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Climate Week: ‘We need to get it right, now’

© CIFOR/Tomas Munita/Flickr Creative Commons

Editor's Note: Climate Week took place from September 23 to September 29. Check Conservation News for coverage of this global forum.

If the first few days of Climate Week were about laying out the scope of the problems facing nature and climate, Wednesday was about finding solutions.

And finding them quickly.

“If we accept the science that there’s 10 years to get it right on climate change, that doesn’t give us much time for trial-and-error learning,” said Michael Mascia, director of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science, at an afternoon discussion. “No time, in fact. So, we need a more structured approach.”

What form that approach takes — on overhauling how humanity should think about, and act on, protecting nature for the benefit of the climate — reverberated through the day’s events.

Should we talk about the government?

Who’s going to take the lead on securing the climate? As far as the 2015 Paris Agreement is concerned, the answer is country governments.

Under the pact, every country must announce (voluntary) targets for how it is going to reduce its emissions of climate-warming carbon.

To do that, look no further than nature: As everyone in New York heard incessantly over the past week, protecting and restoring nature alone can account for at least 30 percent of all global climate action needed to keep average temperature rise within a “safe” zone for humanity.

With that in mind, early discussions on Wednesday focused on the role of governments, including how to guide policymakers to include nature in those emissions targets. Another looked at what happens when governments downgrade or downsize protected areas such as national parks. The impact is what you would expect: In many cases, deforestation — and carbon emissions — accelerated in these places.

That can have major ramifications in protected areas that are home to the world’s high-carbon ecosystems — that is, habitats such as rainforests or mangroves that store inordinately large amounts of carbon. One discussion Wednesday focused on upcoming research showing that in some of these places, if the ecosystem is damaged or destroyed, that carbon is gone — and it’s not coming back.

How much carbon are we talking about? According to Conservation International scientist Allie Goldstein, the amount of carbon in a single hectare (about two and a half acres) of the rainforests in the Pacific Northwest is the same as the carbon footprint of a single passenger flying from New York to Hong Kong — every single day for nine months.

(How’s that for “flight shaming”?)

And now, civil society

While it’s governments that signed the Paris Agreement, it’s non-governmental organizations and academia that are fighting the ground war against climate change — the science, the fieldwork, the policy work, partnerships and so on.

So: How do they know whether they are winning the battle?

One discussion session appraised the state of impact evaluations — that is, the method for finding out whether environmental interventions are working. The good news: “In the past 30 years, there has been a revolution in how we measure the impact of social programs and policies on people’s lives,” said panelist Claire Walsh of The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.

The not-so-good news? That has not always been the case for environmental programs and policies.

Moreover, the climate clock is ticking, meaning that it is imperative to assess what conservation models work, what don’t, and how to share successes (and failures) with other practitioners. “We need to get it right,” said Conservation International’s Mascia, who led the session. “We need to get it right, now.”

Evaluations that can increase confidence in those models is critical, Mascia said, to “build a community of practice that knows what it’s doing.”

Time to get to work

If it was mostly a bad week for the environment, speakers at the close of Climate Week seized on silver linings.

“It’s not just learning that we’re in trouble, but that solutions are coming out, finally,” said Joseph Walston, vice president of field programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the day’s final discussion.

Another panelist echoed a theme that carried throughout the week.

“The traditional mantra of economic growth is problematic,” said panelist Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources. “We need to explore a better definition of prosperity.”

Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance, a nonprofit, closed the session.

“We know capitalism has to change. As long as we are locked into this economic system, we have to find a way of paying for intact forests. If we don’t that we’ll never get to the solution.”

Adams cited the week’s focus on youth as one indication, though, that things are changing.

Pointing to the speech by Greta Thunberg, the “moral clarity of youth” that propelled millions into the streets in last week’s climate strike: “This never would have happened a few years ago,” he said.


Climate Week ended in an evening rally that had more energy — and quotable moments — than one might expect from a climate talkfest. Here are some of them:

“A ton of carbon from a forest in Gabon is worth less than a ton of carbon from a cement plant in Poland. Yet my ton of carbon protects wildlife. My ton of carbon protects the livelihoods of the people who live in the rainforest. The rainforests are our home, our temple, our larder, our hospital. My carbon is worth so much more — but today, the world doesn’t seem to agree with me.”

Lee White, Minister of Forestry, Gabon

“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. The struggle for Mother Earth is the mother of all struggles. I am going to continue to struggle — but I need your support.”

Sonia Guajajara, Brazilian indigenous leader, calling for an alliance between her organization and Western governments and donors to protect the Amazon

“We need to tell politicians, ‘Don’t you dare continue appointing ministers of the environment who don’t know anything about the environment, or agriculture ministers who think their work is based on chemistry, not biology.’ … Nature won’t hesitate to get rid of humans. The only way we can continue on this planet is to position nature-based climate solutions at the center of our aspirations.”

— Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Minister of the Environment, Costa Rica

“The health of this Earth is not going to be solved by changing our energy sources alone. We can go low-carbon and continue to deplete all the resources. … There is a concept understood by all indigenous peoples. That is reciprocity. We are beings, trees are being, rivers are beings. Our obligation is to take care of each other. That is a powerful idea that we have lost.”

Peter Seligmann, board chairman, Conservation International

Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International.

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Cover image: A caco plantation in the forests of the Napo Province, Ecuador. (© CIFOR/Tomas Munita/Flickr Creative Commons)

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