The sixth extinction
The planet is in the midst of drastic biodiversity loss that some experts think may be the next great species die-off. How did we get here and what can be done about it?
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As the impacts of global warming become increasingly evident, the connections to biodiversity loss are hard to ignore. Can this fall’s two key international climate conferences point us to a nature-positive future?
On Sunday, June 27, 2021, Chris Harley, a lanky professor of marine ecology at the University of British Columbia, descended a steep concrete stairway in Vancouver’s tony Point Grey neighbourhood to a secluded, rock-strewn shoreline navigable only at low tide. The intertidal zone here is like a fast-food joint for myriad birds, insects and crabs that feast as the water ebbs, but the sandstone slabs they pick over also serve a more prosaic purpose: substrate for dense beds of mussels, barnacles and seaweed, which, in turn, provide habitat for a riot of creatures.
For Harley, who studies how animal distributions are shifting as the climate changes, it’s a perfect site for student-run experiments: local and accessible, with large tides exposing a range of organisms to climate-driven ocean acidification, salinity fluctuations and rising air temperatures. This particular week, one of the lowest tides of the year coincides with an unprecedented heatwave, and so, despite the north-facing spot being somewhat buffered by the cool North Pacific, Harley anticipated at least some effects of the hot weather. What he encountered, however, was haunting.
“The smell was overwhelming,” he says, “so I knew there’d been a significant mortality event. Still, the magnitude was a shock.”
Baking in air 5 C warmer than ever recorded in Vancouver at this time of year and with ground temperatures cresting 50 C, the shells of tens of thousands of mussels sprang open as they died; rotting beside them were multitudes of barnacles. Clams, snails, hermit crabs, sea stars and other organisms, too, had expired, fortifying the miasma. Along this kilometre-long stretch alone were millions of dead organisms. Over the next few days, at less sheltered study sites around the Salish Sea, Harley would see far worse. With reports of similar carnage trickling in, Harley calculated that in excess of a billion sea creatures had died; many species would take years to re-establish at some sites if they came back at all, opening the door to shifts in the food chain, altered nutrient cycling and invasive species. Shellfish harvesters and aquaculture were also reporting devastating losses. It was as if some malign celestial magician reached down and, with the wave of a wand, changed the coast to something it had never been. That magician, of course, was climate change, and it was putting on a frightful show.
The next day, Lytton, 140 kilometres inland as the crow flies, experienced the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. The astounding 49.6 C (121.3 F) shattered national records set by the same town the previous two days (46.6 C and 47.5 C). Lytton wasn’t alone. During the same three days, dozens of B.C. communities experienced searing temperatures under what was dubbed a “heat dome” — a particularly strong, immobile area of high pressure under which temperatures build like a convection oven. The stultifying heat buckled roads, melted benches and siding, taxed power grids and, most tragically, killed 570 people in B.C. alone.
“We’re just flummoxed with how much these records are breaking,” Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan said in trying to describe the event. “There’s really no hyperbole strong enough.”
The record toppling continued as the heat moved on to Canada’s territories and Prairie provinces. If such unfathomable temperature shifts had been the end of it, years of scholarly study to understand this one-in-a-thousand-year event would still have ensued. But it was really only the beginning.
As heat built through an already-dry province, wildfires, both natural and human-caused, erupted, initiating widespread evacuations. The day after setting its record, 90 per cent of Lytton was destroyed by a fast-moving conflagration. The fires were so numerous and so large, and burned so fast, that convective smoke boiled into the atmosphere as convective clouds, merging into a giant firestorm described by meteorologists on Twitter as “mind-blowing” and “the singularly most extreme” thing they’d ever seen. The plume was so intense that the satellite-based North American Lightning Detection Network registered 710,177 bolts across British Columbia and northwestern Alberta in some 15 hours between June 30 and July 1; some 112,800 struck ground, sparking hundreds more fires in a malevolent feedback loop straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
Wildfires dovetailing heat waves are an example of what Zafar Adeel, executive director of the Pacific Water Research Centre at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., calls a “cascading hazard,” where one extreme event triggers others. And the cascade rolled on. Under the intense heat, an entire summer’s worth of glacier and snowmelt descended from the mountains in less than a week, flooding valleys, triggering more evacuations and bringing the prospect of further drought, wildfire and landslides.
