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It’s estimated that the Australian bushfires — scorching nearly 15 million acres — could claim the lives of a billion animals.
The cause? Human-induced climate change, resulting in more dangerous weather conditions that stoked the wildfires.
In the Washington region, we may not be seeing smoke, but climate change is already in full swing. This past weekend, it was two straight days of 70 degree temperatures. All around us, sea level is rising, islands are sinking and our weather is getting “warmer, wetter and wilder.”
So, how is all of this affecting the birds, bugs and animals we love? And what can we do to protect the species most vulnerable to our changing climate?
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Michael Raupp "Bug Guy" and Professor of Entomology, University of Maryland; @BugoftheWeek
- Eliza Cava Conservation Director, Audubon Naturalist Society; @ANStweets
- Nikhil Advani Director of Climate, Communities and Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund; @WWF
- Nathan Rott Environment Reporter, NPR; @NathanRott
REPORTER ONEFinally tonight, massive bushfires rage in Australia taking an even more devastating toll on the country's wildlife.
REPORTER TWOThe staggering toll we've been reporting on here now an estimated billion animals lost.
REPORTER THREEAround 25,000 koalas are thought to have died in the bushfires on Kangaroo Island. That's half the population here.
REPORTER FOURExperts say 80 percent of Australia's wildlife can only be found on this continent and many are not threatened.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERJust careful with his claws.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERHe's on fire. Can you get water out of my car?
KOJO NNAMDIIt's been estimated that the Australian bushfires scorching nearly 15 million acres could claim the lives of a billion animals like the koala you heard in that clip, the cause, human induced climate change resulting in dangerous weather conditions that stoked the wildfires. You're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome.
KOJO NNAMDIIn the Washington region we may not be seeing smoke, but climate change is already in full effect. This past weekend there were two straight days of 70 degree temperatures. All around us sea levels are rising. Islands are sinking and our weather is getting warmer, wetter and wilder. So how is all of this affecting the birds, bugs and animals and what can we do to protect the species most vulnerable to our changing climate? Joining me from studios in Culver City, California is Nathan Rott, Correspondent with NPR's National Desk covering environmental issues and the American West. Nathan, thank you for joining us.
NATHAN ROTTYeah. I'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIYou've been reporting on the bushfires in Australia. What's the latest?
ROTTSo latest numbers that I've seen, you know, you've had hundreds of fires that have been burning across the country since September. At least 27 people have died including four firefighters. More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Cities like Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney have had, you know, hazardous air quality, because of all the smoke. I think I saw from NASA yesterday a tweet showing that smoke from some of these fires was on its way towards circumnavigating the globe. It was going to go entirely around the world.
ROTTAnd the size of these fires is just staggering. As somebody who covers a lot of wildfires out here in the West, these fires just completely -- it's on a scale that's hard to comprehend. So it's estimated that at least 24 million acres have burned so far. And I know, you know, whenever we use acres it's kind of a hard thing to follow. I'm just going to give you a quick comparison, 2017-2018 were two of the most destructive wildfire seasons in California history, 2018 being the most destructive fires that everybody heard of, Camp Fire, Woolsey Fire, Mendocino Complex Fire. Those two seasons combined burned roughly 19 million acres. So this is already way bigger than that and we're only about halfway through their normal fire season.
NNAMDINathan, is it possible to pinpoint what role has human caused climate change played in these wildfires?
ROTTThere's no doubt that climate change is playing a role. When you're talking about attribution and natural disasters it can be a little tricky with climate change, because climate change, you know, didn't ignite these fires the same way that, you know, climate change doesn't create hurricanes. Climate change just sort of amplifies these natural disasters. I kind of like to think of it as almost like a steroid. It makes natural disasters stronger, the conditions for those natural disasters to occur in stronger, and it also can make them a bit more temperamental.
ROTTSo when we're talking about fire, you know, what makes a big bad destructive wildfire? You need heat. You need dry conditions. Climate change is making the world warmer. In Australia the average temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius over the last century. In terms of making things drier, climate change is changing precipitation patterns all around the world. Australia has had record drought for a number of years.
ROTTSo there's this convergence of climate effects. It's also with a couple of -- I would say what we'll call like natural variation that can just occur in the climate ocean currents, weather patterns that have all sort of layered on top of each other to create these unprecedented conditions for fire to occur, and fire is happening.
NNAMDIThat's climate change, but what role has human development played in intensifying the Australian bushfires?
