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.

An Astrobiology Perspective on Ecosystem Services

“Biota control the basic chemical conditions on the surface of the Earth. With an atmosphere containing 21% oxygen, the chemical environment on Earth stands in start contrast to that on our sterile planetary neighbors–Mars and Venus. The metabolic activities of organisms, which link oxidation and reduction reactions, produce the relatively stable conditions on Earth that are conductive to the persistence of life.”

– William Schlesinger, Biogeochemistry 2nd Ed.

Venus, Earth and Mars

Venus, Earth and Mars

Imagine You are a Space Traveler…

Sometimes it can be helpful when framing an issue to get some perspective. When it comes to classifying the values that the vital functions that Earth’s ecosystems provide us, this perspective can be gained by zooming way way waaay out from the bird’s eye view of life on Earth to that of a space traveler who can not only see Earth, but other planets too. This interplanetary perspective falls into the academic domain of astrobiology.

As commented on by Schlesinger in the introductory quote, Earth stands in marked contrast to its sister planets, Mars and Venus. The latter two planets are both inhospitable to life as we know it, but in different ways. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect and is too hot, and Mars has a runaway refrigerator effect and is too cold. (This is a ripe setting for an interplanetary Goldilocks tale don’t you think?)

The Critical Function of Regulating Ecosystem Services

Photosynthesis and Respiration

Photosynthesis and Respiration

One of the key factors that makes life on Earth possible is life itself. It does this by maintaining a  system of chemical metabolic  pathways. (If you want to blow your mind with the complexity of these biological pathways, download the chart from this Sigma site.) The largest source of energy driving these pathways is the sun, which provides us with an endless stream of solar radiation. The most well know, and arguably most important biological chemical processes, are respiration and photosynthesis, which–as we all learn in grade school–are essential to the functions of regulating oxygen (O2)and carbon dioxide (CO2). Life also helps to regulate other important biogeochemical pathways as well such as nitrogen, sulphur, water and phosphorus.

The simplified diagram below breaks down the central role that biota on Earth play in regulating Earth’s chemistry in such a way that it maintains relative homeostasis (similar to how our own bodies maintain our blood chemistry) over time, compared to Venus and Mars. The figure highlights the important role of CO2 in the atmosphere as well.

Venus-Earth-Mars Comparison, Nick Strobel

Venus-Earth-Mars Comparison (Image from Nick Strobel's Astronomy Notes.)

Plants and other organisms that photosynthesize create the matter (biomass) which forms the base of the food chain on Earth. Over time green plants/organisms sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into their living tissues, and this is called net primary production (NPP). This photosynthetic process, along with respiration, in turn, also helps in regulating  oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles which are critical to life on Earth as we know it. Hence, the amount of food available on Earth, as well as the composition of the atmosphere is significantly regulated by the balancing act of the actions of photosynthetic organisms (autotrophs) and respiring ones (heterotrophs). Maintaining biodiversity is also important to maintaining this balance.

Humans control about 40% of the Earth’s terrestrial primary production.

How much these life processes help protect the Earth from turning into a dead planet like Mars or Venus is debatable, but what we DO know is that humans on Earth control about 40% of the total terrestrial net primary production from plants, as well as about 8% from the oceans. 40%!! This is an astounding number! And, these numbers were calculated based on data from a couple of decades ago, so the actual numbers are likely higher today.

What this means is that humans are significantly commandeering and influencing some of the vital life processes on Earth of net primary production and influencing their related chemical pathways. In some ways, we really are space travelers, and Earth is our spaceship. As our population rises on this vessel of ours, we are likely to push these numbers higher and higher over the next couple of decades.

warning lightThis brings up some key questions relating to how we are impacting the regulatory functioning of Earth’s natural systems:

  • If we think of putting a virtual green light, yellow light and red light warning system for risk to spaceship Earth’s critical life regulatory functioning, what level of human impact is acceptable (within the green range), risky (within the yellow range) and dire red alert?
  • How can we reduce the human impact on ecosystem regulatory functions that impact life support on Earth to levels that in the safe green zone?
  • Considering that we have already failed in our attempts to secure biodiversity, such as achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 targets, how will we achieve the next set of targets effectively in the face of concurrent growing human needs?

Ground Control to Major Tom, what do you think of that?

The Giving Trees: Part 2 The Vanishing Forests

This blog post follows Part 1, is followed by Part 3, and is part of the background information of my participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th.

As mentioned in Part 1, this series of 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. This post will address Point 2, presenting an overview the threats that our actions are placing on the forests of the world, that are, in turn, threatening us.

