Wanted: Climate Heroes. No experience required

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There is a monster at the door and I need your help to fight it. It is a universal enemy, a threat that can connect and unite us all. It doesn’t care if you are left-wing or right, urban or rural. It is coming for us all. Defeating it is our only option.

The monster is climate change and it is already claiming lives. The slower we react, the worse it will get. Tackling it will benefit our health, our societies, our economies and our wider environment. But, so far, the response has been pitiful.

If we don’t transform the world in the next few years, we will trigger widespread misery. We have to be clear about this. But we must also be clear that is it not too late to join the fight. And that the more people who do, the faster we will slay the monster. We need a legion of everyday heroes, winning with acts large and small.

I first heard about climate change in the late 1980s, and I’ve spent the last 20 years learning and communicating about it. Part of me used to think it would all be okay, that our leaders would fix it. But they have badly let us down. So now we must step up.

Powerful forces have misled us

As we fight the climate change monster, we must not forget those who summoned it, who feed it and protect it. They are few dozen companies and their investors whose profits are built on the loss of our planetary life-support systems. They are a small number of billionaires and bad-faith politicians. They are the media outlets that played down the problem for fear of losing advertising revenue, and failed to report on the true costs to society of high-carbon businesses.

These groups have long known the problem and have actively delayed action. They knowingly misled us. For decades. They told us climate change does not exist or that human activities are not to blame. They have told us that our actions are too little or too late to make a difference. They allowed millions of us to believe we should not act.

Many people still believe that. Many others are aware but are trapped in states of shame or hopelessness and so rarely even bring themselves to think about climate change. There are many ways our minds can work against us. In a powerful article that I urge you to read, Mary Annaïse Heglar says it is time to snap out of our collective denial.

We need both individual and collective action

“In order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up,” she says. “We can’t pretend that some unnamed cavalry is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room.” She’s right. No doubt you have heard by now of Greta Thunberg. But if you think this young woman is going to save us, you are wrong. We will find the heroes we need looking back at us from our bathroom mirrors.

Getting involved does not imply becoming a hermit. As Max St John says, “we’re being fed — and feeding each other — a lie” that ‘now’ is as good as it gets, and that a cleaner, greener future must entail hardship. “The lie,” he says, “is that letting go of our current way of living is a bad thing.”

Nor does joining the climate fight require great wealth. The simplest actions involve learning about climate change, talking about it and using our voices and our votes to demand change. We need a mix of personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprints and collective action that forces governments to hold polluting businesses to account.

What we will gain by taking action now

With public pressure and bold leadership, in just a few years we could have limitless supplies of green energy and decent jobs for those who used to work in the fossil fuel sector. We could have growing forests that don’t just lock away carbon but also support secure livelihoods and protect wildlife. We could have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution. We could have peace and equity and prosperity for all, not just those at the top of the tree.

These are things we can and must demand of our leaders. They are dreams we can summon into our waking lives. Climate change may be a monster to slay, but in fighting it now and with vigour, we can gain so much.

This is no pipe dream of utopia. It is our only viable option. Failure to address climate change fairly, productively and fast will diminish the futures of all but the wealthiest minority. They are already pulling up the drawbridge. They would abandon us in an eyeblink.

Fighting climate change is our only option

One of two futures awaits us. In one, people will look back and asked how we allowed ourselves to fail, how we allowed ourselves to destroy our only home. In the other, people will look back and hail the heroes who came together and, through acts large and small, saved humanity and the living world on which we depend.

We are at that crossroads. Whatever life may throw at us, there is one important decision before us all: do we act for the climate and a secure future, or against the climate and a secure future. It’s not really a choice. We need to start organising for — and celebrating — a new birth, not a death.

It will be hard. There will be tragic losses on the way. But not beating climate change is not an option, and the sooner we all realise that and get to work, the better. Mary Annaïse Heglarin another article I recommend, says: “We need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.”

The good news is that almost anyone can be a climate hero. While some people will lack the means, or have more urgent needs to attend to, most people will not and can get involved today. Here are 20 things you can do right now to join the fight. We will always need more heroes, so please share this. And let’s all team up and defeat this monster.

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Related post: 20 things you can do right now to join the climate fight

This ancient biomaterial making a 21st-century comeback could change millions of lives

Across the tropics, people worked out long ago how to transform fig tree bark into comfortable cloth—the practice could even predate weaving. In Uganda, such barkcloth has served as a symbol of protest, a form of money, and the exclusive raiment of kings and queens. It has been suppressed by religion, colonialism, and war, yet the tradition has persisted. And now barkcloth has found a new life as a source of local pride, as well as in international markets for home furnishings, high fashion, and even aerospace materials. It is creating jobs, and is entirely sustainable. Continue reading

How poop could counter calls to resume commercial whaling

This post was first published by Scientific American in August. As such, it refers in the future tense to a meeting that took place back in September. You will find an update — and some good news — at the end of the story.

Before whales dive into the darkness of the deep ocean they often come to the surface and release a huge plume of faecal matter—which can be the colour of over-steeped green tea or a bright orange sunset. When Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, saw one of these spectacular dumps in the mid-1990s, he got to wondering: “Is it ecologically important? Or is it a fart in a hurricane?” Continue reading

Cocaine of the sea, ‘epic failure’ and how following the money can limit illegal wildlife trade

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Two vaquitas. Only ten more remain.