ROTTOh, I mean, no doubt. Like the main driver of climate change by far is human caused emissions from fossil fuels. So when you're looking at, you know, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than there has been in recorded human history. And that is a result of industrialization of me firing up my car to come to work in the morning, of me taking a plane. You know, the beef we eat, all of it has an impact on the larger climate.
ROTTAnd there is natural variation. There are, you know, natural causes of climate change. We're seeing some of that with these fires. These fires are emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but those emissions pale in comparison to the type that come from human activities.
NNAMDINathan, last year a report from the UN from that humans are transforming Earth's natural landscape so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species now risk extinction. Why do you find that report so significant?
ROTTWell, the thing that I took from that report -- one of the things I took from that report is that we are changing the natural world at an unprecedented rate and we have been for some time. Climate change was one of the major drivers of that like threat to species across the board. But two other things that -- climate change was the third leading cause of ecological decline let's say.
ROTTThe biggest driver was change in the land and sea use, so basically the way that we're converting landscapes for human development, the way that we're changing the ocean. The second leading cause of animal crisis in extinction was direct exploitation, so harvesting of species overfishing, overhunting, that sort of thing. And then climate change was third. And they made it very clear in that report, that IPBES report that climate change was going to be a growing -- would have a growing impact on natural ecosystems around the world.
ROTTBut I always like to think of that, because I think sometimes when these sort of disasters are happening we point to climate change. But there's also a large impact that we have with our day to day activities that affect, you know, natural ecosystems, specific species, all of these things that we coexist with and share an atmosphere with.
NNAMDINathan, we got a tweet from someone who says, "The Australian press is reporting many of the fires were manmade. Arson and accidental fires, it sounds as if you're blaming it all on climate change instead of that." I guess humans setting fires being a factor. To what extent is that a factor?
ROTTWell, there has been -- so a couple of things here. There's no doubt that humans do cause a lot of fire. I think it's 90 percent of the wildfires that occur in the U.S. are caused by humans. Whether that's arson, I think arson makes a very small percentage of that. A lot of it is just accidents. I used to actually work as a Wildland Firefighter in Montana. And most of the fires that we would deal with were, you know, logging equipment starting a fire, somebody driving down the freeway and having a chain right behind their truck and sparking a fire, lightning strikes causing fire.
ROTTThere has been reporting down in Australia about arson. I think it was 24 people have been arrested for starting some of the fires, but I don't think it's accurate to say that the majority of these fires have been started by people. One thing that I also think it's important for people to remember is that wildfire is a natural part of these ecosystems. It's something that has occurred over centuries over millennia in Australia, here in the U.S., and so, you know, fire would exist whether humans are there or not.
NNAMDINathan Rott is a Correspondent with NPR's National Desk covering environmental issues and the American West. Nathan, thank you so much for joining us.
ROTTYeah. Thank you.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Nikhil Advani, Director of Climate, Communities and Wildlife for the World Wildlife Fund. Nikhil, thank you for joining us.
NIKHIL ADVANIThanks for having me.
NNAMDITo what degree is climate change to blame for the loss of species taking place right now in Australia?
ADVANIYeah. So we estimate that up to, I think the latest numbers are that up to a billion species have been affected. I'd hesitate to say that they've actually been killed. But this is based on a previous study. You're looking at land use change. So a lot of species have been affected and a lot of those are species that are on the brink of extinction in any case. Their populations are very small and isolated. And, you know, time will tell. Once the fires settle, we'll know the true damage.
NNAMDICan you describe in more detail how animals have been affected by the bushfire?
ADVANIYeah. I mean, the most obvious thing is, you know, it's a drastic event that just wipes out their habitat. So there's obviously a lot of animals that have been burnt to death. There are some that might be able to survive it living underground. There's some plants that need fire, you know, to regenerate. But if the fires are so intense it can actually just kill off those plants entirely. So in this case, you know, the most direct impact is just killing the animals directly by fire and complete devastation of the habitat.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Eliza Cava, Director of Conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society. Eliza, thank you for joining us.
ELIZA CAVAThanks so much, Kojo. It's great to be here again.
NNAMDISeeing this destruction taking place right now in Australia, what is your response?
