Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Tuesday, 7 October 2008 14:02 UK

Climate focus 'good news for species'

Russell Mittermeier (Image: Conservation International)
Russell Mittermeier

Climate change could actually benefit some of the world's most endangered species, says Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier. In this week's Green Room, he explains that conservationists should capitalise on the worldwide attention being given to global warming.

Deforestation (Image: AP)
The good news is that the unprecedented spotlight on climate change is also shedding light on how tropical forests balance our Earth's climate
Climate change could be the best thing that ever happened to the amazing array of animal and plant species that make up the Earth's biodiversity.

Don't get me wrong; climate change is the most serious environmental threat we have ever encountered, and it is already taking a terrible toll on species, as well as people, all over the world.

The silver lining is that climate change has triggered a universal wake-up call that we all hear, and are beginning to heed.

Never before have so many sectors of society been equally concerned and motivated to combat an environmental threat.

Of course, some die-hard pessimists say it's too late, that the climate change train has left the station and there is nothing we can do but get ready for catastrophic consequences.

Nothing could be more wrong. Just ask the thousands of participants at the World Conservation Congress (WCC) now taking place in Barcelona, Spain.

Caspian seal (Simon Goodman/Leeds University/Caspian International Seal Survey)
Hunting and habitat loss has left the Caspian seal struggling to survive

Representatives from governments, indigenous peoples, industry and environmental groups are meeting to present innovations and create partnerships.

Climate change and protecting species are focal points, and pessimism is not on the agenda. Instead, smart constructive ideas for solutions are being shared.

We estimate the Earth harbours a minimum of six million living species, from microscopic bacteria to magnificent great apes.

The major news announced at the WCC on Monday was that the latest assessment of the world's mammals shows more than 20% to be threatened with extinction.

That includes 188 mammals, such as the Iberian Lynx, in the highest threat category of Critically Endangered.

This assessment is part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which now includes 44,838 species, of which 16,928 (38%) are threatened with extinction.

Self preservation society

Why should people care about the fate of these plants and animals?

In the most simple terms, we should care because the quality of our lives ultimately depends on them.

Without species diversity, we wouldn't have the healthy ecosystems that supply our food, cleanse our air and water, provide sources of life-saving medicines and help stabilise our climate.

Demise of the devils and other mammals under threat

We would also miss out on a free and ubiquitous source of miraculous beauty and endless possibilities.

We continue to discover new species every day. Just since 1994, we've discovered 54 new lemur species on the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar.

The thrill of documenting a new primate is tempered, however, with the knowledge that many species will become extinct before they are even discovered.

On a global scale, we're losing species 1,000 times faster than what scientists consider normal.

It is an insidious, silent epidemic that could wreck our planet's ability to heal itself.

While the Red List does make headlines, somehow the irreplaceable loss of species does not stay in the minds of the general public, and it has certainly never prompted major financial investments.

This has always puzzled me. As a colleague of mine puts it: "Imagine what would happen to us if rainfall was a thousand times more than normal? What if snowfall were a thousand times more than normal? What if rates of disease transmission for malaria or HIV/AIDS were a thousand times higher than they are now? That is what is happening to plant and animal biodiversity today."

Just as climate change threatens us with rising sea levels, droughts, floods and more category five hurricanes, it is also one of the greatest threats to species.

We could lose more than 30% of the Earth's plants and animals this century due to shifts in the Earth's climate.

Critically Endangered grey-shanked douc langur (Image: Tilo Nadler)
Conservationists describe the outlook for primates as "depressing"

So where is the silver lining?

The good news is that the unprecedented spotlight on climate change is also shedding light on how tropical forests balance our Earth's climate.

At least and possibly much more than 20% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change come from forest destruction - that's more than from all the world's cars, trucks, airplanes and trains combined.

At the same time, forests are effectively our life support system, absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen.

Those same tropical forests are also home to the world's greatest preponderance of species diversity.

Remove the forests and you will also exterminate countless species. By the same token, the species are essential to healthy forests for many reasons, including pollination and seed dispersal.

There is still time to protect these forests while also providing economic opportunities to developing countries and local people.

One of the key issues at the WCC in Barcelona is how conserving standing tropical forests to fight climate change must be included in a new United Nations agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the current climate change treaty that expires in 2012.

If we ensure that nations will be compensated for forest conservation that reduces emissions, we will also contribute to redressing some of the huge economic imbalances that exist in the world, since many tropical forest countries are among the more economically stressed.

A message Barcelona can send to the rest of the world is that it is not too late to protect species as well as combat climate change.

On both counts, the welfare of humanity is at stake.

