generations have clean air and water, a stable climate, access to abundant and diverse wildlife in towns and the countryside, and a genuinely sustainable economy.
Our priority for 2019 is therefore to build momentum for nature’s recovery by…
…securing a legal platform to drive the restoration of nature across the UK and
…making the case, with our BirdLife International partners, for an ambitious, global deal for nature in 2020.
Working with our partners and through our Let Nature Sing campaign we will find new ways to mobilise people, enabling them to translate their passion for nature into practical action. In addition, we will find new ways to ensure that we use our incredible practical conservation work and battles against inappropriate development to inspire others to help drive nature’s recovery.
It’s time to wake up kids.
Good to see this call for urgent action, yet I'd call for even greater urgency: this is not just about securing a 'tolerable existence for future generations' but for ourselves. With greenhouse gas emissions increasing again year on year, I expect the IPCC's early forecast of a 1.5 Celsius world in 2030 to be more realistic than reaching this significantly later - we may even get to 2 degrees Celsius by 2040. Ten years, certainly well within the scope of the 25 Year Environment Plan... a huge shift in thinking about both how we live, and our ambitions for nature, is essential.
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