As Harley’s discovery in intertidal zones shows, there is even more to consider. The impacts of the sudden and sustained heat on biodiversity were immediate and widespread across ecosystems: trees were scorched, others killed; pollinating insects were flummoxed as flowers dried on the stalk; ponds evaporated overnight along with the aquatic life they sheltered; rivers became too warm for migratory salmonids, which in some cases were trucked to cooler waters. The threat to salmon was of particular concern given that marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest all depend on salmon — already in precipitous decline due to a combination of climate change, fish-farm-driven disease and overfishing (32 populations of chinook, sockeye and steelhead in B.C. are listed as “endangered” or “threatened” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). And yet, buried in the heat-dome-wildfire-flood news cycle was a stunning, related item that would otherwise have garnered national hand-wringing headlines: the same day Lytton set Canada’s heat record, the federal government shuttered 60 per cent of B.C.’s salmon fishery indefinitely — a gambit that included commercial and sportfishing closures, plus a program to shrink the West Coast fleet through licence buy-backs. This would, of course, disproportionally affect First Nations that rely on the fishery for both sustenance and livelihood.
Unprecedented and catastrophic weather, with its impacts on the natural world and its inequitable effects on human lives and livelihoods: how does a disaster-weary world even begin to address such an overwhelming crucible? It might be simpler than we think.
Instead of treating our current climate, biodiversity and equality crises as separate entities, we could tackle these intertwined problems together. As it turns out, while we’ve been preoccupied by a not-unrelated global pandemic, scientists have been pressing the case behind the scenes for a more equitable, carbon-neutral and nature-positive world. The most aspirational prescription is reflected in the Nature Needs Half movement — a notion that conserving 50 per cent of the planet’s natural habitat is the only way to ensure intact ecosystems, maximum biodiversity and the human life they support. It’s a radical departure from protecting 17 per cent of land area and 10 per cent of oceans that Canada and other nations agreed to under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets in 2010 (see “The Sixth Extinction,” from the September/October 2020 issue of Canadian Geographic).
“It was immediately apparent after the Aichi targets were set that they were political and not dictated by science,” says Alberta-based conservationist Harvey Locke, co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and chair of the Beyond the Aichi Targets Task Force. “In fact, it wasn’t even close. Indigenous knowledge and scientific study after scientific study, from the Arctic to the Amazon, have shown that in order to preserve a particular ecosystem and all its life in perpetuity, you need to protect at least 50 per cent.”
The international task force has two goals: build momentum to scale up global conservation using protected areas as the key tool and ensure that the world sets new and meaningful spatial conservation targets. The idea garnered enough high-level attention to be on the table for the UN’s October COP15 biodiversity and November COP26 climate conferences in Kunming, China, and Glasgow, Scotland, respectively. Is protecting half the natural world a bridge too far? Perhaps, but after the litany of problems faced by humanity over the previous two years, ambitious ideas are less likely to be lost in the political weeds. Already, more than 50 countries — including Canada and the rest of the G7 — have signed onto the 2030 Nature Compact, a pledge to conserve at least 30 per cent of their land and water by 2030. It is a significant policy shift that includes the “nature-positive” phrasing advanced in a recent position paper on which Locke was the lead author. The report, which argues for adopting a measurable global goal for nature similar to the targets contained in the Paris Climate Accord, lists three time-based objectives: zero net loss of nature from a 2020 baseline, net positive nature by 2030 and a full recovery by 2050.
As Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International summarizes, such a goal is key to aligning all stakeholders to the same level of ambition. Government, businesses, investors and consumers can all contribute — and also be held accountable to it.
Ample evidence has existed for decades that climate change affects biodiversity. As first articulated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a series of UN-spearheaded reports produced by more than 1,300 global experts, climate change — already forcing organisms to adapt either through shifting habitat, changing life cycles or the development of new physical traits — will be one of the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss by the end of the century. Thus, conserving natural terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, as well as restoring genetic and species diversity in those that are degraded, is essential to the overall goals of both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since both charters note the key role ecosystems play in global carbon cycling and climate-change adaptation, the scientific arguments supporting the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C compared with pre-industrial levels also apply to nature.
Johan Rockström, an Earth-systems scientist and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, lays out this dovetailing: we live on one planet with a finite atmosphere, and nature is also a finite asset supporting humanity; having hit the 1.2 C mark for average global warming (the highest since the last ice age), we’re nearing a tipping point on climate; simultaneously, we’ve lost almost 70 per cent of the Earth’s wild animals and are now perilously close to undermining our own existence; we need healthy nature to have a stable climate and we need a stable climate for nature to function in a way that benefits all life — including ourselves.
What Rockström describes (and is depicted in the recent David Attenborough film Breaking Boundaries) is a dual planetary emergency where we’re at risk of pushing the entire Earth system to a place that cannot guarantee the well-being of future generations.
And it was all there to be seen this past June on the shores of the Salish Sea.
“I see parallels with the pandemic in that if enough people do small things, they can have a big effect. We need to ‘bend the curve’ on climate even if we’re not going to meet the Paris goal.”
“Remember climate skeptics talking about a global warming ‘pause’?” asks Harley. “There’s no pause. And because we’re on such a steep upward slope, each temperature anomaly coupled with a strong tide fluctuation is worse than the last. The next strong El Niño will be a doozy,” says Harley at the Point Grey study site during a less powerful yet still uncomfortable July heat wave.
With Canada warming at more than twice the global average, our Arctic warming even faster and this summer’s off-the-chart temperatures, there’s little arguing his prognosis.
Prior to Lytton’s hellish descent, Canada’s heat benchmark of 45 C (recorded in Saskatchewan in July 1937, amid the decade-long “dustbowl” drought that wracked North America’s midsection) stood for 84 years. To put the new 49.6 C mark into continental perspective, Lytton now has the dubious distinction of handily beating Las Vegas’s top recorded temperature of 47.2 C. In fact, Lytton’s heat-dome high was a staggering 10 degrees above its previous June record. Most temperature marks are broken by fractions of a degree. According to 27 international climatologists at World Weather Attribution, a group that assesses the role of climate change in influencing extreme weather, this would have been “virtually impossible without human-induced climate change.” Washington State climatologist Nick Bond channelled the scientific shockwave: “It blows my mind… I would have been willing to guess something like that in the middle [or] latter part of the century.” Weather historian Christopher Burt sealed the heat dome’s infamy, though, as “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth since records began two centuries ago.”
Although few took the I-told-you-so tack, what happened in the Pacific Northwest became an international cause célèbre for the type of extreme events scientists had warned of for years. That lasted all of a week, however, before catastrophic flooding in Europe — a result of the increased moisture-holding capacity of a warming atmosphere — stole back the spotlight. And therein lies a conundrum around motivating people to action: while scientists record such advents and duly incorporate them into future models, public and political attention moves on to the next disaster. And it isn’t just what we’re informed of, but how we’re informed. The Columbia Journalism Review saw fit to excoriate the media for its handling of the heat dome story: “The devastating heat — more harbinger than anomaly — exposed weaknesses in the media’s representation of deadly temperatures as well as their connection to climate change. The images that led news stories widely minimized the event,” continued the critique. “Many photos made it look like a run-of-the-mill heat wave; some were so banal as to conjure stock photography.”