Russell A. Mittermeier is president of Conservation International and chairman of global conservation group IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Russell Mittermeier? Can the focus on climate change be positively harnessed by conservationists? Will paying tropical forest nations be a way to tackle climate change and protect biodiversity for future generations? Or has the climate train left the station and we must prepare to face the consequences?

We need to know who the culprit parties are that are the pillagers. That is the illegal loggers, fishers, poachers, and the lax regulators and nations. Apart from the CO2 emitters, in my forestry/environmental work in almost 40 countries,I haven`t seen much on exposing the pillagers. Put the heat on them and then firmly explain that their behavior is unacceptable, then go after their national authorities to punish them --or buy them out as has been suggested. We are not being tough enough on the culprits in my country and most others. Thank you Mr. Mittermeier.
Patrick Duffy, North Vancouver, Canada

If we were entering a cycle of global cooling as many responsible scientists and researchers believe and as much of the data show, then what would be the implications for endangered species, forests, etc? And which countries should be receiving payments, if any? Could it mean that the topic of forest preservation can effectively be detached from discussions of climate change? Climate cycles have been a fact of global nature as far back in time as science is able to study and document. The cycles from cooling to warming seem to have taken place with or without significant changes in carbon emissions. Surely, the coming and going of animal species has been an enduring fact of life on the planet as well. Let us set climate change aside and simply focus on restricting human destruction of forests as much as possible and on fostering protection of species, endangered or otherwise, from unnecessary human interference?
Campbell McClusky, Point Roberts USA

The simple fact is that, throughout geological history, a warmer climate results is boom time for life. Colder climates (like ours currently is) result in extinction events and relatively low diversity.

Add this together with the fact that plants have been starved of CO2 for hundreds of thousands of years which has resulted in their low diversity and limited expanse and environmentalists should be rejoicing about global warming.

Shame it is all dependent on incorrect computer modelling and fraudulent quaternary climate reconstructions then.
James S, Auckland, NZ

My comment isn't about awareness but what I consider a need to bring the world of high technology to what would otherwise be considered the outback areas where nature survives, those areas out of the spotlight that are more important than they seem. The arroyo where a stunted tree is the last of its kind, the top of a mountain where critters retreated when the valley dried up to be isolated there. I think a lot of the problem with our Earth is that people always think they need to be doing something, something to prove themselves, something to be respected for instead of being able to see the beauty before them, all around them in nature. Silver is one color and gold another but to live in a world where more and more people see the full spectrum of colors present in nature in all its context gives hope for a brighter future. Let's let those who would build model planes that can fly through the treetops and sense what they see present to the world; Let's let the imagination o!

f youth go where it will and give hope to parents for a better future for their kids no matter where they happen to live.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

You're not doing your cause any good with patent absurdities like how the world's oxygen supply depends on forests.

If the forests converted every ounce of atmospheric CO2 into oxygen, it would make around 0.01$ difference to atmospheric oxygen levels - barely measurable. And if atmospheric CO2 dropped below about half its current level, the forests (and all other plant life) would begin dying out.
Peter, Bristol, UK

If more people are to be aware of the importance of biodiversity and its impact on human beings, we'll have the silver lining. What a shame that people seldom recognize the truth that we are just passersby on this planet rather than the ones that dominate it.
Lisa Chang, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Unless we can reduce the amount of consumers (people) on this Earth of ours than these measures are for nought. Our population growth will continue to cause economic instability as the resources required, proportional to individual needs, continues to grow per a head. The Earth is finite and we cannot hope to continue at the current rate of growth and expansion indefinitley. The irony is that if we do not address this issue, then it will be addressed for us by the breakdown of ecological systems and ultimatley our food/water supplies. When can we say we are successful enough as a species? There is an elephant in the room and it's name is uncontrolled population growth.
Carl Brindley, Leicester, England

The silver would be looking shiny enough without the cloud of climate change hanging over our, yet to be born, grand children's heads.

My whole family uses a fraction of the energy that the average American consumes and yet, I feel wealthy with my lot.

Ultimately it will not be greed but over-population that that forces the human population graph to drop like a stone. So far only China has shown any responsibility, with its one child per family law.
Jack, Dunedin, New Zealand

Thank you for your thoughtful piece, Mr. Mittermeier. Like you, I agree that protecting the forests is vital in addressing climate change, but among the species to be protected is the one represented by the humans who live among those trees. Any negotiations over the future of the tropical forests must include representation of the forest peoples--those who will be most affected by decisions made with regard to the forests. Indigenous communities have shown themselves able stewards of the forest lands, once their rights to the land are ensured. They have much to offer and teach about effective, adaptive conservation methods, and they are waiting only to be asked.
C. Sirica, Northport, NY

I agree that attention to the climate could help. I'd like to see the evidence that humans are capable. Ever think of where the deserts came from? We made them. Now the soon to be dire situation of the irreversible ocean "acidfication" cycle.