The Vanishing Forests


The Giving Tree

Images from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The inspiration for the title of this series of posts is the book The Giving Tree, pictured above, by Shel Silverstein. In it, the author tells a tale that is an allegory of parenthood–the parent giving, the child taking.  It starts out with a boy who is hungry, and the tree provides him apples. As the boy grows older, he goes off and leaves the tree, but he comes back to take from the tree again and again, up to the point where the tree gives up its own trunk for the child to build a boat with which to sail away.  In the end, when the child finally comes back as a tired old man, all that is left of the tree is a stump with “nothing left to give”. This ending leaves the reader feeling hollow, in spite of the book saying how the man and the tree are happy to be reunited. Not the kind of allegory of parenthood that is mutually beneficial. Not the kind I would want with my own children. Not the kind I would want with my own parents. Not the kind I would want with nature either.

World Population

World population from 1800 to 2100, based on UN 2004 projections (red, orange, green) and US Census Bureau historical estimates (black).

With Mother’s Day tomorrow, however; The Giving Tree is a fitting allegory for the depletion of our forests worldwide–and the mother we are taking from is, literally, Mother Nature. (The Bolivians would definitely agree on this one as they are passing ‘The Law of Mother Earth‘ to enshrine Pachamama with the same rights as humans.)

Well, there are about 6.92 billion of us ‘children’ on Earth, and our numbers are slated to increase to 7.5-10.5 billion by 2050. As shown in the graph at left, by 2100 we’ll likely be up to 14 billion, or we’ll get a serious handle on lowering our growth rate, or something will happen and  and we’ll have crashed back down to 5.5 billion.

Anyway you look at it, in the next 10-30 years just the population growth alone on Earth is going to account for a massive increase in demand for many more apples, much more wood, much more development on forested land. What does that mean for the future health of global forests? Will we have any wild spaces left, apart from a few scattered parks? How will this impact forest creatures? How will this impact the complex biogeochemical cycles that forests are part of? How will this impact regional climate and weather patterns? How will this impact water flow and supply? How will this, in turn, impact us?

How Much Have We Depleted Forests So Far?

Frontier Forests

Legend

Frontier Forests of the World (WRI Image, click to view)



Although the extent of forest cover has fluctuated over time naturally, the extent to which humans have cleared forests is unmatched in geological history. The image above shows the observed change in frontier forests over the last 8000 years. A frontier forest is a “large, ecologically intact, and relatively undisturbed forest that supports the natural range of species and forest functions.” (WRI) As can be seen, the current extent of these pristine forests, in dark green on the map above, is now considerably less than the total coloured original area. The changes in Europe, Asia and Africa–the cradles of civilization–are particularly pronounced. We have, literally, lost our original garden of Eden long ago in the veils of history.

Gold Mine in Amazon, Rhett Butler photo

Gold Mine in Amazon, Rhett Butler photo

When looking at forests overall, not just frontier forests, globally we have lost an estimated 1.5 billion hectares to deforestation. It should be pointed out that “deforestation” does not mean logging. Logging practices can be sustainable when the forest is not cleared in a way that will prevent it from growing back to its original condition or a reasonable near state, while deforestation involves not only the forest being cut down, but land use changes to agriculture or other use.

The highest recent rates of deforestation are in the tropics. This is worrisome from a biodiversity perspective considering that the most recent glacial cycles left tracts of rainforest and temperate refugia in these areas that humans are now clearing. It is also very worrisome from a climate change perspective. For instance, the Amazonian rainforest recycles around 50% of it’s own rainwater, meaning that if the forest is lost to a certain extent, this would mean significant loss of fresh water as well to the area. In addition, the Amazonian rainforest has farther reaching impacts on climatic patterns that influence rainfall patterns in the eastern United States.

Factors contributing to this unprecedented rate of deforestation include clearing land for agricultural activities (such as soy and cattle ranching), mining (such as in the picture at left), urban sprawl, industrial expansion, clearing land for fuel wood, timber harvesting, road building and new demands for forest products.

Some Deforestation Facts and Figures

So what are the facts? The truth is that deforestation statistics varies widely from country to country, and sometimes, from year to year. Rainforests once covered 14% of the world’s surface, but they now only cover about 6%.  Some of the largest causes of current deforestation are for palm oil plantations, soybean production, cattle ranching, as well as growing pressure from the planting of biofuel crops such as corn and sugarcane. Some more information on deforestation from palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Amazonian deforestation are covered in some more detail below.