CAVAMy response and I think it's the response of many is just grief. Grief for the people whose lives have been lost and grief for that beautiful forest, and grief for all those animals that we've seen, this has really just been a long running tragedy for so many and for so much wildlife. But I do want to say that while we grieve that we can't let catastrophe and our grief at seeing like a burned animal be the only thing that moves us to action. If we care only about wildlife at the point at which they're being burned or at the point at which they're a rare species in danger of going extinct from a catastrophe then we're going to have more extinctions. We need to start caring really early.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Michael Raupp. He's a Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland also known as the "Bug Guy". Mike Raupp, thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL RAUPPKojo, always a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIMike, how do we look at what's happening right now in Australia and as Eliza was just saying and not feel despair for all that's being lost?
RAUPPAbsolutely, but this extends beyond Australia. I think this is a phenomenon that is now worldwide. This is just the harbinger of much more significant things to come across the entire planet. Unless we start thinking globally about this we certainly are going to see more catastrophes, more habitat loss, more loss of the charismatic and every day creatures that we share this planet with. So this is certainly a catastrophe, but sends out another warning, a clear signal that things have to change. That things are changing. We need to be involved in this process.
NNAMDIWhere do you see signs of hope? You have brought what seems to be an Australian critter here with you.
NNAMDIIt's climbing over your microphone even as we speak.
RAUPPIt is. I could not bring my koala here today, but when I was in the Outback in 2015 the bushfires raged then. We were there with a study abroad and I saw many of these creatures these insects that simply can't fly or run away simply being consumed by the advancing flames. So again warning that this is going on, but you know, this touches everyone. This is not just a problem in Australia. We have major effects of climate change right here in North America. We're seeing range expansion of insects. We're seeing redistribution. Some of our most charismatic bugs, things like the monarch butterfly, things like our bumblebees and the other pollinators that provide every third bite of food are now at risk due to this rapidly rapidly changed environment as Nikhil and Nathan have related to.
NNAMDIIt's now actually taking over your microphone.
RAUPPWell, she's going to be much better at this than I am, Kojo. So I'm just going to listen to what the Australian Prickly Walking Stick has to say. What do you think lady?
RAUPPHelp. We need help.
NNAMDIShe's talking to Mike as we speak. Here's Catherine in Silver Spring. Catherine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CATHERINEHi, Kojo. Thanks. I'm calling because I had to remind everyone listening and you all that Montgomery County passed the restrictions on lawn pesticides a few years back. And they're finally taking hold this spring. And the very least that we can do as a community right now is grab the low hanging fruit and even in the face of enormous industry pressure we have to stop poisoning our wildlife. They're all threatened, but this pollinator that lives here in the region and protects them in that way it's a very easy thing we can do. We're doing it in Montgomery County. Hopefully this spreads, you know, all over the United States, but it's just one thing that we can do right now.
CATHERINESo I just wanted to remind you that that's happening here.
NNAMDIThank you for sharing that with us. You've taken us exactly where we want to go and that is here in the Washington region. But before we do that we've got to take a short break. But you can still call us 800-433-8850. How do you protect local species? Are you planting native plants in your garden setting the pesticides aside? 800-433-8850. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. After seeing the devastating bushfires in Australia we're talking about climate change and species lost in this region. We're talking with Nikhil Advani, Director of Climate Communities and Wildlife for the World Wildlife Fund. Mike Raupp is a Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland, better known as the "Bug Guy". And Eliza Cava is Director of Conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society. Eliza, I'd like to turn now to the Washington region. What species locally are impacted by our changing climate?
CAVAI have a number of examples of species that are impacted by the changing climate. And I want to start with one in particular, the Golden-winged Warbler. So it's a bird that migrates through our region. It spends its winters in Central America and it breeds in the mountains north of us, but it passes through. Many people see it here and maybe feed it in their backyards. It's range has already moved 100 miles north in the last 20 years to get up to its breeding grounds.
CAVASo if you think about it -- if you have road trip to go 3,000 and all of a sudden you've got an extra hundred miles more. You need more gas. So they have to go further. That's harder. At the same time because of what we've already been talking about where this incredible habitat loss that they've experienced they have been losing their gas stations. There's fewer places to stop and get food. There's fewer places to spend the night safely, and so they have to travel farther every day and they have to travel farther during the whole trip.
CAVAAnd what that means is that these beautiful animals that pass through our region -- there's fewer of them. Fewer of them make it. They just get tired or when they finally get there they don't do a great job of breeding and laying their eggs. And we won't see it all of a sudden. We won't see it like a burning koala. But overtime we'll see fewer and fewer and fewer of these animals that rely on this really complex set of conditions that they need to be successful.
