Climate Change = Security Risk: Connecting the Dots on the Growing Agenda

The Climate Change Narrative

Some Background

It’s been a while now since I posted this blog post back in 2011 on the security implications of climate change described in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Report (QDR, pdf 2010). My main points back then were to: 1) highlight the discrepancy between the lack of doubt in how the US military portrays this risk compared to many US politicians (the latter swamped in the politics of climate change denial, which has pretty much framed the ongoing climate change debate narrative in the public sphere since then), and 2) note that the security implications of climate change was an important topic and potential public policy driver that wasn’t getting a lot of press at the time.

It looks like that lack of attention is about to change very, very soon.

The links between climate change and politics is a touchy enough subject, let alone the military linkages, so it’s a topic that I usually avoid commenting on. (Other writers, such as Paul Woodward have been covering security and climate change for a while now.) Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping a casual eye out on this topic since that last QDR, that came out on the heels of the 2009  failure of the last UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen. For those people who have been working towards trying to get meaningful action on climate change, it has often felt like it has been a losing battle, in spite of the scientific agreement, to sway politicians into action; this has led to feelings of depression and despair by many along the way. There was further disappointment at the recent Warsaw conference last December, and a recent opinion in the UK’s The Guardian that the deniers have won.

An Early Prediction on the Shift in the Narrative

In spite of the above, as the adage goes, it is usually darkest before the dawn, and from the looks of reports I’ve stumbled across in my research in the last few weeks, it looks like we are approaching a new day of renewed impetus for action, albeit a rather troubling one.

I would like to share the information on new developments below  that indicate that the topic of climate change and security risk is being elevated at some high levels. Based on the high ranking nature of the departments reporting on their growing priority to address the security risks of climate change, and the influence of their agendas, I’d also venture the following prediction:

The newly reported priority on climate change as an urgent security risk at high levels of government will emerge as a disruptive narrative in the public arena that will change how we will come to perceive the threat of climate change globally, and the need to act on it.

By the Paris talks in 2015, this narrative has the potential to turn the tide on action on climate change in North America, as a driver of public policy and legislation. It can do this through transitioning the emphasis in public discourse from the rhetoric of doubt and denial over to the new rhetoricthat there is a need to respond to climate change not only a real and significant risk, but as a clear and present danger. 

The thing is, there’s not just rhetoric around the narrative on climate change and security. The science (as will come out in the IPCC report on impacts tomorrow) shows that climate change does present real risks that people in the field have known has been there all along. (i.e. See this report on climate change and conflict in Africa from 2010, and this speech by Christiana Figueres in Spain in 2009 addressing a military intelligence audience on the importance of  addressing climate change.)

So, the knowledge on the security risk is nothing that new really. However, it appears that the priority of this factor is now being significantly escalated in the messaging from up top. Enough so that it looks like the security implications of climate change will begin to emerge as a primary driver on action not just at home, but around the world.

But don’t take my word for it.

The “Climate Change = Security Risk” Narrative

Growing Body of Evidence

Below I’ve outlined some lines of recent evidence for how climate change and security is starting to re-frame the messaging on climate change, primarily in the US. I’m pretty sure this list will be growing very soon.

1. US Department of Defense

  • Then. 2010 – Quadrennial Defense Report: As mentioned above, I blogged about this report previously. There was not a lot of public follow up on the security risks of climate change back then. Instead, political will for climate climate change began to evaporate in the west as the climate change debate narrative took over. It’s my suspicion that the ‘climate change = security risk’ narrative didn’t stop at this point. It just quietly went undercover (see the note below about the early pilot program by HLS on Resilence Star for instance).

