Looking for Solutions in the Fight to Preserve Biodiversity

At the Rio+20 conference this week, conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy received the prestigious Blue Planet Prize. Before traveling to Brazil, Lovejoy talked with Yale Environment 360 about the loss of biodiversity and about whether it is too late for the world to do something about it.

For decades, conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy has repeatedly warned — sometimes in dire terms — about the loss of biodiversity. But Lovejoy, who this week was awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize, remains an optimist.

Thomas Lovejoy
Thomas Lovejoy
“There is no point in being unduly pessimistic, because that just guarantees all the bad things will happen,” says Lovejoy, who received the international environmental prize at the Rio+20 summit. Currently a professor at George Mason University and advisory board chairman of the Yale Institute of Biospheric Studies, Lovejoy has worked since 1965 in the Brazilian Amazon, where he has helped lead one of the world’s largest and longest-running field experiments, studying the impacts of habitat fragmentation. Credited with introducing the term “biological diversity” to the scientific community, Lovejoy has spent his career promoting it, with stints at the Smithsonian Institution and the World Wildlife Fund.

Before heading to Brazil for Rio+20, Lovejoy sat down with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn and talked about the multi-pronged threats to biodiversity, from habitat loss to climate change; the potential impact of major dam projects and other planned development on the Amazon; and why he supports market-based conservation schemes that provide benefits to local residents.

On the need for a global effort to promote biodiversity, Lovejoy says, “I go to sleep at night almost praying that there will be a bolt of awareness, and then we can move forward.”

Yale Environment 360: It has been 20 years since the first Rio summit, and now you’re heading back for another international environmental conference, Rio+20. How do you feel about the progress, or lack of progress, on the issue of biodiversity loss in the last 20 years?

Thomas Lovejoy: Anybody who just looks at the facts will know that basically the entire global effort combined has failed to reach the scale it should have. There were some initial goals set out at Rio+10 and at the last meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan [in 2010]. But not a single nation has met their goal, and global extinction rates are probably a thousand times the norm. And we are beginning to see some really major things, like what climate change is doing to coral reefs…

Hopefully, the countries can really make a much bigger effort coming along. But it is not pretty.

e360: The U.S. was one of the few developed countries to not ratify that [1992 Rio] convention on biodiversity, right?

Lovejoy: This is correct. The United States signed, but did not ratify. And there were some strange politics that went on influencing the Senate
“I think actually most environmental awareness in this country has subsided.”
in the first two years of the Clinton administration, which by the time it was sorted out, the control of the Congress had changed, and the U.S. has never found a way to go back to looking at formally ratifying. However, it does have to be said that U.S. policy is to behave as if the country had ratified [the convention]. So we are not a totally bad actor.

e360: But why isn’t the issue of biodiversity more front and center when it comes to talking about environmental issues in this country? It doesn’t seem to be. Do you agree that’s true?

Lovejoy: I think it is true. I think actually most environmental awareness has subsided in this country. And biodiversity is mostly seen as an endangered species issue, even though that is really just the tip of the iceberg, or the eco-iceberg [laughs]. And I think it also relates to a complacence in this country about the state of the environment and the de-validation of science as being important in the public debate and discourse. And so things like biodiversity just get shunted to the sidelines.

e360: You are actually credited with coining the word “biodiversity,” and now we find there are numerous threats to biodiversity from climate change to deforestation to habitat loss and more. What do you see, currently, as the greatest threat to biodiversity — if you had to pick one issue, one concern?

Lovejoy: That is a very hard question to answer because I don’t think we have great metrics on all of these things. Globally, habitat destruction is probably still number one. Invasive species is edging it out. Unknown is the impact of the tens of thousands of man-made chemicals that basically have created this chemical soup we are all living in whether we are a whale or a human being.

And climate change is coming up fast on the outside, as it were. I was out in Yosemite for Earth Day and it no longer snows down to 3,000 feet above sea level — it only goes to 4,500 — and the Ponderosa pine, which depends on that winter snow, is dying out in that belt. So the fingerprints of climate change can be seen biologically essentially all over the planet — and it is just the beginning.

e360: There are protected areas that were set aside for certain species, plant or animal, and now as the climate changes, in many cases recent research is showing that these places are no longer hospitable habitat for the species they were set aside for. Do you see this as a real, growing problem, and if so, how do we address it?

Lovejoy: Well, certainly we are going to have to think about protected areas differently. It doesn’t mean they don’t have value, but basically nature is on the move wherever we look. You know, the Joshua trees are moving outside of Joshua Tree National Park because of climate change
“We are going to have to think very differently about protected areas in the biologically dynamic landscape.”
— they are just tracking their conditions. And that is just the beginning.

So we are going to have to think very differently about protected areas in the biologically dynamic landscape. We need to think about how to put natural connections back in the landscape and move more toward a matrix in which human aspiration is pursued within a natural matrix, as opposed to the other way around, and thereby make it easier for plants and animals and microorganisms to actually adjust to the changing natural conditions. Hopefully, most of them can make it through.

e360: The bulk of your work, back to your doctorate days, has been in the Amazon. I believe you have a long-running project down there on fragmented forests in the Amazon. Can you explain what the goal of that project was and is, and what you have learned from it?

