ecoglobe [yinyang] news 11 February 2002

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On Biodiversity, Climate change and Sustainability

By Jeff Harvey1

Dear Ferdinand,

I will endeavour to answer most of your points here, but as I have just returned from a week in Austria, I will have to be fairly succinct. The bottom line is this: that I have no dispute with FAO statistics, but that (as you even admit) saying that Holland is self-supporting is not remotely close to saying it is sustainable. As I said last week2, if the Dutch environment was transposed across vast stretches of the biosphere, we would see a large scale collapse of ecosystems, and the conditions they produce which permit our existence. This country is nowhere close to being environmentally sustainable, even though since the country was perhaps the most polluted in western Europe in the 1980's, they have made some advances (through the National Environmental Policy Plan, instituted in 1990).

You have made some rather curious arguments; to claim that nitrogen is simply a nutrient ignores the insidious effects it has had on wetland health, where it is a major pollutant. Wetland loss in Holland has been catastrophic; since wetlands provide important services in filtrating wastes, and in supporting as much as 12% of terrestrial biodiversity, their loss (mirrored elsewhere) has been nothing short of a calamity.

It is true that some passerines have been increasing in some urban areas, a situation which is also occurring in other parts of Europe where intensive agricultural paractices have had exceedingly deleterious effects on rural flora and fauna. Species such as song thrushes and blackbirds are actually enjoying higher breeding success in semi-urban landscapes simply because the damage inflicted upon rural systems by heavy pesticide use and by the loss of their primary food has been immense. But your argument is typical of that promulgated by contrarians: place such an important finding in a low context, without further evaluating the repercussions of these declines.

The truth is that species like song thrushes, tree sparrows, corn buntings, yellowhammers, skylarks and meadow pipits - which were once extremely common over much of the west European landscape - have been in staggering freefall over the past 40 years. The red-backed shrike is disappearing all over western Europe, is virtually extinct in the UK and Holland, countries where it was formerly common as recently as the 1960's. In the UK, the tree sparrow has declined by 90% since 1980, and even song thrush numbers have been decimated. As recently as the mid 1980's, these once-numerous birds were a common sight everywhere, but try finding them in numbers now anywhere on the mainland. Yet they are in fairly healthy numbers on some Dutch islands, where agricultural practices are extensive rather than intensive. The conclusion is obvious. For this country to be "self-supporting" as you blindly claim, there has been an immense cost for much of the country's biota. For wetland species, the intensive agriculture and perverse subsidies have been a disaster.

Then you insinuate that the loss of butterflies is nothing to worry about because many inhabit "specific biotopes". This is not at all true for many indigenous species, such as the Glanville Fritillary, which feed on plants containing iridoid glycosides (ie. plantains) that are still common over vast stretches of the country. But why are the butterflies not here? Again, this is mostly if not entirely attributable to the rapacious practices of intensive agriculture. Most importantly, the loss of many once-common species should tell us that we are managing complex systems incorrectly, and that, like the miner's canary, these declines are indicators of potentially significant problems down the road. As Daniel Janzen once said, "The ultimate extinction is the extinction of ecological interactions". Thus, species do not occur in isolation; they interact as parts of food webs and complex multi-trophic interactions over variable spatial and temporal scales.

That humanity is continuing to simplify immensely complex systems of which we have little understanding is indicitive of the planet-wide experiment we are conducting, the end results of which can be catastrophic. We should breathe a collective sigh of relief that, so far, our collective assault on the biosphere has only resulted in regional, and not large scale breakdown, thus suggesting that these systems are quite robust. But there is nothing to suggest that they will continue to generate life-sustaining conditions as humanity continues to undermine them, and it seems to me to be the ultimate folly that, in spite of thousands of studies showing that our species is continuing to ebb away at the underlying ecological infrastructure of the planet, that there are those in denial, like the Bjorn Lomborg's and Julian Simon's of this world3, who somehow think that this is not a real problem. This illustrates the two-dimensional vision of Lomborg, who thinks that ecosystems and the services they generate aren't very important globally because "they have no market". Perhaps the fact that we just so happen to depend upon them doesn't seem to register in his view as to their importance.

This conspiracy against Lomborg you refer to is nothing of the sort; its an attempt to bring him to task for telling only half of a very complex story. Like most scientists, I do not deny that many (though not all) forms of pollution are in decline, that many of the world's peoples are living longer, that the Asian tiger economies are catching up with the west, that many crop yields have outstripped population gains. What I do question is that these indicators tell us that our planetary life-support systems are in good shape and are getting better. This can only be evaluated by closely examining the health and extent of terrestrial and marine food webs and ecosystems, something the contrarians singularly always fail to do.

Lomborg's book is a polemic and is utterly useless in my view because he explicitly disregards the link between ecosystem health and these indicators. You have done nothing differently either, just dredge up arguments about human material welfare while apparently not understanding that, in the longer term, these don't mean much if they occur at the expense of natural ecosystems, which provide us with services that in many ways resemble those provided by conventional utilities. Humanity is now a global force, the first evolved inhabitant of this planet to disrupt stupendously large scales of carbon and nitrogen; to drive species and populations to extinction thousands of times faster than new species are evolving (the replacement value), and to tinker with systems of unimaginable complexity.

You like to quote the FAO; in 1999, the Council for Agriculture and Technology made this point:

"Humans don't produce food. Other species produce it for us. The essence of agriculture is the harnessing of numerous species of plants and animals for human benefit".

Currently, it seems to me that unravelling food webs, simplifying large scale systems we hardly understand and altering global biogeochemical cycles is not prudent behavior.