2. US Department of Homeland Security

  • Then. 2011. DHS announces a Resilience STAR ‘pilot’, a “voluntary certification program that aims to make homes and buildings more secure and resilient to all hazards.” Note that this program had no mention of “climate” back in 2011, and has quietly been built on behind the scenes of the opposition to any kind of climate action under the guise of ‘weather’ disaster planning into the trademarked program in the next bullet (that also doesn’t mention climate). However, in the Senate testimonies linked further below, the actual ties of the Resilience Star initiative to climate change adaptation becomes apparent. This program has been build in collaboration with insurance companies, who are actuarial risk specialists, who are very aware of the difference between weather and climate. Note for instance how the graph by Munich Re from their report on weather risk below shows 30 years of data. 30 years is the time that is typically as the climatological normal, which makes this work on weather, pretty much about climate change adaptation.
  • Now.  November 2013. DHS announces again that it is launching its new Resilience STAR™ Program to help home owners and businesses prepare for climate change in partnership with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBH). The program is to be analogous to the EPA’s popular Energy Star program.
    • The Resilience Star program re-launched a second ‘pilot program’ that closed in January 2014
  • Now. February 12, 2014:  The US Senate Hearing on Extreme Weather Events: The Costs of Not Being Prepared saw two officials from DHS testify along with other witnesses on the need to address risks and mounting costs of extreme weather events in the US. (A related report on Severe Weather in North America, by Munich Re states that, “Nowhere in the world is the rising number of annual catastrophes more evident than in North America.” As shown in the figure below, copied from the Executive Summary, the number of weather catastrophes in North America has more than quadrupled over the last 30 years (the averaging time for climate change trends).)
    • The Honorable David F. Heyman, DHS Assistant Secretary for policy testified testified about the ongoing efforts of DHS and other departments since 2009 on building out resilience and security, including preparing “homes, communities and critical infrastructure” for future extreme weather events and disasters. He also commented on the mounting costs that extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change in the US, noting that projected losses from the future impacts of climate change are estimated at USD $1.2 trillion by 2050.  Download Testimony (196.1 KB)
    • Caitlin A. Durkovich, Assisstant for Infrastructure Protection testified similarly about the work of about the ongoing efforts of DHS to build resilience and security.  (Note that the language on this resilience work has been historically framed around “weather” rather than “climate”, so it has largely gone along relatively quietly under the radar of the climate change debate the whole time, but now the language of climate change is also being used): Download Testimony (196.1 KB)
Trends in Weather-Related Loss Across Global Continents Over 30 Years. Source (Munich Re)

Trends in Weather-Related Loss Across Global Continents Over 30 Years. The top blue line shows the trend for North America which shows a rise higher than for any of the other continents. Source (Munich Re 2012)

3. US State Department

  • Now. January 2014. The new draft of the Sixth US Climate Change Action Report notes security implications in the very first line of its Executive Summary, “Climate change represents one of the greatest challenges of our time, with profound and wide-ranging implications for development, economic growth,the environment,and international security.”
  • Now. March 7, 2014. The US Department of State blog notes in their We Need to Elevate the Environment in Everything We Do post that Secretary of State, John Kerry issued “instructions to all diplomats around the world on combating climate change.” Kerry explicitly notes a priority of integrating the priority of climate change with the priority of “national security” in guidance point 7 (ha, I did just say priority three times there).

