Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 09/15/16

Waikiki viewed from the summit of Diamond Head. Waikiki and other coastal areas of the Hawaiian Islands will likely be under water due to sea level rise by the end of this century, unless major actions are implemented soon to mitigate climate change (photo Betsy Herbert, 2016)

Waikiki viewed from the summit of Diamond Head. Waikiki and other coastal areas of the Hawaiian Islands will likely be under water due to sea level rise by the end of this century, unless major actions are implemented soon to mitigate climate change (photo Betsy Herbert, 2016)

I spent the past 10 days in Honolulu with some 9,500 conservationists from 192 countries, attending the IUCN Worldwide Conservation Congress, “the most important conference going on in the world today, but most people don’t know about it,” according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“We tend to think that the biggest threat is ISIS or interest rates ... amazing that we don’t think about the state of our biosphere,” Friedman added.

Conference attendees didn’t need any convincing. The 2016 conference theme “Planet at the Crossroads” highlighted the urgent need to change humankind’s path toward irreversible climate change and unprecedented species extinction.

IUCN stands for “International Union for the Conservation of Nature.” Attendees included scientists, academics, nonprofits, indigenous and religious groups, government officials, businesses, and lawyers, “ all the organizations that it takes to make global transformational change,” according to Inger Andersen, IUCN director general.

“The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing,” said Andersen. “What we do or don’t do in this generation affects the path of the future.”

In 2015, 180 nations signed on to the Paris Agreement and its goals for sustainable development and achieving climate neutrality. “Our purpose here is to turn these ambitious goals into action,” she said.

The buzz at the conference was pronounced — President Obama was in Hawaii just the day before to announce the world’s largest marine reserve, named Papahanaumokuakea, around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Even so, only 4 percent of the world’s oceans are protected, so that fisheries are crashing, corals are dying, and plastic is covering the ocean floors.

Biologist and author Edward O. Wilson argued persuasively that to save the oceans, we need to protect 50 percent, not 4 percent. He also pointed out that to keep land-based ecosystems from collapsing, we need to protect 50 percent of the earth’s land mass.

NOAA head and former astronaut Dr. Kathryn Sullivan presented eye-opening evidence of the ocean’s warming temperatures. A room-sized screen showed NOAA’s latest modeling of global ocean thermal data.

This conference was fittingly based in Hawaii, where sea-level rise is expected to cover coastal areas including Waikiki by the end of this century unless significant global actions to mitigate climate change are implemented quickly.

People in some island nations have already been forced to leave their homes. Enele Sopoaga, prime minister of Tuvalu, offered, “If we save Tuvalu, we save the world. That is my punch line.”

One overarching message of the conference was that we humans need to understand and value the enormous economic contributions that intact natural systems provide in terms of services like clean drinking water, carbon sequestration and flood control.

We must build nature’s value into our economic balance sheets to protect the world’s forests, grasslands, oceans and coastal mangroves.

“We can no longer afford to privatize the gains of impacting ecosystems, while socializing the losses,” said Friedman.

By the end of the conference, the IUCN members approved 106 resolutions prescribing global actions to stem climate change and protect biodiversity. Member nations must next define their own paths to implement those actions.

Complementing spectacular exhibits by NOAA, Google and National Geographic, countless workshops presented conservation actions from every corner of the earth, from tiny villages to large-scale international efforts.

Can we save the planet? Peter Seligman, CEO of the global nonprofit Conservation International, is optimistic. Restoring 4 billion acres of forest land and returning earth’s land and sea to a healthy state “is not like going to Mars. We can do it. We have to increase our investment in nature-based solutions.”

Betsy Herbert is an environmental scientist and freelance writer. She serves on the boards of the Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. You can read all of her published writing at www.betsyherbert.com.