Thanks for reading,

Not a fan of the future of 98% of life on the planet.
Louis Mason, Stewartstown USA

I agree with Mark Jebe, but would like to take it one step further. As humans have affected ecosystems world wide, organisms do not have the corridors needed to migrate with a changing environment. Climate has changed rapidly in the past. Currently humans are accelerating this change, however in the past species have adapted and evolved with their changing environment. The question I would like to pose is, are we accelerating a natural change past a point where organisms cannot evolve quickly enough to maintain an ecologic foothold?
Erin Wilcox, Milwaukee USA

Has everyone forgotten algae? This has traditionally been viewed as the largest and most important sink for CO2. Why all the focus on trees as "life-sustaining?" If we need to focus on saving one (algae or trees) for the sake of our future survival rather than on aesthetics, we should be focusing on the oceans and ensuring algae flourish. Trees are pretty, but not that useful on a large scale for CO2 absorption.

While I may think lemurs are cute, is it critical that we have 10s or 100s of different species of them? To what end? Can anyone name one mammal in the past decade that has led to the discovery of a life-saving medicine? Just as death makes most people uncomfortable, so does extinction. But both are very much a cycle of life on this planet. Don't forget, we wouldn't be here without extinction of animals that went before.
Sophia De Goes, Boulder, CO

Climate change is occurring, it is natural. Lets learn to live with it and profit from it. Our goal should be to make the minimal impact on our Environment, to live in harmony with it. Lets do that.

No person or country should be paid to keep their trees or anything else. Market pressure on the entity will keep the forest health.

Education is the key to solve all our issues. It is necessary to educate the People and our Governments on these topics. Provide them with good solid arguments to live in harmony with nature and to make the best out of change.
Fred Stewart PhD., SLC, UT USA

I agree with the concept of controlling the destruction of the tropical forests, but I am not convinced paying (bribing) the inhabitants will result in control. Community improvement, rewards for catching non-obeying citizens, and other creative animaters would be necessary.
Lewald Marshall, Petaluma, California 94954 USA

to think that something as grand as global climate change can be understood conveyed in a few short paragraphs is grossly arrogant! has any of us considered the greening of the Arctic regions and there effect on o2 levels globally?
Donato lepore, Philadelphia usa

"climate change has triggered a universal wake-up call....Never before have so many sectors of society been equally concerned and motivated to combat an environmental threat."

Hmmmmm..... never before has fear been used so effectively to distort facts and motivate mindless chicken littles into action.
Jhimmi, Valhalla

Finally someone saying if the forests are gone we cannot breath. Every tree we cut down and every blade of grass we cement over will have an effect on our oxygen level. I would like to see a computer generated model of earth with little or no plant life to give us the full impact. People have to see to believe which is a shame.
Lila Piechocki, Saint Petersburg, FL USA

Russell Mittermeier deserves our gratitude - both for his work individually and on behalf of the IUCN which may well be one of the most crucial groups working on behalf of nature and therefore, though we tend to forget the interconnection, the human species.

He is also to be commended for staying positive, and even upbeat, given what is now known.

However, climate change is not any sort of a 'best thing' to happen to any species. And while the environment may now be a popular topic of conversation in cafes, loungerooms, blogs, etc. there is no action of necessary depth taking place.
Roger Hanney, Sydney, Australia.

I do agree.In 1985 I suggested Brazil be paid for keeping its forests producing oxygen. Anyone who maintains photosynthetic gas- processing and forest matter-processing,(i.e. species at all levels doing this)should receive benefits from all who benefit from the entire reprocessings.
Anthony D'Abbracci (Prof., ret.), Lakeport, CA. USA

Fossil records would seem to indicate that biodiversity increases during times of great climate change. Yes, some species die, but new species replace them. It appears Mr. Mittermeier has focused on climate change as the agent of increased extinction, when I think a more objective view would point the blame directly at man's encroachment on the habitats of these species. Yes, we're to blame, but for edging other species out of their homes, not for making their world too warm in which to survive.
Mark Jebe, Tulsa US

This is a vital first step in protecting the valuable forests that are being cut down to grow fuel crops. The idea that we could grow ourselves out of the overcomsumption of fossile fuels was rediculuous. All that accomplished was to drive the price of food out of reach for many starving people around the world. More valuable food grains were abandoned for ethanol production, which is NOT energy efficient when you consider all the energy it takes to grow and refine it.
Walter Yovanovich, Valparaiso, Indiana USA

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