By Laura Watson
Across the world, many stories are being told about climate change. Below are some you may or may not have heard. The complex interactions in these stories between people and the planet mean that they offer us learning opportunities: about the importance of a balance with nature, about the centrality of climate mitigation to human rights, and about the need for action now.
Stories of too little water
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world, but 60 years ago Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to industrialise agriculture across central Asia with dramatic consequences for the lake. To achieve Khruschev’s lofty agricultural goals, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which are part of the Aral Sea drainage basin, were diverted into irrigation for cotton fields, and the lake slowly started to dry up. Over 25 years ago, an international fund for saving the Aral Sea was set up, but due to a lack of cooperation between the 5 Asian countries involved on key issues surrounding water, the fund has however had little success; the Aral Sea has now all but disappeared.
The disappearance of the inland sea is an issue in and of itself, but its implications go further. Silt from what used to be the lake-bed can now be subjected to wind erosion, with resulting dust storms in 2018 blotting out the sky, turning rain brackish and causing issues for crops. The industrial production of cotton, often using forced labour, in the surrounding region has led to the salinisation of the soil and serious accretion of persistent, toxic pesticide residues, leading to significant health problems. The loss of the moderating influence of this large body of water has made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
It’s not just the people in the surrounding area who have been impacted by this disaster. As the lake became smaller and the salinity of the water increased, fewer and fewer fish species were able to survive. The lake ecosystem has now collapsed, contributing to the decimation of the once thriving fishing industry in the towns surrounding the lake, and the loss of a number of land animals whose life-cycles depended on the health of the lake.
Water issues are amplified by climate change, and the ecological crisis. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, for example, are fed by glaciers in the distant Pamir mountains which are now rapidly shrinking. But what is even more important is to realise that it didn’t have to go this way. The lesson to learn from the Aral Sea is one which should be applied to the rest of the planet, especially as the climate changes and water becomes more of an issue. This story shows the need to find a balance between extracting water from nature and leaving it where it is, to support the complex ecosystem dynamics which depend on it.
The Aral Sea is a worst-case outcome, but one which could soon become true for the rest of the world, including for large rivers like the Colorado River, USA, in the face of both climate change and human exploitation. Water management issues are playing out across the world, and we could soon have conflict breaking out over access to water. For example, an Ethiopian hydro-electric dam project which will affect water levels downstream for countries such as Sudan who already experience water issues will soon begin construction. Some experts claim this could cause a war over water in as little as a few years. We must learn from the mistakes of the Aral Sea before it is too late.
Stories of snow
The upper reaches of Finnish Lapland are a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, deep clean lakes and scree-covered fells. They are also the homeland of the Sami (Saami, or Sámi) people, as well as lynxes, brown bears, wolves and golden eagles. This important region acts as a buffer against climate change: the peat-rich soils of the area trap significant amounts of carbon, acting as a massive carbon sink. Unfortunately, the area is under direct threat from climate change, as well as the proposed construction of a railroad across the region.
The Sami culture is highly adapted to their home in Finnish Lapland. They use hides for clothing, bones and reindeer antlers for tools and handicrafts. Around 1,000 words in the Sami language exist to describe the appearance and behaviour of reindeer, and 360 relating to snow.
But conditions for snow and the reindeer are now no longer predictable; the snow now arrives later, there is less of it, and its structure is different. These changes to snow conditions are threatening the Sami way of life, and in particular their herding practices. Some have now turned to modern technologies to ensure that their reindeer survive in longer snow-free periods. It is likely that as the Sami people lose what was unique to their way of life, the Sami culture and language may begin to disappear too.
Sadly, issues relating to snow are not limited to Finland. Across the world, retreating snowlines have “beached” places like ski resorts. Taking the example of the French mountains, climate change is a threat to the winter ski industry there, as they are receiving declining amounts of natural snow, and the snow they do get falls over shorter periods. The elevation where snow can reliably be expected to fall is predicted to rise, by up to 600m in the Pyrenees, and up to 300m across the Alps.
We can move and repurpose hotels, but the ecosystems that these places had as their foundation are changing and even disappearing. While the depopulation of mountain regions may be a feasible response strategy for humans, it is not necessarily one available to the animals and plants left behind. Further concerns for the non-human population arise in relation to potential conflict between humans and animals. Skiing activities will respond to the retreating snow line by moving further up mountain slopes. At the same time, suitable ranges for high elevation bird species may significantly contract (by up to 67% in the Alps). As bird habitats and skiing areas increasingly overlap, conflict between species may ensue, a pattern that may be seen for many animals and ecosystems as climate change progresses.
What can we learn from these stories?
By Kristiina Joon
With numerous stories of yet another extinction of some beloved species making headlines in recent years, one has to wonder about the extent of this ecological crisis we are causing. Could it be considered the sixth mass extinction?
The geological record shows us that there have been five far-reaching global extinction events over the past 500 million years. These events are defined as relatively short intervals of time, up to a few million years, over which at least three quarters of all terrestrial and marine organisms disappear due to environmental stressors, such as global warming or cooling, meteorite impacts, or ocean acidification and deoxygenation. Based on the rock record alone, though, it is difficult to disentangle what exactly the triggers and mechanisms were that resulted in such large-scale losses of biodiversity, as the geological record is imperfect and not all organisms end up being preserved.
A sixth extinction?
The numbers of lost animals in the human era are alarming. From the conservative estimate of 5 to 9 million animal species which inhabit the planet, we are likely losing between 11 and 58 thousand per year — a figure difficult to imagine.
Is it our fault?
