By Brooke Bateman
Fifty years ago on April 22nd, millions of Americans made their voices heard. It was this first Earth Day that brought on the environmental movement as we know it today, where concerned individuals collectively said that it was time to take action to be better for our planet.
Across the country, people demanded that action be taken to clean up our air and water and protect our environment. The momentum of that day helped bring about public support in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and helped usher through the passage of key laws including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
As Earth Day 2020 is set to be celebrated in nearly 200 countries, this year’s celebration may look different to the crowd-filled events and rallies typical of this day; we are in truly unprecedented times. As I write this we are a few weeks into the pandemic quarantine, but I am blessed to be outside listening to the familiar calls of the birds I have come to know in my neighborhood.
That’s the thing about birds; their presence can connect us to the local rhythms of nature, the signature of a time and place. As the majority of people are spending their days at home on lockdown, I have had many friends reach out to me about how much solace they are finding in birds right now. As one of the most beloved and ubiquitous forms of wildlife, birds are our connector to nature around us. Birds are also our messengers and if we pay attention, they’re showing us that our world is changing.
Over the last 50 years, America has lost over one quarter of its birds, nearly 3 billion birds less fill our skies today then in 1970. Yet, the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is being dismantled, making it much more likely that even more will be lost and without any accountability for incidental loss.
We are losing nature at an unprecedented rate, yet we are seeing rollbacks on some of our bedrock protections such as the Clean Air and Water Acts, making it easier for our planet to be polluted yet again. Looking forward to the next 50 years, climate change is the biggest issue both birds and people alike will face. Birds are already telling us that our climate is changing — birds ranges are changing, shifting and contracting as the climate conditions change across the globe. Birds like the Rusty Blackbird are lost to large parts of their historical range as climate conditions worsen. Whole communities are collapsing, with mass seabird die offs now happening yearly off our northern shores due to warming sea temperatures. Seabirds like puffins and murres are dying from starvation from the changes in the food web brought about by extreme heat in the oceans.
Bird migration has shifted. As spring arrives earlier and earlier, birds are either having to migrate earlier or find themselves out of luck when they arrive too late and their resources have past their peak. Even the herald of spring, the American Robin, has decided that it may not have to fly south after all, sticking around through warmer winters in many places.
Without global action, such as the Paris accord (of which the U.S. is no longer a part of), how can we meet the significant actions needed to limit global temperatures to 2C (or preferably 1.5C)? The consequence of not doing so is that our planet would be transformed into a more inhospitable place.
The consequence is potentially losing billions more birds. Audubon’s Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, a report forecasting the survival of birds to climate change, shows that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extreme range loss and potentially extinction from unmitigated climate change. In New York, 116 species are vulnerable to climate change, including charismatic species like the Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, American Woodcock, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Piping Plover.
The Piping Plover could be completely lost from the shores of Long Island due to climate change. No species will escape climate change, with birds (and the places they share with us) also facing multiple coincident climate change-related threats. New York will experience greater extreme heat events, increased coastal and inland flooding from sea level rise and heavy rainfall, increased pressures from urbanization, and disrupted ecosystems.
But this loss is so much more than just numbers. It is the loss of some of our familiar neighborhood birds we have come to know and love, of nature and our sense of place as we know it. It is not being able to share the joy of seeing a Piping Plover on our beaches with our children. It is the loss of our familiar seasons and weather patterns, where extreme events and natural disasters become more frequent. It’s some of our more vulnerable communities being put at further risk, as climate change will disproportionately affect our children, our elderly, lower income communities, and communities of color.
However, we still have time, and as the threat of climate change grows, so does the work we need to do. If we can limit climate change to between 1.5C to 2.0C, then we can limit the loss we will come to see. Indeed, 76% of bird species will be better off if we can do just that, and our communities and environment will also not see such drastic affects.
To get there we need to listen to the science, and make changes now both as individuals and as a nation. We have done this before. One of the greatest environmental successes of our time came as concerned Americans listened to what the birds were telling us. Toxic pesticides, pollution and ecosystem destruction were devastating some of our beloved birds including the Bald Eagle and the Brown Pelican. We gathered evidence, and looked hard at our values.
As Americans, we decided that we value clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems for our wildlife and natural spaces. We decided we did not want a world where unchecked environmental destruction quieted our birds as described in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. We listened to the science and we took action, and as the environment got healthier, the birds returned. I now marvel at the Bald Eagles and Osprey that have returned to Long Island, having never been a feature of my Long Island childhood.
So where do we stand on this 50th Earth Day? We need to yet again examine our values and embrace science-based conservation. We need to take action, to set in motion the momentum to spark the next environmental movement taking us beyond just one day. We need to face these incredible challenges and opportunities collectively, to do what needs to be done to solve this climate crisis.
The science illustrates how our warming planet will impact both the birds we all love, and the people in our communities, but also shows us that if we act there is still time to create a brighter future for birds and people. If we do something now to stabilize climate change, then we can improve the chances for the majority of these species. And we already have a lot of the tools we need to reduce the effects of global warming.
Climate change is a global crisis, a threat that humanity faces as a whole. Even as we face the current global pandemic threat, the need for effective and coordinated advocacy for climate change action is greater than ever. We have shown through our current pandemic crisis we are able to come together (even by being apart), and we must harness this united energy as the climate is changing and the window to act is closing. Birds are telling us, the time to act on climate change is now.
This Earth Day, and every day, we need to come together and listen and to act on our values. We once again need to be a collective voice of change to protect the earth we all share.
Brooke Bateman is a mother, nature lover, and scientist. She received her PhD in Ecology and Conservation and is the Senior Scientist, Climate at the National Audubon Society. The Stony Brook resident also sits on the board of Four Harbors Audubon Society.