3. Other

  • Then. 2012. The American Security Project (ASP) published, American Security: The Impact of Climate Change. This report outlines implications for homeland security and global security relating to climate change.
  • Now. The Climate, Energy and Security home page of the ASP currently states: “Climate change is a scientific fact; it is real and poses a clear and present danger not only to the United States but to the entire world.”
  • Now. The Center for Climate Change and Security (CCCS, whose review of the 2014 QDR report I linked to previously in this post) has been following the climate change security agenda for some time now. Some of their recent publications are below:
    • January 22, 2014. Briefer, Message to Davos: Climate Change Risk Assessments Need to Go Big which outlines how the World Economic Forum in Davos has climate change as one of its top five priorities, but also how climate change is also linked to three of the other top ten priorities (food, water and extreme weather events). The report emphasized under, “It’s the People, Stupid”, how climate change has been typically lumped under and ‘environmental’ box only; however, it is also fundamentally a social, geopolitical and economic risk.
    • February 26, 2014 Briefer, Climate and Security 101: Why the U.S. National Security Establishment Takes Climate Change Seriously discusses several aspects of climate change and security, including the statement that, Four-star Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), identified climate change as the biggest security threat facing the Asia-Pacific region. In the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Pacific Command is working with China and India to align military capabilities for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”
    • Update! (3/31/3014) The CCCS has informed me that I missed that they also keep a record of US Government Intelligence Statements. Their recent one by the Director of National Intelligence, titled “Statement for the Record, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” (January 29, 2014) makes two explicit references to climate. The first is regarding risks to freshwater supplies, particularly in key countries such as North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but also in several developing nations. The report discusses some of the potential scenarios of what these shortages could lead to. The second reference is with regards to extreme weather events, that the report notes empiracle evidence along (without the help of climate models) suggests that the warming trend is affecting weather leading to more frequent or intense floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, cyclones, coastal high water and heat waves. The outcome of this trend will likely place stress on first responders, NGOs, and militaries called on to provide humanitarian assistance.
  • Now. March 20, 2014. In the United Kingdom, Responding to Climate Change (RTCC), the UNFCCC official observer published an interview with a US Army expert who said of the climate change risk that, “This is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years. That’s the scariest thing for us. There is no exit strategy that is available for many of the problems.”
  • Now. March 27, 2014. In the United Kingdom, the non-profit Environmental Justice Foundation published The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict. This 44 p. report “calls for climate change to be recognized as a human rights issue as well as an environmental issue and highlights the need for urgent international action to respond the human and national security challenges that climate change presents.” The report frames the climate change security risk as a human rights issue as well: “The potent significance of the fact that the world’s major military powers and security institutions consistently and increasingly voice their concerns regarding the impacts of climate change jars with the simple fact that there has been a failure to act on the issue. EJF interprets this collective failure as the gravest threat to human and national security: the insecurity wrought by climate change is the defining global human rights issue of the 21st Century.

This EJF image connected to their new report, Gathering Storm, is starting to make appearances on Twitter under #gatheringstorm

 

Connecting the Dots on the New Climate Change Narrative

Connecting the dots on the above evidence outlines a new emphasis on the impacts of climate change to national and global security. This climate change = security risk narrative has emerged in priority agendas of the UN,  and for major US government departments. There are references in the above reports on the emphasis of this agenda in other countries as well. So, it looks like the emerging climate change as security risk platform may have its roots in quieter work that has been ongoing for many years now and is finally ready to emerge as a policy pillar.

Where is this all headed? The climate change security agenda may not unfold as rapidly as my above prediction to be influential on securing a deal at the Paris 2015 talks, as well as in influencing stalling nations to roll out climate change mitigation and adaptatoin action where they have been lagging up to now. What is certain though, is that there is strong talk in high places backing this agenda. And, given that the effects of climate change are predicted to grow in time, the climate change = security risk agenda is one that will not be going away any time soon, and will certainly be one to watch closely over the upcoming year.

News: UN Issues Warning if Private Sector Doesn’t Invest in REDD

“Forests are the natural treasure chests of the world, providing a host of ecosystem services that – and this needs to be said very clearly and up front – are paramount to ensuring economic progress and human well-being, not only locally but globally. What forests give us is fundamental in the strictest sense of the word: they stabilise the global climate system, regulate water cycles, provide habitat for flora, fauna and people, and host genetic resources of unimaginable potential. Forests and their services remain, however, chronically undervalued by today’s economic and political decision makers, resulting in their rapid destruction. One of the many consequences of current deforestation and forest degradation is their contribution of approximately one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

UN, REDDy Set Grow

It has been a challenging year for the carbon world, and the related sphere of  applying economic instruments for environmental protection and conservation of other ecosystem services. Variables, such as the economic downturn and the political climate on climate change have downplayed the urgency for dealing with issues like deforestation. What does all this stalling spell out for natural environments?

The UN has put out a recent report, “REDDy Set Grow: Private sector suggestions for international climate change negotiators.” The report clearly states why the forests of the world are important (which I also do in my previous Part I, II, III series on forests), why the private sector needs to get involved in financing saving them, and how they can do it through programs like REDD and REDD+.

