I think you’re referring to the oft-used phrase of things being referred to as “canaries in a coal mine.” An “environmental canary” is probably referring to a specific species, situation, or attribute that is at risk due to environmental degradation. The origin of the phrase dates back to early years of coal-mining, when miners would keep a canary in a cage in the coal mine. If toxic carbon monoxide began leaking inside the mine, the canary would die before the miners, and if the canary suddenly died in the cage, the miners would know to get out of the mine, quickly. Now, for an example of an “environmental canary,” if an important species is at risk due to deforestation, and that species goes extinct, it is considered a warning to the world to cease that degradation immediately.
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