When the United Nations released its blockbuster report on species extinction last week, Kate Brauman didn’t just have a front-row seat. She was onstage at the Paris convocation, explaining the report’s findings and answering questions of government officials from around the world.
The University of Minnesota scientist helped write one of the report’s major sections — on how societies benefit from nature — and was in France with her team of scientists from Nepal, India, Belgium and other parts of the globe.
The report concluded that species are disappearing faster than at any point in human history and that more than 1 million are at risk of extinction in just the next few decades.
And while its dire warnings made headlines around the world, Brauman says a great deal of the work actually lays out promising, practical ways for nations and regions like the Upper Midwest to reverse course and protect the natural environment.
“It’s going to take some pretty big changes, but they are absolutely possible, and they can absolutely change this trajectory,” Brauman said in an interview one day after returning from Paris.
By design, she said, there was little new science in the report. Rather, it compiled existing research and studies from every corner of the globe into one document to assess the state of the world’s species and their potential effect on humanity. Brauman, who has been studying natural water systems and their societal benefits in Minnesota for nearly a decade, said it was eye-opening to see the picture that emerged from all of that data laid out in one report.
“It’s jaw-dropping,” she said.
Many of the threats and possible solutions identified by the U.N. scientists are evident here in Minnesota, she said.
The report mirrors, on a larger scale, work that Brauman and her colleagues have been doing for years. The U’s water-use researchers don’t just calculate how many wetlands are being lost, for instance. They also seek to measure the overall cost of losing them — how much money a local economy loses when people no longer come to hunt ducks, or the cost to taxpayers of treating drinking water from streams that receive more cropland runoff without wetland filters.
She pointed to a $3.5 million water treatment plant recently built by the city of Hastings to remove additional nitrates flowing into the water supply due to intense corn and soybean farming.
“That water plant is very good at getting rid of nitrates,” she said. “The problem is it was very expensive and that is the only thing it does.”
A wetland, she said, would not only filter groundwater but also provide habitat for valuable wildlife, sequester carbon and deliver other ecological benefits.
For the U.N. report, Brauman and her team assessed 18 key benefits from natural lands and waterways and what they mean for maintaining pollinators, scientific advancements, recreation and healthy agriculture and forestry industries.
“We see so much of this right here at home — the benefits, the problems and the solutions,” she said.
‘People really do care’
Brauman says people are already proving willing to respond to some of the damaging environmental challenges — they just need to start getting more for their dollar.
Rather than continuing to build costly water treatment plants, she said, it might be wiser — and less expensive — to make incremental changes to the nation’s food system, such as rewarding farmers for planting perennial and cover crops that will grow alongside corn and soybeans, holding soil in place year-round and preventing fertilizers and weedkillers from running off into streams and rivers.
Those perennial cover plants would reduce nitrates in drinking water, provide new revenue for farmers, keep rivers clean for native fish and mussel species and provide habitat for bumblebees, butterflies and other pollinators that are on the brink of extinction, Brauman said.
“We’re not saying people can’t eat meat, or that farmers need to change everything on their own,” she said. “We have to unleash that sense of responsibility we all have.”
Brauman came to the U in 2010, moving from California to take a job with the university’s Institute on the Environment. After surviving a winter that produced enough snow to collapse the roof of the Metrodome, she thought she would stay for just a year.
But she ended up falling in love with the area and the school. She now leads the U’s Global Water Initiative and runs a project that aims to ensure clean water remains available for everyone in the state. Much of her time is spent making sure that her research and findings are getting to the people who need the information in an accessible way.
When the U.N. sent out a worldwide call for help in compiling the biodiversity assessment, the U nominated Brauman.
She spent the last two weeks in Paris with other coordinating authors, responding to thousands of comments and questions on the findings from governments across the world. During the final days, she and the other authors walked through the summary of the report line by line with policymakers from around the world.
Brauman said she was taken aback and encouraged by the response.
“When I look at how much attention this has gotten, when I talk to my neighbors and farmers here in Minnesota, what is clear is that there is a lot of concern and a lot of hunger for this. I’m really hopeful because people really do care.”