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 issuethey take a huge toll in human health, affecting especially children and other vulnerable portions of our population:

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.

(Image: Air pollution and power lines in China. Credit: AdamCohn/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. It’s easy to forget that global pollution isn’t just changing climate but actually changing our local air quality…perhaps a surprise to those who live outside cities like LA and think that their air is clean. I agree that pollution should be given more attention in the conservation movement.

  2. This only validates the increase in various diseases. We are absorbing these pollutants in our bodies through our air, through the food we grow, and the items that we manufacture. If we take it to another level – we are altering our DNA as we absorb the toxins. This is big! Can a world agreement reduce this? Or is this a byproduct of supporting humanity? Thank-you for the story!

  3. The central point of the post is well made — conservationists need to do a better job of linking strategies for reducing greenhouse gas concentrations with strategies that tackle reductions of harmful pollutants such as ground level ozone and mercury. Such an approach is clearly consistent with TNC’s approach to conservation which links people’s interests with those of healthy ecosystems. That said, it seems to me that Peter is using hyperbole for emphasis when he states that “Conservation has historically and consistently neglected pollution” is hyperbole. This statement is perhaps true for TNC with its roots as a land trust , but it ignores the great and inspirational work of many conservationists around the world occurring at many jurisdictional scales to tackle pollution, from sewage to POPs. As concrete examples, I would point to Hudson Riverkeeper and the amazing rebound of a river that was once the nation’s sewer; or the Montreal Protocol’s important impact in reducing chlorofluorocarbons. Of course, much critical work lays ahead, and pollution will likely only grow as a concern as the Earth’s population continues to rise. However, let’s not forget to give credit where credit is due!
    p.s. Cool Green Science is great — keep up the good work!

  4. The reasons to switch to green renewable energy are not limited to climate change. We cannot continue under the idea that taking billions of tonnes of carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air wont have any ramifications.

  5. looking for information on research re: effects of electromagnetic pollution on humans and wildllife

  6. While it’s true that The Nature Conservancy does little or nothing regarding air pollution, you provide no evidence whatsoever for the curious claim that other groups are not working on air pollution.

    In fact, nearly every other major environmental group has a substantial air pollution program. The Sierra Club has filed dozens of lawsuits over airborne mercury in the past decade. The Center for Biological Diversity has focused on ozone and soot. NRDC has gone to bat many times over fine particulates. The Wilderness Society has come at from the perspective of enforcing standards over wilderness areas.

    Mr. Kareiva has developed an unhelpful trend of in recent years of lambasting unnamed “environmentalists” without ever bothering to figure out what real environmentalists do. I suggest he leave TNC’s plush offices sometime and see what happens in the real world.

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