Over one million species of animals and plants are facing extinction thanks to climate change and humans’ aggressive and unrelenting pursuit of economic growth.
That is the conclusion of a United Nations report released this week that has been met by many experts with grim acceptance and a complete absence of surprise.
But while Canadians — residents of a vast, relatively unpopulated country blessed with an abundance of natural resources — might find it easy to shrug off the UN’s dire warning, Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, has some advice: don’t.
“If Canada has an inflated sense of how well it’s doing, it’s not paying attention to the evidence,” Jacob said.
“Canada is not doing well on the biodiversity front, and the climate-change effects on Canada are going to be huge.”
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The rate at which the world is losing species is speeding up, according to the UN report, reaching rates that are tens or hundreds of times faster than they used to be. More than half a million land species are also facing extinction within decades unless their habitats are restored, the report goes on.
“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future,” George Mason University biologist Thomas Lovejoy — dubbed the “godfather of biodiversity” — told the Associated Press. “This is really our last chance to address all of that.”
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The grim report joins a host of others released in recent years, including one from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada. That 2017 report didn’t mince words when it came to illustrating just how at risk Canada’s wildlife is.
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It found that despite the introduction of the 2002 Species at Risk Act in Canada, the population of at-risk wildlife dropped by nearly 30 per cent. For those species not designated under the act, declines were also palpable.
Here are some of the population declines WWF Canada tracked between 1970 and 2014:
- Mammals — dropped by 43 per cent
- Amphibians and reptiles — dropped by 34 per cent
- Fish — dropped by 20 per cent
- Grassland birds — dropped by 69 per cent
- Aerial insectivores (birds) — dropped by 51 per cent
- Shorebirds — dropped by 43 per cent
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Despite how “staggering” the problem is, Jacob remains optimistic.
“It has never been clearer before that we need to act and what we need to do,” she said.
“It’s not a question of wringing our hands and saying: ‘Oh, well, if we only knew what to do.’ We do know what to do, and the science clearly shows… that the world is in trouble, and we know it’s because of people so we have the power to change it.”
Here’s what you can do to help preserve Canada’s remaining biodiversity.
Learn the facts
Canada’s sense of how well it is tackling climate change and species extinction is “inflated,” says Justina Ray, president and senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.
While that seems to be changing internally, Ray says, it’s held back somewhat by how the country is seen abroad.
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“People outside think of Canada as nice and environmentally friendly, and I think that does influence us,” she said.
This is coupled, Ray says, with the knowledge that Canada is a big country.
“We tend to be complacent,” she said. People sort of shrug and say, “well, ‘there’s plenty left.’”
After all, worrisome headlines like “Cape Town could be first major city to run out of water — in 90 days” feel so far afield: Canada is “freshwater rich,” home to nearly nine per cent of the global renewable water supply.
Crises like the critically low levels of cod off the eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador serve as wake-up calls. But, Jacob says, they often come too late.
Look in your own backyard
It takes a long time to produce soil but only a “short amount of time to screw it up,” says Alana Pindar, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Guelph whose research includes looking at climate change’s impact on bees (which we need to pollinate our food).
Take a look at your backyard, Pindar says. It is its own mini ecosystem and, in today’s climate, “can no longer be considered anything other than an ecosystem.”
To that end, she suggests moving past the idea of that “beautiful manicured lawn” and thinking more in terms of what your backyard is doing to help the soil, to help nutrient cycling and to help purify water. Consider, she says, native flowers to help pollinators, including bees.
It might help to frame conversations about biodiversity more in health terms, Pindar adds. That’s already how we communicate, she says: if you don’t put your seatbelt on, a car warning will ding and you risk incurring a fine for your behaviour.
“How come we’re not being fined if we’re not protecting biodiversity in our backyards? People might think that is a bit aggressive, but I’m not sure I’m willing to take the risk otherwise, particularly for my own children,” she said.
Get worried faster
When it comes to at-risk species, we tend to think of the depleted number of cod off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, declining caribou populations or freshwater turtles — they’re cute and you can help the Canadian Wildlife Federation by “adopting” one.
We only seem to see these population declines when we rely on animals for our economy (cod), when they’re big (caribou) or when they’re cute (turtles), Jacob says, which is a problem.
“If we only focus on things at the top of the food chain or that are cute and cuddly, we’re missing the signals when it’s easier to act. We’re waiting until it’s really difficult and really expensive to save species,” she said.
Frogs, bats and salamanders — even the slimy American eel that used to swim in abundance throughout the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario — might not “tug at the heartstrings,” she says, but they matter — and they indicate more problems to come.
What you eat and how you get to work impact biodiversity, Jacob says, but what’s really needed is transformative change — the kind that comes from governments and private-sector businesses “recognizing the impact they have and the need for change.”
A government roadblock? Pre-existing regulations. While Canada is a “high-governance” country, Ray says, that doesn’t mean it has an abundance of regulations properly protecting and rehabilitating biodiversity.
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In fact, she says, the abundance of regulations actually means “a lot of people are sort of lulled into the notion that things are pretty much taken care of from a regulatory perspective.”
Canadians are waking up, Ray says, pointing to the increasing number of proposed or planned contentious projects like the ongoing battle over the Trans Mountain pipeline. The problem, she says, is that we’re still pretty piecemeal in our approach and pushback.
“We’re very used to making decisions on development projects or things that are going to disturb the land one project at a time; we’re not particularly strategic,” Ray said.
Prioritize your efforts
Imagine an untouched piece of land, Ray says. A bunch of different people who aren’t really talking to each other approach it. One of them builds a road, which opens the land up to other people to build whatever they want.
“There’s no vision guiding it, no footprint plan, then it adds up, and before you know it, you have a situation where you’ve caused significant impacts to the whole landscape because you haven’t really been proactive in your decision about how much is too much,” she said.
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So, how much is too much?
Canadians “often think of things as limitless” and don’t think in terms of how much is too much until, for example, the caribou population dwindles noticeably, Ray says.
“We don’t plan at the appropriate scales, we don’t invest significantly, we don’t monitor carefully enough that we can perceive change when it happens, and we often act when it’s too late, when it gets to a crisis situation,” she explained.
It’s a huge part of why Ray doesn’t want to focus too heavily on one person changing or another.
“Individual lifestyle choices are important, but the big-scale stuff is really key here,” she said. “Our pattern has been to save the best of what’s left, to save the pieces of land that are not in conflict with our aspirations for development.”
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That’s evident across Canada, she says, highlighting poor water quality in some areas and disappearing wetlands and degrading forests in others.
This happens when “you haven’t really been proactive in your decision about how much is too much,” Ray said.
Habitat loss and over-exploitation are the most threatening concerns. That’s made quite clear in the UN’s report, says Jacob, and it serves as an indication of where Canada’s priorities need to shift.
After all, she says:
“When you have a broken leg, you don’t put a Band-Aid on your forehead.”