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Great Lakes Article:

Endagered butterfly may be sign of collapsing ecosystem

Tuesday, January 8, 2002 – Page A14

When the canary falls over in the mine, it's bad news for the miners. The monarch butterfly occupies a similar role in nature. If it disappears from North America, many other species, animal and plant, may follow. That should concern anyone worried about Earth's imperfect health.

The monarch is endangered. Its fate, discussed in some detail in a new report by an environmental commission set up as part of the North American free-trade agreement, tells us that much more should be done to ensure that human beings do not inadvertently destroy this continent's ecosystem, and by extension its long-term economic vitality.

But there are also some good-news stories, and they deserve underlining, in part because they affirm that answers do exist to pressing environmental problems.

The main problem, of course, is the appetite of wealthy North America. North Americans are now buying as many gas-guzzling trucks and sport-utility vehicles as cars. Even last year's higher gas prices didn't stop the trend to the bigger and thirstier. Bigger vehicles, urban sprawl, the spread of coal-burning factories -- all contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions, which lead to the warming of the planet.

The immediate benefits of all this consumption are obvious: higher living standards, including longer lives and lower infant mortality. But the commission directs us to environmental damage that we might not wish to see.

Global warming could lead to higher sea levels that would flood southern Florida up to 50 kilometres north of Miami, and create "unimaginable" results at the Bay of Fundy, where the tides are already high. North America now has at least 235 threatened species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The loss of the monarch butterfly and other species could distort the continent's living systems, changing the course of evolution.

Natural disasters such as the ice storm that hit Quebec and parts east in 1998 or the Mississippi flood of 1993 are already becoming more frequent, partly because of human pressures. Widespread deforestation, for instance, removes a watershed's ability to absorb heavy rains, leading to floods far downstream.

The challenge is to continue growing economically without destroying the natural resources that underlie our long-term economic health. But how? Give up those muscular four-wheelers and revert to subcompacts? That's not likely to happen, however desirable it might be.

But there is enough good news to suggest environmental degradation is not an inevitable byproduct of growth. A focus on water pollution led to a cleaner Great Lakes system, with some of its once-threatened species re-establishing themselves. Pollutants that create acid rain have been reduced. More parks are being created to preserve natural landscapes. Businesses are beginning to find that clean development can pay.

And Canada, Mexico and the United States are working together more often on environmental projects. That's crucial because species such as the monarch butterfly live in a global village. The monarch is threatened by coastal development in California, deforestation in Mexico and pesticide use on milkweed leaves, its food and breeding ground. Any solution must be a continental one.

Still, the bad news overwhelms the achievements. Canada has no law protecting endangered species; it introduced one in 1996, but the bill never passed. Another bill is pending. And the country has yet to set out concrete steps to limit carbon emissions, in keeping with our commitments under the Kyoto protocol.

Governments, like individuals, tend to postpone making the hard choices until the moment of crisis is upon them. The message from this intrinsically conservative commission is that the moment is coming nearer. "We stand on the edge of a global cataclysm," it said in reference to planetary warming.

The monarch butterfly, and the rest of us, can't wait much longer for practical measures on endangered species and other critical environmental issues.

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