Yes, global warming is a big deal and a big challenge. But sometimes I get so frustrated by conservation and environmental NGO’s for not being able to chew gum and walk at the same time — in other words, for failing to appreciate the real lesson of greenhouse gas emissions.
The real lesson is there is no such thing as succeeding at local conservation (and no such thing as protecting your backyard or local community’s natural heritage) without paying attention to global pollution as a whole — of which greenhouse gases are but a few of many.
The National Academy of Sciences has just released a study of global sources of local pollution that is revealing and compelling in its analysis of the long-range transport of pollutants into and out of the United States.
Do you know what’s landing in your backyard? Try ozone, particulate matter, mercury and persistent organic pollutants that have all traveled halfway around the globe from Asia and North Africa, according to the study.
We also give what we receive — the pollution we produce travels to Europe and Canada. There is haze in the Arctic because of particulate matter “imported” from thousands of miles away, and the western United States has experienced several episodes of dust being dumped on it from Asia.
These pollutants are not a vanity or aesthetic issue — they take a huge toll in human health, affecting especially children and other vulnerable portions of our population:
- Ozone is linked to the rate of child admissions to hospitals for asthma.
- The health impacts of particulate matter may account for millions of deaths worldwide per year.
- Organic pollutants impair hormonal, nervous, immune and reproductive systems.
- And perhaps most insidious of all is mercury — which interferes with the developing nervous systems of human fetuses and young infants.
Meanwhile, mercury and organic pollutants can also wreak havoc on wildlife, with well-documented impacts on fish and birds.
What does conservation have to do with this? Simply put, air pollution is the quintessential issue that links ecosystem health and human health and global land use and conservation. For instance:
- Dust storms can result from poorly managed arid lands.
- Organic pollutants are products of unsustainable agriculture.
- The Nature Conservancy’s own analysis of mercury found it to be a major threat to our conservation goals in northeastern United States.
Conservation has historically and consistently neglected pollution. Look at most conservation science textbooks and you will find long sections on invasive species, on deforestation, on greenhouse gas emissions…but almost nothing on pollution. Of course greenhouse gases are now categorized by the EPA as a pollutant — but that was only recently, and most of the public would not think of greenhouse gas as pollution in the same way mercury is.
The Nature Conservancy did publish last year a report on air pollution and wildlife in the eastern United States. But I do not understand the lack of uproar about pollution on the part of the Conservancy and other conservation NGOs. Pollution is the threat to biodiversity and people that can tie us all together in a common cause. If we purchased 90 percent of all the private land in the United States and set it aside for conservation but did not address these global sources of pollution, it would all be for naught.
I am all for focus — with Copenhagen coming up, it is natural that we talk and talk about emissions reductions. But climate change is simply one symptom of a general failure to think clearly about the costs and benefits of our actions in terms of general human well-being and ecosystem health. And climate change is but one of many threats to conservation that can only be dealt with by international agreements.
Let’s hope that negotiations at Copenhagen and beyond that are aimed at reducing greenhouse gases pave the way for future international cooperation regarding a wide variety of global pollutants.