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‘In a World Without Sea Ice, What Next for Nature?’

We can no longer prevent the extinction of many species – but will this provide the wake-up call we need?

An iceberg melting in Antarctica. Photo: Anna Berkut/Alamy

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The Arctic is icy. It’s one of those basic facts we feel we know about the world, like the tropics being warm and the oceans vast, yet it won’t be true much longer.

This month, scientists announced that ice-free Arctic summers are now inevitable and may occur as soon as the 2030s. Our children were born in a world with an icy North Pole, but will grow old with a watery one. The global scientific community’s warnings about the catastrophic risks of burning fossil fuels are coming to pass, and the world we think we live in is no more. 

So we must start rethinking our hopes and aspirations as a society. One of those, familiar in the fable of Noah’s Ark, is the idea that we can save other species from extinction. We all agree it would be wrong to let iconic animals like giant pandas, blue whales, tigers and rhinoceroses be wiped from the face of the Earth so, beginning in the last century with the efforts of pioneers like Sir Peter Scott and Gerald Durrell, we have gone to great efforts to save the very rarest of them.

While those efforts have not been enough to stem the broader loss of biodiversity, they have ensured that the scimitar-horned oryx, Spix’s macaw and dozens of otherwise doomed species are still with us today. 

The impacts of climate change now cast Noah’s goal in a new light.

For the summer sea ice is just one part of the living world that’s collapsing as the planet warms. Forests are so threatened by fire and drought that they too may soon become largely a thing of the past. And so may the coral reefs which support so much of the life in the sea.

In a world which may have no Arctic ice, Amazon rainforest or Great Barrier Reef unless we rapidly decarbonise, the idea that we can still save every species seems not just fanciful, but folly. As tragic as it is to admit, is it time to reconsider this quixotic quest?


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The very idea should be a wake-up call. We have failed. And just as many climate scientists are now acknowledging the brutal truth that we can no longer avoid surpassing the ‘safe’ climate threshold of 1.5°C of heating, so we must be equally truthful about the fate of the natural world. We have failed, and we can no longer prevent the extinction of many other species. 

But this is not to say that we should give up on conserving nature entirely – for we simply cannot survive without a healthy, functioning living world.

We need plants to make oxygen, microbes for fertile soil, pollinators for our crops, fish from the oceans, and all of it – every last wild plant and animal – to store carbon and reduce the effects of climate change. And while we can no longer save every species, we certainly can maintain functioning ecosystems if we start addressing the twin climate and ecological crises as the emergencies they are. If we succeed in that, we will have taken a giant stride to ensuring the persistence of the one species that really does matter to most of us – ourselves. 

Conserving a functioning living world and preventing the very worst of climate change can perhaps still be avoided. But not without radical change in every aspect of our societies. Not with fairy tales that everything is under control. Not if we all continue to sit back and leave the task to others. 

Like climate change, nature conservation tends to be seen as someone else’s responsibility. We somehow trust that our governments are doing what’s needed to be done and, because it’s clear that they aren’t, we donate a few pounds every month to the RSPB, WWF or any one of hundreds of groups doing equally vital work. We leave it to the professionals.

But this strategy isn’t working and our small donations just aren’t enough. Global spending on managing the world’s parks and reserves, its last wild places, is about the same as we spend every year on beard grooming products, and less than a third of global spending on ice cream.

In the UK, one of the world’s richest countries and a self-proclaimed nation of nature lovers, the Government spends less than one-fortieth of a single percent of our GDP on trying to maintain a living world. That has to change.

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The time for looking away has passed and the time for leaving these problems to others is long gone. As we say goodbye to sea ice, tropical forests and many endangered species, so we must say goodbye to our old ways of being – of passively accepting the path we’re on despite knowing where it’s taking us. 

Accepting the brutal truth that the world we love has gone means accepting the truth that those we trusted to keep us safe have failed us. It means accepting that the situation is not under control and taking responsibility for trying to set it right. 

It means not leaving everything to the scientists, conservation professionals and activists in the streets, but joining the struggle however we can – such as through the exciting Climate Majority Project, which will hopefully provide an opportunity to get involved for the concerned majority across the political spectrum who don’t identify with existing groups. 

It means showing leadership, setting an example for others to follow, and helping transform the idea of acting for the environment from the fringe pursuit of much-derided ‘greens’ to the mainstream preoccupation of pretty much everybody. For if not us, then who? 

Charlie Gardner is Associate Senior Lecturer at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent

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