NNAMDIIndeed our biodiversity for listeners who might not know. What is biodiversity?
CAVAThe classic definition of biodiversity is like the web of life that you have different kinds of animals and plants that rely on each other for different purposes. And when you have a lot of biodiversity when you have many different kinds of species then they're taking full advantage of the resources around them. And if one is lost, for example, if you are an animal that needs to eat other animals -- let's say fish. And one of those fish species goes extinct, well, if there's five other fish species you can eat then you still have a good shot. But if you're down to two and you lose one you're really starting to get close to not having any food to eat. So biodiversity is the many different kinds of animals and plants that we have. And they really rely on each other.
NNAMDIMike Raupp, any more reasons why we should be worried about a decline in biodiversity?
RAUPPAbsolutely. I mean, you know, this is the foundation of helping, keeping this world green and making the world go around. I mean, a big reason that the plants -- the primary producers on the planet are not eaten into oblivion every single year is we have a full complex of what we call natural enemies. These are the good guys. These are the predators and parasites that help to keep these pest insects at bay. And when we start to lose biodiversity whether it's not enough plant materials, whether it's not enough prey for these items, we can simply get this thing out of kilter and now we've got outbreak in pests.
RAUPPClassic examples happen right here in Washington D.C. where we have certain pests that are in outbreak situations. It's hot. We have heat island effects. They have more generations every year, and because of the impervious surface that built environment that predators and parasites little tiny wasps that help to control those populations, hey, they're not here.
RAUPPAnd now we see exploding populations of scale insects on our oak trees along Massachusetts Avenue or in Charlotte, North Carolina we have caterpillars that outbreak annually and defoliate their trees. So it's a complex web of life, and you take one little piece out of this puzzle or a couple, as Eliza said, you begin to see the repercussions.
NNAMDIEliza, what local species are most in danger of extinction? I guess I'm thinking about D.C.'s state bird.
CAVAAh, the Wood Thrush. The Wood Thrush is to my knowledge not in danger of extinction. But it's like all these other species we've been talking about in our area. It's losing its habitat being nibbled away bit by bit. And so you stack all these different kinds of threats on top of each and you move in closer and closer and closer down the path that might one day be extinction. And certainly the Wood Thrush has experienced a dramatic loss of habitat.
CAVAAnother species in our region that's really at risk from these interlocking threats is Brook Trout. So the Brook Trout is the East's only native trout species. We do now have invasive Brown and Rainbow Trout and they're better competitors. So they outcompete the Brook Trout and send then further away reduce their habitat that's available to them. And the Brook Trout have lost 60 percent of their habitat both from these invasives and from just habitat loss. We've plowed their streams or we've cut the trees that make them cool enough.
CAVAThey really rely on cool clear streams, and so a lot of their remaining habitat is up high up in our mountains areas. And they have what we call a symbiotic relationship and an interdependence with a tree species Eastern Hemlock that live up in those high elevations and keep those high altitude streams really cold in the summer so the Brook Trout can live, but the Eastern Hemlock are really a southern species. And in our area it's getting too hot for them. So they're dying. And they're being eaten by an invasive pest, the Wooly Adelgid. So they're dying from that reason too.
CAVASo you've got these poor Brook Trout already have lost all their habitat. They're being out competed by these invasive trout species. And now their remaining refugea are being threatened both by becoming warmer from climate change and then the trees that shade them are being lost. So they could lose an additional 62 percent of their habitat by 2100.
NNAMDINikhil, thinking on a more global scale what species have you found are most vulnerable to climate change?
ADVANIYeah. I think if you're looking at groups of species, ice dependent species for sure. You know, the Artic we like to think of as ground zero for the impacts of climate change. And when summer sea ice disappears that's going to be a big issue for all the species that dependent on it like polar bears and seals and all sorts of other species. The other one is corals. All over the world we're seeing coral bleaching on a massive scale. And this is happening, because of warming ocean temperatures. So those are the two groups of species that I think of as being the most impacted to date from climate change.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Caroline with the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. Caroline, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLINEThank you, Kojo. And I so appreciate this conversation and your speakers today. I have two notes here. Advice I suppose. One is from a planning perspective as our jurisdiction grows. And I know that Montgomery County is endeavoring to put together their 50 year plan for land use and development. We have to keep at the center the preservation of habitat and biodiversity and acknowledge our place in it, and I am concerned that that may be lost in the conversation.
