NYRP Talks | August 3, 2023

NYRP Talks: Climate Change and the Biodiversity Crisis

Dr. Eric Sanderson (left) speaking alongside moderator Jeanine Ramirez. Photo credit: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

On Wednesday, April 19, 2023, New York Restoration Project joined our longtime partner BNP Paribas for a conversation about climate change and the biodiversity crisis. The expert panel included:

Watch the highlights below as the panel describes the relationship between climate change and biodiversity as well as what can be done to address these twin crises. A transcript of the conversation follows.

Watch more NYRP Talks here.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jeanine Ramirez: Let’s talk a little bit about the link between climate change and biodiversity. First, what is biodiversity?

Ana Luz Porzecanski: Absolutely. Biodiversity is simply life on Earth, or you may call it nature, or Mother Nature. There’s a wonderful ecologist and indigenous writer named Robin Wall Kimmerer who calls biodiversity the imagination of the Earth. It’s that force that allows the ongoing flourishing of life, adaptation, etc. It includes also not just rare or endangered species, but every living thing, from fungi, bacteria, insects, vertebrates, and us, humans. And in fact, people and nature are really intricately connected; we are in this kind of relationship and it’s continuously evolving. Regardless of where we are, we are always in a social system, but also in an ecological system—in an ecosystem. It’s like a rich tapestry that surrounds us.

Eric Sanderson: When we were working on Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, we tried to figure out where all the plants and animals were, including on this block. A way we did this was by describing the habitat relationships between each organism and the nonliving parts of the environment. We made this network called a Muir web, and you can’t believe how dense the ecological connections were right here in this block [near Times Square] 400 years ago. One of those dots was the Lenape dot, the Native Americans, but there were many, many other dots.

Of course the Lenape life was only possible because of its connections to all these other things. I think for the Lenape, that was so obvious, right? But today we live in this world where it seems like it’s not so obvious and we have to say these things out loud.

JR: Knowing what biodiversity is, how is it linked to climate change?

ALP: Katharine Hayhoe, the climate scientist and communicator, summarizes climate change in a really good way that I’m going to read: “It’s real. It’s us, It’s here. It’s bad. It’s getting worse. But our choices can and do make a difference. And we really need to pay a lot of attention.” And really, it’s an emergency. It’s all hands on deck.

That is not the full story, though, because biodiversity is also in crisis, and these are interlinked crises. If we try to move towards a decarbonized economy, but we don’t take into account biodiversity, we’re going to kind of go off the guardrails of the biodiversity of the Earth we need to survive.

They’re linked really in two ways. The first way, the most obvious way perhaps, is that biodiversity and climate change are impacting humans greatly. Ecosystems are moving actively when they can. I think marine ecosystems are on average moving like 60 kilometers north a decade or something, and organisms are moving up mountains to try to keep up with the cooler temperatures. Through the climate changes we have brought upon, we are remaking ecosystems, and that’s where it all adds up and affects our health because biodiversity really underpins our economies, our lives, and livelihoods.

The second way in which they’re connected that’s also really important is that nature is part of the solution—a really important part of the solution. Maybe up to a third of the reduction in emissions that we aim to achieve through The Paris Agreement could be achieved through changes in how we use land. I think that kind of exemplifies some of the links.

ES: The air that we’re breathing right now has twice as much carbon dioxide in it as it did 400 years ago. You can’t see that, you can’t feel that, but it’s actually true. It’s still a small proportion of the overall atmosphere, but it’s still double what it was four centuries ago. In fact, the atmospheric concentration right now hasn’t been this high for 24 million years! And 24 million years ago, the average sea level was 750 feet higher than it is today.

Sometimes I think we think we have these kind of like patchwork solutions to climate change, but when society has spent hundreds of years changing something so fundamental to the Earth as the composition of the atmosphere, it’s going to have massive effects on our society, right?

If you imagine this Muir web, if you touch the climate change node, it touches everything, either directly or indirectly, and often it’s just one or two connections. That’s because it’s just so fundamental. BNP Paribas is a bank, right? So it’s like the value of money. Currencies change their value, that changes everything about the economy. The climate is essentially that for the Earth.

The changes that have gone on in the atmosphere have happened so quickly. As a historian, I think about how we live in this time of such dramatic change, and that is so different than any generation of humanity going all the way back to, you know, the Neolithic times. We are accustomed to radical kinds of changes that we sort of expected to happen, and yet the changes that we’re making, will have ramifications for thousands of years for people going forward. This is why I think our work right now it’s so important. Within our generation, these critical decisions are going set the trajectory of the Earth for hundreds and thousands of years.