Despite a newsworthy human toll exacerbated by health agencies unprepared for the heat, somehow it was pictures of empty mussel shells and deliquescing starfish that went viral. “I never imagined I’d have to put CNN on hold because I was still talking to the Washington Post,” says Harley of the media frenzy he navigated. “Originally it was just a note that the university sent out to CBC and The Weather Network, kind of a local-interest thing. But I think ‘billion’ resonated as a particularly tragic outcome; another piece of the puzzle to go with the human deaths, agricultural losses and wildfires. There’s something in that combination of stories that everyone could relate to in one way or another.”
It is somewhat ironic then that the International Panel on Climate Change’s sixth comprehensive assessment of the physical basis of climate change was created before the anomalous temperature events of the summer of 2021 yet released this past August. For the first time since reports began, it stated that human activity is unequivocally to blame for the current rapid changes to Earth’s climate, including heat waves, floods, droughts, sea-level rise and the melting of polar ice and glaciers. In fact, it said, the planet is now warmer than at any time in the last 125,000 years. The report’s overarching conclusion is even more sobering: many changes are now inevitable, irreversible and will bring extreme weather with widespread devastation no matter what carbon-reduction scenarios might be adopted going forward. Over the next two decades, temperatures will likely breach that 1.5 C line in the sand drawn in Paris in 2015, with every fraction of a degree of further heating compounding the now-accelerating effects. The faint hope? Only immediate and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can prevent the worst effects of climate breakdown.
“I see parallels with the pandemic in that if enough people do small things, they can have a big effect,” says Harley. “We need to ‘bend the curve’ on climate even if we’re not going to meet the Paris goal. If anything we do buys time for species to adapt, it’ll help.”
Buying time for Homo sapiens is another matter. Like many, Harvey Locke broke down when he heard about Lytton. “I didn’t even know how to think about this, so my eyes just filled with tears,” he says, voice breaking. “We did this to that community and it’s unacceptable. And we can’t fix it just by stopping the use of fossil fuels. We have to be better about protecting nature as well. We need to do the whole thing.”
What this adds up to is increasing pressure for countries to raise their ambitions at October’s climate conference in Glasgow. Canada’s current plan — to reduce carbon emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — is among the least ambitious of developed nations. Forget climate leadership; merely keeping up with our peers in the shift to safer, cleaner energy sources will require much stronger targets, more rigorous laws and regulations and equitable, inclusive, justice-focused solutions.
There are, of course, many stumbling blocks. An example: exported emissions — stemming from the use of oil, gas and coal that leave Canada — escape scrutiny because no government is actually required to account for them (ditto emissions embedded in trade and international travel). And yet emissions from those sources have an enormous impact on a country’s contribution to the global total. As the environmental law consortium Ecojustice reported in July based on data from Environment and Climate Change Canada, from 2012 to 2019 Canada’s exported emissions rose by almost 50 per cent, outpacing domestic emissions; 2019 domestic emissions were 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide versus exported emissions of 954 megatonnes. For context, that latter figure exceeds domestic emissions of the U.K. and Japan combined. Another example: during the 1990s, B.C.’s forests removed an average of 84 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere. But due to logging and wildfires, the forest emitted an average of 39 megatonnes per year from 2009 to 2018. Historically, carbon dioxide released through logging wasn’t reported because the forest was absorbing more of it, leading to a legitimate claim of net carbon-neutrality for the industry. But this is no longer the case.
Planting trees as a way to offset climate change is in vogue. But as some have said, a first step in using trees to slow climate change might better be protecting the forests we have. In either case, environmentalists point out that exporting fossil fuels or raw logs without taking responsibility for their carbon footprint is a climate mug’s game: no matter how much Canada reduces domestic emissions, it will still see its share of disastrous heat waves, floods and wildfires as a result of its hidden contribution to global emissions — all affecting biodiversity.
