University of Calgary scientist says change possible after witnessing species decline

A University of Calgary biologist says he knew right away he wanted to sign onto a "warning to humanity" issued Monday.

'We really are pushing the Earth's ecosystems beyond their capacity,' Sean Rogers says

Scientists worldwide are urging actions to reduce pollution and other human activities that negatively impact the environment. Pictured is a view of Calgary filled with smoke from the B.C. wildfires. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

A University of Calgary biologist says he knew right away he wanted to sign onto a "warning to humanity" issued Monday. 

More than 15,000 scientists in 184 countries signed the letter urging change in order to save Earth.

The warning — targeted to world leaders and the public — has garnered much attention and gained popularity on Twitter with the hashtag #ScientistsWarningToHumanity.

This comes 25 years after a 1992 warning by scientists and includes a research paper, accepted to be published in the journal BioScience.

That research found strong evidence of environmental deterioration since 1992, including climate change, forest loss, dwindling biodiversity, unsustainable fisheries, ocean dead zones, human population increase and a decline in freshwater availability.

Humanity can change its actions and make a difference, the report also noted. The Antarctic ozone hole has shrunk dramatically since a 1987 international treaty banned ozone-eating chemicals.

"I thought that the message was important, and then, more importantly, I thought that the data they had supported this message," said Sean Rogers, who studies ecology and evolutionary biology in Alberta, in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener.

He spoke with host David Gray Wednesday morning.

Q: I actually remember this event from 1992. One would hope that some things would've gotten better since then, but according to the letter, as I understand it, they haven't. What's the message in the current letter?

We've made some progress, but I think the message in the current letter is that we really are pushing the Earth's ecosystems beyond their capacity to support the web of life.

The message here is that there's still have a lot of work to do, and we really need to pay attention to these issues.

Q: I think of that letter from the 1990s saying that something had to change or vast human misery will be the result. Are we there? Are we in a period of vast human misery because of what we've done to the planet?

I think that "vast human misery" is not a stretch when we think about the trends that this particular papers shows. When we look at fresh water resources, when we look at marine catches, when we look at the number of species, the number of vertebrate species and overall population change.

I think that the data really speak for themselves.

So the next steps, which the paper also addresses, are that we really do need to take action — and I think that's part of the reason we had over 15,000 scientists sign onto this letter.

Q: Scientists are behind this letter because they're the ones bearing witness to this change. Can you run that through your own experience?

I'm an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, and in the Faculty of Science we've just made understanding Earth's evolving systems a strategic priority.

Certainly in my own work — whether it be on westslope cutthroat trout, which we've seen really decline in numbers as a result of habitat loss and also environmental change, or whether it's the Banff Springs snail or fisheries at our coastal marine station out in Bamfield [in B.C.] — our research and my students' show these pressures are really changing the landscape in many ways consistent of the message of this paper.

Q: The letter in '92 was designed to be a call to action. Is this a call to action?

It is a call to action. And I think that they outlined very clear things we need to do, whether it be prioritizing well-funded and well-managed reserves, maintaining our ecosystems and our ecosystem services.

I think, importantly, this time one of the differences I see is we're really calling for increased nature education for children and our students.

I think that the collective message is one of action, but it's also one of education and just trying to keep that dialogue and that conversation going.

Q: Which are all noble goals. But is it disheartening that you're playing out the same scenario 25 years later?

It's no doubt it's a little disheartening, but I think that our responsibility is to not only do the research, but make sure that we do whatever we can to get that message out there and report what we're finding.

And hopefully — and collectively as a society — we'll do these steps to make these changes. And it's our moral imperative and responsibility to do what we can to try to turn this around.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from Caroline Wagner and the Calgary Eyeopener.