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Science Talk

Copenhagen and Everywhere Else

ScientificAmerican.com's David Biello is in Copenhagen at the climate conference, and he'll tell us what's going on there. And the Wildlife Conservation Society's Steven Sanderson discusses his Foreign Affairs article, "Where the Wild Things Were," worldwide conservation and the Everglades. Web sites related to this episode include www.snipurl.com/sanderson; www.twitter.com/dbiello

ScientificAmerican.com's David Biello is in Copenhagen at the climate conference, and he'll tell us what's going on there. And the Wildlife Conservation Society's Steven Sanderson discusses his Foreign Affairs article, "Where the Wild Things Were," worldwide conservation and the Everglades. Web sites related to this episode include www.snipurl.com/sanderson; www.twitter.com/dbiello 

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on December 18th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. The big story around the whole world this week is the Copenhagen climate change conference. Scientific American's David Biello is there. We'll get the view from the ground. And we'll also talk with Steven Sanderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, based at the Bronx Zoo. He has an article out in the current issue of strange as it may seem, Foreign Affairs, and we'll talk about that. First up, Dave Biello—I called him December 17th in the evening, Copenhagen time.

Steve: So, Dave, the appropriate question will be: How's the weather there?

Biello: It's quite cold and blustery, Steve.

Steve: Ironically.

Biello: Yes, exactly.

Steve: And how's the climate there?

Biello: The climate is a little heated actually. Once you get inside the Bella Center here in Copenhagen, tensions are pretty high, even though the Bella Center is a lot quieter now that the nongovernmental organizations, or civil society if you will, has been kicked out of the building. But the negotiations are as fraught as ever and negotiators are going down to the wire just like always.

Steve: So Dave, what, I mean, we all know that there is this gigantic conference; I mean, how many people are actually at the conference?

Biello: Somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 people— have made it into the Bella Center, I should say. About 100,000 marched in Copenhagen last Saturday calling for urgent action on climate change.

Steve: And what exactly is being negotiated? What's on the table?

Biello: There are a couple of different things. One is whether we will proceed with the Kyoto Protocol or not—this is the treaty decided back in the 1990s to curb greenhouse gas emissions with legally binding targets for developed countries. Of course the U.S. dropped out of that process and declined to ratify that treaty obviously, and the question is, can the U.S. be brought back in someway? The U.S. has said no, and so there are these kind of two parallel tracks, one negotiating at the successor of, son of Kyoto and one negotiating whatever kind of deal [would] bring in more countries, not just the U.S. but also developing countries like China and India that have become big emitters.

Steve: Now is anybody surprised that a negotiation with almost 200 separate parties is going a little haywire?

Biello: I don't think too many people are surprised. I have been at so-called conferences of the parties before, and I believe that there have been, well, obviously 15 of these, and I would be surprised if any of them ended on time. Usually the negotiators go right down to the last minute and even into the, you know, the kind of day after the negotiations are suppose to end to craft some form of deal. It reminds me of a trip I took to Samso Island here in Denmark last weekend—this is an island of about 4,000 people that have gone 100 percent renewably powered, and in order to do that they had individually negotiated with each of the residents of that island and had a lot of difficulties; and [that] was with just 4,000 people. We are talking about 6.5 billion basically negotiating here, so you can understand why it might take some time.

Steve: And I have been following what's going on there, you know, through the mass media and through representatives of the mass media and their personal tweets from the conference and it just seems like a lot of chaos.

Biello: I wouldn't say there is a lot of chaos. There's a lot of posturing and that's pretty common for international negotiations on climate change; everybody like[s] to beat their chests and you know stake extreme positions. And they do that right up until, well, about today, because today is when heads of state started filtering in and tomorrow obviously our own president will be here. So the, kind of, chest-thumping is coming to a close. Already you can see some concessions being made today. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came and gave a speech in which she said that U.S. would be willing to contribute to a $100 billion fund to help pay for adaptation and clean development in the developing world and it had been a big demand of the developing world and something that negotiators here have welcomed. At the same time China has begun to make noises about accepting some form of so-called transparency, some kind of monitoring or verification that they are in fact going to reduce emissions as much as they say they are.

