Greta Thunberg correctly stated in her UN Assembly Speech that we have accumulated a lot of scientific facts and have scientifically proven that Climate Change is real over 30 years ago. Earliest scientific reports on climate change go as far back as to the late 19th century, outlining that if we continue to produce CO2 in the same amounts due to industrialisation, we will change climate. We have continued… and worse than ever. We have further also exploited unsustainably our forests, containing millions of fantastic machines sucking CO2 out of the air and locking it away. So, we have not only produced more CO2 than ever, but we have also bereaved Earth of its means to buffer our wrong-doing by falling trees, burning down forests, and keeping open grasslands by fire regimes.
The young generation is afraid for their future, and by all means, they should. I am afraid! And some older people I spoke to hope they will be gone before it all becomes worse, before the unstoppable chain reactions of climate change begins and the slow motion catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss speed up and human society will lose the basis of its living. The Neanderstals lived for more than 450.000 years (check!) and it will be a surprise, if Homo sapiens will be able to populate Earth as long (having lived for 250.000 years).
I recently gave a lecture on the importance of mountains for wildlife and human society at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, BC in front of many young students. Where else than in BC would it make sense to talk about mountain ecology and the impact humans have on these sensitive ecosystems - Beautiful British Columbia with its many, many, many mountains and the still impressive wildlife. In my lecture, I spoke about the role of mountains as the water towers of the world, I spoke about ecosystem services mountains provide to humans, and I explained why mountains and the biodiversity they provide habitat to are particularly vulnerable to climate change. I then also reported on findings of the projects P³ (Belmont Forum) and GloMEC (Axa Research Fund), including pathways of pollution of mountain lakes, the impact of fish introduction on alpine food webs and the risks changes of mountain ecosystems pose for human society. You know that your lecture has touched the audience either when at the end discussion immediately starts between members of the audience and/or when you get many questions. In Kelowna I had both, and very good questions on top.
One of these questions was about the monetary value of ecosystem services, keyword TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity). In my opinion, TEEB has a value in discussing conservation efforts in regard to the value of ecosystem services to only a limited number of people, especially including those who work in finances or have a similar background or motivation, such as policy makers. Generally, however, I do not think it is a concept of broad utility with which we can reach the general public with. I therefore responded to the student that a concept of risk for human society from the destruction of biodiversity might be a concept applicable much more broadly. Especially in regard to diseases and pathogens, as with these humans have already experience in everyday life. That would allow them to much better apprehend the future risks of today’s destruction and pollution of nature, mountains, and biodiversity.
A second question was about interactions of scientists with policy makers. Much of the knowledge about climate change and biodiversity loss, which only currently reaches the public, has been widely known in the scientific community for decades. Despite efforts to reach out to the press and to policy makers, scientists have not been listened to and are still not listened to. Greta makes that point continuously and as a scientist I share the frustration with her that politicians do either not care about what we know or think they know everything already (see my blog power to the people). However, and that is what I explained to the engaged student in Kelowna, we cannot give in to this frustration and retract into our ivory tower (or rather the small office we usually occupy). We need to continue our efforts to reach out, to communicate with the public, and to convey our knowledge to as many people as possible. I told the students to share their knowledge with friends, family and acquaintances as frequently as possible. As a scientist you need to be resistant to frustration and we are actually trained to be, as we are constantly exposed to criticism from fellow researchers, neighbours, friends and family. But that is a good thing, as I rather prefer to be criticized than ignored…