This story by Elisabeth Rosenthal in Saturday’s New York Times unintentionally highlights an issue that receives scant attention in the media. Which is the bigger, more immediate problem: land use (such as deforestation) or climate change? If you want to make things even more complicated, throw in natural climatic events, such as drought.
Rosenthal tries admirably to suss all this out in her front page piece about a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon forest that can’t feed itself anymore. But she ends up writing a mishmash of a story by swinging back and forth between what’s really killing the tribe (deforestation and encroaching ranches and farms) and the similarly tenuous existence of other indigenous cultures around the world (attributed to climate change).
This posted comment to the Times story perfactly captures my frustration with the story.
Until about five years ago (give or take a few years), there was a pretty spirited debate in the ecological community over which problem posed a greater environmental threat–land use or climate change? By every metric, all the evidence points to land use (overfishing, pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, water depletion and so on). But now all those problems are subsumed under what is perceived to be the greater existential threat: climate change. (In April, Brendan Borrell wrote a provocative essay for Slate on this attitudinal shift, which I discussed here.)
Fine. I understand that ecologists and environmentalists believe that the reflected light from attention to climate change will fall on those more immediate and tangible ecological concerns. The thinking there is that it’s all part of the same picture. Might as well let the media and politicians focus on the issue that has the best chance to galvanize worldwide environmental action.
Well it looks like that might take a while. And judging from the dire predicamant of the Amazon tribe featured in Rosenthal’s article, time is not on their side. So perhaps if environmental advocates want to save cultures and animal species from actual threats not associated with climate change, then maybe they ought to rethink that strategy of putting all their eggs in one basket.
Several days ago, this story at Slate, by Brendan Borrell, argued that habitat destruction posed a more immediate threat to wildlife and biodiversity than climate change. That makes obvious sense. Until recently, ecological degradation, be it from deforestation or overfishing, was the pre-eminent environmental concern of our time.
“Now, writes Borrell, “being green is all about greenhouse gases:
Neighborhood moms are more apt to fret over food miles than felled forests; organic cattle farmers are more interested in offsetting the methane coming from cow burps than pondering squished tadpoles in hoof prints. Even scientists have grown bored with question of habitat loss, tweaking their grant proposals to emphasize the climate angle no matter how tenuous the connection. Saving the Amazon is so 1980s.
So far, so good. Borrell then moves on to his essential point:
Climate change has the potential to displace the most impoverished human populations and bring about food shortages, flooding, and drought. But from the perspective of saving species, it’s a MacGuffin: a plot device that may impel the tired conservation narrative forward but is hardly a pragmatic strategy for preserving biodiversity.
Now them’s fightin’ words–not to me–but to many environmentalists who want the larger debate about ecological destruction to revolve around climate change. I happen to think that Borrell is right, that greenhouse gases pose a less immediate and near-term threat to ecosystem services and biodiversity than that of habitat destruction.
But Carl Zimmer, who I have immense respect for, makes a good case that Borrell underplays the ecological fallout from climate change. In fact, Zimmer has written a cogent counter-argument that is a model of respectful criticism. I wish more bloggers who take issue with climate-related stories in the press were as classy as Zimmer, instead of resorting to name calling and ad hominem attacks.
I’ve also noticed a disturbing trend in comment threads that encourages a kind of politically correct policing. For example, this commenter at Zimmer’s blog, feels compelled to point out that the comments to Borrell’s article at Slate
are dominated by anti-global warming types and Al Gore bashing. We should keep our eye on Borrell; he may be an embryonic Lomborg.
What the hell is that? Could there be any more blatant and perverse example of guilt by association? Yeah, keep a stink eye on Borrell, because you have problems with some of the people who read his article and commented on it. What’s even more disturbing is that this sort of thinking comes from a scientist and university professor. I’m hoping he was being inartfully sarcastic.
But this is not an isolated sentiment, though it is the only type of its kind to appear at this particular post by Carl Zimmer. I’ve seen many similar comments on other envirornment and climate-related blogs, including variations of that, which call on people to not read certain bloggers because of their supposed association with climate deniers or “delayers,” (this last term being a favorite of Joe Romm’s, which he uses to flog anyone he disagrees with).
That sort of close-mindedness–willfully disregarding other viewpoints–demeans the progressive spirit of environmental thinking.
Now, as to the merits of Borrell’s argument, I’m inclined to think, after reading Carl Zimmer’s critique, that Borell gets some of his details wrong. But I happen to think he gets the bigger picture right, which is that environmentalists, in their zeal to view everything through a climate change lens, are losing sight of a more tangible and truly urgent ecological crisis. As Borrell puts it,
while climate change remains a legitimate concern for wildlife””particularly on isolated mountaintops and in species-poor polar regions””it does not come close to the immediate, irreparable damage caused by the destruction of habitat. Our ecosystems are not just getting warmer or colder or wetter or drier. They’re disappearing.