CAROLINESo for any of those in the decision making seats, keep in mind this conversation that we're having now and the larger picture of the need to preserve habitat and biodiversity. And then as to Eliza's point in terms of the despair that we felt with the news of late coming from globally, but her wise note that we need to not wait until there's tragedy, but take our actions as we can. For every homeowner, everyone with a space of green even those with patios and porches make space for species. Grow things for native species. Do not use chemical inputs. Make the places where these species can thrive. And I think with that we gain not only hope, but we gain an opportunity to provide the best chance for survival for the species.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. There were a lot of heads here nodding yes as you were speaking. Eliza, there were a number of stories not too long about the disappearance of birds from North America. Why are birds especially so vulnerable to climate change and habitat loss? What's happening here?
CAVAWell, as I already mentioned in the case of the Golden-winged Warbler they have a lot of complex needs. A lot of migratory birds, they really need a lot of places to stop and rest and fuel on their way on these really heroic journeys that they take every year. But in addition to that, one thing that's a little more subtle with climate change is that they're seasonal creatures. They go at the same time every year. They arrive at their migratory stops at the same times and places every year, because they expect certain seeds and nuts and berries to be available to them at those places and at those times. And climate change throws all that stuff off.
CAVAPlants that respond to the temperature in the air to bloom might bloom earlier, and then they're done already by the time the birds get there. Or they might bloom later, and the birds arrive too soon, and the seeds aren't ready for them. And there's a name for this, called phenology, but it's really about cue timing. So, birds are particularly vulnerable to this. So are other species, like amphibians, that have very highly seasonal cycles.
CAVAIf you think about spring peepers -- we call them that, because they wake up and they say peep, peep in the spring, right. But if the rain -- first of all, they could wake up too early. Like, they might be awake now, and then they're going to have to go back into hibernation. So, that's very hard for them. They lose a lot of energy every time they wake up from hibernation. But then, second of all, if the rain is unpredictable, like if they get a drought in March when normally they're breeding in these little puddles and pools when it's supposed to be raining, then they can't breed that year. They might lose the ability to make the next generation. So, birds are particularly sensitive to this, but they're not the only ones.
NNAMDINikhil, the focus of your work is developing and implementing solutions to help species adapt to climate change. What did that look like?
ADVANIYeah, we've got two approaches to that. One of them -- well, so in both cases we're doing research to understand, you know, how people are being affected by climate change and how species are being affected by climate change. And then the interventions are focused on both species and people. So, we have some interventions that are directly focused on species.
ADVANIAn example is in Nepal. We're building this big artificial mud mounds that will serve as a refuge for rhinos and other animals during times of severe flooding. In Australia, we're building artificial nests for shy albatross birds to boost their reproductive rate. So, these are very species-focused interventions.
ADVANIA really big focus on my work, though, is helping rural communities adapt to changes in weather and climate, because we're finding that the ways in which people living in, you know, outside protected areas, or example. The ways in which they're being affected by climate change can often be harmful to biodiversity. For example, during periods of drought, people and their livestock will be competing with wildlife for diminishing sources of water and diminishing pasture. So, our interventions there are to provide separate and additional water for both the people and wildlife. And using some pretty cool solutions, like rainwater harvesting.
NNAMDIHere is Jamie in Cabin John. Jamie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMIEOh, thank you, Kojo, for your show and for this topic, in particular. I am a waterman. I kayak and play in our beautiful Potomac River, so I get kind of a close-up view of the changes. But what I wanted to ask your panel to comment upon is the life forms that come in when we limit biodiversity. So, if we are taking out species, I've heard it commented by others that we have a rise in yeast, algae and mold and other life forms that are alive, but they're not diverse. So, it seems that nature does fill in the gap when we cause disruption.
JAMIEBut could the guests possibly comment on the rise of lichen, mold, yeast, algae, jellies and things like that that fill in the life stack as we cause this impact upon it? It's a fascinating thing. Life will go on, but it may not be the kind of life we all enjoy.
NNAMDIAny ideas about this Nikhil?
ADVANIYeah, I can quickly comment on that. I don't know that I can speak to those specific species, but there are species kind of what we think of as more weedy species that can thrive in habitats that have been vacated by, you know, species that used to be there. So, we have this concept of ecological niche, and you have species occupy a certain ecological niche. And one of the risks we face with this biodiversity crisis is that, as species are going extinct, we have a lot of sort of these weedy, you know, in many cases invasive species that can move in and take over entire ecosystems.
