Leakey Leads Search for Global Warming Solutions

STONY BROOK, New York, May 3, 2005 (ENS) - The effects of global climate change on the world’s parks and protected areas will be examined in depth this weekend as renowned Kenyan paleoanthropologist, author and conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey convenes some of the world’s top scientists and decisionmakers at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The Stony Brook World Environmental Forum was established by Dr. Leakey and the university to focus scientific attention on global environmental issues, and to mobilize the resources of intergovernmental agencies and international corporations for conservation. This global warming forum is the first in an annual series.

Dr. Leakey confirmed to ENS in an interview that participants will conclude the forum by recommending that countries, corporations, and multinational agencies create a minimum $100 million fund that could be used to cushion some of the harsh impacts of global warming.


Dr. Richard Leakey is the author of over 100 articles and books, including his latest, the memoir, "Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures." (Photo courtesy )
"Remember that national parks and protected areas are artifacts of society," Leakey said. "We create them for a purpose and if that purpose is no longer being met, maybe we can adjust boundaries, for example. There are a number of areas of the world where adjusting the boundaries in a relatively modest way might make a huge difference to the survival of animal populations within the park."

"Government action on land use, zoning, particularly on areas adjacent to national parks, might make a difference between rivers continuing to flow in dry months and rivers which have far less water than previously," he said.

“Global warming is having an enormous impact on climates and a related impact of all sorts of habitats,” said Dr. Leakey, who is a distinguished visiting professor at Stony Brook University. “Together, these are creating a crisis for humanity."

The ripple effect of global warming is creating emergencies in many sectors, Leakey said. "Natural disasters cause a crisis for economies, economies in crisis cause a crisis on the land, crises on the land cause crisis in soil and water conservation."

"This has grave implications for biodiversity, which is a low priority in terms of public funding. Natural systems come under huge stress and fragile environments are destroyed. As a result, life forms simply die at unprecedented rates. We are in another period of great extinction," he warned.

The idea of the forum is to bring together scientists from different parts of the world, all leaders in the field of climate and ecology, and look at what is known about the likely impacts of climate change on biodiversity as protected in national parks.

About 12 percent of the world's surface is protected under various systems of national park governance, said Leakey, "but none of these areas are protected from climate change." cheetahs

Cheetahs in Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve. The world's fastest land animal, the cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, was once a common animal found on five continents, but is now an endangered species. (Photo credit unknown)
Once set aside, the $100 million dollar fund could help to shield some of the most vulnerable areas from global warming, Leaky hopes. "I think there are options that could make the impact of climate change less dramatic, but I don't think we have the slightest idea what the options are, and obviously one glove size doesn't fit all," he said. And we need to have the research done urgently in different countries just to see where we are."

"I think the loss of biodiversity that could result from climate change, could be a disaster and maybe disaster is impossible to avert, but I think some of the disaster is possible to avert," he said. "I'm simply calling for international action to look at the problem as a serious one."

Among the forum participants is Ian Johnson, vice president for sustainable development at The World Bank, but Dr. Leakey said his presence does not necessarily mean that funding will be pledged at the forum.

"The way these things work is it's unlikely that there will be a financial commitment, but I think we can expect a commitment to prepare the instruments that would lead to a financial commitment," said Leakey. "And I know that sounds a little bit like civil service gobbledygook, but there have to be procedures to be followed and I think this will trigger a process that within a short period of time will result in funding being set aside. "

Other forum participants include:

In his native Kenya, Dr. Leakey made some of the most significant fossil discoveries of modern times. He is the son of anthropologists Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey, who delved into the fossil record to find some of the oldest evidences of human occupation of the Earth.

He became director of Kenya’s National Museums and then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Dr. Leakey then was elected to Parliament where he sat in opposition to longtime President Daniel Arap Moi, who later named him to head the Kenyan Civil Service.

Intimately familiar with Kenyan parks and protected areas, Dr. Leakey says global warming has resulted in greater pressure being placed on national parks "because we're seeing greater pressure on people living adjacent to them."

"We don't know the size of this problem," he said, "but collectively I think we're seeing something we have not seen before."

In Kenya global warming has brought more extremes of weather, he said. "Our dry months are longer, they're hotter, the dessication of the land in the dry weather is worse. We're seeing far later onset of the rains. And when the rains come late - the two seasonal rains we have - the late rains are often very episodic and very heavy and you get massive loss of topsoil, massive flooding and then it's dry again. So I think there's a rougher climate generally."

"This is having a big impact on the rivers, and many of the rivers that used to run year round are now seasonal," he observed. "Part of that is human activity, but part of that is climate change. Kilimanjaro's lost its permanent ice, Mount Kenya's lost its permanent ice. This obviously is affecting runoff and aquifer refill."

Mt. Kenya

At the summit of Mt. Kenya, little snow remains. (Photo courtesy East Africa Shuttles)
To those who would say that the climate has always changed, and the latest warming cycle is just another such change, Dr. Leakey says, "The world's climate has indeed changed, and there's some very good records of these changes, but it's never changed when there's a human population of eight or nine billion individuals." That is the number predicted to populate the Earth by mid-century.

"The pressure on the land as the result of the high density of human population, the restriction on wildlife movement and gene flow with fixed boundaries for protected areas and huge areas under cultivation - this is the new phenomenon, this is what's causing the crisis," he said.

"The crisis isn't the change, the crisis is the circumstances under which the change has to be lived with," Dr. Leakey said, "and we'll find it very difficult to adapt in many cases.

Islands will find adaptation more difficult than other parts of the world, Dr. Leakey said. "If the sea rises three feet, which I think is the best estimate, over the next 30 years, 40 years, then clearly at high tide, sea levels are going to be much higher than they are at the moment, and that's going to affect real estate and housing," he said.

"Storms will be much more dramatic, I think, because of temperature changes at sea surface, and I think islands like the Hawaiian group will see the effects of climate change much more dramatically than places like Denver or Chicago," he warned.

Stony Brook University President Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny said, “Only the concerted collaborative effort of researchers, policy-makers, international agencies and business leaders can change the course of natural history. The World Environmental Forum is a critical first step, and we are privileged that Richard Leakey is spearheading this effort.”

For more information on the World Environmental Forum, visit: http://www.stonybrook.edu/sb/lifematters/

For more information about Dr. Richard Leakey, visit the Leakey Foundation.