Pretty much everyone who follows the news would be aware of the new report released by the United Nations yesterday about the impact of climate change, this one focusing on what is happening to the biodiversity of the planet. You can read the summary of the report here with the full 1,500 page report to be released in September. This news report outlines the major findings.
Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.
Its conclusions are stark. In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”
At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in. When combined with the other ways humans are damaging the environment, climate change is now pushing a growing number of species, such as the Bengal tiger, closer to extinction.
Scientists have cataloged only a fraction of living creatures, some 1.3 million; the report estimates there may be as many as 8 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them insects. Since 1500, at least 680 species have blinked out of existence, including the Pinta giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands and the Guam flying fox.
Though outside experts cautioned it could be difficult to make precise forecasts, the report warns of a looming extinction crisis, with extinction rates currently tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years.
The report goes beyond discussing the loss of biodiversity but looks at how that will affect food security and access to clean water for everyone on the planet, not just those in poor countries.
A previous report by the group had estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines.
The authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient. Instead, they call for “transformative changes” that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agriculture’s environmental footprint and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.
What is disturbing is that this is almost entirely human-made problem. We know how to fix it. We know what is causing the change and losses, and we know what needs to be done in order to at least halt the decline, even if we cannot reverse it. What is lacking of course is political will.
Farmers and ranchers would have to adopt new techniques to grow more food on less land. Consumers in wealthy countries would have to waste less food and become more efficient in their use of natural resources. Governments around the world would have to strengthen and enforce environmental laws, cracking down on illegal logging and fishing and reducing the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment.
This is not a problem that we can recycle away. We have to reduce our consumption, change our consumption patterns, and accept that those in the richer countries will have to adjust to a reduced standard of living.
In the US, the power than corporations have over the government that enable them to hinder any actions that might harm their profits is a significant obstacle. Large-scale naming and shaming of the worst offenders may help..
Another obstacle in the US are the religious people who are convinced that their god is not going to let the planet be destroyed and that thus we do not have to worry since that ultimate deus ex machina will swoop in and save the day. I can’t count the number of times I have heard politicians and others express variations of this view and the sheer self-serving idiocy of that sentiment drives me crazy. The fact that this report is from the UN will also enable these people to dismiss the warnings since they tend to also believe that the UN is part of a global conspiracy to take away American sovereignty and that actions to combat climate change is one way they seek to do that.