NNAMDIHere's Joseph, in Arlington. Joseph, your turn.
JOSEPHHello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to follow up on a question you asked earlier in the show about how much of a role humans play in the climate change that is taking place right now. Obviously, climate change affects the weather but we only have hundreds of years of data, at best, to see how it impacts the weather. And I think it's important to recognize, like, how much we don't know.
JOSEPHFor example, it takes our solar system 250 million years to orbit the galaxy. that's called a cosmic year. And in that time, you know, things that we don't know about might occur. And I just wanted to maybe get the guests to comment on this topic if they can. Thank you.
CAVAI'd like to comment. I am the parent of two very young children, and there's a lot we don't know. But, you know Joseph, we really know enough to know that in my lifetime and in their lifetime, the changes are going to be so outside the realm of what the rest of, really, human history has experienced just in our lifetimes, that we need to be prepared and start to think about really different ways of life, really different ways of building and getting places and using land.
CAVABecause over the course of a period of time through in which we might orbit through the solar system, all kinds of things can happen. I'm not an expert on that. I won't speak to that, but I care an awful lot about what happens in the next 100 years. And in the next 100 years, the temperature increase is going to happen at a rate 10 times faster than since the last 10,000 years. And...
NNAMDIBecause Joseph seems to be suggesting that if we do nothing, you know, things may just normally revert to the way they were before.
CAVANikhil, you want to speak to that?
NNAMDINot a good bet. (laugh)
ADVANI(laugh) I'll just speak to that very quickly. Looking at the historical record, Earth was a lot warmer than it is today -- it has been in the past, you know. There were dinosaurs in Antarctica. But we have a very clear -- you know, we have records going back -- temperature records obviously only go back over the last, you know, 150-odd years. But we have ice core samples going back 600,000 years. And there's a very strong correlation between levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global surface temperature.
ADVANISo, yes, Earth has been a lot warmer. This has been caused by natural forcings. But, at the moment, we know that the current warming phase we're in is largely due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. If it wasn't for those greenhouse gases, we would actually be in a slight cooling phase at the moment.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation and take your calls at 800-433-8850. What have you done to make your own footprint on our planet a bit smaller? What are you interested in trying? What challenges have you faced? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about climate change and species lost in this region. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Eliza Cava, what are some of the reasons for our local decline in wildlife?
CAVAAgain, coming back to the habitat loss and fragmentation, that's it. We've paved over enormous parts of our area. Historically, we lost forest land first to farm land. It's actually come back. We have more forest now than we historically did, but we're losing it again, this time due to overdevelopment in the form mainly of sprawl.
CAVASo, when you talk about you want to widen a highway to allow more people to have a faster commute in from further and further away, one of the reasons why we're so opposed to those types of plans is because it enables sprawl development patterns. It lets people live out really far away and cut down forests that is otherwise providing habitat, whereas if they lived closer in, a little closer together, there'd be more space for wildlife out in our regions.
NNAMDILinda in McClain wants to talk about that problem. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAThank you, Kojo. This is a really important show. One of the things that I wanted to emphasize is that this is very much a political issue. And I see from personal experience, living in Fairfax County, where the agenda seems somewhat different than Montgomery County. And recently in the area I live, two developers came in and basically despite a sort of green policy, they were permitted by the county to tear down over 300 mature native trees in the area in order to make way for eight $4.4 million mansions.
LINDAAnd they claim they were following the rules of the arborists, and they put up a line of nonnative trees in the place of those 300 trees. And, obviously, this is happening all over. And the main motivation was tax dollars. And it seems that if we're going to protect animal species, we've got to work politically. And it's very difficult, since there are so many attorneys that actually work for developers. And so there's a conflict of interest there, as well. I'll take any comments you might have off the air.
NNAMDISo, it's a policy issue, also, Eliza Cava.
CAVAIt is absolutely a policy issue. I mean, everything is a policy issue. That's why I work in policy. So, this is the bread and butter of Audubon Naturalist Society's policy conservation program, these local land use issues and fights, and they're very hard to keep on top of. So, at the same time as we are working with, for example, the planning commissions or the board of supervisors in a given jurisdiction, we're also looking at the bigger laws that lay the framework for those local implementations.