Palm Oil

Palm oil fruit

Palm oil fruit, Greenpeace Image

Palm oil is used for food (check those chocolate bar and processed food labels before you buy), consumer products, and more recently, for biofuel (with Europe being the largest importer of palm oil for biodiesel. It is also a very seductive crop in South East Asia as “once planted, the tropical tree can produce fruit for more than 30 years, providing much-needed employment for poor rural communities. And its oil is highly lucrative, due largely to the fact that the plant yields more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop.” (WorldWatch)

The Mongabay image below shows the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia showing how production has gone from around 0 to 16 million metric tonnes per year of palm oil production for both Indonesia and Malaysia in just 42 years. This production is correlated to deforestation in the two countries, as first forested land is cleared, then burned before palm crops can be planted on the land.

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, Mongabay

Indonesia has since surpassed Malaysia in palm oil production, and has had some of the fastest deforestation rates in the world in the last decade, even making the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008 for the fastest deforestation rate in the world. This achievement is not much to be proud of as it has led to some severe negative community effects and some of the greatest species losses in the world.  For instance, in 1997-98 a fire related to deforestation killed almost 8,000 orangutans in Borneo alone. “Orangutans are predicted to be extinct in the wild in the next 20 years if the palm oil industry, deforestation and burning of peat forest do not change.” (Source) Many other species are threatened by palm oil plantations, some of which are in the images below. Click on an image for more information on each.

Sumatran Tiger  Probiscus Monkey Pigmy Elephant
Sumatran Tiger, Probiscus Monkey and Pigmy Elephant


Amazonian Deforestation

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation, Mongabay

Most people are familiar with the issues of  cattle ranching, small and large scale agriculture and logging in the Amazon leading to tropical deforestation. As can be seen in the graph above, deforestation rates have recently slowed down in Brazil; however, the damage is done, and more forest is being lost yearly due to activities such as illegal logging.

Now, industrial soy plantations are adding to the land grab, speeding up rates of deforestation. As indicated in the graph below, much of this soy is slated for export to the United States, and production is projected to rise significantly in the next few years. Some of this soy is planted on grasslands, rather than from deforested lands, but one has to be careful when looking at stats on soy plantations, as “grassland” may be land that was previously forest cleared for cattle plantations, rather than natural grassland.


Soybean Exports to US from Brazil

Soybean Exports to US from Brazil, Mongabay


Other Forest Loss Around the World

“Europeans had lived in the midst of vast forests throughout the earlier medieval centuries. After 1250 they became so skilled at deforestation that by 1500 they were running short of wood for heating and cooking. They were faced with a nutritional decline because of the elimination of the generous supply of wild game that had inhabited the now-disappearing forests, which throughout medieval times had provided the staple of their carnivorous high-protein diet. By 1500 Europe was on the edge of a fuel and nutritional disaster [from] which it was saved in the sixteenth century only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize.” -Norman F. Cantor1

Area of Forest in the US (lower 48)

Area of Forest in the US (lower 48)

If you live in a western or developed nation, that doesn’t mean that the problem is out of your backyard. Developed countries are also at risk from forest loss in spite of their better forest management than developing nations. Furthermore, as highlighted in the above quote, deforestation has been going one for a very long time, and has led to major resource depletion issues in the past. After Europeans ran out of their own resources, they managed to get by on colonialism to tap into the resources of other countries, but as history shows, resources, in particular forests, can and do run out.

The image to the left shows the extent of forest cover in the United States in 1620, 1850 and 1920. The reduction in the amount of green forest land is dramatic.

Deforestation has taken place in all developed countries, even Canada (my country) which still has about 91% of its forest cover. (Recall that ‘forest cover’ does NOT mean the same thing as pristine forest or frontier forest though.) Canada alone accounts for 10% of global forest cover, and some of the largest tracts of the World’s boreal forest are in Canada.

In spite of its high remaining area of forest, Canada is still experiencing deforestation due to agricultural expansion, industrial activities (such as the growth of the tar sands), and housing development. Looking at forested land just in terms of timber, Statistics Canada has come up with a Timber Index to contribute to measuring the Natural Capital Index of Canada which would give an indication of the health of our natural ecosystems and resources. In 2006 the Timber Index showed an 11% decline between 1980 and 2005, a significant decline for a country that reportedly manages its forests sustainably.

If you are interested in learning more about deforestation for a particular country, Mongabay has a great repository with figures for selected countries.

An Uncertain Future

Showing the Birds

Look, children,here is the shy,
flightless dodo: the many-colored
pigeon named the passenger, the
great auk, the Eskimo curlew, the
woodpecker called the Lord God Bird,
the…

Come, children, hurry–there are so many more
wonderful things to show you in
the museum’s dark drawers.

