As of 2020, the population of piping plovers has improved after being protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. (Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash)
Essay | High hopes for COP26: Solving the triple crises of climate, biodiversity, and inequality
I’m going to COP26 for many reasons, but the most important is to bring university students to learn from the climate summit and become future leaders who will solve the climate crisis. I get much more from the students than I can give back — their enthusiasm and determination are contagious. This year we have 15 students who will join us. We selected these students during a highly competitive application process, and they represent 13 majors, including the natural and social sciences, law, engineering, and business. We unleash these students on the conference, where they search out the newest understanding of efforts to control and mitigate climate change that matches each of their individual interests. Their enthusiasm and energy buoy me for the rest of the year.
One focal area that others might miss is the interdependence of the big three crises of our time: not just the climate crisis, but also the biodiversity crisis and the crisis of inequality. The reason to watch for these big-3 interactions is that all three crises are rapidly coming to a head and solutions to one can easily harm progress in the other two. Yet, we have the opportunity to kill three crises with one stone when we find the right combination of approaches.
My interest in solving these crises stems from my background as a field biologist. I have witnessed how climate change is affecting biodiversity, not only in remote places like the North Slope of Alaska, but also here in my backyard in Connecticut. My research has detailed how each increase in global temperature will likely make these changes worse and could lead to permanent extinctions. Moreover, we can demonstrate that biodiversity losses directly affect human health, economy, and culture, and therefore our needs are inseparable from those of nature.
I’ll be looking for these win-win-win solutions at COP26 that can address all three crises, and I’ll be deeply skeptical of solutions that do not. For example, restoring or protecting natural forests when done in concert with the needs of local people can capture carbon, maintain biodiversity, and protect local livelihoods and cultures simultaneously. But even this solution can cause harm when done without paying attention to local ecosystems and people.
At COP26, we have a chance to turn things around and make meaningful progress toward limiting climate change and preventing its worst effects. I hope that the students that we bring to the summit will not only advocate for that progress, but become the leaders that make it happen.
About the author:
Mark C. Urban is an award-winning scientist, the Arden Chair and Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, founder and director of the Center of Biological Risk, and global expert on climate change impacts on nature and evolutionary ecology.