Lovejoy: The initial purpose of this project was to generate data to answer and resolve a huge controversy in the ecological literature of the ‘70s, which was: What was better, a single large reserve, or several small reserves adding up to the same total area? I was asked, with Brazilian colleagues, to set up this giant experiment, I think it is the largest in landscape ecology, looking at habitat fragmentation. And now we are in year 33, and in 2003 we published the paper that makes it very clear that large is the answer. But we have learned a whole lot of other things in the process, including important things about secondary succession, which can play into the plants that are reforesting the Amazon and things of that sort.

e360: There now are a series of major dam projects either underway or planned in the Amazon, along with other major development. Are you concerned about the impacts of these projects, both individually and cumulatively?

Lovejoy: The plans for hydroelectric in the Amazon are both impressive and frightening. And it is not just within the Brazilian Amazon — the Brazilian energy authority has made these plans to build dams in other countries, like Peru, and then transmit the energy back to Brazil. And all of those kinds of plans are being developed independently of the plans looking at roads and other infrastructure, which is planned independently of agricultural policy, which is planned independently of conservation policy.

What really needs to be done is to develop an integrated plan to manage the entire Amazon as a system. If you don’t do that, it will eventually undercut its hydrological cycle, which is what keeps the Amazon in rainforest but also provides rainfall south of Brazil for agroindustry. So it is actually hugely important in the continental climate system.

e360: I’ve read articles that you’ve written in the past that have proposed looking at market-based conservation schemes, and one of the ones that has been most talked about and tried to move along in the last decade has been REDD [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation], and yet it has had its problems and has not really gotten as far along as people hoped it would at this point. What do you see as the advantages and values of a market-based approach to conservation versus a government or NGO-based approach to conservation? And, in the case of REDD, why do you think it has been so long and such a hard road to really get it moving?

Lovejoy: The advantage to having some globally-blessed market scheme like REDD, is that it can operate at a global scale. It will also provide some return, some recognition of the value of what forests are contributing to how the world works and bring, if it is done right, some
“Getting something going globally [on climate change] is unlikely because of the absence of the United States.”
income to the landholders. It actually advanced quite well in climate change talks, but failing an overall agreement about climate, it is just sitting there waiting to get started. Some nations want to resist it — they see it as an invasion of sovereignty. But you don’t have to do anything unless you want to, so there is much less reason for concern there. And what is particularly interesting is if you talk to the governors of a lot of these states in the Amazon and even some in Indonesia, they are quite interested in moving that forward.

e360: Why? What benefits beyond conservation do they see for their regions?

Lovejoy: Enough of the Amazon governors recognized the importance of the forest to the future of their states. They saw that if you could find a way to reward people who were living in the Amazon for pursuing their aspirations in ways that did not destroy the forest that you could actually move toward this whole idea of managing the Amazon as a system.

e360: And the Brazilian government supported that going into [the 2009 international climate talks in] Copenhagen?

Lovejoy: The Brazilian government supported the Amazon governors. Almost all the Amazon governors went there and had a memorable afternoon event, in which even some of the less environmentally oriented ones spoke in favor of this.

e360: Were you surprised by the lack of action on REDD at Copenhagen and do you see the chance of anything like that really emerging now?

Lovejoy: At the moment, the conventional wisdom about the UN Conference of the Parties on climate change is that getting something going globally is unlikely in the near future because of the absence of the United States playing an important role in the entire process, and that we will probably have to, in the interim, try and build a mosaic which can approximate but not achieve what a global agreement would.

e360: And do you see the U.S. position ever changing?

Lovejoy: Well, I see the U.S. position as possibly changing. But it will require much better public awareness and concern to create the political space to make it happen.

e360: If you had five minutes with Barack Obama to talk to him about an environmental issue, what would you say to him?

Lovejoy: I would make the point, one, that the planet works as a linked biological and physical system. Second, that two degrees of global warming is too much for ecosystems. Three, that planetary-scale restoration of ecosystems could actually pull a significant amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere. And four, that if we fail to do those kinds of things, it will just create environmental havoc for the U.S. as well as the rest of the world.

e360: Have you had those five minutes?

Lovejoy: I have not, as yet, had those five minutes.

e360: You have had some pretty, I don’t want to say dire, but uncomfortable, predictions over the years about biodiversity loss and, regrettably, I think many — if not most of them — have come true. Are you at all optimistic that we can stem the tide of biodiversity loss in a meaningful way, or can we just do the best we can against the tide?


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Lovejoy: There are two ways I look at that. One is, that the fuse is very, very short, that we could see just a lot of environmental havoc and a growing inability of society to cope with it as the various problems erupt. On the other hand, I could also see a moment of awareness where globally countries will recognize that this is in fact the greatest challenge to society in its entire history and that we have a choice before us of entering into what, in a sense, could be the real dark ages. Or we could get our act together and rise to really deal with the problem… I go to sleep at night almost praying that there will suddenly be a bolt of awareness and then we can move forward.

e360: But when you wake up in the morning?

Lovejoy: When I wake up in the morning, you know, you have just got to try and make it all happen. There is no point in being unduly pessimistic, because that just guarantees all the bad things will happen.