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Environment

The Other Big Ticking Time Bomb

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 16, 2010 11:30 PM

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**UPDATE:

Stuart Pimm, the highly respected conservation biologist at Duke University, emailed me his thoughts on the climate change/global land use dichotomy that is implied by my post. It's an important perspective. Stuart has given me permission to publish his email in its entirety. You can find it below at this comment.**

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the debate over climate change science, politics, and policy is that it's elbowed all other environmental issues off the public stage. This has to drive ecologists crazy. But it seems they're all laying low in the (invasive) weeds. I don't see any of them challenging the dominant belief that global warming is the single biggest environmental threat of the day. Note that I said, of the day. Because I agree with the notion that climate change could well wreak havoc on society and life-supporting ecosystems later in this century. However, we got another tiny little problem on our hands that may do us in long before we overdose on carbon emissions. It's known within the ecological community as global land use, an innocuous-sounding term even more confusing and vague than global warming. Who knows, maybe that's one reason why so few are paying attention to it. Fortunately, some scientists have tried to raise the worrisome profile of global land use. Last October, at Yale Environment Environment 360, Jonathan Foley wrote that there was "an unintended downside" to the sudden emergence of global warming as the most popular environmental concern:

In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies? Although I'm a climate scientist by training, I worry about this collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems. Learning from the research my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, I fear we are neglecting another, equally inconvenient truth: that we now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.

Just so we're clear: Foley is not pulling this out of the clouds. As he mentions, there's a solid body of work on global land use that's been accumulating over the last decade. The trends are very, very worrisome. Chew on this and this just for starters, if you need to get up to speed. Last spring, when I was a Fellow at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism, I took a course in global land use that blew my mind. Midway through, I was convinced that it easily rivals climate change as a meta environmental issue of urgent concern. Since then, I've also become convinced that the Resilience Alliance represents one of the best conceptual paradigms to address the complex human/ecological relationship. I wish their blog played a meaningful role in the public debate, but they don't seem to have the appetite for engaging in the messy and cacophonous daily conversation. Anyway, all this brings me to a news release from earlier this week that Tom Yulsman made me aware of. It's a commentary on the ecological factors that have led scientists to informally define the current age we live in as the "Anthropocene." As the authors of the essay note, the term was coined a decade ago,

at a time of dawning realization that human activity was indeed changing the Earth on a scale comparable with some of the major events of the ancient past. Some of these changes are now seen as permanent, even on a geological time-scale.

The authors carefully argue that the immensity of human-induced change on the earth warrants serious consideration of the "Anthropocene" term being adopted as a new, formal geological designation. But in my reading, they use the build-up of greenhouse gases to make their case. The equally large impacts from agiculture and urbanization seem to be downplayed. To me, this represents a missed opportunity to put global land use on an equal par with climate change. But it does perhaps reflect the zietgeist that Foley was lamenting in his Yale 360 piece. It also makes me think that a reframing of the climate change debate--centered on "jumpstarting a clean energy revolution," rather than combating future environmental harms--is the way to go. It not only would chart a less contentious path to a carbon-free energy policy, but it would free up the necessary political and media space for present-day environmental concerns, such as those already in evidence from global land use. UPDATE: In a perceptive comment below, Geoff Dabelko, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, explains why it's necessary to find ways to bridge the land use vs climate change dichotomy. He also cautions:

It cannot be a zero sum game in examining one versus another in part because the interconnections make it impossible and counterproductive but also because action will ultimately be limited on key fronts.

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