ALP: I want to acknowledge that these are really heavy things to talk about, like I just feel the room going like, “Oh my God.” And it’s important to remember that because we had such a big role in catalyzing this, we also have great agency for change. So, please, hold on to that as we talk about these things.

ES: And where does the greatest change happened but in cities?

ALP: Exactly.

JR: So what globally is happening? Let’s start with what’s happening around the world.

ALP: Biodiversity contributes to our fundamental wellbeing, including managing pests and diseases as well as providing our food, medicine, shelter, and so on. These benefits that we rely on are deteriorating and the trends are not improving. In fact the drivers of this deterioration are accelerating. I can talk more about why, but at the root is really our values. There is this belief that we are separate from nature and that we can live independently from it.

Other cultures, though, have value nature different and make different decisions as a result. For example, you might make a different decision about a coastal development investment if you feel like an impacted river has a different meaning or a different value to you. It’s important to remember what we do to nature we do to ourselves.

ES: It’s a fantasy of mine to be able to go back in time and actually talk to a Lenape person before colonization. I think so many aspects of this conversation would be blindingly obvious to someone who made their living by gathering all their food and getting their water from the stream that used to run near Times Square. They literally got everything they needed from Manhattan.

What makes the Lenape extraordinary, and actually what makes people as an organism extraordinary, is that we’re social creatures. We work in community and we can imagine the future while having some understanding of the past. Thinking back to values, they had different ones than those that arrived around 1609. This sometimes makes me think that a solution is some sort of reintegration of these [environmental] values in a way that the economic system recognizes them. I imagine nature valued in the way the bank makes its calculations, for example.

JR: It seems like Native Americans had it right. They lived off the land, and they treated it differently…

ES: Well, I think it’s true for indigenous cultures all over the world. The Lenape people at the time did have some advantages compared to now, though. There were much fewer people living in Manhattan as a whole, and much less intensively, so their historical approach would not completely work today given the population concentrations and so on.

JR: Here we are in New York City, “the concrete jungle.” Where does biodiversity exist besides the obvious Central Park?

ES: It exists everywhere, really. Sometimes we have this idea that there’s a place that’s completely human dominated and without nature. On the flip side, there are these wild places where it’s all nature and without people. But those are myths: we exist in this sort of gradient of human influence. There are living things everywhere.

It turns out to cities all over the world are places of high biodiversity because the things that other species need are the kinds of things that people also like. For New York specifically, we’re at the mouth of this enormous river that feeds the watershed. New York City is really an archipelago of islands in an estuary, and estuaries are some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth.

It’s also a it’s also a really wonderful climate. We get about four inches of rain on average, every month, all year round. So if you’re a plant, that’s certainly a good thing. So, anyway, we think of New York as a place that people built. But actually, it’s a place that nature built, and then we’ve added on to it.

ALP: And that people gravitated toward.

JR: What can we do day-to-day as New Yorkers?

ALP: One thing is to not just think of yourself as a consumer, but also a citizen and a business leader. As a citizen, I would say advocating and engaging with the local issues around biodiversity and climate is really important. It matters to care about what environmental decisions are being made where you live, and to speak about about them as necessary.

As business leaders, there is also a great responsibility. There’s a new global agreement out there that the UN Convention for Biodiversity agreed upon called the Global Biodiversity Framework. It has a new set of targets for biodiversity for 2030, and one of the big things it includes is a recognition that sub-national governments and other entities, including businesses, are very important players who can also help set policy.

The framework says that these groups should think about the questions like: What are their risks related to climate and biodiversity loss? What impacts will these crises have? And what biological dependencies do you have? If you’re involved in agriculture, for example, you’re hugely dependent on insect diversity, and it’s a big dependency that underlies your business.

ES: Well, I think you all should just clap yourselves on the back, because one of the best things you can do for biodiversity is live in a city. Because we live in smaller spaces and take the shared transport, we use less resources. On a per capita basis, cities are the most efficient way way to live.

To take that one step further, I think it’s really important to connect with nature personally. So go to the community garden that’s closest to where you live or the park that’s closest to you live and, just like, commune. Just spend time and look and observe.

ALP: And I can end also with one final thought. There’s a wonderful author called Joanna Macy who has argued that there’s three different stories happening right now at the same time as we’re living. So at this very peculiar and important moment in human history is, one story is that maybe we just continue as if it were business as usual, we’ll save the day because we will innovate or tech our way out of this. That’s one story. A second story is, you know, everything’s unraveling. We’re doomed. And the third story is, we’re at a bridge, and this is the moment where everything is starting to change. Ultimately, I think we have to pick what story we want to live in.

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