The question is, is the involvement of certain actors within the private sector going to be enough to sway the tide of political opinion so that policy makers can put into place the kind of policies needed to take these markets beyond the voluntary scope they operate at now? A recent report by Forest Trends indicated that the last couple of years has shown many firsts for the implementation of economic instruments for forests, including the rise of forest carbon markets, with the EU leading the front for purchasing and many projects in the supply pipeline. However, in spite of the forest carbon sector being poised to take off,  many uncertainties remain as to whether the regulatory drivers that underpin demand will kick into gear in time to take these markets where they need to go. The quote below from State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2011, sums it up:

“Currently, buyers purchase most credits voluntarily, but regulatory drivers hold a critical key to unlock larger climate impacts and market demand. Across the global markets, a number of influential political choices remain to be made, and a host of market drivers remain uncertain. The consensus among dozens of market players interviewed for this report, including leaders of standards organizations and major buyers and project developers, is that the forest carbon market is entering a phase where growth will be fundamentally tied to finding and creating new demand for forest carbon credits

Policymakers are in the midst of developing funding for forest conservation at an unprecedented scale. A number of innovative solutions have evolved to both overcome many of the earlier hurdles facing market-based forest conservation efforts and attract private sector investment, but the scope of these markets is still relatively small in the face of global forest loss and a changing climate. The fate of these markets and projects will in large part rest in the hands of policymakers. 2010 was undoubtedly a critical year in the history of the forest carbon markets, but the most consequential chapters in this story still remain to be written.”

Defense and Climate Change – Little Room for Doubt

“Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.” – United States Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2010

I’ve been sitting on the above quote for a while now. The thing that really stirkes me about it—aside from the surety (notice the two “will”s which do not leave a lot of doubt in the matter)—is that this quote is not from the EPA. It’s not from the UN. It’s not from some scientific panel or from some university somewhere… It’s from an official document of the US Department of Defense. No matter what one’s political views, no matter where one lives, when one reads something put out by US “intelligence”, especially when inside an official military document, one sits up a bit straighter and pays a little more attention.  After all, many of the last century’s scientific advances had their start in the military (or were taken up by the military). When a Department of Defense talks science, they don’t mess around.

The quotes from the Defense Review stand out in particular with all of the political ‘debate’ on climate change in the last couple of years (noting that the science IS clear on the key points of global warming and there is consensus on the call to action to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and that it is basically politicians and certain lobby groups that are  finding ways to reword, delay, de-fund and ignore scientists).

In particular, many climate change deniers also fall into the camp that shows strong support for the military, so I found this report by the US military to offer, frankly, an interesting discrepancy. Enough of a discrepancy that it makes one wonder why there is any doubt on climate change left.

Any.

Here are some more quotes from the document (emphasis mine):

“Climate change will affect DoD in two broad ways. First, climate change will shape the operating environment, roles, and missions that we undertake.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows…

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas. In some nations, the military is the only institution with the capacity to respond to a large-scale natural disaster. Proactive engagement with these countries can help build their capability to respond to such events. Working closely with relevant U.S. departments and agencies, DoD has undertaken environmental security cooperative initiatives with foreign militaries that represent a nonthreatening way of building trust, sharing best practices on installations management and operations, and developing response capacity

Second, DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on our facilities and military capabilities. The Department already provides environmental stewardship at hundreds of DoD installations throughout the United States and around the world, working diligently to meet resource efficiency and sustainability goals as set by relevant laws and executive orders. Although the United States has significant capacity to adapt to climate change, it will pose challenges for civil society and DoD alike, particularly in light of the nation’s extensive coastal infrastructure. In 2008, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD’s operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the Department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required.

