Maintain Biodiversity

From the Foundation's 1996 Annual Report


Many ecosystems around the world stand at risk in a "business as usual" energy economy. The effects of unsustainable practices have already been substantial—from massive hydroelectric dam development which floods valleys and alters downstream river qualities, to large-scale felling of coastal mangroves for charcoal production, to the subsidence of coastal marshes in Louisiana following river diversion and the withdrawal of subsurface oil and gas. These local effects pale in comparison with the likely rate of extinction and ecosystem degradation that will occur with increasing climate change.

The geographic distribution of most plants and animals is linked to climate. Often the link is direct through adaptation to specific ranges of heat and moisture. Indirect links can also be important, as in the case of an animal requiring a particular plant species for habitat or food, which itself is under direct climatic control.

Change climate and you change the places on Earth where different species can prosper. Slow changes usually allow for evolutionary adaptation or shifts in range. But if changes are too rapid, species will disappear. The extent and speed of global warming now predicted to be under way will place many species at risk. At least one ecosystem—the Arctic tundra—may vanish as the climatic conditions required for its existence disappear. Other ecosystems, especially coastal wetlands, will suffer major disruptions.

Maintaining biodiversity makes economic as well as biological sense. Free of charge, natural ecosystems provide a multitude of valuable services for people and the human economy. In 1995 and 1996, a team of economists and biologists, supported in part by the foundation, conducted the first comprehensive review of these "ecosystem services" and published the results of their work in early 1997 in a book entitled Return to Earth & W. Alton Jones Foundation