CAVAAnd one example that's happening right now is that the Trump administration has rolled back dozens and dozens and dozens of wildlife protections. One that's really relevant to this conversation is under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is one of our nation's oldest environmental laws. And the reason why my organization was founded in 1897 was to push for this act.
CAVAAnd under the current administration, they've rolled back requirements that, when development projects are getting underway, that the sponsors or the builders avoid hurting or killing birds, avoid taking their habitat, and that if they must take their habitat, that they replace it in some way.
CAVASo, an example in our region is that in Hampton Roads, there's a major bridge and tunnel project getting underway around the Chesapeake Bay. This was reported in the New York Times in December. And, for years, the community had been planning to replace a seabird habitat by building an artificial island, because they needed to pave the habitat that was the nesting grounds for about 25,000 seabirds. These would be gull-billed terns and royal terns and many other gulls and terns. And the Trump administration told them, go ahead, do the paving and don't worry about the island. You don't need to under our interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
CAVASo, they didn't. They dropped the island plans. They paved over all that habitat this winter, just now. And, this spring, when all those birds come back to breed, they're going to have no place to go. They've already lost their other breeding habitat because of climate change and sea level rise that's caused erosion around the Chesapeake Bay.
CAVASo, this terrible thing is going to happen where, when they come back to their exact same nesting site that they've been nesting at for years and years, it's going to be paved. And they're apparently going to try to nest in every little crack in the new pavement they can find. And the construction workers are going to have to sweep them aside, so that they can continue work on the bridge and tunnel project. And policies really matter.
NNAMDIMike Raupp, we need to talk about bugs. You're finishing up a book chapter about the loss of insects in urban spaces. What's happening to cause this decline?
RAUPPWell, again, as Eliza and several have eluded to already today, there's a number of factors that are related to this. And, again, as we go from a natural ecosystem which tends to be highly diverse and has a richly developed food web of creatures that have been at this for 60 million years, learning how to eat and pollinate plants and eat each other.
RAUPPWe simply lose the biodiversity first at the producer level, which is our trees and shrubs and grasslands and wildflowers, all the associated creatures that depend on that most fundamental level of food webs. Once those plants disappear under pavement and buildings, simply they have no home anymore. So, as we move from a natural system to an agricultural system to an urban system, we've lost all the key -- well, not all the key elements, but several of the key elements that these creatures depend on. Not only food, but refuge for wintering.
RAUPPAnd, again, we find the heat island effect is exacerbated in cities. This is parallel to the global warming issue, where it's simply hotter. This means that the remaining creatures that are there, for example, these anthropophilic, the human-loving species like mosquitoes that breed in containers and spider mites that breed on the trees and scale insects, it's like welcome to the city for these guys.
RAUPPIt's hot. They can complete five times as many generations in a summer as they might in a cooler, more natural area. And now we've got pest outbreaks. So, it's a complicated, intimate web of life, and these creatures and plants depend on each other.
NNAMDIJournalist Brooke Jarvis dubbed this the insect apocalypse in a 2018 New York Times story. And she said it's happening almost without people noticing. And this question is for all of you, but I'll start with you, Mike Raupp: why does it matter that people notice the disappearance of insects and species?
RAUPPWell, beyond the -- you know, the charismatic feature is, again, this business of pollinators are a classic example, as I said before. Every third bite of food we take depends on a pollinator. And the bulk of the pollination load is carried by insects. So, as we change temperatures, we're seeing the loss of bumble bees in their habitats. We're seeing loss of many of our native species of pollinators under pavement and things like this. So, it reflects back into an entire decoupling of the plant world and the very food we eat.
RAUPPIn addition to this, the kind of charismatic birds that Eliza has talked about depend on the insect for their food. They've already found, in Great Britain, this phenological mismatch, where birds that migrate from more tropical areas to the UK, by the time they arrive, because of global warming, the caterpillars that they depend on to be the food for their babies have already emerged, eaten the trees, and are not there anymore. So, now we're seeing dropping out the actual removal of species from territories where they once lived.
NNAMDIWell, you'll be happy with Parker's email. Parker writes: for the last several years, I have been replacing my trees and shrubs with native trees and shrubs. They thrive. Also, I have planted tons of wildflowers. The pollinators have showed up in droves, and I'm watching birds feed off of the seeds from the wildflowers even as I listen to this show.
RAUPPYou go, Parker.
NNAMDINikhil, why is it important that people notice the disappearance of species? What should this mean to us?
