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Biodiversity and conservation in a time of rapid change

On 25 September, climate change and biodiversity scientist Professor Camille Parmesan gave the Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture, organised annually by SEI, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Stockholm University. Read a summary of the lecture and watch highlights below.

Photo: LeoMercon / Getty Images.

Anneli Sundin / Published on 23 October 2018

For 25 years Parmesan has focused mainly on the biological impacts of anthropogenic climate change in natural systems. Her work shows that today entire resident populations move when climatic conditions change. “We have data from decades back showing species moving from temperate zones to former boreal zones. We have much less data on tropical species but, where we have information, we are actually seeing those same sorts of shifts. Tropical birds and butterflies moving northwards and coming into the temperate zones”, said Parmesan.

Panel discussion at the Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture 2018. Photo: Anneli Sundin / SEI.

“Conservation practitioners are extremely concerned about keeping up their conservation practices in the face of rapid climate change. They are used to dealing with invasive species, pesticides and pollution, which is hard enough. And climate change has added a dramatic twist, hence why I used the word ‘spectre’ in the title of my presentation.”—Camille Parmesan

We now have data showing how marine animals move very far to track the shifting climate space suitable for them. In fact, they move some 10 times further than animals on land. Cod is one such extreme example, it has moved more than 200 kilometres in a decade, almost disappearing from the North Sea. “We never expect to see cod come back to the North Sea in the kind of numbers they were 30 to 40 years ago”, Parmesan said.

Tropical disease bacteria – in the Baltic Sea

We know that species such as butterflies and big mammals move with a change in temperature. And we are also starting to see how, along with these moving populations of animals, bacteria move with them. This is most evident in the seas. Some areas in the Baltic Sea have become considerably warmer. That warm water has allowed the proliferation of certain bacteria that we think of as being warm-water bacteria. Vibrio vulnificus, related to the cholera bacteria, is a tropical bacterium that has found its way to the Baltic Sea and it is thriving there due to a warmer climate. If you swim in the sea and have a wound you are at risk of potentially deadly infection by the bacteria. Parmesan explained that we are used to being exposed to these risks when we travel and visit tropical areas but we, and the health communities around these northern waters, are not used to dealing with them. Parmesan emphasised: “This is something to be aware of, and these bacteria and other disease carrying animals are likely to increase in the decades to come.”

Camille Parmesan urges policy-makers to consider human-driven climate change in every single policy they make. Video: SEI / YouTube.

The pace of change

One of the panels at the lecture, in which the private sector, government and academia were represented, considered the rapid pace of change we are experiencing, and were asked if many of the actions we are taking are obsolete, redundant or are simply not adequate or fast enough. The moderator, SEI Senior Research Fellow Toby Gardner, asked the panel: “What are the areas we should let go of, because the pace of efforts to bring about change are too slow? Perhaps there are many things that we are doing that are too local, too marginalised, perhaps important in a particular context but that are not going to be scaled.”

One of the panellists, Tuija Hilding-Rydevik, Professor and Director of Swedish Biodiversity Centre, Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences and Uppsala University, had a clear message of what we need to do first: we need to let go of the way we separate environmental problems from societal problems. “We have a vocabulary today that distances us from nature and from the problems coming from our actions, our thoughts, our production, consumption and lifestyles. We need to remedy that with new concepts that creates a deeper understanding of who we are. We are nature and we have to recognise that”, said Hilding-Rydevik.

What is helping to scale activities and measures is Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agenda 2030 has united the private sector with governments and the research community. It is a tool for these actors to work with and the goals set in the agenda are universal and valid for everyone. The private sector representative Louise König emphasised the benefits of the agenda and felt optimistic about the change that can be generated by the private sector in the 12 remaining years of the agenda. In the corporate world, “12 years is a very, very long time, even a quarter is a long time, but with Agenda 2030 there is now a framework with 17 goals and more or less five goals can be directly related to climate and biodiversity. Companies like IKEA and Unilever don’t have to think about what the goals should be or how to measure them – all of that is already in place by the agenda. That is unprecedented.” König pointed to the growth of vegetarian products in the food industry in which she herself worked: in the last two years, vegetarian products in the Coop grocery stores have grown by 211%.

Louise König on the failure of corporates to always offer consumers a sustainable choice. Video: SEI / YouTube.

Seeds of hope

The discussions were not all doom and gloom – there are solutions and activities that can inspire us and that we can learn from. Ultimately, we are individuals and our motivation to improve the world is driven by our personal experience. Against this backdrop, Gardner concluded the seminar by asking for successful examples of conservation of biodiversity, and what can give people hope.

Hilding-Rydevik expressed that seminars like this one was a sign of hope: “We are starting to talk more about biodiversity. It has not been at the same level of attention as climate change but it is coming, especially with the new IPBES report this year and reports and high-level events coming up”.

Parmesan reflected on how at one point she had become fed up with research and the effort to influence politics, and was thinking of doing something else. But when she went to the climate negotiations in in Copenhagen in 2009 it turned her life around. She met many young people with energy and motivation who told her she can’t give up what she’s doing, since the world needs her research. She thought that if they have so much optimism, then they will try and change the world and the world will change.

“Young people – they are the ones that give me hope,” she said.

Watch the full lecture

The lecture is divided into three parts: the Memorial Lecture, the Scientific Discussion and the Panel Discussion. Videos: SEI / YouTube.


View photos from the event on Flickr.

About the memorial lecture

This annual memorial lecture is held in honour of Gordon Goodman, founding director of the Beijer Institute at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences from 1977–1989 and the Stockholm Environment Institute from 1989–1991.

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