Contributed by Lily Swanbrow Becker, ASAP Network Manager
Last September, brought face-to-face with the ephemeral beauty of a ghost orchid while waist-deep in the cold, inky waters of a swamp inside Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, I experienced deep connection to nature. But even as a natural resource-focused adaptation professional and proud Floridian, the state known for its prehistoric reptiles and wild places, those moments are few and far between. This week in the UN biodiversity report, we read that humans have significantly altered three quarters of the landscape and 66 percent of the seascape, threatening 1,000,000 species with extinction in the coming decades. The report is sobering in its scale, scope and certainty, but sadly its conclusions are not unexpected. The collective understanding that humans have altered Earth’s natural systems in profound ways began to sink in well before the concept of the Anthropocene was introduced almost 20 years ago. We knew it then and we see it now, every time we step outside.
For adaptation professionals, the deepest significance of the report may not be its comprehensiveness on the state of biodiversity on Earth, but rather that it nails down “how closely human well-being is intertwined with the fate of other species.” This is a fact that scientists have struggled to meaningfully communicate to the broader adaptation field over the past decade. The UN biodiversity report represents a strong step in this direction, following a trend of increased efforts to translate and quantify the value of ecosystem services in more human-centric terms.
These ecosystem services comprise some of the best adaptation strategies we can bring to bear on climate change. Coral reefs provide the United States with $1.8 billion in annual flood protection benefits. Mangroves sequester carbon, thrive in brackish waters and provide suburb shoreline stabilization as sea levels rise. As adaptation professionals always striving for innovation, we have to be humbled by the solutions nature offers up. Reflecting on 18 ways nature helps humans (including food, medicine, energy generation, inspiration etc) as plainly laid out in the report may have been the tipping point we needed to finally and truly get it: humans and nature are inextricably connected.
Of course at ASAP, we already get it. As with nature, the strength of our network is deeply rooted in connection. Still, as we struggle together towards adapting to a future threatened by climate change, it is easy to feel we must prioritize threats based on urgency. While making difficult choices about where to direct our limited capacity is necessary at times, we must not forget our charge to be systems thinkers and strive to increase connections, as elaborated on in the Living Guide. In this case, it is not a matter of choosing whether to prioritize human health over ecological health but of reaching the understanding that the choice has never really existed in the first place – we are one system.
News of the biodiversity report greeted me on Monday morning, just as I was beginning my first full week as Network Manager at ASAP. The grim and frightening warnings aside, I’ve found a thread of hope this week in some of what the report offers and in my choice to embark on this new role. For example, I am grateful for the emphasis the report places on the need to learn from “the knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities,” acknowledging that global trends of ecosystem decline are generally less severe or absent on lands managed by Indigenous Peoples. The report concludes that “transformative change” is needed to slow or reverse the trajectory biodiversity is on. Seeking to learn from Indigenous Peoples, as Jem Bendell describes with the concept of “radical hope,” may be one way to strive for this transformative change.
The report also ranks the driving forces of human influence on nature in descending order as land use change, direct exploitation of species, climate change, pollution and invasive species. This type of comparison is a highly relevant policy tool and a conversation I engaged in often during my time working on adaptation for fish and wildlife for Florida state government. Asking for example, is increased sea level rise or the projection of 15 million new residents by 2070 a more urgent threat to state conservation lands? But I would argue that this type of question cannot really be answered.
We must explore ways of finding connection wherever possible, acknowledging, for example, that land use change and climate change will interact in compounding ways on a future landscape. Working in a realm where climate change interacts with and magnifies other threats in a complex web touching all facets of society is one of the greatest challenges adaptation professionals must rise to. But it is a challenge I see us stepping up to meet with increased vigor and a challenge ASAP is perfectly positioned to support. While my personal motivation for a career in climate adaptation is deep reverence for nature, I am thrilled to have the honor of supporting a network built from the strength of its connections across the broad span of the adaptation field. I look forward to continuing to weave these connections with all of you.
Based in Tallahassee, Florida, Lily Swanbrow Becker joins the ASAP team as our new Network Manager. Lily will facilitate member connectivity and value creation across the ASAP network through support of peer-learning opportunities including the ASAP Member-Led Interest Groups, Regional Hubs and more. Lily brings many years of experience in climate adaptation, natural resources conservation, facilitation and professional development. You can contact Lily at [email protected].