Last month, over a hundred representatives from zoos and aquariums around the world joined climate activism group, 350.org, pledging that their institutions would take action against global warming, including the possibility of divesting from fossil fuel companies. The effort, dubbed Zoos and Aquariums for 350, was launched during the annual meeting of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG).
“What could be more consistent with the conservation mission of zoos and aquariums than working to ensure that governments acknowledge the reality of climate change and take action?” said Onnie Byers, the chair of CBSG.
In recent decades, many zoos and aquariums have taken a more active role in supporting conservation efforts beyond traditional captive-breeding, including setting up their own conservation programs, funding scientists in the field, or expanding initiatives to educate visitors. But no environmental issue likely threatens more species in more regions of the world—from coral reefs to Arctic mammals to high-altitude rainforest species—than global warming.
“Zoos and Aquariums are critical places for the fossil fuel divestment movement to take hold. As institutions dedicated to conservation and biodiversity, they have an incredible opportunity to educate the world on the climate crisis,” says co-founder of 350.org, Phil Aroneanu, who attended the meeting.
350.org, whose name refers to the level of carbon in the atmosphere that scientists deem safe in parts per million (levels passed 400 ppm for the first time this May), initially kicked-off its fossil fuel divestment campaign last year. It called on universities, churches, cities, and pension funds to “divest” from fossil fuel companies, i.e. to strip their investment profile of fossil fuel companies. The campaign has actually moved more rapidly than many expected with dozens of institutions across the U.S. pledging to divest. Recently, 350 has also spread their divestment message in Australia and Europe.
Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. Fossil fuel emissions are not only warming the Earth, but also acidifying the oceans, a phenomenon that is imperiling the world’s coral reefs. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
But the meeting last month was the first time zoos and aquariums have signaled support.
“Zoos and Aquariums for 350 calls on zoos and aquariums to immediately freeze any new investment in the 200 fossil fuel companies that hold the greatest amount of unburned fossil fuel reserves and to create a plan for fully divesting within five years,” Byers told mongabay.com. “Any zoo that invests money, whether in stocks, mutual funds, or in an investment bank, can choose to divest from fossil fuel companies.”
While the 350 divestment campaign isn’t expected to immediately impact fossil fuel company’s bottom lines, activists intend to use it to show that fossil fuel companies are rogue actors, ignoring the warnings of the scientific community and governments worldwide.
“Divestment takes the fight for climate action to a different level. It is a public statement made by the institution recognizing that most fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to stop runaway climate change from happening, and that governments must make policies to reflect this reality,” explains Byers. “Divestment marks a movement to stop investing in companies that forge ahead in extracting and burning fossil fuels when what the world needs is a collective movement toward greatly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”
According to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), many of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will have to be left untouched if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The IPCC set out a global carbon budget for the first time earlier this year. According to the scientists and policy-makers, the world can only emit 800-880 gigatonnes of CO2 to avoid temperatures rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. But as of 2011, we had already emitted 530 gigatonnes or about 60 percent of the total.
To date, three zoological institutions have pledged to divest entirely: CBSG, Nordens Ark in Sweden, and the pension fund for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Many other representatives are taking the message back to their home institution to discuss action.
The new group is also calling on zoos and aquariums to green their energy sources and to offset carbon emissions.
“Zoos and Aquariums for 350 asks participating zoos to continue reduce their emissions as much as possible and then to commit to offsetting the remainder, either with our chosen carbon offset provider or one that they’ve chosen themselves,” notes Byers. She adds that it’s time the world’s zoos and aquariums—which see over 700 million visitors a year—begin getting involved in the fight against climate change through as many means as feasible.
“I believe we all must recognize the scale and the urgency of this crisis and do all we can to address it. This means engaging on every possible level, including politically. Zoos and aquariums, as institutions are integrally connected to and beloved by their communities, are perfectly placed to do this.”
Participants in Zoos and Aquariums for 350 at the meeting last month. Photo courtesy of CBSG.
Cloud forests, such as this one in Colombia, may be hugely impacted by global warming as species attempt to migrate upslope to maintain their temperature preferences. The world’s cloud forests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, and home to innumerable species found no-where else. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
(05/01/2013) The cities of San Francisco and Seattle have pulled their money out of fossil fuel companies, taking a climate divestment campaign from college campuses to local government. The campaign group 350.org said on Thursday it had won commitments from a total of 10 cities and towns to divest from 200 of leading fossil fuel companies.
(08/15/2013) In a large room that used to house aquatic mammals at the Minnesota Zoo, Erik Runquist holds up a vial and says, ‘Here are its eggs.’ I peer inside and see small specks, pale with a dot of brown at the top; they look like a single grain of cous cous or quinoa. Runquist explains that the brown on the top is the head cap of the larva, a fact that becomes more clear under a microscope when you can see the encased larva squirm. I’m looking at the eggs of a Poweshiek skipperling, a species that is more imperiled than pandas, tigers, or bluewhales. Once superabundant, only several hundred Poweshiek skipperlings may survive on Earth today and the eggs I’m looking at are the only ones in captivity.
(07/24/2013) In a single night in March, a band of heavily-armed, horse-riding poachers slaughtered 89 elephants in southern Chad, thirty of which were pregnant females. The carnage was the worst poaching incident of the year, but even this slaughter paled in comparison to the 650 elephants killed in a Cameroon park in 2012. Elephant poaching is hitting new records as experts say some 30,000 elephants are being killed every year for their ivory tusks. But the illegal wildlife trade—estimated at $19 billion—is not just decimating elephants, but also rhinos, big cats, great apes, and thousands of lesser-known species like pangolins and slow lorises. This growing carnage recently led to representatives of over 40 zoos and dozens of wildlife programs to call on governments around the world to take immediate action on long-neglected wildlife crime.
(06/18/2013) Zoos are usually thought of as entertainment destinations. As a place to take the kids on a nice afternoon, they are sometimes perceived to lack the educational heft of an art museum or a theatre. However, over the past few decades many of the world’s best zoos and aquariums have also worked to educate their visitors about conservation issues, in addition to funding and supporting programs in the field to save the ever-growing number of imperiled species. But as threats to the world’s species mount—including climate change—many are beginning to ask what, if anything, zoos and aquariums should do to address the global environmental crisis.