Steve: Now this $100 billion fund; is that something that would be treaty dependent where the senate would have to be involved or is it something the administration can just do?

Biello: No, it's entirely treaty dependent for sure, because the way the enactment was made was, where we would be happy to contribute to this fund, yes, and only if developing countries sign up to binding targets. So there is still plenty of negotiating to be done.

Steve: So you've been following this beat for a long time and you're actually on site there; what's your impression of how things are going? You know, do you think there will actually be something constructive that comes out of this by the time everybody is ready to leave?

Biello: It's hard for me to believe that so many world leaders, I believe it is 120, would come all the way to Copenhagen to have a photo opportunity without signing something. Now it may not be, you know, the solution to climate change but I think that there will be probably some form of progress made here whether it's an agreement to kind of pre-agree on what a treaty might look like or if it's progress on reducing deforestation and other issues that the country seem to be a lot closer to agreement on.

Steve: And what is the actual scientific target that would be represented by the policy in any kind of treaty?

Biello: Well, that's a little hard to say. There is no language in the text of the treaty right now that has had a specific target, but what I've heard today and in the past week or so is two degrees Celsius warming is the target folks are aiming for that correlates at least in the negotiators' mind to about 450 parts per million concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Right now we are actually at 387, so it's actually approaching pretty fast, because it will go up by about two ppm per year, which means it will be 450, you know, in the next 20 years.

Steve: Okay.

Biello: A lot of scientists that I've spoken to think we have no chance of meeting 450 ppm given that we haven't done hardly anything to change our course and there are other scientists who say that we have already well past kind of the safe point for concentration of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They would like us to start going backwards to 350 ppm or even lower and that's something actually some of the countries here also support, for example, the so-called small island states, some of which are already being lost to rise in seas.

Steve: The two degrees Celsius, when does that start, what is the target date? you know is that two degrees compared starting now and finishing in 2050 or what are the parameters there?

Biello: The parameters there are—this is all remaining to be negotiated so it could change, you know, in the next 48 hours—would be that basically global average temperature rise would never get above two degrees Celsius. We are already above almost well, 0.7 degree Celsius, so...

Steve: Compared to what though?

Biello: Compared to preindustrial temperatures, compared to where we were when we started the instrumental record back in the 19th century, so they don't want us to get two degrees Celsius above that. We are almost halfway to that temperature already; there is some further warming kind of built-in—even if we stopped our emissions tomorrow, the world would continue to warm on an average temperature basis. So that's a pretty ambitious target, and it's probably the only politically feasible target, but like I said that's not necessarily what the science is saying we need to do.

Steve: Because the science is saying we need to do a lot more than that.

Biello: Correct.

Steve: Well, have a good flight back.

Biello: Yeah, and it's the flights that are actually contributing. I guess the most carbon dioxide from this particular event, us flying in and out—it's not too good for the climate either. But one of the things that I have been very impressed by here is a lot of the stories of hope; many folks have traveled a long way to share what they are doing on a very local level to help combat climate change, and that's everything from, kind of, rural electrification in Africa and India, you know, bringing light to people who are still using dung or coal for cooking and heating and dying from indoor air pollution to, you know, major renewable energy projects, say, here in Denmark where they now get 20 percent of their electricity from wind power. That's a pretty impressive figure.

Steve: Yeah, give me another story about something that's hopeful.

Biello: Well, [now] I'm really going to have to rack my brain. What's also hopeful is some of the announcements that the U.S. government has made; we're really on a charm offensive here I guess; I counted at least five cabinet secretaries who were cramming themselves in to a crowded press room that was open to normal people and journalists, and right across from the E.U. pavilion and kind of competing for headspace with those folks and they were touting all the things that the U.S. is doing now and how we have changed direction. So Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Nobel physicist, writer for Scientific American was there touting some of the investments we are making with China and India to develop clean energy technology. Secretary of State Clinton was there to announce this $100-billion potential investment that we are willing to make if we can get a climate deal that's, you know, equitable and strong. And Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was there to announce a global alliance to combat missions from agriculture which is actually, a large portion of human missions of greenhouse gases come from, you know growing grain, fertilizer and of course our love affair with meat—they have announced a global alliance with a number of different countries contributing money to try to figure out how we can both cut down those climate change emissions and prepare for an increase in human population to about nine billion by mid-century. So we both need to bring emissions down and see more people on basically the same amount of land and that will be a big challenge and really, you know the whole conference has been dotted with U.S. luminaries trying to get across the message that we have re-engaged on this issue, that we want to combat climate change and that we are serious.

