Logging into a conflicted Earth Day

  • April 22, 2016
Logging into a conflicted Earth Day

On this Earth Day, two important but conflicting environmental decisions are being put into action. The first is that the Paris Agreement, which among other things pushes for a 1.5-degree temperature rise limit instead of the previous 2-degree limit, will be signed by over 160 governments today in an effort to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. The other is the decision by the government of Poland to increase intensive, clear-cut logging in Białowieża, Europe’s last primeval forest and only home to many of Europe’s remaining native species. The plan was approved late last month despite much opposition.

The moves toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving biodiversity are important for a number of reasons, including their effects on global health and ecosystem services like pollination of crops by bees. However, the debate about the best way forward often places Western countries, which have been able to emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases and decimate their native habitats, against developing countries, in which emissions are increasing and a relatively high percentage of undisturbed habitat remains. The demand from the West is often that developing countries cannot continue to increase their emissions, cut down their forests or otherwise follow the exact method that has allowed Western countries to rapidly develop.

To be sure, new technologies come about every day that will hopefully make it possible for development to happen without the same path of destruction left behind by the West. What Poland has demonstrated, however, is that campaigns like “save the rainforest” are only applicable outside of the bubble of the “developed world”. Similarly, the UK is currently proposing to lighten restrictions for how builders manage threatened species on prospective building sites. The current law states that building is not permitted on land where threatened species, such as great crested newts, are found. Under the proposed changes, builders will be allowed to build where threatened species are found if they can demonstrate that the site does not hold the biggest population of that species or its most important habitats. Both legislative changes will only push European species that are already at drastically low numbers compared to their pre-development population sizes closer to extinction.

The message these and other policies are sending is loud and clear: that the West cares about ‘saving the environment’ as long as it can be outsourced so as to not affect our day-to-day lives. During the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris last year, this paradigm was highlighted by activists calling for Western countries to take more responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to account for their historic contribution to current CO2 levels. If the West really wants to ‘save the rainforest’, it’s time that we put our money where our mouths are and start investing in green energy and green development technologies and integrating them into our infrastructure. We must take actions like changing the way we eat to a more plant-based diet, modifying the way we farm, installing more solar panels and making energy-efficient modes of transportation better and cheaper. If we are serious about saving the environment, it’s time for the West to wake up and realise that we need to take a good, hard look at what we’ve done to our native flora and fauna and aim to increase rare habitats like the primeval forests of Europe or the prairies of my home state of Illinois instead of just preserving token remnants of them, like in Białowieża.

It is not enough to say that we have preserved a small patch of pristine habitat that now only exists in a fraction of its historical range. Logging in Poland won’t receive nearly as much attention as it would if the same decision were made to log in the Amazon. At a time when we face dangerous climate change and have entered a sixth mass extinction event like the one that killed the dinosaurs (both driven by us humans), we in the West cannot pass the responsibility to act onto others. This Earth Day, instead of just turning the lights off for an hour, take a look out into your manicured garden, the city street outside your window or the farmland that stretches as far as you can see. All of that used to be natural habitat that was home to birds, insects, amphibians and plants that contributed to a healthier planet. Isn’t it time for us to play our part in bringing it back?

*Collin VanBuren [2013] is a PhD student in the Earth Sciences Department researching the role of amphibian skin in their global declines and serves on the Steering Committee for the Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium. He also works with the IUCN Red List to assess the threat status of mainland Southeast Asian amphibians. Picture credit: Wikimedia. 

Collin Vanburen

Collin Vanburen

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2013 PhD Earth Sciences
  • Christ's College

My research and general interests centre around biodiversity and nature. Specifically, I am interested in the functional consequences of biodiversity change. I use functional traits (traits of organisms that are related to how they interact with their environment, such as flat claws for digging) and ecological modelling techniques to measure changes in functional diversity through space and time. My postdoc at OSU seeks to test how small mammal functional diversity changed in the face of climate instability before and after the extinction of large mammals (e.g. mammoths). My other projects aim to test how amphibian communities are structured over large land masses and to quantify the functional impact of amphibian declines due to threats like invasive species.

In my PhD, I researched how sources of variation such as sex or season affects the skin thickness of amphibians to better understand if skin physiology might explain the disproportionately high number of amphibian species threatened with extinction. Before my PhD, I studied the functional traits of fossil species to better understand the ecology of dinosaurs.

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