Shifting from Climate Change to Planet Change

Shifting from Climate Change to Planet Change

The COP15 experience extends well beyond the experiences inside and outside the Bella Center, where the attendees are queuing and negotiators struggling. Throughout the two weeks, there has been a wealth of offsite lunches, receptions, forums, gatherings, panel discussions, galas, and the like. Many are invitation-only, most are for those "in-the-know." I won't pretend I've figured out how to hear about all the really cool things going on, but I was lucky enough to be informed of and/or invited to some really wonderful events.

Of course, one of the reasons to attend these is that they can be held in some pretty spectacular places. I had a truly memorable night at the Ny Carlsberg Glytpotek launching the 17th book in the Cemex Conservation Series The Wealth of Nature and another at the Royal Danish Theatre hosted by Maya Lin to honor those who are making a difference in protecting the world's forests. Both are amazing Danish landmarks worth visiting.

I also attended a special gathering on REDD+ yesterday afternoon. REDD+ is Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation "plus" other conservation actions, such as reforestation. As of this writing, REDD+ seems to have the greatest potential for real progress to come out of these talks.

Between the three events, I had the opportunity to hear, and in many cases meet, some of the world's most influential environmental leaders including environmental superstars like Jane Goodall, media superstars like Bianca Jagger, business superstars like Sir Richard Branson, press superstars like Tom Friedman, administrative leaders such as US Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack, as well as the leaders of organizations the likes of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and more.

But by far the most important message from these events is that the story extends far beyond atmospheric and political rises in temperature (the latter being much on display in the formal talks). Two key elements missing in all too much of the discourse, but were truly on display here: they are the narrative, and the system.

The narrative was told by people like James Balog, whose photographic survey and personal experiences in compiling it tell the story of the glacial retreat in Greenland (check out his talk on TED!). The narrative was told by the people that I met and heard from in countries that are experiencing the affects of ecological change first hand - the delegations from Fiji, Gabon, Guyana, Papua New Guinea and representatives from NGOs in Guyana, Israel, Uganda who are dealing with drought, flood, disease, sea level rise, and loss of livelihood.

We were reminded of the system by the Wealth of Nature's explanation of our dependence on ecosystem services for clean air, fresh water, artistic inspiration, and so many other gifts that we take for granted.

By Maya Lin's project What is Missing? that reminds us of the importance of biodiversity and her film Unchop a Tree (on her website) that reminds us that trees not only sequester carbon, they are a critical habitat for a complex web of species so many of which are at risk.

By Jane Goodall's description of how working with local communities to save the forests, they have improved the health of the residents.

By the organizations that spoke of ocean acidification and its impact on the food chain, of overfishing, nutrient runoff, and water quality degradation.

The COP15 conference in Copenhagen is ostensibly about Climate Change. But it's so much more. Climate change is part of a planetary ecosystem. Reducing warming isn't enough if the oceans are dying. We can't reduce emissions without saving the rain forests. We can't maintain, let alone improve, quality of life without protecting our own habitat.

Shift focus for a minute from the details ("should they have used the tree ring data or the instrumentation data?") and look at the big picture. Take a break from the arguments and listen to the people on the ground. Step back from the data trees and see the forests (disappearing). Regardless of what the thermometer says, we have work to do. And we're going to have to do it together.

Kathrin ("Kate") Winkler is senior director and chief sustainability officer at EMC Corporation, where she has a history of taking on entirely new roles in which she has to fill in the interstices between more traditional functions.

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