Humans are putting increasing pressure on various groups of organisms via direct exploitation, hunting, the introduction of invasive species, and habitat destruction. However, in the majority of cases, it can be argued that we are not causing extinction per se. Instead, we are driving a decrease in the number of animals within certain species, especially of those located at the tops of food chains. This causes the links in the ecosystem to weaken, eventually leading to a collapse, accompanied by the extinction of the more vulnerable species involved. The old network of intricate food webs is replaced by a new, typically much more simplistic, system as was the case with oyster catching, where the multitude of estuarine species are now effectively gone due to the over-harvesting of only one, fundamental, organism in that ecosystem. Humans start the chain of changes but do not directly cause all the extinctions.
Considering all this information, are we then in a mass extinction? Many scientists would argue ‘yes’ but the answer to this question is slightly more complex. When people think about extinction, they tend to think about the number of species that have been lost. To understand the severity of the current ecological crisis, however, we must also consider the rate at which the species are lost. If species continue to be lost at a similar rate as they have been over the past few centuries, we would be approaching extinction magnitudes similar to the previous five mass extinctions — at least 75% of all organisms lost — in just a few centuries.
Regardless of the terminology we use, it is inarguable that humans are putting severe pressures on the biosphere, and that we are approaching a point after which recovery to the previous state becomes unlikely.
Barnosky et al 2011
Ceballos et al 2017
Dirzo et al 2014
By Celine Barclay
For Christians, Jesus is the archetypal martyr, nailed to a wooden cross. We might draw a visual parallel between Jesus’s crucifixion and the murder of environmental activists, whose tree hugging pose, with arms outstretched, prefigures their martyrdom for having resisted illegal logging. While we might be cautious when drawing parallels between Jesus’ death and that of environmental activists for reasons that will be examined below, nevertheless, some interesting points arise from the comparison.
We might call these activists martyrs insofar as their deaths have often conferred greater attention to the cause they defended than their activism during their lifetime. As Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist executed after criticizing the activities of the multinational oil companies in Nigeria said, “I am more dangerous dead”. Yet whilst some environmental martyrs have received media attention, particularly through documentary series, they have hardly become household names. Their invisibility in the public eye seems discordant with the startling number of murders each year. According to Global Witness, between 2008 and 2018 some 1,427 environmental activists were killed. Over this period, the rate of killings has increased with over three every week in 2018 alone. Statistically, the rate of killings is twice that of war correspondents.
So why the continued invisibility? The reason becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the profiles of most of these environmental martyrs. The majority of the assassinations take place in the tropics and sub-tropics, where those resisting illegal logging, or the violation of land rights, are often members of indigenous communities, who fade into the background of international press priorities. As an Ashaninka survivor said of four fellow indigenous people murdered by an illegal logging gang, “these people were dead to the eye before they were killed”. In other words, the global North would rather turn a blind eye to these environmental martyrdoms for the sake of convenience; we place more value on the resources we extract to satisfy our consumption practices, than on the human lives those practices destroy in the process. There seems to be a disjunction, then, between the temporally and spatially widespread fame of the martyrdom of the lone figure of Jesus, and the silent anonymity which muffles the deaths of so many indigenous environmental activists.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus and his suffering become a singular point of reflection. This focus on, and even glorification of suffering in the context of a movement such as climate activism might be regarded as detrimental. There is a danger that sensationalising the plight of an individual gives greater attention to their suffering than to the cause they defended. To this extent we might question the value of labelling these activists martyrs.
Another reason to question any comparison between these fallen activists and martyrs concerns the striking religious connotations of the term, when scientists are effectively unanimous in declaring human activity to be the cause of climate change. The traditional opposition between science and religion might make us wary of making “martyrs” out of activists who have died defending the environment in light of scientific facts, rather than beliefs.
While on the one hand, it might admittedly seem odd to make a comparison between Jesus, a religious figure, and an environmental activist, this hesitance overlooks the political dimension of Jesus’s martyrdom as well as the religious dimensions of environmental activism--particularly where indigenous communities are concerned. Although resisting illegal logging has broader implications for global warming in the prevention of the deforestation of the ‘lungs of the planet’, there are also spiritual motivations linked to their belief in the sanctity of the environment they inhabit.
The link between religion and activism is even stronger in the case of the ecology monks in Cambodia. In order to deter against deforestation, their strategy involves the ordination of trees. Once felled, these trees are effectively martyred through this humanisation. According to Rob Nixon there is deep identification between the fallen martyr and the felled tree in environmental activism. This identification is concretely demonstrated in the case of the ordained trees but can also be observed in the anthropomorphic language associated with trees, such as “limbs”.
This identification between the activists and the environment they defend goes both ways: in the discourse of environmental activists, the martyrs to the cause are considered to live on in the natural environment they tried to protect. For example, in a tribute to Berta Cáceres (another murdered environmental activist) it was said that, “she is present in the soul of our rivers and the spirit of our birds”. As with the humanisation of the trees, the suffering of the martyr becomes intrinsically linked to the cause they defend. This seems to counter the objection that martyrdom might allow suffering to overshadow the movement: in the case of environmental activists, their deaths become synonymous with the destruction of the environment they protect through this two-way identification between environment and martyr.
On a less metaphorical level, this identification of trees and human lives is strengthened by the material consequences of environmental activism. Given that deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change, the defence of the forest from illegal logging not only saves trees, but humanity itself. Deforestation is ultimately self-destructive for humanity. In this sense, the metaphor equating the fallen tree with a fallen humanity moves from the merely symbolic to the literal. Chico Mendes reflected that, “at first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
Didn’t Jesus die to save humanity from its sins? Perhaps he had more in common with environmental ‘martyrs’ than first meets the eye.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.