Although there are hundreds of examples of the interaction of climate change and biodiversity, there are three main poster children: impacts on polar wildlife such as seals, walruses, polar bears and penguins from the loss of sea ice; displacement and death by wildfires; and a warming ocean responsible for everything from the bleaching of coral reefs to the turbo charging of sea star wasting disease. The last falls under Chris Harley’s rubric of study, along with the related role of temperature close to the water’s surface.
Intertidal species already live close to their limits of thermal tolerance, meaning that even small temperature changes can have serious impacts. In a world only partially and periodically revealed, Harley studies not only thermal stress induced by rising temperatures, but how it affects competition, predation and disease.
At the Point Grey site, Harley is investigating why larger mussels fared worse during the heat dome than smaller, younger mussels packed tightly on different faces of the rocks. After an hour surveying the site where he set up an impromptu experiment of replicate larger-versus-small mussel plots, one thing is clear: the sudden deaths of billions of shoreline creatures surely affected tens of billions more in that web of life through loss of habitat. Based on observations made after previous heat waves — such as the disappearance of mussels from certain areas — some sites never re-establish similar faunas. The Inside Passage and coastal inlets such as Howe Sound, for example, are more sensitive to heat because they don’t have the direct moderating effect of the Pacific.
The heat dome also affected fieldwork conducted out of Harley’s lab in unexpected ways. Doctoral student Amelia Hesketh was looking at habitat-forming barnacles and their performance as builders in and out of sunlight. In the experiments she had set up, most unshaded barnacles died during the dome, while those under shade survived (inadvertently demonstrating the mortality effect). Sandra Emry, another doctoral student, was studying the effects of heat and salinity stress on seaweed using a propane heater, but air temperatures during the dome were higher than those she’d planned, throwing off her experiment.
As Harley focuses an infrared camera on his samples, he answers the question of whether wiping out this much of an ecosystem creates “vacant lots” more vulnerable to invasive species. “It’s actually worse,” he says. “The way the environment is changing may be favourable to things you don’t want to have dominate ecosystems, like toxic algal blooms and pathogens. The species dying at these temperatures are things like native mussels and low-shore kelp, and those doing well are Pacific oysters and orange-striped green anemones, both from Asia. The anemones definitely didn’t decrease, so they’re clearly not vulnerable.”
Shifting ranges and more heat-tolerant genotypes of native species likely won’t be enough to thwart the invaders, says Harley. “As it gets hotter, everything is sliding north, but not at the same speed,” he notes. “The Salish Sea is already a hot spot, and to find more heat-tolerant North American species you have to go to southern California or Mexico. So what’s going to happen here is it’s going to become more like Hong Kong and Japan. For instance, 15 years ago, the water rarely got warm enough for invasive Pacific oysters to spawn, but now it’s warm enough every year. When the dominant mussels get knocked back, it gives the oysters an advantage. The deeper clams are buried, the safer they are. But there are species differences, so invasive varnish clams that were buried 15 centimetres down survived, where more shallow-buried local heart cockles did not.”
In the end, intertidal ecosystems are like forest communities with a defined succession that starts with colonizer species. But no one knows what will happen now. “Phenology in intertidal organisms is governed by all the usual seasonal differences in temperature, salinity, light and food availability,” says Harley. “Like, are your larvae out there when there are things to eat?”
All that changes with events like the heat dome. “Ecosystems are complex, and when you make one change, you don’t know how it will affect all the other things keeping the system working.”
Visualizing the eviscerated shoreline as a metaphorical forest that has burnt to the ground offers an idea. Given that we’re in what writer Ed Struzik labels a “runaway fire age,” perhaps when it comes to water, heat is simply a new kind of fire.
In an article in the Tyee, Struzik explores what has supercharged the fire situation since 2003: a century of fire suppression that shifted forests from fire-resistant to fire-vulnerable; the draining of wetlands that can slow fires; the increasing popularity of rural properties among fire-foolish city-dwellers; lack of capacity for small communities to fire proof themselves; and, of course, climate change, with its skyrocketing temperatures and precipitation shifts driving the firestorms, fire tornados and lightning-producing fire clouds that make today’s wildfires larger, faster, deadlier and longer lasting.
