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Missing the forest for the palm oil trees

April 24, 2009

Via twitter, that hot new social networking tool that I’m only now beginning to find a real use for, I was pointed to a really interesting article about how our cultural preoccupation with global climate change may indeed have detrimental effects on biodiversity (Hat tip to John from DC Birding Blog).

The Slate piece breaks it down simply and elegantly, and brings up the important point that in the rush to green our energy we’ve missed the entire point of why we’re supposedly doing this green thing. From the article:

Only recently have conservationists begun to grasp what a debacle it was to enact climate change legislation in Europe without first putting in place global deforestation treaties. EU policies promoting a market for biofuels triggered the destruction of Indonesian rain forests in favor of palm plantations. Meanwhile, the forestry industry has argued that their monoculture plantations in Asia, Africa, and South America deserve credit as carbon sinks, but the data show that these biological deserts are actually spewing out carbon dioxide.

This single minded focus on climate at the expense of biodiversity is hardly unique to third world nations either. We always dealt with the ramifications of hydroelectric dams. But notable for the new century is California’s plan to place the world largest solar field in the Mojave Desert, a outwardly barren landscape but obviously important to its own community of species, not least of which is the endangered Desert Tortoise. The same can be said of the potential for wind farms on the short-grass prairie and tidal power generators in the intercoastal waterways. It’s all well and good to be thinking of ways to incorporate alternative and renewable energy sources into our national power grid, our sustainability as a nation practically depends on it, but at what cost?

It’s always been clear, at least to me, that our obsession with global climate change as a political tool is anything but altruistic. We live on a planet that has seen extremes in climate over it’s 4.5 billion years. Our evolution as humans, and more so the evolution of our culture, is completely dependent on a fortunate window between inevitable ice ages that, in the past, have enveloped most of the northern hemisphere. Birds, bugs, mammals, fish and every other bit of life on earth has survived, and indeed thrived even, through these massive swings in temperature. Ice ages, in a large way, drove the speciation and diversity we see today by splitting populations of species for thousands of generations, creating new ones. In a way, climate change is crucial for diversity of life on earth.

But everything that we’ve built as a civilization? Well, let’s just say it wouldn’t hold up so well.

It’s an idea that I’ve long pondered, and even mentioned in a blog post from a over a year ago titled On twitching and its critics. The whole of the post is unrelated, but a relevant passage is quoted below:

I would even argue that global climate change is a relatively small problem for birds when compared to [habitat destruction and degradation]. After all, it has been suggested that the avifauna of this continent has been in place since the Pleistocene, which began around 2 million years ago. In the intervening time there have been ice-ages approximately every 10-15,000 years during which up to a third of North America was covered by glaciers, yet the birds we know and love today made it, largely because they were able to adjust to take advantage of other appropriate habitat.

The important bit, the thing life on earth had then in spades that it lacks now, is habitat. And lots of it.

It shifts the paradigm a little, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we shouldn’t consider everything we can to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But to suggest that we’re doing it for anything other than purely selfish reasons is to be misleading. Make no mistake, fighting climate change isn’t saving the earth, it’s saving ourselves.

Besides, unless we find a way to protect biodiversity too, would any of us even want to be saved?

Anyway, read the article. Some real food for thought.


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