You also obviously have not read any of the material from William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, who have put considerable effort into evaluating the ecological footprints of every nation state on Earth (Read any of their published papers on the subject). The ecological footprint is defind as the area of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems required, on a continual basis, to produce the resources (and energy) a nation consumes, and to assimilate the wastes a country produces.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they calculate that The Netherlands has the biggest "deficit" in the world - the average Dutch lifestyle requires something like a footprint of 5.6 hectares per person, whereas at present there is only 1.4 hectares available per person in this country, a per capita deficit of 4.2 hectares per person. Moreover, the Dutch footprint is more-or-less the size of France, meaning that the country would need to be much larger (in the order of 15 times larger) than it is to be sustainable. So any idea that this country can generate the wealth from its own land mass to sustainably support itself is ridiculous.

I haven't got the time in this transmission to debunk all of the many fallacies you make about climate change (but there were many in your reply).

First of all, anyone who claims that plants will uniformly benefit from increased atmospheric C02 are speaking patent nonsense. There is compelling evidence that changes in atmospheric levels of CO2 will produce distinctly non-linear effects on communities and ecosystems, because different plant species respond differently and this may indeed create competitive asymmetries; also, as I said above, species do not occur in isolation; they interact. Ecosystems and the species they contain must adapt to changes, and since these systems are not in physical equilibrium, rapid changes in temperature and atmospheric carbon will almosat inevitably unravel food webs and exacerbate an already massive extinction spasm. (Check out any number of peer-reviewed papers by the likes of Bazzaz, Ehleringer et al. to fully understand the plant-specific implications).

The "C02 is a nutrient" argument is commonly dredged up by the political right and their likes in corporate front groups like the Greening Earth Society (sponsored by the Western Fuels Association).

A new series of groundbreaking studies not yet published (but soon to be) coming out of the UK and Brazil suggest that forests in the Amazon basin are uptaking something like 3 billion excess tons of carbon per year from anthropogenic sources, but researchers are concerned that they may be approaching their "saturation limit", and that even slight changes in rainfall patterns currently occurring across South America may undo a complex chain in which forest dieback releases even vaster quantities of carbon back into the atmosphere. This is ground breaking research and profoundly worrying, since the scientists involved claim that such a scenario will cause atmospheric levels of C02 to double in the blink of an evolutionary eye.

With respect to climate change, you should read climate scientist Jerry Mahlmann in UCS who addresses the discrepancy between satellite temperature readings and surface readings. This argument is continually thrown up by the contrarians, and it has been dispensed with time and time again by climate scientists around the world.

Furthermore, we are concerned with temperatures affecting the biosphere, the thin living layer that surrounds the planet. While I admit that citing monthly temperature records are meaningless when looking at longer trends, I do not think that we can so lightly dismiss the fact that something like 13 of the 15 warmest years on the planet's surface have occurred since 1980, that the 1990's was by far the warmest decade of the 20th century, and that 2001 was the second warmest year on record (1998 was the warmest).

While I was in Austria last week, a country experiencing its warmest winter on record, the temperature was 25 C in Vienna on February 4; the Great Lakes region in North America is also experiencing a very warm, dry winter; little snow on the ground anywhere in the upper Great Lakes. Madison, Wisconsin was breaking maximum temperature records by over 5 C in mid-January. Of course, the cold December in SE Europe made the news, but even in factoring that in, this has been a very mild winter over all of central and western Europe.

Here in Holland we have experienced record high minimal night temperatures for weeks, conditions suggested by a number of researchers I have spoken to about diel/seasonal trends and changes in temperature. In the past several years, the mean average date of first frost in Holland has been getting later and later; in 2000 the first frost occurred in the country on December 13, a ridiculously late date.

However, my bottom line is this: who am I, as a senior scientist, supposed to believe? The 2,000 senior colleagues around the world who wrote or contributed to the IPCC report, the most extensively peer-reviewed scientific document in history, or a handful of climate skeptics, many of whom are bought-and-paid-for by industry, and the vested interests they represent?

The Kyoto Protocol is aimed at addressing phenomena that could undermine the integrity of global environmental systems central to supporting life on Earth. Ignoring the burgeoning scientific evidence for human-induced climate change is the ultimate in selfishness for a society hell-bent on ploughing ahead in the name of profit, irrespective of the consequences. Furthermore, like most contrarians you also selectively quoted the Nature paper which recently showed that central Antarctic temperatures have been decreasing since the mid 1980's. Had you employed real scholarship, you would also added that the authors say that their findings in no way undermine the reality of climate change. Why ignore this caveat?

As far as Dutch natural vegetation goes, heathlands have been here for something like 2,000 years (and even longer in the UK), without doubt with more than a little help from the domestication of grazing animals such as sheep. Many heathlands now support a range of endemic flora and fauna, but I take your point that restoring a system requires some kind of reference point, which may well be impossible to define. However, there is no doubt that excessive fertilisation coupled with wetland loss has disrupted the nitrogen cycle here immensely, and that there have been real ecological consequences. Just be thankful that the Dutch example has not been extrapolated on larger, global systems, or else your tune might be very different.

Jeff Harvey

Transcribed from a contribution to Ecological Economics 11 February 2002.

Footnotes by ecoglobe:
1 Dr. Jeffrey A. Harvey is Senior Scientist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Centre for Terrestrial Ecology, Boterhoeksestraat 48, NL-6666 Heteren, The Netherlands. Tel: (+31) (26) 4791 306
2 See ecological economics discussion records at [Link opens in a new window.]
3 Lomborg is a Danish statistician who seems intent on providing proof that statistics lie. Of course that depends on the way statistics are being presented and here Mr. Lomborg is very skillful.
The late Julian Simon was an economist who believed that the wolrd can survive on man-made capital only and support a human population up to 80 billion.

** This material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
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