Take the 2017 Plateau fire near Williams Lake, B.C.’s largest ever. I saw the aftermath up close on a rafting trip. As the Chilcotin River braided a valley near Alexis Creek, vegetated islands abounded, with squadrons of white pelicans, flocks of ducks, sandhill cranes and eagles that circled our flotilla expectantly, certain we were anglers who’d leave scraps in our wake. Then, with a suddenness that only river travel can bring, we swung into a canyon. The birds disappeared and the fire lines of 2017, visible for days on the horizon, descended in a monochrome of ash and charred trunks toppled into a disquieting jumble over ground rendered bare when the soil itself had burned off. The devastation was mind-boggling, more so when imagining the massive amounts of carbon that had vanished into the atmosphere in a geologic instant to add to our current climate woes. Then there was the impact on wildlife, and the loss from nature’s larder it represented to First Nations.
As an example of how drastically wildfires can shrink biodiversity, the 2019-20 Australian bushfires killed or displaced nearly three billion animals, a number that includes only those large enough to count and estimate — 2.46 billion reptiles, 143 million mammals, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs. Invertebrate losses were likely in the trillions. The fires that consumed the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon in 2019 likewise killed an estimated 2.3 million animals, including already endangered species such as jaguars. There’s also a biohazard aspect: microbes and fungal spores can survive in wildfire smoke. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as more wildfires plague California and Arizona, incidences of valley fever, a rare and potentially deadly fungal infection, rose sixfold from 1998 to 2018. Firefighters are especially vulnerable to the infection, which adds to the risk of inhaling smoke. What’s happening to animals that can’t put on a mask?
Given that northern latitudes are heating up faster than other parts of the planet, Canada is going to have to expect these kinds of unexpected events. And if this has echoes of the Rumsfeld Paradigm of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. “When UBC climate professor Simon Donner was asked ‘Is this the new normal?’ he answered that things were now changing so fast he didn’t think there was ever going to be anything we could describe as normal again,” notes Harley. “That stuck with me.”
Not only was it a powerful indictment of the heat dome event, but it suggests that crafting biodiversity policy and management will become even more difficult given an increase in events that will be impossible to predict.
Canada appears as a leader on the world stage when it signs onto agreements such as the 2030 Nature Compact, but what is it prepared to do domestically? “The current draft includes subsidies and mainstreaming to address many of the challenges of global biodiversity loss, but it’s still up to individual countries to implement these, and it’s going to be a big ask for Canada to step up on most of them,” says Justina Ray, president and senior scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and Trent University and lead author of a recent paper exploring the failures and challenges of Canada’s biodiversity jurisdictional jigsaw. “I mean, our current biodiversity strategy is from 1995.”
There is light at the end of the modernization tunnel, such as recent efforts to “Indigenize” the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the principles articulated in 2001 based on the century-old prevailing model for state, provincial and federal agencies. But the general old-school nature of conservation needs serious updating. “We currently do everything in a piecemeal way aimed at reducing impacts here and there — avoiding overall impacts in any broad sense,” says Ray. “I don’t think anyone who has been in the middle of it would be surprised by the mess.”
Indeed, a report released by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society found that the only Canadian jurisdictions to come close to international biodiversity commitments to protect 17 per cent of land were Quebec and the federal government. Alberta was the worst performer, having cancelled previously planned protections, delisting parks and attempting to open new areas of the Rockies to open-pit coal mining.
Biodiversity depends heavily on land-use decisions, given that habitat loss is the most important driver of its decline. Sea and freshwater habitats are more in federal hands, but land-use decisions that relate to biodiversity are almost entirely in the hands of the provinces. Cooperation between levels of government is essential and critical, but extremely difficult in practice. So, the question is: what can incentivize or disincentivize cooperation?
