Interview of the Week: Dr. Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence

Dr. Sala leads the National Geographic Society’s program to conserve the last wild places in the ocean. 
ODP:  The Coronavirus pandemic has harmed people around the globe.  How will this global crisis help more people to see the importance of conserving nature for our own health and well-being?
ES: The global pandemic is a tragedy and our hearts go out to all who are affected. It appears that the source of this novel Coronavirus is wild animals, and that the virus spilled over to humans at a market where they sold dead and living wildlife. This is not the first time that our capturing or eating wild animals has resulted in an infectious disease jumping to people, but this is the first time that human society has come to a halt because of it. This pandemic is the most powerful proof to date that “people” and “nature” are not separate, but rather we are all heavily connected. 
ODP:  Help us take our minds off the virus. You have spent the last 15 years saving wild places in the ocean.  Which one was the most beautiful and why?
ES:  I have been to some of the most beautiful places in the ocean, and it’s difficult to pick one. This would be like asking which of your children you love the most! But I have inscribed in my memory moments like diving under 200 hammerhead sharks in Cocos Island, of Costa Rica and with hundreds of walruses hanging out at small islands in the Russian Arctic, the underwater cathedrals – the kelp forests – of Patagonia, or the garden of giant clams in the lagoon of Millennium Atoll in Kiribati. What’s common about these places is that they are wild, which is a rarity these days.
ODP:  This year there was supposed to be a meeting in China about conserving biodiversity around the globe.  Do you think more countries will now be ready to support a global agreement to try to save 30% of the planet for nature by 2030? 
ES:  Prior to the pandemic, it was clear that this UN Biodiversity Conference was a critical moment for the future for the planet and that we need as many countries as possible to get behind it. The pandemic has certainly increased awareness about these issues, and we encourage all countries to support the goals of protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030. The good news is that 30 leading countries and the EU support such an ambitious target.
ODP: We also have to combat climate change globally.  How are conserving natural areas and fighting climate change related?
ES:  It will be impossible to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement – to keep below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels – unless nature gives us a hand. We need to get rid of the excess carbon pollution we are expelling into the atmosphere. The best “technology” to do that is nature itself — trees, forests, grasslands, the soil, and healthy ocean ecosystems – which already absorb a third of our carbon emissions. But that’s not enough. Therefore, while we phase off fossil fuels and shift to renewable energies, we need to preserve all intact ecosystems like the large tropical and boreal forests, and restore much of our degraded lands, so that nature can absorb more of our excesses.
ODP:  What gives you hope that we can achieve the goal of saving 30% of the planet for nature?  
ES:  What gives me hope is the fact that some countries have already protected 30% or more of their land and marine waters, and that those leading countries I mentioned before are pushing to replicate that globally. And most of all, that citizens around the world are desperately calling for more protection. In fact, there is broad agreement about the people that we need to give half of the planet back to nature and use responsibly the other half. That would be very generous on our part, and proof that Homo sapiens is the most intelligent species in evolutionary history (at least for now).
Thanks, Enric.  You are one of the original Friends of the Planet!  We will do everything we can to support the Society’s Pristine Seas program — it is crucial to the health of our planet and to humanity.  

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