At the Rio conference 25 years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists – which included 1,700 leading researchers, a number of them Nobel prizewinners – issued a warning to humanity about the dire consequences of failing to curtail environmental destruction.
Last year, world scientists issued a second warning, bemoaning the lack of progress since the first warning was issued and drawing attention to particular issues, such as the declining availability of fresh water and the likely impacts of climate change on biodiversity.
Times have changed, and this second take has benefitted from something that was “not a thing” in 1992: going viral. Over 15,000 scientists from 184 countries signed the 2017 warning, and another 5,000 or so have endorsed it since its publication in November. It’s inspired almost 9,000 tweets, and currently ranks sixth on the Altmetric scale for online attention to research, out of all papers published worldwide in the last six years. A related book and documentary film are in the works, and the Scientists’ Warning website allows anyone to endorse the movement.
In the wake of the paper’s popularity, lead author William Ripple of Oregon State University has encouraged other scientists to write follow-up pieces to delve more deeply into issues raised by the report and tease them out into tangible policy actions. One such paper, from the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) considers the context the Second Warning provides for wetland management and policy.
The Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty on wetland management and conservation that was adopted in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, represented a significant first step toward raising wetlands’ profile. However, the authors of this paper, led by C.M. Finlayson of Charles Stutt University, argue that actions have fallen short of commitments made under this convention. In spite of conservation efforts, the rate of wetland and peatland degradation and loss has not slowed down.
Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Principal Scientist Christopher Martius, who was a signatory to the Second Warning, agrees: “Wetlands are not high on the policy agenda,” he says. “They are often situated in remote areas, and nobody takes much notice of them, or their exploitation continues, even now that we know how important their extremely large carbon stores are for global climate.”
For example, in Indonesia, peatlands – wetlands that produce peat soil from decaying organic matter – are often drained for agriculture, “because they are just seen as unproductive land,” says Martius. “So they get used for oil palm production, for example.” In the process, huge amounts of carbon are lost from the peat soils to the atmosphere.
Meanwhile in the Amazon, wetlands along the rivers are extremely fertile, because the water brings mineral-rich sediments from the Andes. As such, “companies are keen to cut down the trees and create soybean and rice plantations,” explains Martius. “But the trees that grow in these forests get flooded in the high-water season, and the fish feed on the fruit that they drop, and then they move upstream to reproduce and spawn.
“So you disrupt the whole cycle of fish biology if you fell trees there, and with it the basis for fisheries, which in turn, affects the food security of riverine populations.” In the Congo River, there’s also a “huge and largely unexplored” peatland, says Martius, “but it’s in the cross-hairs of big mining and timber companies. So there’s a problem there, too.”
KEEPING CARBON UNDER WRAPS
As these global examples illustrate, and as the paper underscores, wetland management could play a major role in the future trajectory of climate change with their ability to remove huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Tropical peatlands, in particular, store even more carbon than thought originally: more than five times that of a tropical forest, and in some cases up to 20 times, says Martius, depending on the peat’s depth. Releasing these huge amounts of additional carbon to the atmosphere would represent a “major climate amplification” as Finlayson and colleagues put it.
Nevertheless, many of these below-ground carbon stocks are not accounted for in countries’ climate plans and at risk of being released into the atmosphere, “which will mess up the balance in a really bad way,” he cautions. As such, it’s imperative to protect existing peatlands, says Martius.
Adding to the importance of their initial protection from degradation, peatland restoration is a major undertaking. When tropical peatlands are drained, they lose five centimeters of profile per year; and regrowth occurs extraordinarily slowly, at a rate of one or two millimeters annually.
As wetlands are inevitably affected by countries’ development, more comprehensive approaches to their sustainable use and protection are required, says Martius. In Indonesia, in addition to the already active Peatland Restoration Agency, plans are afoot to set up an international tropical peatland center, which he says is an important step in the right direction.
As the paper highlights, raising the profile of wetlands and other threatened ecosystems – and developing tangible steps toward better policy and management of these areas – is a crucial element in shifting humanity away from the “collision course with nature” we find ourselves in at present.
Hopefully, we will not need to be warned again.
This article forms part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.
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