Ray makes the point that protected areas and species-at-risk policies are an important anchor, but insufficient for reaching biodiversity goals. “No matter what the percentage of protection, it really depends on what’s going on in the remaining percentage of unprotected area,” says Ray. “It’s context dependent. As an example, Wood Buffalo, Canada’s largest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site with outstanding biological and high Indigenous values, is in danger because of industrial development outside its boundaries.”
As reported in The Narwhal this past June, despite repeated upbraiding by UNESCO, Canada has failed to adequately protect Wood Buffalo from impacts that include dams on the Peace River and leaks from tar sands tailings ponds into the Athabasca River, collectively moving it closer to an international list of world heritage sites in danger. Will Canada still legitimately be able to count the area covered by Wood Buffalo toward its 30 per cent?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. “Protecting 30 per cent of the land base is ambitious, but it won’t be sufficient everywhere,” notes Ray. “And what that means will most certainly play out differently in every different geography. Canada’s patterns of piecemeal legislation are similar to those elsewhere. Being the second largest country in the world, we still have some large ecological areas with great integrity. But it’s mostly because industry hasn’t gotten to them yet.” She explains that Canada must be proactive, promoting new paradigms for land-use issues, including Indigenous-led conservation. We must also formally recognize that different approaches are needed in different kinds of landscapes.
It’s a point that Locke is bullish on. “Area-based conservation is the foundation but not the whole piece because the world isn’t in uniform condition,” he says. “Canada’s northern boreal forest isn’t the same as southern Ontario’s farmland, the Arctic Ocean isn’t Georgia Strait, so you can’t have the same prescription for each. The G7 just agreed to 30 per cent, but you can’t do 30 per cent of everything. First, because there isn’t that much available in some cases. And second, because some ecosystems need more intactness to support something — like the northern boreal forest that needs about 70 per cent for caribou, or the Amazon rainforest that needs 80 per cent to continue as a climate regulator.”
The key is how to break these land-use differences down. Locke’s Global Goal for Nature team came up with three global conditions for implementing a framework of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use: large wild areas (negligible human impact), shared areas (low human impact) and cities and farms (high human impact). “Because this pattern holds globally, we can all speak to each other about similar things. Everyone can see themselves in a similar light with similar challenges regarding what to do where,” says Locke. “Canada’s south, middle, and north strategy is based on this approach. So, it’s clear that we’re not paralyzed; there’s a practical way to get at this problem and the values we’re trying to work on.”
Harley agrees that different strategies in different places have the best outcomes. “There’s public pressure to set up marine protected areas, but the process is too slow because of all the stakeholders and push-back involved. As the date approaches, the government realizes the only thing it can do without a fight is protect offshore waters where there are no people or fishing isn’t an issue — as opposed to nearshore areas that are more diverse or where important spawning takes place,” he says. “Ecologists have done work showing that more biodiversity in ecosystems makes them better able to resist insults, so local shorelines, for instance, could be managed in a way that makes them more resilient. But solutions need to be sought on as many levels as possible and international agreements on emissions is a start.”
If this all seems daunting, it’s only due to the amount of political will required to achieve it. Yet recall how humanity has addressed more imminent emergencies such as acid rain or the depletion of the ozone layer — even the pandemic. With awareness and engagement in climate and biodiversity on the rise, hopes were high for both the Kunming and Glasgow conferences, even as the world burned through the never-to-be-forgotten summer of 2021.
“Obviously I don’t root for things like the heat dome to happen,” says Harley, “but when they do, I sure hope people pay attention. Everyone needs to understand that what we’ve been warned about is actually happening now. From a 1960 perspective, we’re already living in a strange future, but it certainly won’t take another 60 years to see the same degree of change.”
This story is from the November/December 2021 Issue
The planet is in the midst of drastic biodiversity loss that some experts think may be the next great species die-off. How did we get here and what can be done about it?
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