Last week and this week many of us are correctly focused on the existential threat of climate change but we must not lose sight of the other deep problems of environmental sustainability that also require action. The good news about climate change is we know a great deal about what causes it and how to stop it. We have much more to learn to fully understand this critical problem, but climate science is more advanced than many other areas of environmental science. The economic and policy issue of climate change is caused by the intense need for energy in the developed and developing world and the huge investment made globally in fossil fuels. Decarbonization will require skill, ingenuity and leadership, and we’ll see how much of that is present in New York when the U.N. gets to work on climate this week.
Some of the other environmental problems we face still require basic research to fully understand, and even when we know the cause of a problem, we may not know how to solve it. One example of such a problem is declining bird populations, an issue that Carl Zimmer covered in last week’s New York Times. According to Zimmer:
“The skies are emptying out. The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970, scientists reported on Thursday. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago. The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the most exhaustive and ambitious attempt yet to learn what is happening to avian populations. The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations… There are likely many causes, the most important of which include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides. ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson’s prophetic book in 1962 about the harms caused by pesticides, takes its title from the unnatural quiet settling on a world that has lost its birds: ‘On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.’”
The loss of birds and threats to many forms of life are an increasingly accepted part of our modern world. Fires in the Amazon are destroying critical and poorly understood ecosystems, plastics in our ocean are destroying various forms of sea life, lead in our water supply is impairing human health and toxics in our waste stream are finding their way into our food supply. The complex and interconnected web of life that makes human life possible, happy and healthy is under deep threat by the technology that also makes human life rewarding, interesting, happy and healthy. In many cases, we do not fully understand the threat and we desperately need additional scientific research, observation, theory and knowledge. If we are to sustainably manage our planet, we need to invest significant additional resources in the science of ecology and environment.