– Mary Oliver


Fledgling Spotted Owls
Fledgling Spotted Owls, Torsten Kjellstrand/The Oregonian

Although there are many great law, regulations, programs and initiatives to protect the world’s forests, this blog post has given a quick run down of how the global net effect of these programs has not been enough to halt deforestation globally.

The loss of forests is closely tied to the loss of biodiversity world wide. The poem above from Mary Oliver highlights the potential loss of forest habitat on the animals (such as the endangered spotted owl, pictured below) that depend on these ecosystems for their homes.  Indeed, in the word “ecosystem”, eco- comes from the Greek word for “home”. And the forests are home to many, including humans. Around the world forests are home to over 300 million people. Some of these people, more so than others, such as the uncontacted tribes of Peru and Brazil. Their lives and cultural heritage (that they want to keep to themselves thank-you very much) are severely threatened. To them, the loss of their forest homes, is the equivalent of the loss of life as their lives are both in and of the forest, and they would not want it any other way. The movie Avatar only begins to touch on the kinds of real world atrocities that these tribes have faced historically, and are still facing today.

“Every one of us, all 7 billion people on Earth, has our physical, economic and spiritual health tied to the health of our forest ecosystems.”Jan McAlpine, director of the U.N. Forum on Forests Secretariat

But what about the rest of us? Is the loss of forests really such a big deal? It’s easy to think, “Oh, it can’t be that bad.” But the loss of forests is more than just the loss of habitat, and a few species that will end up on museum shelves. A whole lot more. From the vital life support systems such as the air we breathe and the water we drink, to the resources they provide like food and timber, to contributing to our joie de vivre, forests give countless ecosystem services to humans.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series of posts to learn more about these forest services, and what can be done to protect them. After all, we do not want to end up like the image at the start of this post of Silverstein’s tired old man sitting on Mother Nature’s tired depleted stump at the end of The Giving Tree, now do we?

1 Norman F. Cantor: In closing The Civilization of the Middle Ages: The Life and Death of a Civilization (1993) pp 564f.

The Giving Trees: Part 1

This blog post 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. Following this post are Part 2 and Part 3.

"Emily Carr Forest" by Taralee Guild


“I sat staring, staring, staring – half lost, learning a new language or rather the same language in a different dialect. So still were the big woods where I sat, sound might not yet have been born.
Emily Carr

The woods themselves are silent in their giving. They don’t announce, advertise or charge for all that they do and all the beneficial services they provide to us.  It takes observers–artists, scientists, anyone with an eye to see really–to relay their stories to us. Even then, as people are so caught up with the business of their own lives, they often don’t have time to listen. In this, the International Year of Forests, with World Environment Day just around the corner on June 5th, perhaps it is time to sit back for a minute, take a break and consider, what do our forests have to tell us at this time? In honour of our forests, this is the first is a series of blog posts that will touch base on:

  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.

Where do forests come from?

Teman Negara National Park, Gerald S. Cubitt photo WWF

They say that if you walk in someone else’s shoes that you can understand better where they are coming from. What about forests? Where did they come from? They seem like they have been here forever, and in human terms, this is the case as they evolved long before we did. However, forests are also relatively fragile, depending on the balance of sun, rain and soil to survive and thrive. When these factors change significantly, forests can recede and vanish.

For example, as the Earth has gone through various glacial cycles over the last few hundred million years, forests that have grown up in the more northern regions have been razed by glaciers, leaving tropical rainforests as the oldest forests in the world. These rainforests, being so old, have had the most time to evolve many kinds of plants and animals, and that is why they are hotspots of biodiversity.

The most ancient of all known rainforests is the about 130,000 year old Teman Negara Forest in Malaysia. Home to the endangered Malayan tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, Malayan Peacock-pheasant, amongst many other animals, this park exemplifies the amazing diversity and web of life that has evolved around forests. Forests that are now threatened by deforestation.

The Evolution of Trees



The trees that make up forests evolved between about 299-385 million years ago as shown in the image above. Remains of the world’s oldest rainforest have been found in Illinois in the United States. This rainforest existed about 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous, when most of the world’s fossil fuel deposits were put down.

“It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved…”

Endangered Resplendent Quetzal

It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved.

For starters, we likely wouldn’t have the coal and oil deposits that we are so dependent upon now for most of the world’s energy needs. We also know that some species of animals co-evolved with tree species–developing fascinating and symbiotic relationships–such as acacias and ants, fruit trees and bats. What about other creatures?  Many birds and insects are literally dependent on trees for their survival, such as the endangered Resplendent Quetzal, pictured at right. They live in the trees, eat parts of the trees, and hide in the trees to escape predation.

