Is There a Bigger Environmental Issue Than Climate Change? Scientists Say Yes.

  • Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly.
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Look at the websites of major environmental organizations and you might be persuaded that climate change is the only real environmental issue we face. A majority of American environmentalists have adopted climate change as their main cause, and it's easy to understand why: when scientists agree that our planet is likely to be 5° to 10° F hotter by year 2100, that'll get your attention.

Climate change is a serious issue, but a couple of recent studies remind us that it may not be the biggest threat to life on Earth as we know it. It may in fact be essentially a symptom of a broader problem, one which hasn't gotten nearly as much attention from either green groups or the environmentally oriented press. What's the issue? Loss of biodiversity, also known as extinction. And ignoring it to focus on climate change can have dire consequences, especially in the California desert.

Over the last few years an increasing number of scientists have suggested that the planet's collapsing biological diversity may well be the largest and most intractable environmental problem we face. As threatening as climate change may be, it could be mitigated substantially by making a few wrenching but nonetheless straightforward changes in the way we do our business. (The fact that we lack the political will to make even those changes says more about our collective shortsightedness than about the nature of the problem itself.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that for the last few months I've been working to launch a non-profit, Desert Biodiversity, to promote and defend the biological diversity of North America's deserts. I'm not an objective observer here. The deserts of North America are an uncharted biodiversity hotspot, largely intact and with a surprising wealth of species: think "rainforests without rain." And they're ground zero for industrial renewable energy development propelled by national concern about climate change. We have here a situation in which proponents of a solution to a huge environmental problem may actually be worsening a bigger problem.