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Health, Science, Environment

Surviving climate change requires species diversity, Raven says as world experts gather in St. Louis

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities, and cars contributes to asthma and other health problems in the St. Louis area.
Syracuse University News Services

In December, government representatives from all over the world will meet in Paris for another conference on climate change aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing rising global temperatures.

In advance of that meeting, some scientists and environmental leaders are gathering at Washington University to discuss one particular consequence of climate change: widespread species extinctions.

The Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter Raven, is one the conference organizers.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra spoke with Raven about the sold-out event, which begins Thursday evening and will conclude with a lecture Friday at 4 p.m. that is still open to the public.

Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity:

What is the conference about?

This particular conference is focused on the extinction of biological species, and the limitation of diversity in biological species, which is what makes them resilient to change in the face of global climate change. This is a big one for all of us, since we base our life entirely on biological diversity — on the plants and animals that occur on the earth with us.

Do you think a scientific conference like this can interest the general public enough to result in policy changes?

I think it can because there’s a great shock value in saying that scientists — the best scientists in the world working on the subject — have come together and projected that between 20 and 30 percent of all the species of organisms on earth will likely disappear during the remainder of this century.

And it helps to bring about the kind of intellectual and moral change that might persuade people to attend to this problem and, therefore, to persuade our political leaders to do something about it.

Do you feel at this point that it is even possible to prevent some of the more severe effects of climate change like species extinctions, flooding and droughts?

This United Nations map shows per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 2007. The U.S. is among the highest emitters.
Credit United Nations Statistics Division
This United Nations map shows per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 2007. The U.S. is among the highest emitters.

We talk about trying to stop climate change at a two-degree Celsius level, but many scientists who study the matter in detail think we’re just kidding ourselves, that we can’t stop it at that level. And everyone agrees that if the climate rises by as much as four degrees Celsius, that we’re really in very serious trouble.

At our last conference, which was on agriculture in the Midwest and climate change, people pointed out that the climate of Illinois, which is one of the major agriculture-producing states in the world, will be in, 40 years or so, about like climate of northern Georgia.

And that being the case, where are we going to grow our corn and soybeans and other things? What’s California going to do in the face of drought? What are we all going to do in the face of sea level rise which is inevitable and has been going along steadily since 1850 or so.

Even if the U.S. changes its policies to start aggressively reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, will we really be able to make enough of a difference?

Missouri Botanical Garden Director Emeritus Peter Raven is a vocal advocate for taking action to control climate change.
Credit Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden Director Emeritus Peter Raven is a vocal advocate for taking action to control climate change.

Well, without the United States taking a much stronger stance than we’ve been willing to take so far, we certainly won’t make enough of a difference. The United States is one of the very wealthiest countries on earth, and everyone here can play a role in limiting climate change.

It’s a very bad mistake to think that driving efficient cars, or heating our houses efficiently, or using commodities like water efficiently, or fostering recycling or composting make no difference at all. We consume so much — so many times more than people do in the poorer parts of the world — that what we do individually makes a huge difference.

In the United States — with all of our political arguments about almost any matter these days, which have made it so hard for us to reach any decisions on anything whole-heartedly — it’s very tough. We seem to have lost sight of science, and what science means. Science doesn’t dictate our actions. But, on the other hand, we shouldn’t try to falsify it just to justify them.

For science, environment and health news, follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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