ADVANISo, I mean, I think the argument that's often made is all the services, what we call ecosystem services, right, that nature provides for us, purification of water, oxygen, pollination, a lot of things that have already been mentioned in the show. And there's various estimates out there, potentially, that these are worth, you know, in the trillions of dollars, over a hundred trillion, even maybe.
ADVANIBut I also think just one other aspect that people don't often think of is this idea of biophilia, this innate love of nature that we as humans have. I mean, you see it particularly in kids, how enamored they are by animals and plants. And I would hate to grow up in a world without that. You know, I'm from Kenya. We have some of the most amazing biodiversity on Earth, and we still do. I can't imagine a childhood without that.
NNAMDISame question to you, by the way, Eliza.
CAVAYou know, I want to answer it a little bit differently, because I would say everything that Mike and Nikhil already said. But I want to read, actually, a short quote that was inspiring to me as I was thinking about this show because we talk a lot about extinction. But when you're already worried about something going extinct, you know, what do you have? So, I'll read it. It's from Helen McDonald's "H is for Hawk" book, which is a great book about animals.
CAVAThe rarer they get the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually, rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There's little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something? How can you fight to protect it if all it means is loss?
NNAMDIFascinating. Sharon in Northern Virginia has a problem that one of you might be able to help with. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHARONHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I was in a neighborhood with a one-acre lot, and there are a lot of rules about what we can and cannot do with our land because of the HOA. I would love to plant wildflowers and minimize other impacts, but there are so many rules. I didn't know if there are organizations that help with appealing to HOAs. As an individual, I've been having trouble, and I was just hoping there were groups that could help with this kind of thing.
NNAMDIHow do you shift the implacable homeowners association? (laugh)
CAVAYes. We offer workshops on this topic, Sharon, and I would love to see you at one of them. We do them in Northern Virginia specifically because homeowners associations really do have a lot of control over an enormous amount of land in Northern Virginia. I'll direct you to our website, ANShome.org/training. And you will see a calendar pop up right there that has our upcoming workshops, including in Northern Virginia. So we hope to see you there.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Indeed, Nikhil, it's possible to feel powerless in the face of what's happening. So, what can the average person do, here? How can we all feel a bit more empowered?
ADVANIYeah, I'd say a couple of things. One is we've already talked about policy and how important that is, so holding your elected officials accountable, huge. The second thing is consumption. I am, you know, again, coming from Kenya, I'm kind of amazed -- I'll give you a very simple story that I tell a lot of people.
ADVANIBack home, I go to our kitchen, and in the kitchen, is a tiny dust bin that's almost always empty. And most of the rubbish from the house is actually compost, which goes into the garden. Over here, I live on my own in a one-bedroom condo, and I'm just amazed at the amount of packaging that I accumulate. And I'm someone who's very conscious of this. I don't shop on line, because I hate all the packaging. So, I think just off consumption, you know, consumption of water, consumption of electricity, plastics, everything, we can really make an effort to reduce that in our daily lives.
NNAMDIWhat about bugs, Mike? How do we help local species thrive even if we might not like them that much? (laugh)
RAUPPWell, we love them a lot. We love all the ones, Kojo. Maybe not the tick so much, and the mosquitoes. But, no, we've heard it. Again, more green space. In that little piece of the world that you have control over, more flowering trees, shrubs, annuals and perennial plants. Again, it all starts with the plant world. If you can find other ways to manage your pests in landscapes without the use of hard residual pesticides, I think that's the way to go. And a lot of the counties here have taken steps in this direction.
RAUPPWhat we find is once we get off that chemical treadmill, so to speak, we find that the good guys are there. If you build it, they will come. And after a few years, you'll find that those things that were pests in your landscape are no longer pests, because the good guys are there. They're doing their job.
NNAMDIMike Raupp is a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, also known as the "Bug Guy." Eliza Cava is director of conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society. And Nikhil Advani is director of Climate, Communities and Wildlife for the World Wildlife Fund. Thank you all for joining us.
NNAMDIToday's conversation about climate change and its consequences for local species was produced by Julie Depenbrock. It kicks off our series on climate change and its effects on the Washington region. And you can read Julie's article about today's topic, “Species Lost Caused by Climate Change,” at WAMU.org.
NNAMDIJoin us tomorrow when we talk about the death penalty in Virginia and how its days could be numbered. Plus, the housing affordability crisis in the Washington region, it burdens more people than you might think. What new ideas and projects are in the works to address it? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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