Steve: All right Dave, well, thanks very much, and, you know, button up and stay warm.

Biello: I will try. It's going to be a tall order.

Steve: Well, in the short run.

Biello: Yeah, that's right.

Steve: Look for David Biello's Copenhagen coverage at our Web site www.ScientificAmerican.com. Dave also does our weekly 60-Second Earth podcast and you can follow his tweets as Dbiello, D-B-I-E-L-L-O. Next up, Steven Sanderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society. His doctorate is actually in poli-sci from Stanford. While on faculty at the University of Florida he directed that institution's Tropical Conservation and Development Program. He is the author of several books about Latin American politics and the environment. And he designed and ran the Ford Foundation's Amazon Conservation and Rural Poverty program. I wanted to talk to him because he has an opinion piece called "Where the Wild Things Were," in the current issue of Foreign Affairs which is not the place I expected to see an article about wildlife conservation. We spoke on December 15th at his office at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan.

Steve: You have an article in Foreign Affairs magazine?

Sanderson: It's the second. It is as equal to or a post script to a piece I wrote in 2002, and WCS has had several in the last few years because Foreign Affairs is perfect for conservation. The reason is that the problems of conservation are really the problems of the international system, trying to figure out how to deal with the global commons in an international system that is built around national sovereignty. So it's one of the great puzzles, just like the oceans or global defense or colonizing outer space. These are great, great global issues and Foreign Affairs deserves to know about these things and struggle with them.

Steve: Let's talk about briefly, you know, give me the bad news first?

Sanderson: The bad news is kind of a mixed bit of bad news, which is that despite the fact that we are doing a lot of really good conservation and there are a lot of great success stories, overall we are losing. And the reason we are losing is that the global system doesn't pay the same amount of attention to the issues surrounding the future of the Earth as they do around the short-term issues of economic development or growth or trade or high foreign policy which is really around national security and defense. So our message—my message is that if the world wants to sustain the Earth—and it shouldn't be an if—the world needs to pay special attention about how to organize that effort and to do better at it than it currently is.

Steve: It always seems though that these conservation issues are put on the backburner—when we get the economy taken care of; we'll worry about that, when we get the political situation stabilized, we'll take care of that. So how do we get people to take care of that before those things happen, which in a lot of cases aren't really ever going to happen?

Sanderson: The test for that was in the last economic boom or the one before that, it was never taken care of, so when times [are good] it's taken off the drawing board and when times are bad it's too expensive. The problem is that it's not a simple policy choice. We are talking about the ability to sustain life on Earth. Those who think that's far out into the future should just take a look at the observed evidence which is that species are declining; we are seeing great losses of North American species and two additional threats have come on the horizon that were never there before at a global level and those are the emergence of infectious diseases and the other is the climate change. And those are now rivaling habitat loss and the exploitation of the Earth for economic growth as a source of declining species and pristine landscapes.

Steve: Talk a little bit about the relationship between conservation and infectious-disease emergence.

Sanderson: We were pioneers in this field in the Wildlife Conservation Society, because we've been doing wildlife health for over a 100 years and that's because we operate zoos and parks, and we are engaged in research on wildlife health. Now we've got 100 vets around the world, so that's an additional growth area for us, if you will. What has turned out to be the case is that when we see something like Ebola, it turns about to be a disease found among wildlife that affects human communities and as we have discovered through years and years of work in the Congo basin, it is also killing wildlife at a great pace. So there are these empty holes in the Congo basin where there are no great apes and it is thought, and there is evidence to suggest, that that's from hemorrhagic fevers that are being passed around among animals and also among human communities. So we are finding a strong linkage between wildlife health, domestic animal health and human public health. Another great example is tuberculosis among elephants moving through populations now that the fences have come down around parks in South Africa and moving through human and domestic animal populations that are infected with tuberculosis or who could be infected with tuberculosis. So we are trying to make that connection between wildlife health and human public health in a way that protects both.