In this regard, DoD will work to foster efforts to assess, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Domestically, the Department will leverage the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, a joint effort among DoD, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency, to develop climate change assessment tools. Abroad, the Department will increase its investment in the Defense Environmental International Cooperation Program not only to promote cooperation on environmental security issues, but also to augment international adaptation efforts. The Department will also speed innovative energy and conservation technologies from laboratories to military end users. The Environmental Security and Technology Certification Program uses military installations as a test bed to demonstrate and create a market for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies coming out of the private sector and DoD and Department of Energy laboratories. Finally, the Department is improving small-scale energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at military installations through our Energy Conservation Investment Program.

The effect of changing climate on the Department’s operating environment is evident in the maritime commons of the Arctic. The opening of the Arctic waters in the decades ahead which will permit seasonal commerce and transit presents a unique opportunity to work collaboratively in multilateral forums to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region. In that effort, DoD must work with the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security to address gaps in Arctic communications, domain awareness, search and rescue, and environmental observation and forecasting capabilities to support both current and future planning and operations. To support cooperative engagement in the Arctic, DoD strongly supports accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As climate science advances, the Department will regularly reevaluate climate change risks and opportunities in order to develop policies and plans to manage its effects on the Department’s operating environment, missions, and facilities. Managing the national security effects of climate change will require DoD to work collaboratively, through a whole-of-government approach, with both traditional allies and new partners.”

And so there it is. It touches on climate change assessment, risk analysis, impacts, mitigation, adaptation, extreme weather, sea level rise, energy efficiency and renewable projects, and the opening of Arctic waters. It’s all there.

The only thing missing is mass recognition in North America that anthropogenic climate change is a fact. Enough of a fact that there is enough supporting measured and statistically significant data out there to make our own military intelligence design programs and strategies around it, and designate it as a significant security risk. So, if deniers don’t take science for fact, or at least a high risk factor, and if they wont take the advice of our own military intelligence as pursuasive, then perhaps they have argued themselves right off the table of logical debate.

So, perhaps it is time to put the unfounded politicized aspects of this debate to rest, and finally get on with taking some reasonable mitigation actions?

The Giving Trees: Part 3, Forest Services

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2. It is in participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. This blog post is the last in a three part series to form the background information to my final official post tomorrow.

This series of background posts on nature’s forest services covers the following topics:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Part 1 of this series of posts covered Point 1 above, discussing a bit about how forests themselves came to be, and how life as we know it would not be the same if life had taken a different twist and turn and trees had never been. Part 2, The Vanishing Forests, covered an overview the threats and extent of deforestation around the world. Finally, this post will cover forest ecosystem services, and how they can help to protect our world’s remaining forests.

In my enthusiasm for a good excuse to blog and wax poetic about forest ecosystem services, I missed the word limit in the rules for the World Environment Day contest! Hence, officially, this series of posts is to just provide background information (for those who want to know more) for my final official pithy post entry which will follow tomorrow.

Forest Ecosystem Services

Morning forestMost of us live in cities, and do not have the privilege of spending much time in nature. As such, it is easy to become disconnected from the natural world which surrounds and supports us. Nevertheless, we are dependent on nature for our very survival. The very oxygen that we breathe accumulated in the atmosphere due to the action of photosynthesizing life forms. Forests play a key role in helping to locally and globally balance oxygen levels, as well as filter polluting impurities out of the air.

Forests and other wild ecosystems are also the foundation for life on Earth. They are the original source of biodiversity, all the food we have, all the animals, and the biogeochemical cycles that they help regulate. The combination of all the ecosystems in the world makes up the global biosphere, that we are a part of. At the same time, there are so many of us (as pointed out in Part 2) that our actions are starting to have significant impacts on ecosystems, as well as their net structure and function. Climate change is an example of how our cumulative actions of emitting greenhouse gases has led to anthropoenic climate change, which means that we have overwhelmed the capacity of natural systems to buffer CO2 out of the atmosphere.

So, ecosystems are bigger than us, and many aspects of ecosystems are also priceless. Yet, we have left out ecosystem goods and services of ecosystems out of our national GDP accounts and economic systems, and this has led to the externalization of forest goods and services from our balance sheets, policy and planning, and the eventual degradation and loss of forests and other ecosystems around the world. In order to help stop this externalization of forest ecosystem services, what we can do is provide a price to them. In this way, we can better meausre, manage and protect the health of our forests, economies and the people who depend upon them.

