Editor's Note: Climate Week took place from September 23 to September 29. Check Conservation News for coverage of this global forum.
To the uninitiated, there can seem something a bit perfunctory about environmental conferences.
The proceedings take place in stuffy conference rooms, where technocrats huddle to hear something they probably already know, presented by people they already know, describing problems they already know about.
But something seemed different in New York this week, as participants at Climate Week — a series of side events designed to coincide with Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit — noted a change in the air that might best be described as clarity.
“There was clarity because people were no longer worried about convincing deniers or laggards but instead focused on the opportunities we had,” said Mike Mascia, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science. “Preaching to the choir was OK, because the choir is virtually everyone on planet Earth.
“It’s an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ moment for humanity — and we are not waiting for others or looking to others anymore.”
“I liked that I saw more discussion on action than on policy,” said Marco Quesada, director of Conservation International’s Costa Rica program. "I was also able to feel and hear the voices of the younger generations — and to connect them to youth in Costa Rica and to my own family.”
Three themes stood out at Climate Week.
First: Humans need not only to protect nature to protect the climate — we must restore nature where it has been lost, and on a massive scale.
Second: Conservation costs money, and that money — and more of it — should go to where it can be best deployed.
Third: Beyond the science, beyond the policies and politics, a shift in a shared sense of value emerged.
First: Restoring nature
What is “restoration”?
“Restoration is about building a new narrative between people and their environment,” said Nikola Alexandre, a restoration fellow at Conservation International, during one of the discussions this week.
Put more simply, it means getting out of nature’s way and letting it repair itself.
In tropical forests, restoration “often generates a new secondary forest that gradually regains many properties of the original ecosystem [that has been lost],” said Manuel Guariguata, principal scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “The forest regains pollinators, sediment control, carbon capture — very rapidly, in about 10 to 20 years, many of these central attributes return.”
“We must act urgently. If we want to reduce the risks, we have to start restoring forests,” said Carlos Nobre, Brazil’s leading expert on climate change and the Amazon.
Doing so can help many countries actually go carbon-negative, said Conservation International scientist Bronson Griscom, who pointed to Costa Rica, the Solomon Islands and Liberia as having the greatest potential.
Moreover, the benefits of restoring forests extend beyond simply tackling climate change. “We solve the climate crisis by solving the biodiversity crisis — through forest restoration,” Griscom said.
Nearly 3 billion hectares (about 11 million square miles) of land is ripe for some kind of forest restoration, according to Alexandre. Of that, he said, 170 million hectares have been pledged by governments to be restored by 2020.
Of that 170 million hectares, a comparatively paltry 30 million hectares of forest has been restored in since 2000.
“We’re woefully behind,” Alexandre said.
Second: Paying for nature
Restoring nature on a timeline that is relevant to solving the climate crisis will require putting funding where it will do the most good.
The overwhelming consensus at Climate Week: Put more of that funding in the hands of indigenous peoples.
“At least one-third of this Earth is under the guardianship of indigenous peoples,” said Peter Seligmann, board chairman of Conservation International and CEO of the nonprofit group Nia Tero. “They have a deep wisdom and understanding of how to connect to this Earth. They have a knowledge of the operating systems for Earth. And we need to listen.”
The government of France took a large step in that direction, committing US$ 100 million Monday toward the creation of a fund to protect the Amazon. Conservation International committed an additional US$ 20 million, with one (rather famous) member of the organization’s board calling out exactly where that money should go.
“This money must go directly to indigenous peoples and civil society,” said Harrison Ford, speaking to a gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. “The people on the front lines, the people on the ground, the people with their feet in the mud.”
Speaking at the close of Climate Week events, one indigenous leader willfully seized that mantle.
“Where there are indigenous people, there are forests still standing,” said Sônia Guajajara, an Amazonian activist and leader of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. “Even without policies to protect the forest, we protect it with our ways of life.”
Days after her country’s president asserted Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon in a combative speech to the United Nations, Guajajara told a room full of the leaders of donor and nonprofit organizations in New York to route funding directly to groups like hers.
“We would like to propose to government leaders and donors a new alliance to support communities directly to keep the forest standing,” she said. “We put ourselves on the front line defending the rights of people and of Mother Earth, and we would like to count on every single one of you.”
Third: Valuing nature
We pay for what we value. Yet forests, speakers repeatedly proclaimed, have a value vastly beyond what we’re paying to protect them.
Most of the efforts aimed at paying to protect forests are aimed squarely at securing the climate-warming carbon they store. But that is too narrow a focus, countless speakers maintained.
“Valuing a forest for its carbon is like valuing a computer chip for its silicon,” said renowned conservationist scientist Thomas Lovejoy.
“We are massively undervaluing the other things that forests deliver for us — ecosystem services, indigenous culture,” echoed Joseph Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
These less-tangible values, it was pointed out repeatedly throughout the week’s proceedings, do not fit readily into the global economy. And while Climate Week attendees from the private sector touted their companies’ leadership in sustainability, a growing recognition of the limits of the current system permeated the discussions.
“I desperately want to believe that the private sector can lead” on sustainability, said Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance. “But so many are lagging or dragging, that we’re not changing.”
A fellow panelist was quick to reply. “Companies are recognizing that if we don’t take ownership of [the impacts of] our supply chains, we won’t have supply chains,” said Frank Mars, a board member of Mars Inc.
Much of the traditional resistance to climate action, one panelist said, has been “We can’t do it because it’ll hurt the economy,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary of Natural Resources. “This is a fallacy — nature-based climate solutions are beneficial to the economy.”
In all of the discussions over what truly matters, the shadow of Greta Thunberg and the Youth Climate Strike loomed large. Unfortunately, that did not matter much at the United Nations. “Much talk, and a little action, at the UN climate summit,” pronounced The Economist.
Other observers looked for the bright side.
“While the climate summit outcomes themselves didn’t even remotely address or respond to the youth demand for climate action, our community demonstrated a great deal of solidarity” about protecting nature for the good of the climate, said Shyla Raghav, vice president for climate change at Conservation International.
“It’s clear there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” she said. “Our task ahead lies in ensuring that the momentum in New York can galvanize governments, companies and investors to act."
One prominent speaker at Climate Week spoke of the momentum of a new generation already in the seats of power.
“I just met with (Ivan) Duque, the young president of Colombia. He gets it,” said Conservation International’s Seligmann. Earlier this month, Duque convened a summit of South American leaders who signed an agreement to collaborate to save the Amazon forest.
“We need to get the old presidents out and get young presidents in,” Seligmann continued. “Those are the people we search for. We do not search for compromise — we don’t have the time.”
“We need to push as hard as we can.”
Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International.
Cover image: Mt. Kilimanjaro from Kenya with elephants grazing in the grass. (© Ian Lenehan)
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