Steve: I had not heard about elephants and tuberculosis, that's pretty amazing.

Sanderson: A lot of hoof stock is eligible just as humans are for tuberculosis and it's very hard to test wildlife. I mean, you can't ask an elephant to do a TB tine test or to flush its trunk which is what we do with elephants in captivity, and that's a decent test. So we are developing whole new protocols for that. But if you look at distemper—canine distemper and feline distemper had been decimating lion populations for years and years and years, and it's from domestic animals infecting wild populations. Hoof-and-mouth among Tibetan and Mongolian wild sheep is affecting domestic livestock and vice versa—people depend on it, nature depends on it. One of the most interesting new bits of evidence is that wildlife health and ecosystem health and the storage of carbon dioxide are tightly linked. So if you have robust populations of wildebeest, they are keeping the grasslands healthy and they are also keeping the predators healthy who depend on them for food. So keeping those wildebeests happy is important to locking up the CO2 stores of the savanna of Africa as well as keeping the ecosystem stable.

Steve: You mentioned climate change as another area that comes into play here and the relationship between a robust wildlife population and carbon storage is probably not well known out there.

Sanderson: It's not well known but as with infectious diseases we are seeing that these are both potential calamities, but there are also potential opportunities. We are finding, and it is pretty well know by now, that CO2 stored in vegetation around the world represents, and its loss from deforestation and degradation represents, 17 to 20 percent of total CO2 emissions. If we can conserve that forest or wetlands or grasslands that are being lost and emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, we are also conserving habitat for the wildlife of the Earth; so Congo basin, Amazon rainforest, the wetlands of Southeast Asia, the peat forests of Southeast Asia and on and on—and also the Alaskan frontier. If we can preserve those areas we have got a triple bottom line, because it's going to be good for humans by stabilizing the climate, it's going to be good for the wildlife because we are protecting their habitat and it's going to be good for economic growth in the long-term because it's going to be sustaining human populations locally.

Steve: But it's not good for some people's economic growth in the short term and that seems to be the biggest stumbling block to doing anything about this.

Sanderson: I think it's because people are thinking in a very narrow way, and it is part of the problem of Copenhagen. They are locked into a view that doesn't take into account a lot of interests at play. So we saw earlier today the developing countries were threatening to walk out of the talks unless some sort of indemnification were made possible. Over the weekend a report was issued on the rights of indigenous people to their forest habitat and so forth. We think that there are models whereby you can protect carbon, you can pay for it with a cap and trade or an offset scheme, and you can endow these wonderful wild areas with a sustaining trust fund that also flows money to local people for short-term, medium-term and long-term economic development. Does that mean somebody has to forego economic growth in the short term? Probably, but if you look at the real economic yield from these areas, it is not great and the cost to the world is fabulously high.

Steve: You talk in the article about—we will move on to some of the good news—you talk about the Cambodian situation, why don't you tell the listeners about the good stuff that's going on there.

Sanderson: Cambodia is a great example of the potentials of the international system and the threat that it might be overlooked. It's a small country, it does not have the, kind of, a presence in the international stage of a China or an India or a Brazil, but it is concerned about the future of its forests and it wants to play in the climate game, that is it wants to participate in any kinds of offsets that might benefit its economy and also its wild areas. We worked with the Cambodian government to provide the technical background to allow them to set up the Seima Protection Forest which is in eastern Cambodia—really wonderful area for wildlife about the size of Yosemite—and set up strictly for the protection of carbon, when it was being deforested by people in search of economic well being. The money that will go to purchase the saved carbon for offsets in developed countries will go in to a trust fund that will train foresters and protected area managers and also to provide economic wherewithal for alternative livelihoods for local people. Now this is in a country that is very, very poor and barely able to think about such broad-gauged policies and yet they are ready to do it, so why not the richer countries of the world?