So, what kinds of ecosystem services do forests give to us? Using the TEEB definition of Ecosystem Services, here is a quick run down of nature’s forest services to us:

1. Provisioning

Blue forestWhen we think of forests providing for us, usually the thought that comes to mind is wood to build, furnish and warm our homes. Yet, forests provide so much more.  30% of forests globally are used for providing both wood and non-wood products. These products are conventionally part of what is called natural resources. These resources provide us with things we need, and help to drive our national economies, and yet forest natural capital is, as mentioned, often externalized from our national accounts.

In order to provide a better reckoning of forests, so we can better manage our impacts on them, what kinds of goods and services do forests provide us?

  • Softwood and hardwood lumber
  • Wood fibre and pulp products (like paper)
  • Fruits from fruit trees (bananas, apples, pears, mangoes)
  • Mushrooms (some mushrooms are still wild harvested and require very specific conditions to grow)
  • Wild harvested plants
  • Biomass for biofuel
  • Biochemicals, medicines and pharmaceuticals
  • Genetic resources
  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Animals that live within forest ecosystems are also a food source (fish and game)

2. Regulating

Forests are also like biological machines that impact and regulate the chemicals and environments around them through their metabolic pathways. Just like a car has an engine and produces CO2, the plants and trees of the forest have metabolisms that not only respire (producing CO2 and using up O2 like us), but photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is part of the magic of life on Earth, which pulls CO2 out of the air, and fixes it in plant tissues, while releasing O2 at the same time. This also makes forests perfected systems for carbon capture and storage. What other regulating functions do forests provide?

  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Clean air is provided by trees which help to filter out impurities and pollution
  • As mentioned, oxygen is provided by trees (in cities like Tokyo, oxygen levels can go way down locally, and planting more trees can be a way to help them back up again)
  • Regulating critical to life biogeochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle, water cycle, carbon cycle, and oxygen cycle
  • Wind breaks
  • Temperature regulation (from technical matters such as affecting the Earth’s albedo to providing some comforting shade out of the sun, forests have many effects on micro to local to regional climate)
  • Soil erosion prevention and control
  • Storm water control (to prevent excess flooding)
  • Oceanic storm surge protection (such as from mangroves pictured above) is critical along coasts, and can also help buffer against climate change induced sea level rise

3. Habitat

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” – Charles Darwin

White Stag

White Stag, Rob Ward Photo

Forests provide two basic kinds of habitat related to ecosystem services:  habitat for species and habitat to serve as gene-pool ‘protectors’.  Regarding the first, species live in what we normally think of as habitat, which is basically a space where an organism can live. This habitat can be as large as the vast range of a grizzly bear, the breeding ground of a migratory bird, to a tangled river bank reminiscent of Darwin’s quote above, to a single tree for an insect. Regarding habitat for gene-pool protectors, this refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place as it has been since the dawn of life. This process of natural selection is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and it is critical to maintain it as best as we can for the genetic health and well being of all species on Earth.

Without maintaining forest habitats at the right size for the creatures that live within them, and providing a means to protect that habitat, both the habitat and the plants and animals within can be lost. Illegal logging and poaching is a pernicious problem that plagues countries all over the world, not only developing nations. For instance, the white stag pictured above was poached from a park in the UK to the chagrin of many.

In order to maintain the habitat of many organisms–as well as genetic diversity that those habitats allow and facilitate–it is important that we preserve the health and integrity of the various ecosystems that make up the many biomes of the world. There are breaking points at which, for example, deforestation leads to enough habitat fragmentation where the health of that ecosystem, its ability to maintain itself, becomes compromised. Hence, protecting large tracts of ecosystems is often important to consider.

