Biodiversity Loss - Climate Disruption - Pollution - Population Change - Invasives & Diseases
When we think of our “environment”, we typically think of biodiversity - the species of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria in an area, whether it is a forest, ocean, or city park. The landscapes we live in are defined by their biodiversity, and the interactions of these species in a functioning ecosystem provides services that benefit us all, whether we realize it or not. Bees pollinate our crops, plants hold potential medical cures, healthy pastures feed our livestock, and natural chemical cycles clean our air and water.
These ecological processes are important elements of the US economy and are at the foundation of livelihoods across the country. For example, commercial fisheries of species such as salmon and herring provide a total of $32 billion annually to our economy, and employ one million people. The iconic species and landscapes of our country provide direct benefits to the communities near them; in 2010, Yellowstone National Park supported 4,800 jobs and generated $334 million in profit.
Recent studies show that human activities are causing species to go extinct at least 3 to 80 times faster than they otherwise would.1 As we develop these landscapes for housing, transportation, and food production, we fragment or completely destroy the habitats that species need to survive. Islands of habitat in a sea of concrete or monoculture prevent individuals from moving to search for new homes, to avoid competitors or find mates. As houses begin to border the last refuges of wildlife, conflicts between people and wildlife increase, which we are witnessing today with the increasing occurrences of mountain lions, bears, and coyotes visiting suburban backyards as they search for food, water and territory.
Extinction is irreversible, and once the unique genes, ecological functions, and behaviors of a species are lost, they and the benefits they provide to their ecosystem, and us, are lost forever.
There is overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are altering the Earth’s climate by adding greenhouse gases and other pollutants to the atmosphere—primarily through the use of coal, oil, and natural gas. However, it is not just scientists that are recognizing a changing climate. We feel the effects of climate change when wear shorts just a few weeks longer each year; when we can’t grow the same plants in our backyards anymore; when prices for vegetables rise at the grocery store. It’s not just an academic issue.
In the US, the impacts of global temperature change are being felt from coast to coast. Sea level rise due to climate change caused the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy to be substantially more costly. Climate change continues to help fuel the epic drought gripping the southwest, which may result in $2.7 billion in losses to the California economy. In general, climatic changes in the US will continue to cause wet regions to become wetter and dry regions to become drier—in concert with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. This increase in the likelihood of extreme weather has already begun to materialize with the historic flooding in Texas and Oklahoma that resulted in over 30 deaths and more than $3 billion in economic losses while flooding in Utah killed another 16 people. All the while, wildfires scorched larger swaths of the desiccated west and heat wave-stricken Alaska than almost any other year.
Climate change is not only real, but its impacts are already being felt from merely 0.85ºC of global warming. Imagine the impacts that will manifest at 2ºC or at 4ºC. These challenges, however, provide us with an opportunity to understand the interconnectedness of our economies, cities, and communities. We have the capacity to meet these challenges. The first step is to recognize the diverse impacts that global change exerts on our communities.
Only decades ago, rivers caught fire in the US. Air, water, and toxic waste pollution come from many sources: fossil fuel-fired power plants; industrial sites like mines, petroleum refineries, and chemical plants; nitrogen and phosphorous farm runoff; antibiotic resistance from animal agriculture; and toxic waste dumps or storage facilities, among others. Although efforts to reduce pollution in the United States have dramatically improved air and water quality in the last several decades, pollution remains a significant problem for people and the environment in many regions, particularly near urban areas and areas of resource extraction such as mines and wells.
Pollution can have severe direct and indirect impacts on human health: from acute symptoms such as coughing, headaches and dizziness to drastically higher asthma rates; from impairing neurological and physiological development to liver and kidney damage, birth defects, and cancer. In fact, in the US alone, fine particle pollution causes over 7,500 deaths each year.
These impacts extend into damages to entire livelihoods and communities, as we’ve seen in the recent 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, which resulted in 210 million gallons of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico. The local fishing and tourism economies were devastated, and fisheries today are still a fraction of their former productivity. These seemingly invisible economic and health costs of pollution ripple through communities, hindering opportunity and growth.
Recognizing how different types of pollution affects the US provides the framework for identifying solutions as communities because people living in proximity share the same sources of water, air, and food.
With the global human population expected to exceed 8 billion people by 2030 (UN), our species is already irreversibly changing the future of our planet. The US itself is expected to grow by 16.5% to over 360 million people, making it the third largest country in the world, behind India and China. This population increase isn’t distributed evenly - 81% of people will live in cities, urban, and suburban areas, which will continue to shape how resources are produced, transported, and consumed. The percent of foreign-born and second-generation immigrants in the US is also expected to rise in the future, contributing to an increasingly diverse population. Across the globe, immigration will likely account for significant population changes in the near future, as climate change fuels drought, crop failures, and political instability, creating climate refugees particularly among countries who do not have the infrastructure to mitigate or adapt to global change.
Numbers aren’t the only thing that matter: people of different socioeconomic backgrounds use resources differently, both within and between countries. If the rest of the world used energy as intensely as the United States does, the world population would need more than 4 entire Earths to provide us with the resources to feed this rate consumption.1 This unfortunately means that even regions of the US that contribute less towards the problems of global change will still feel their impacts. To ensure a high quality of life for all citizens, we must address not only population growth, but also excess consumption of and reliance on resources across different regions.
Geographic, population, and economic differences among regions can provide opportunities for success in the face of global change. Renewable energy sources have created entrepreneurial economic ventures, and communities have found environmental solutions through forming sustainable local food systems. Environmental justice movements are working now to ensure that all citizens have access to nature, recreational areas, and a healthy future for all.
Invasives & Diseases
The surface of our planet is crisscrossed by highways and shipping routes. Cars, planes, trains, and boats provide unprecedented economic and social connectivity, while also breaking down the geographic boundaries that have separated continents and their native ecosystems for millions of years. These manmade corridors facilitate the movement of not only humans: organisms ranging from disease-causing bacteria and mosquitoes, to agricultural and urban pests such as rats and pigeons, have been moved intentionally and unintentionally as part of everyday business and travel. With a changing climate, species are able to survive outside their native ecosystems in ways never before possible.
Nearly every land-based ecosystem in the world now contains at least a few species that were introduced by human activities, and invasive species now number in the hundreds in most major marine ports and in the thousands on most continents. These invasive organisms don’t play by the same ecological rules as the native species, and many are able to outcompete or prey upon the species that make up iconic landscapes and ecosystems such as our national and state parks.
These invasive organisms are expensive, costing the US economy $120 billion every year and driving up the cost of business for food producers - for example, ranchers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming lose $144 million a year due to an invasive plant pathogen. Fisheries are also impacted: the $7 billion fisheries of the Great Lakes are threatened by the Asian carp.
Meanwhile, new diseases are spreading rapidly around the US, endangering people, pets, livestock, and wildlife that may not be able to adapt or receive treatment. Many areas are becoming warmer than in the past several decades to hundreds and thousands of years, allowing vector species such as ticks and mosquitoes to spread northward, increasing the likelihood of passing diseases to humans in places never at risk before. US citizens have already experienced outbreaks of the tropical disease Chikungunya, which is native to Africa and can only be transmitted by an African mosquito species, now which survives and reproduces in many southern states.
With our livelihoods, public health, and iconic landscapes being threatened, the need for action is clear.