Why the resurgence of otters is very good news indeed

Yesterday, Oct 18th, I was struck by two news stories.  First of all, the UN Conference on Biodiversity in Nagoya is all doom and gloom.  They anticipate the end of life on earth as we know it in reasonably short order.  Government action and targets agreed at previous such conferences have been all but ignored.  Deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction continue apace.
Meantime, a strikingly contrasting story from the UK.  The Environment Agency reports that otters have made a come-back.  There has been a tenfold increase in numbers in thirty years, and otters are breeding in all but one English counties.
I was immediately struck by the contrast, and Tweeted about it: “News Reports. Compare & contrast: gloom & doom at the Biodiversity Conference in Nagoya; great news on the recovery of UK otter populations”.  No doubt apologists for Nagoya will argue that one success story in one country in no way negates the pessimism of Nagoya — and they would be right.  Nonetheless, there are two reasons why the otter news is better than it seems at first sight, and is grounds for cautious optimism.
First of all, the otter is at the top of the riverine food chain.  It eats fish, and it can’t survive or breed without them.  So the success of the otter points not just to the success of one species, but to the success of the whole riverine ecosystem.  In fact we in Britain have been very successful in recent decades in cleaning up our rivers.  We are finding salmon where they have not been seen for a very long time.  The River Thames, once London’s open sewer, is now cleaner than it has been for literally hundreds of years.  The Environment Agency looks at a shorter timescale, but avers that “Rivers in England are the healthiest for twenty years: otters, salmon and other wildlife are returning to many rivers for the first time since the Industrial Revolution”.
This in turn illustrates a point made by a number of commentators, notably by Bjorn Lomborg.  There seems to be a natural cycle in the industrialisation of a country.  In the early years, uncontrolled development leads to very serious pollution, like the Olympic smog we saw in Beijing.  But as a prosperous middle class emerges, the people start to demand higher standards, clean air and clean rivers, and gradually standards are raised.  The USA, Britain and many European countries have gone through this cycle and cleaned up their acts.  That is why we haven’t seen a great London smog for more than fifty years.  Eastern Europe with its Communist legacy is behind the curve, but starting to catch up.  China and India, rapidly industrialising, are perhaps at the height of pollution, but there are encouraging signs of demands for higher standards, and I am confident they too will follow the pattern and raise standards.
Is this grounds for complacency?  By no means.  The fact is that a large extinction event is taking place, and it is largely driven by human activity (although it is worth pointing out that there have been a number of cases recently of “extinct” species rediscovered in the wild, and while re-creating extinct species is still in the realm of science-fiction today, it maybe reality tomorrow — though what should we do with a herd of Woolly Mammoths?).
The Warmists will tell us that the species extinction is driven by climate change, but they are wrong.  They forget that the world has been warmer than today, both during the current interglacial (in the last 10,000 years or so) and in previous interglacials like the Eemian Interglacial around 120,000 years ago.  All species alive today (or their recent ancestors) survived those warmings perfectly well.  Warmists also forget that CO2 levels have frequently been higher — much higher — than today’s, without catastrophic effects, and without the “runaway global warming” which they love to predict.
The real tragedy is this: that  much of the species loss we see today is driven by human population pressure, by habitat destruction, and by the clearance of natural forest for agriculture — not least for bio-fuels.  It is a bitter irony that that it is not so much climate change, as the actions we are taking as we seek to mitigate climate change, that threaten the survival of many species.

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