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More on global warming, biodiversity and perception

April 28, 2009

Because Earth Day was last week there have been a lot of interesting articles and commentary on our relationship with the environment and problems we face. Last Friday I wrote a post on my feelings after reading a fascinating Slate article on how our national obsession with dealing with climate change comes at the expense of failing biodiversity and habitat destruction and degradation issues. I could agree more.

Of all the problems facing endangered species, climate change is barely in the top ten, behind habitat problems, conventional pollution, poaching, the exotic pet and horticulture trade and urban and suburban sprawl to name but a few. Because it can’t be quoted enough, another excerpt from the article:

A more balanced analysis, modeling the plight of the Earth’s 8,750 bird species, appeared a few years later in the journal PLOS Biology. Assuming the greatest pace of economic development with little regard for the environment, the study predicted that 1,101 species would be lost over the next century due to habitat loss alone, while just 64 would be lost to climate change alone. Some 800 additional species would disappear under the combined effects of habitat loss and climate change.

I may be standing alone on top of my soapbox when I say that climate change is a problem largely for human civilization. Our infrastructure is not set up to deal with rising sea levels, water and land use issues, and fossil fuel dependency that come part and parcel with discussions of global warming. Given proper habitat, however, many species of plant and animals can adjust, and historically have, to global climate shifts.

The problem now is one of public perception. And a recent report from polling by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Control Communication shows that such a sell is going to be a hard one indeed. The chart below was created as a visual by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver*, he writes in terms of how this will affect government initiatives to address the issue of climate change from a political perspective, but that’s not the tack I’m going to take.

What I find truly amazing is that the public’s perception of effect is completely opposite to what the evidence seems to bear out. With few exceptions, the triangle should be completely inverted. Whether this is a failure of climate scientists to hit the right notes in their warnings or the public’s non-response to those warnings, people are apparently thinking about this whole thing backwards.

The chief problem with this misperception is that, theoretically, the public will support efforts to mitigate climate change thinking that it will have a net positive affect on endangered species without realizing that these “solutions”, in particular biofuel production like palm oil plantations in Indonesia and monoculture ethanol agriculture in the US, threaten to exacerbate those problems further.

Who is to blame for this? Government for pushing biofuels for geopolitical reasons? Al Gore and Leo DeCaprio for shoving that baby Polar Bear in our faces (it was cute, in their defense)? Powers that be without the political will to level with people about the real implications of global climate change?

Who knows. I think it’s a combination of many things, not least of which has to do with the problem that energy issues and real environmental issues are often wrongly combined in the public consciousness. It’s a problem I was made first aware of last year when so many of the presidential candidates I profiled in my Single Issue Voter series ignored habitat issues in favor of fossil fuel policy and lip service to the ethanol industry. I found this disturbing and an oversimplification to the problems facing not only wildlife and plants, but the potential problems we face from climate change as well. I still do.

The problems of fossil fuel addiction and habitat destruction need to be independently address and only then can they be rectified. As long as they remain inseparable in the public mind nothing will be accomplished.

It’s fortunate then, that a solution that limits sprawl and consumption has the effect of addressing both problems simultaneously. But until the political will to address it from that perspective is found, we risk hitching our wagon to the wrong horse. But it requires some honesty from officials that has been sorely lacking thus far.


*A side note, Nate was one of the early adopters of the Sabermetrics school of baseball analysis, a new way to look at baseball statistics that has proven to be more useful that traditional metrics at predicting performance. He took this information into the political realm last year and called the 2008 presidential election with uncanny accuracy. He writes about new ways to look at statistics at his blog. As a fan of both baseball and politics, I find it really interesting.

  1. John permalink
    April 28, 2009 1:24 pm

    I think that some of the perception might be due to the same people and organizations being activists for both endangered species and climate change issues. And generally similar interests are arrayed against conservation. So that might lead to a merging of the two issues, even though they have much different implications and solutions.

  2. Nate permalink
    April 28, 2009 1:33 pm

    @john- I think you’re probably right. Organizations probably need to be better about making the distinction.

  3. Mike permalink
    April 28, 2009 8:33 pm

    Interesting, Nate. So what would the right step forward be?

  4. Nate permalink
    April 28, 2009 9:54 pm

    @mike- It’s a good question and one I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

    I think part of the problem stems from a desire by politicos to be seen as “green” by dealing with climate change as opposed to habitat issues. Efficiency and conservation of resources needs to be emphasized rather than fossil fuel reduction and value needs to placed on protection of a wide variety of habitats as much as reducing greenhouse gases.

    I think political will is lacking because of bad press engendered by personal property and endangered species issues in the past. It’s too bad, and that needs to change. No time like the present right?

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