Steve: Environmental services that have economic value are performed everyday by the habitat—there was a paper that just came out about this in the last few weeks, I forgot which journal it appeared in ...

Sanderson: In Nature, there was a very nice piece.

Steve: Is that in Nature?

Sanderson: Yes.

Steve: How do we get that word out that your wetlands filter your water and that has an economic impact that right now we are getting for free.

Sanderson: Front page above the fold in The Times today, about ...

Steve: Was it? I didn't see that.

Sanderson: What about the hydrology of the Andes and how it serves human life in the most important suburb of La Paz, and these disappearing glaciers are going to mean that people can't live there anymore or that the hydrology changes in a way that washes away their crops because of the fast melt and on and on and on. If you were to go to the Everglades—and I used to be involved with the Everglades restoration—if you go to the Everglades and ask anybody on the borders what the Everglades is all about, the Everglades system, the official answer will be "It's about water availability and flood control." My answer would be it is also about sustaining one of the great wetlands on Earth and with all of its variability and flushing and so forth. Those two things, flood control and water availability are ecosystem services that the Everglades is providing. They are human managed services but people, if only you would denominate it in language that they commonly refer to, would understand exactly what they are getting. Ask the people who live along the Mississippi about flood, but ask people who own bottom land about the nutrient re-enrichment of the soil from those floods. So I think there is an intuitive feel for these things among people who live near or in these [valuable] ecosystems. The great problem in humanity is that we've tried our hardest and very successfully to get us far away as we can from wild nature, and so we don't understand its language anymore.

Steve: You are actually on the National Academy of Sciences Oversight Committee on Restoration of the greater Everglades Ecosystem, which is a lot of words, but it is pretty clear that that's a very important function. This is not related to the Foreign Affairs piece, but I did want to ask you, what's going on in the Everglades right now. I mean that's one of the keystone environments in the United States, and it also has a great kind of national psychological value.

Sanderson: It's been a great thing that the Everglades is seen as a national park and as a national icon. People know where it is or vaguely where it is and what it is about and Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her great book River of Grass,—very evocative stuff. I think it continues to be a great challenge for Florida, because Florida has nothing in its loss or zoning or planning mechanisms that call for the state to limit the human population load in South Florida. And for the most part, the economic activity is not limited either, so if you want to do hydroponic tomatoes in the Southeastern part of the Everglades, live it up. Now the economic downturn has slowed some of those process of the change but as long as you've got 12 million or 13 or 15 million people in South Florida ringing the Everglades then all of what you try to do in the Everglades will be human denominated, and you won't get a natural system back. What you'll get is something you can live with—it will have elements of its diversity and so forth. I think one of our great challenges is to think of ecosystem services or environmental services as natural outcomes, and not all of them in every way serve humanity but they serve the continuation of the Earth and its processes.

Steve: Serve humanity directly.

Sanderson: That's correct, in the short term, fair enough.

Steve: Is it better, this is a simplistic question, but is the Everglades better than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago?

Sanderson: Yes, it's better off. I think there's more attention paid towards, there has been money put toward it, there have been rivers that have been returned to the wild, they've been unchanneled, as it were; the plumbing is different as the Corps of Engineers would say and the water management I thinks takes into account a lot more Everglades value in it, so those are all great gains.

Steve: When nutrients, it's usually phosphates, get into the waters of the Everglades, it really just disrupts the whole system—these are runoffs from mostly the sugar plantations, right?

Sanderson: Well, sugar is a very easy and clear target because it sits right on the side of the Everglades and phosphorous from sugar has been an issue. The sugar operations have their special place though, because part of the financing for the state's contribution to the Everglades restoration has come through a levy on sugar and there has been a kind of decommissioning of a lot of sugar [land] as a result of this, so I can't [indict] them in that way. What's interesting is that the sugar problem which is a real one allows you not to pay any attention as storm water runoff from suburban development. So one of the exercises that was [really] a thought experiment where is to say, well if sugar weren't there what would be there and the alternatives were maybe a better land use in the form of no use or a conservation or a buffer area but many would say, "Well, you know sugar when you compare it with a suburban development, is actually a pretty benign use." So if you do the models, it's not just sugar, it's all of us, so people who are fertilizing their lawns or the kind of nutrient enrichment or the pollution, the heavy metal pollution that comes from roadways and so forth, we face that here in the [Sound], we face [it] in the Bronx river and in the Hudson, the East River and those are without sugar plantations.