How about mammals, who diversified shortly after the spread of forests on Earth? Without trees we would not have squirrels, racoons, lemurs, bush babies, sloths, certain species of great cats like pumas and tigers, many deer species, gorillas, koalas, giraffes (that long neck, designed to reach the leaves in tall trees), and many other forest dwelling mammals.

Tarsiers, Philppines. Per-Andre Hoffman photo.

And, finally, how about us?  With our own tree dwelling primate ancestors, there is a good chance we would not even be here today if it were not for those giving trees.

Just ask the tarsiers, pictured at left. Having originated about 45 million years ago, and only still surviving in the forests of South East Asia, these living fossils are perhaps our oldest living primate ancestors. For whatever reason, they seem to have been happy to not evolve much from their ancestral form, maintaining many of the good ol’ ways, including their still very obvious attachment to trees.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series of blog posts tomorrow…

Ecosystem Services, Redefined

DictionaryAs often happens in nascent fields, terms are debated and redefined. This has recently happened to the definition of Ecosystem Services itself by TEEB in Chapter 1 of their recent publication The Ecological and Economic Foundations. They argue for replacing “Supporting Services” with “Habitat Services”. I agree, and my reason why is below.

My own old definition, based on the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, is below.

The Old Definition

Ecosystem Services (ES) can represent the actual service benefits, such as waste assimilation, that are provided by ecosystem functions, but usually refer to ecosystem goods and services collectively.

ES consist of the flows of value to human societies as a result of the condition of ecosystem function and natural capital in the following areas:

  1. Provisioning Services—These are the products obtained from ecosystems, including wild foods, crops, fibre, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals/pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, ornamental resources, fresh water, plant-derived medicines and other natural resources.
  2. Regulating Services—These are the benefits obtained from the regulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes between organisms and their environments. These include the regulation of air quality, climate, erosion, pollination, diseases/pests, natural hazard regulation (e.g., mangroves), and water purification/waste treatment.
  3. Supporting Services—Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ES. For example, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis and soil formation. Supporting Services differ from the others in that their impacts on people are often indirect or occur over a very long time, whereas changes in the other categories have relatively direct and short-term impacts. Some services, like erosion regulation, can be categorized as both a supporting and a regulating service, depending on the time scale and immediacy of their impacts on people.
  4. Cultural Services—These are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences. For example, these include recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations (such as differing between fishing and agrarian communities), cultural heritage, First Nations values and cultural practices, education and knowledge systems.

I always had some issues with this definition being a bit vague around “Supportive Services”. It seemed that the definition varied depending on which publication you looked at, and it seemed to overlap with several of the other categories. TEEB has recognized that this overlapping could potentially lead to double counting of ecosystem services in inventories, and recommends that Supporting Services be replaced with “Habitat Services”. Hence, I will be removing this definition from the Glossary for this site and replacing it with the new definition based on the TEEB revision below.

The New Definition

ES consist of the flows of value to human societies as a result of the condition of ecosystem structure, process/function and extent of natural capital in the following areas:

  1. Provisioning Services—These are the products derived from nature including food (i.e. fish, game), water, (i.e. drinking, irrigation), raw materials (i.e. timber, fibre, fertilizer), genetic resources (i.e. medicinal), medicinal resources (i.e. biochemical products), ornamental resources (i.e. pet trade, fashion, artisan material)
  2. Regulating Services—These are the benefits obtained from the regulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes between organisms and their environments. These include the regulation of air quality, climate, erosion, pollination, biological regulation (i.e. seed dispersal), extreme event moderation, waste treatment (i.e. water purification), and soil fertility maintenance.
  3. Habitat Services—There are two services directly linked to habitat which are the habitat for species (such as nurseries for migratory species), and as gene-pool ‘protectors’. The latter refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place, which is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and to protect existing gene pools at healthy levels.
  4. Cultural Services—These are the non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, inspiration, and aesthetic experiences. For example, these include recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations (such as differing between fishing and agrarian communities), cultural heritage, First Nations values and cultural practices, education and knowledge systems.

If you are still curious, or want to know more about what constitutes Ecosystem Services you can go to the TEEB Chapter 1 reference directly and check out page 19, the table on page 21 and Appendix 2 on page 40 for a full breakdown. The TEEB source also provides reference to the original references by Costanza, de Groot and Daily that form the basis of the new categorization of Ecosystem Services.