Earth Day 2013: Working Towards Sustainable Communities

By acting to preserve, restore and conserve fragile ecosystems, we help slow biodiversity loss and mitigate climate change.

Ecosystems are ecological systems of organisms and their environment, varying in size and scope, and often overlapping, interlocking or interacting with one another. Healthy and sustainable terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems are able to thrive and support themselves without outside influence or assistance. One of the most distinctive characteristics of a healthy ecosystem is its high level of biological diversity.

We can appreciate the value of healthy sustainable ecosystems when we consider the range and value of “ecosystem services” they provide that directly or indirectly benefit humans and all life. For instance, ecosystems can help regulate global and local climate; cleanse air and water; store and regulate water supply; provide food, refuge and reproduction habitat to plants and animals, including pollinators; produce food and renewable non-food products for human use; help reduce the vulnerability of our built communities to damage from hazards such as flooding, wildfire and drought; and enhance human physical, mental, social and spiritual health and well-being. The value of ecosystems services and biodiversity needs to consistently be a part of decision making in our communities.

The United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates that nearly 60% of allecosystem services have now been degraded to unsustainable levels by human activity. And, it is estimated that biodiversity is currently decreasing 1,000 times faster now than at rates found in fossil records. Biodiversity loss is attributed in part to environmental degradation, pollution, loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation, and invasive species, which makes the ecosystems less resilient. The overgrowth of human population further exacerbates these trends. Loss of biodiversity affects all life and human wellbeing by reducing the quality of ecosystem services.

Climate change and the biodiversity of ecosystems have a complex, symbiotic relationship. Ecosystems respond more quickly to extreme weather than to average climate; although all ecosystems have some capacity to adapt, changes in weather extremes may stress the resilience of ecosystems beyond their limits. As global warming progresses, we see ecosystems struggling to adapt to heat and cold waves, drought and desertification, extreme precipitation, ocean warming and acidification, ice, snow and permafrost melt, glacier retreat, and sea level rise. At the same time, ecosystems rich in biodiversity do help mitigate climate extremes. For instance, ecosystems with many different plant species are more efficient carbon sinks, and can better withstand and recover from climate extremes, pests and disease. Because biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use can contribute to climate regulation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, it is important to preserve, restore and conserve ecosystems and critical habitats in our communities and beyond.

Learn More

  • Read this informative Arizona State University article about how climate change is already having major effects on ecosystems and species. In the second paragraph, you can download the report “Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystems Services,” which is part of the technical input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment’
  • This Terrestrial Ecosystem Adaptation report explores how ecosystems might adapt to climate changes over the next 50 years as large parts of the US confront a range of weather-related problems—from insect infestations to wildfires, from melting permafrost to dried wetlands, and from incursions of invasive species to large-scale species extinction. Includes map-based overview of heat, precipitation, and snowmelt trends across the United States. Authored by Resources for the Future.
  • This Adaptation ToolKit: Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Land Use considers the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of different land-use tools to respond to sea-level rise, including conservation easements. Written for use by local and state governments and citizens.
  • Read The Natural Fix? The role of ecosystems in climate mitigation to learn more about the role ecosystems can and must play to capture and store carbon.  From World Conservation Monitoring Centre, United Nations Environment Programme.
  • The Center for Biological Diversity uses science, law and creative media to protect the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. Programs focus on endangered species, international and national campaigns, oceans, US public lands, and urban wild lands. Home of the Climate Law Institute – newsletter, e-network, user-friendly take-action toolboxes.
  • Learn more about the potential impacts of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems and coastal and marine ecosystems around the world and adaptation approaches from WWF, the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF’s map of Ecoregions is now the most widely used system for bioregional classification.
  • Learn more about threatened world-wide Biodiversity Hotspots, threatened, critically endangered and extinct species from Conservation International.
  • The Climate Adaptation Starter Kit from EcoAdapt includes resources, tools and adaptation examples for ecosystems. Includes resources for assessing climate change vulnerability, risk and impact; processes to guide the development of adaptation strategies; a sampling of climate adaptation portals, tools and resources; adaptation case studies; a guide to getting started on adaptation planning and tips for evaluation and monitoring of adaptation programs.
  • The Sustainable Sites Initiative promotes sustainable land development and management practices for open spaces and built environments. Report titled The Case for Sustainable Landscapes gives an excellent overview of the benefits sustainable landscaping and ecosystem services provide, plus case studies in residential, corporate, park and urban neighborhoods settings.

Take Action

  • Learn more about your bioregion, including your community’s flora and fauna and its sources of energy, water and food. Identify native species that are endangered or indigenous to your area and existing measures already in place to protect them. Identify areas of continuing concern.
  • Research and select a campaign from one of the many local, national or international environmental groups listed on this page for your congregation to support. Adopt a cause, a species, or a bioregional hotspot. Identify opportunities to work with another organization or build a coalition to develop solutions.
  • Encourage individuals to make a commitment to spend more time in nature for recreation or renewal. Consider organizing group outings or holding a special event outdoors or off-site. Help the children in your life enjoy being outside with the National Wildlife Federation’s Be Out There initiative and/or join the Children & Nature Network.
  • Explore the possibilities of restoring the ecosystem on your congregation’s property or public areas in your community. The National Wildlife Federation’s Community Wildlife Habitat Project has information and resources to guide you in creating gardens that attract wildlife and help restore habitat in commercial and residential areas.
  • Organize a volunteer service outing with your local parks or open space department in restoration and beautification projects. Be inspired by Tree People in Los Angeles.

Other Environmental and Conservation Organizations We Recommend

  • Audubon works to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats. Nearly 500 local chapters nationwide organize grassroots conservation actions. Educational materials, research on birds and climate change, blog, online and print magazine.
  • The Conservation Fund partners its skilled team with US community, government, corporate and foundation partners to protect lands and conserve resources while providing economic value to the communities. Its Revolving Fund has protected more land than any other land conservation vehicle.
  • The Nature Conservancy works in the US and in over 30 countries to advance conservation and protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. Wealth of informative links, blog, nature photos and videos.
  • Nature Serve works to provide the scientific basis for effective conservation action. This network is the leading source for information about rare and endangered species and threatened ecosystems in the US, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. Search by state to learn more about the at-risk species and threatened ecosystems in your state.
  • The Rewilding Institute works on wildlands and wildlife conservation in North America, with programs on large animals and human population growth. Comprehensive online resource listings.
  • The National Resources Defense Council’s Save BioGems initiative mobilizes its members and online activists to pressure governments and corporations in places across the Americas facing an imminent threat of destruction. Working with local partners on the ground, they have negotiated agreements and won numerous court-ordered protections for wildlife and wildlands.
  • The Sierra Club founded its Resilient Habitats program to protect 10 ecosystems in the US from climate change by 2020, and to increase resilience of natural systems of land and waters on federal lands.  Also, campaigns and programs focused on oil, coal, natural gas, water and others.
  • The Trust for Public Land works to conserve land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, historic sites, rural lands and other natural places, from the inner city to the wilderness.
  • The Wildlands Network, which focuses on conservation in North America, also has resources to help private landowners protect or restore the ecological value of their properties. (See also: Private Landowner Network)
  • The Wildlife Conservation Network focuses on species protection by supporting conservation entrepreneurs using innovative strategies in local communities in selected areas worldwide.
  • The World Wildlife Fund, WWF, has set a goal of preserving fifteen of the world’s most ecologically important regions by 2020. Emphasis on species protection and restoration, strengthening local communities, transforming markets and policies, and mobilizing individual support of conservation.