Environmental heavyweight Lovejoy warns of effects of warming
By Krisy Gashler
ITHACA — The “most important environmentalist of the last century” spoke about the potentially devastating effects of climate change at an Earth Day lecture at the Museum of the Earth on Friday evening.
A doubling of pre-industrial era carbon dioxide emissions — a likely phenomenon if drastic steps are not taken soon — could result in the extinction of 20-30 percent of the earth's species, said Thomas Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.
Lovejoy is creator of the public television series “Nature,” is credited with coining the term “biological diversity” and was the first person to suggest that climate change could result in mass extinction.
Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institute and the Museum of the Earth, said Lovejoy should be credited with introducing the world to the negative impact of tropical deforestation, a “very novel, wacko idea” when he first discussed it.
Allmon said he and several other prominent scientists consider Lovejoy the “most important environmentalist of the last century,” largely because of his ability to translate scientific knowledge into public policy action — “to put boots on the ground.”
In the 1980s, Lovejoy introduced the idea of swapping “debt for nature,” through which conservation organizations purchased Third World debt and released it in exchange for equivalently valued conservation investments by those countries.
The system is now widely used between governments and has resulted in worldwide conservation investments in excess of $1 billion, Allmon said.
The world has warmed three-quarters of a degree as a result of human carbon emissions and the planet is already beginning to register the change, Lovejoy said.
As a result of increased temperatures, oceans are already 30 percent more acidic, which kills coral reefs and impacts the base of the aquatic food chain, he said.
Ecosystem changes in the northwest where in some locations up to 70 percent of trees are dead because of pine bark beetles are a result of longer summers giving the beetles one additional generation's head start, Lovejoy said.
“If we're seeing that now with three-quarters of a degree of climate change and we have another three-quarters of a degree already coming from what we've already stuffed in the atmosphere, the time to do something about it was yesterday,” he said.
While the earth does have a long history of drastic climate changes, human life has depended on a very stable set of climatic conditions, he said.
The answer is to “Rapidly redo the energy base for civilization, for which there is no single answer,” he said.
This includes well-known ideas like practicing energy conservation and switching to renewable energy, as well as revising conservation strategies, especially to enhance connectivity for species that will have to move as the earth warms.
Around Earth Day, Lovejoy said his schedule becomes even more hectic than usual. The former advisor to the World Wildlife Fund, World Bank, United Nations Foundation, and presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton said his next stop after Ithaca is a presentation at his granddaughters' elementary school.