Areng River, Cardamom Mountains

An Interview with Conservation International’s Peter Seligmann

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Ahead of Earth Day, the author chatted with Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International, about climate change and our dependence upon natural ecosystems.

Mericos Rhodes: When was the last time you experienced natural beauty?

Peter Seligmann: Not including Lake Washington this morning? The last time was in Colombia’s páramo grasslands, surrounding Bogotá. The páramo has these succulent plants that absorb water, and is actually the source of all the fresh water for Colombia’s capital.

Right before that, I was in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. The largest remaining tropical forest in Southeast Asia, and the source of all the fresh water for the Tonle Sap, the most productive fishing lake in the world. It has as many fish as all the freshwater in North America combined. It’s the protein source for 80% of Cambodians. The Cardamom Mountains are exquisitely wild. One of the remaining homes of forest elephants, and possibly the last place in Southeast Asia where you can find tigers.

I took a beautiful picture from a helicopter, there:

MR: Both of those places, have a lot of natural beauty, and also a lot of utility provided by nature. They make clean water for us to drink. What do you think is the most overlooked aspect of climate change and environmental issues that face humanity?

PS: What concerns me most is the lack of awareness about our dependence on natural ecosystems. Most people don’t understand where we get our water from, or how we depend on pollinators for food, mangroves for protection against storms, coral reefs for fisheries, the ocean for storing carbon, forests for storing carbon. Our ability to live is shaped and secured by the health of ecological systems, and when they are undercut, we become really vulnerable.

The biggest problem is, how do you communicate that to the millions who no longer live on the land, who don’t know where their food or water come from? That’s the biggest environmental challenge, in a way.

There is also another challenge that is really sneaking up on us. The next phase of climate change is a change in precipitation and weather, so we will have to move our crop development further north, where we could end up releasing massive amounts of carbon and methane from soils and permafrost.

MR: It’s a vicious cycle.

PS: That will happen in the next 50 years or so, the “boogeyman behind the door.” And as we go from 7 billion to 9 billion people, we will struggle to have enough food and enough water. Because if we clear more forests, like in the Amazon, to grow more food, there will likely be a massive decrease in the precipitation cycle, which will affect food production not only in Brazil, but north up to the United States, as well. Those are the global challenges. There are enough of us, now, that we can change the chemistry of the planet.

MR: The biggest threat, you’re saying, is deforestation. Is it inevitable?

PS: There are several solutions. We can reduce food waste. Probably 50% of food grown is wasted. Another is increasing agricultural productivity by improving farming practices and, in some parts of the world, using GMOs to create drought-resistant strains of corn and wheat. There will be a lag time, with food shortages and conflicts, before we solve these problems.

MR: So you see changing our food production systems as a crucial way to combat these problems. What gives you hope that we can solve them?

PS: Well we are aware of the problems, now. Now we’re feeling it. We are an extraordinarily adaptable and innovative species. So what gives me hope is that every schoolkid in the world is studying about environmental issues now, every reputable university has a sustainability program, and every responsible company is thinking about these issues. Governments are beginning to understand that they need to come up with a framework of regulations to fix this.

That gives me hope. If you think about it, the Paris negotiation for climate was a remarkable event in human history. Hundreds of governments, thousands of businesses, tribal organizations, NGOs; never before —in the history of humanity, I think — have so many come together with a common cause. Pretty remarkable.

MR: It’s not just NGOs and governments, now.

PS: It’s the private sector, too. If you look at the money required for these solutions, the governments have billions, the private sector has trillions.

Because of the externalities, the environmental costs of oil, there is a major group of investors trying to control the energy sector, they see an opening, with renewables.

MR: The incentives have lined up, so the energy sector will transition to become sustainable.

PS: It’s opening up. It’s in play. Then there will be a play for water, with desalination, and for food. The problem with all of this, is they can meet immediate human needs, but they don’t address the fundamental understanding that we depend upon nature for the very environment in which we exist. So if you produce water from desalination, it teaches you nothing about the value of a river.

So my hope is that, with all the sustainability discussions, that we can insert the statement that we actually depend upon nature to be healthy. Which is why we sent 50 staff and 5 board members to Paris, to make sure the value of nature was included in the negotiations. Conserving natural ecosystems is 30% of the solution.

MR: What are you doing for Earth Day?

PS: We have a number of agreements with different organizations, including the aviation industry, that are making announcements on Earth Day. Stay tuned.

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