The forests are also home to over 300 million people. While these forests may not be pristine, they are still important as intermediary forest habitat, which also support numerous other species. The forest homes of many people around the world are also threatened by fragmentation and deforestation. In particular, indigenous peoples who depend on the forest for their home and livelihood often do not have land rights to the land they occupy and have been expropriated and exiled from their original homes. A striking example of this are the Guaraní peoples of Brazil in Mato Grosso do Sul state. These forest people have been, often violently, turned off their land, and a few tribes now are relegated to living at the sides of roads.

For better news, the Dongria Khond, called the real life Na’vi of Avatar, in India recently won their battle to prevent a bauxite mine on their sacred mountain that contained the forest and agricultural land that they depend on.  Nevertheless, Vendanta Resources, the British company with interests in the bauxite doesn’t seem to have dropped the issue and it looks like they will go back to court to fight it out some more. It is sad to think that it is most likely the party with the most resources and legal assistance in the long run who will win in the war of attrition that the fight for resources can become. And this is why, in part, we need to properly measure and value these forest resources, to give people like the Dongria Khond, a better way to plea their case, and local governments more leverage in effecting protective policies.

One of the challenges of setting aside habitat to preserve wild ecosystems is climate change itself. Human induced climate change has already started to affect temperature and precipitation patterns around the world, and it is precisely these factors that determine what the underlying tree and plant assemblage of an area is, along with sunlight. Due to climate change, forests literally walk the Earth, as their zones move, shrink or expand as their species gradually die of in newly inhospitable conditions, or grow into newly hospitable ones. For an excellent example of how forests move due to climate change, this US Forest Service Atlas database is a great resource. Try clicking for example on the Sugar Maple (Summary All-5) on the Atlas link and see how most predictions indicate that this tree species will move completely north out of the United States due to climate change.

4. Cultural

Buddhists meditating in the forest

Last, but certainly not least, forests provide important cultural services. Cultural ecosystem services include the spiritual, educational, recreational, traditional and aesthetic benefits that forests provide. For instance, the meditation retreat pictured in the image above would not be the same without the forest setting. Other examples of cultural services forests provide are settings for hiking, orienteering, camping, nature retreats, sweat lodges and other First Nations spiritual activities, and scenes for inspiration for art and relaxation.

Often, cultural forest ecosystem services are given cursory attention in the literature compared to the other kinds of services, but nature can exert very strong direct and indirect impacts on human culture and well being.  For instance, many wars can be traced back to the pre-emptive actions of one group to secure access to resources that are perceived to be in more and more limited supply. This has been attributed to the Rwandan genocide, “in which much conflict arose over the struggle to control productive land, and hence to capture and retain the security that access to the ecosystem services that productive land affords.” (Butler and Oluoch-Kosura. 2006)

A sense of cultural heritage and place is also strongly associated with the ecosystems that one grows up in. These systems can be deeply ingrained within the cultures around the world and literature and anthropology is replete with examples. For instance, the mores, traditions, beliefs, legends and stories of desert cultures are different than those of fishing villages, which are also different from those cultures traditionally from tropical jungles. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses how the loss of natural systems, including forests, is having an effect on our own modern culture in the form of ‘nature deficit disorder’. In addition, the manner in which modern city dwellers are out of touch with nature, places nature lower on their priority list–out of sight, out of mind so to speak. Cultural methods of putting people, and their children back in touch with nature, is hence important to help people be more aware, and for their own health. This is a new area of expanded study now, with many parent and other groups sprouting up to encourage parents to literally get their children out in the woods and wilds.

Animals Have Culture Tied to Forests Too!

Orangatun Using Spear

Orangatun Using Spear

I have not yet heard of animal social learning/cultural health and evolution being mentioned with reference to ecosystem services, but I feel that this is also an important area to consider. From rats, to parrots, elephants and monkeys, many animals are ‘social’ learners. This means that the animals are not just born with instincts that make them automatically act. Rather, they also learn how to behave in their environments based upon what they learn from their parents and peers. This means, that, to a certain extent, animals too have culture, and this culture has evolved in the context of and in connection with the natural ecosystems that they inhabit. Hence, it is important to preserve habitats as environments for animals to preserve their cultural heritage, as well as for us!

