Why we must protect the commonwealth's biodiversity in the face of climate change: Opinion

·4 min read

The perils of climate change are both well known and easily seen in the weather extremes that have become all too common. Walking hand-in-hand with it, however, is another crisis that is devastating in its own right: the rapid decline of our biodiversity.

Few, if any, places on the globe have been unaffected, and as beautiful as the commonwealth is, the potential losses here are still considerable. According to Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, one in 26 species within our borders is at risk of extinction, while we have protected only about 7% of our 25 million total acres, the lowest percentage of our surrounding states. Only two states have a greater aquatic biodiversity than Kentucky, underscoring how much more is at risk.

Worldwide, it’s estimated that as many as one million species are on the verge of extinction, and many more are not too far behind.

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Declining biodiversity affects more than just our wildlife and environment. It also has a direct and lasting impact on our security, economy, health and well-being.

There have been numerous stories and studies detailing what this means. Steep declines in honeybee colonies, for example, are threatening broad areas of our agricultural industry and the loss of so many varieties of apples, coffee and wheat makes these staples much more vulnerable to disease and infestation.

Globally, declining numbers of species can have ripple effects that weaken entire ecosystems and destabilize countries and economies. It also can take away countless medical cures.

Consider that the first effective treatment for the H.I.V. virus was derived from compounds found in a Caribbean sponge, while an important heart medicine can trace its roots quite literally to the foxglove plant native to Europe and Northern Africa. On the animal side, horseshoe crab blood plays a major role in developing vaccines, and snake and spider venom are the foundations of medical advances treating such diseases as cancer and epilepsy.

Another driving factor behind our lack of diversity is the introduction of invasive species, something Kentucky has, unfortunately, become all too familiar with. The Asian carp has overrun many Western Kentucky waterways, and the emerald ash borer has added Kentucky to the list of 30 states that have lost tens of millions of ash trees. Kudzu, the invasive weed that has overtaken countless hillsides, this time of year, didn’t arrive in the United States until the late 1800s and didn’t become prevalent in the South until well after WWII.

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Lists like these go on and on, with each example remaking habitats that took tens of thousands of years to establish.

Kentucky and many other states have taken action to reverse this decline, but our country needs a much more comprehensive solution. That’s why I have joined with more than 360 other state legislators across the United States and our territories calling for a national biodiversity strategy.

We sent a letter to President Biden on Endangered Species Day, which was May 20th. It is a fitting moment, given the record losses of so many irreplaceable plants and animals and the need to raise global awareness as we look ahead to the United Nations Biodiversity Conference being held in October.

As a state legislator, I know that species don’t recognize political boundaries, which is why it’s crucial that we do not undertake this work alone. I believe Kentucky should join other states that have already introduced memorials or tributes in support of this comprehensive strategy.

This year, at least 12 states have sought to protect nearly a third of their land and water by the end of the decade. States like Oregon and Maryland are working to stop the spread of wildlife diseases, and the Vermont legislature has passed a bill specifically designed to protect its biodiversity. I believe the Kentucky General Assembly should enact similar laws next year.

Once these species are gone, they’re gone forever. For us, but especially for future generations, we cannot allow this to happen. My hope is that my fellow legislators, our leaders in Washington, D.C., and concerned citizens like you will join this effort, because the time for a comprehensive biodiversity strategy is now.

Nima Kulkarni is an American immigration attorney and a Democratic member of the Kentucky House of Representatives representing District 40 since January 2019.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Why we must protect biodiversity in the face of climate change: Opinion