Steve: Overall on both the local level where here in New York City, on a local level and on a global level, you appear to be optimistic to me, you're smiling.

Sanderson: I have to be optimistic. We have got 3,000 people overseas and we have got a 1,000 people in New York who lace up their boots everyday and work for conservation. And we have got donors and governments and scientific organizations that [call on us] and depend on us and it's our obligation to deliver against that challenge. We have found great new populations of Irrawaddy dolphins which a few years ago were expected to blink out in no time, we found a huge new population of western lowland gorillas.

Steve: You mean huge—that's over a 100,000, right?

Sanderson: Right, that's correct. So it changed the way we look at endangerment but also caused us to work with the government of Congo to establish new protected areas to work on what we can do to protect the gorillas' health from hemorrhagic fevers or from ecotourism for that matter, because they can catch anything that we have. So there are great success stories, we are developing a national elephant conservation plant for Tanzania in cooperation with the government privately funded, and they were so excited about it, they began to co-fund it through their agencies, as difficult as that is for a country as poor as Tanzania. So there are a lot of successes that we point to as reasons to go on. The great intractable, the great challenge that's outside our control is that the people who are in Copenhagen and their successors have got to wake up to the fact that we are altering the course of the Earth. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a few years ago in its fourth assessment in 2007, said to the Europeans—but it could have been to the Americans for that matter in a different context—Europeans if you care for your songbirds, as Europeans really do, look to Africa and how African habitats are doing: 84 percent of the migratory birds in the world are vulnerable to climate change. So if we care about geese and swans and all sorts of songbirds and so forth, flamingos, we've got to figure this out, and we as a private nonprofit organization can't do it alone; we can provide some of the technical and practical solutions, but if the global community doesn't get to together this will really mark the beginning of a changed world and it won't be for the better.

Steve: And they have to care in Europe because the species that they love to see are going out of Africa on the other end of their migration.

Sanderson: Correct. There is this wonderful little story, if you would permit me; I was in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in August in Uganda, in Southwest Uganda, and it is where you can see mountain gorillas, and we've been working with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to protect it for sometime now. And I was up at around 7,000 or 8,000 feet elevation and there is this story that on the evening of the feast of the assumption which is August 15th, the rains will come after the dry season and also the kites will, these great birds of prey, will come from Europe to their African migration and it had been the driest time on record and people [were] really concerned there wasn't any water in town and so forth—and about midnight on August 14th, 15th the rains came and we got three and a half inches overnight. I walked outside of this place I was staying, in the morning when the rain broke and I looked up in the sky and there were kites flying over in dozens, and I just thought, you know this is a phenomenon that makes the world go around. And I was lucky enough to be there and to see it and to be part of it and smell it and just feel it. The world can't afford to lose that kind of stuff.

Steve: Steven Sanderson's Foreign Affairs article, "Where the Wild Things Were," is available online. Just search for it at foreignaffairs.com or get to it directly by going to www.snipurl.com/sanderson.

We are running a bit long and I wanted to get this episode out there as soon as I could, so I am going to save our quiz feature TOTALL....... Y BOGUS to be released by itself tomorrow, that's Saturday December 19th, because if it's Saturday, it's Bogus Day. In the meantime check out www.ScientificAmerican.com for breaking science stories, blogs, slide shows, George Musser's continuing efforts to get his house solarized and articles from the magazine—including the one by George being highlighted today about extrasolar planets, and whether they might be made of diamond; if only Richard Burton were alive. You can follow us on Twitter as SciAm, S-C-I-A-M; David Biello is on Twitter as Dbiello, D-B-I-E-L-L-O; and me as Steve Mirsky, S-T-E-V-E M-I-R-S-K-Y. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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