It has been called the ‘cocaine of the sea’ — the dried swim bladder of the totoaba fish, when smuggled from Mexico to China, sells for US$40-60,000 per kilo thanks to its supposed medicinal qualities. While the fish is critically endangered as a result, the situation of another animal that gets caught in totoaba nets is even more dire. The illicit trade has driven the world’s smallest marine mammal — a kind of porpoise called a vaquita — to almost certain extinction. At the last count, only 12 remained alive. Continue reading

‘Evidence failure’ blights fight against illegal wildlife trade

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In Vietnam, enough people want to consume rhino horn — and are willing to pay enough for it — that smugglers risk jail to bring the product into the country, while poachers in Africa risk their lives to kill the rhinos for their horns. South Africa lost more than a thousand rhinos to poaching last year alone.

With consumption driving the illegal trade, efforts to reduce demand clearly have a big role to play in saving the rhinos. So, on the face of it, it was a good thing that in recent years several major conservation organisations launched initiatives to reduce demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.

But when researchers assessed nine of these interventions last year they found that only one — by TRAFFIC — had been adequately designed. Did the others have any effect? It is impossible to say. They lacked the elements needed to achieve and demonstrate impacts.

This is just one example of an ‘evidence failure’ that researchers say is thwarting efforts to stop the illegal trade in wild animals and plants, leading to inadequate, unethical and counterproductive policies and other interventions. The upshot is that conservation efforts risk failing to protect endangered species, harming vulnerable people and wasting vast sums of money.

Speakers at a conference in London on 9 October highlighted several factors at play, from misinformation and lobbying to poor uptake of evidence by policymakers and a basic lack of adequate information. They want to see a more scientific approach to designing, monitoring and evaluating interventions intended to prevent wildlife crime, deter illicit trade or reduce demand for wildlife products.

“Is there an evidence failure in this area? I think there probably is,” said Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “And that’s something we need to address. We really are struggling to provide the evidence we need to move forward.”

Dominic Jermey, Director-General of the Zoological Society of London, said the lack of evidence prevents policymakers from knowing whether, for instance, overseas aid budgets should finance conservation because conservation supports development goals, or whether militarisation of conservation is effective. “It is hard to make the case without evidence,” he said. “The answer is more or less ‘we don’t know’ because the evidence base is not there”.

“Monitoring and evaluation of impacts is absolutely crucial so lessons can be shared, so successful interventions can be scaled up and unsuccessful ones can be revised for better outcomes,” said Jermey. But it appears that conservationists are not collecting and sharing enough evidence of what works and why.

Janine Robinson of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent presented data that showed the scale of the gap. She and her colleagues screened hundreds of publications for evidence of the impacts of wildlife trade policies and practices. They found only 42 articles published between 1970 and 2015 that had evaluated impacts and used a study design that reliably attributed outcomes to actions.

“Overall, there was a low volume of empirical evidence on the impact of international wildlife trade actions, indicating that more concerted and explicit research is needed on impacts,” says the report’s lead author Samantha Cheng of Arizona State University.

The conference heard how the evidence gap leads to a focus on big mammals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers and not on endangered fish, reptiles and plants that are trafficked in far greater volumes. Tens of millions of seahorses are illegally traded each year, for example, and several of their species are now threatened with extinction. Scott Roberton, Director for Counter-Wildlife Trafficking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, said priorities are being driven by subjective views, rather than data.

Such bias tends to focus attention on wildlife products from Africa and consumers in Asia. However, this ignores the growing importance of wildlife trafficking from Latin America and the rising roles of Europe as both a transit hub and a market for illicit products. There is also a disproportionate focus on tackling the supply side of the illegal trade. Boyd pointed out that, although demand drives the trade, only 6% of global funding spent between 2010 and 2016 to counter illegal wildlife trade had focused on reducing demand.

EJ Milner-Gulland — of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford— told me the likely consequences of failing to address the evidence gaps are “no action, inappropriately targeted action — by place or species — or inadequate action”.

Some change is on the way. In plans announced this month by the UK Government, the Oxford Martin Programme will join a consortium of researchers, conservationists and behaviour change specialists to develop evidence of how best to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products. Diogo Veríssimo, a researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme, says that because the consortium will bring together practitioners and academics it “has the potential to both improve technical standards and be meaningful in terms of impact on the ground.”

These efforts and more will be needed to make a dent on an illegal trade that is worth 23 billion dollars a year and involves a huge variety of species, from rhinos and seahorses to orchids and rosewood trees, from freshwater turtles and sungazer lizards to pangolins and helmeted hornbills. For many of these species, time is running out. That much is evident.

Follow the experts on Twitter

Ian Boyd (@DefraChiefScien); Dominic Jermey (@DomJermey); Janine Robinson (@JanineERob); Samantha Cheng (@pilesofsquid); Scott Roberton (@owstons‏); EJ Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland); Diogo Veríssimo (@verissimodiogo).

References

Cheng, S.H. et al. 2017. Mapping the evidence: Effectiveness of international wildlife trade practices and policies. Conservation International Working Paper. January 2017 [Read online]

Milner-Gulland, E.J. et al. 2018. Evidence to Action: Research to Address Illegal Wildlife Trade. Briefing note for policy-makers and practitioners. DOI:  10.31235/osf.io/35ndz [Read online]

Olmedo, A. et al. 2017. Evaluating the design of behavior change interventions: A case study of rhino horn in Vietnam. Conservation Letters. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12365 [Read online]

Veríssimo, D. & Wan, A.K.Y. 2018. Characterizing efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products. Conservation Biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13227 [Read online]

Photo credits

White rhinoceros — Karl Stromayer / Wikimedia Commons; Black-Sea seahorse — Florin Dumitrescu / Wikimedia Commons