This means that if you take a baby tiger out of its forest habitat, and put it in a zoo to “save” it, or genetically preserve it, it might grow up to be physically healthy, but it will not be mentally or culturally healthy in that it would not be able to reintegrate into a natural habitat and succeed the same way that a wild tiger would. (Imagine a human child placed into an alien zoo similarly, and how ill equipped they would be to reintegrate to human society.) In degrading and losing the wild forests of the Earth, we are also, depriving animals of their ability to learn and evolve with those habitats, compromising their survival, in yet another way. How is animal culture and social learning an ecosystem service? I would argue that it is in a similar way to maintaining genetic diversity. In addition, learning more about animal learning and culture helps us to understand ourselves better. Finally, who knows what benefits may come from learning more from and better connecting with other sentient beings besides ourselves?

It is important to consider this evolutionary culture context in light of what future losses we may be instigating through our systematic deforestation of the world’s forests. What future amazing creatures might have evolved in the now already vanished forests of the world? How are we limiting the capacity of existing organisms to evolve in the forests we have left? We’ve spent much time and money looking for signs of intelligent life in outer space. Perhaps it’s time we more carefully considered fostering the conditions to further advance it here on Earth.

Protecting Forest Ecosystem Services

Sunrise on Swiss ForestTo recap, in this series of blog posts, Part 1 covered where forests come from, and why they are important. Part 2 covered how our global forests are being depleted and vanishing. Today, in Part 3, I have given an overview of forest ecosystem services. But, how can defining, measuring and valuing these ecosystem services help to protect them for us, as well as for future generations?

There are two main ways in which we can value nature. One is in terms of a deterrent system to penalize those who deplete the natural capital which provides valuable ecosystem services. For instance, these would involve penalties such as higher fees, or damage payments for industries which cause deforestation, or who cause pollution which damages forest ecosystem services. The other kind is an incentive system, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), which offer new incentives to land owners to use their forests in more sustainable ways. The most known example of PES programs are new carbon markets that reward land owners who do actions on their land that enable it to better sequester carbon. By replanting or protecting forested lands, land owners can obtain money through the sale of carbon offsets, enabling them to find a way to profit off their land through actions other than resource extraction. REDD+ is one of the best examples of such a system, which also enables poor local communities to find ways to reduce poverty, as well as other social and environmental co-benefits. Currently, with the inability of nations to come to international agreements on carbon regulations and targets through COP (we will see if they will do any better at Durban this year), the Verified (previously “Voluntary”) Carbon Standard has risen in quality and robustness such that forest carbon projects under its AFOLU standards are setting the bar for forest projects for other standards world wide.

Some may feel, as I once did, that placing a monetary value on nature has certain issues, such as people using things like carbon markets as perverse incentives to plant things like ‘carbon forests’ which might actually be ecologically damaging, but as discussed in my post, Why Put a Price on Nature?, systems such as REDD+ have come a long way, and it appears that the benefits of valuing nature at this time outweigh the potential risks.

Can Our Protective Efforts be Successful? Yes!

Tree planting in India

Tree Planting in India

Around the world the combination of deterrents and incentives is starting to bear fruit in slowing forest loss in some areas. One of the best examples comes from Costa Rica, where in the last 20 years about a quarter of the country has been reforested or preserved as a result of forestry reform. In addition, last year the FAO reported that globally forest loss rates, for the first time in decades slowed down, and this was in part due to regulatory reform and PES resulting in less deforestation, and more tree planting programs in China and South America.

Finally, it should be mentioned that neither of the two methods mentioned will be as effective as they could be in the absence of robust standards based on science, transparency and  clear land rights. For instance, if indigenous peoples in developing nations are not given rights to their land, they cannot benefit from PES programs properly.

In this way, when we value nature, and work to protect it, we are in essence growing up as a culture, become more aware of what supports it, and in turn, supporting it back. Like children growing up to look after their parents, we can look at the giving trees, and in turn give back to them. Frankly, this is a plot twist that I would like to see some day soon.

Giving Back to Trees

Giving Back to Trees