We have 20 years — at the very most — to prevent mass extinction


Updated 7:04 PM ET, Thu October 27, 2016

(CNN)The Earth’s next mass extinction — the first caused by people — is on the horizon. And the consequences are almost unthinkably dire: Three-quarters of species could disappear.

This has happened only five times in the planet’s history — including the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs.
What’s different now is that humans are causing these changes.
How? Well, we’re burning fossil fuels and consequently heating up the planet; turning massive chunks of land into farms; spreading invasive species and diseases around the world; boosting our own numbers and consuming more and more resources; and causing all sorts of trouble for the oceans, from overfishing to filling them up with plastic. (Did you know researchers expect the ocean to beequal parts fish and plastic, by weight, as soon as 2050?)
This subject certainly is alarming, especially when you consider the global picture.
Another frightening data point in this trend toward extinction emerged on Thursday in a report from the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental advocacy group. The report claims 58% declines in certain vertebrate animal populations since 1970 and says that if trends continue, then two-thirds of all of these individual birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals will be gone by 2020.
Vaquita porpoise nearing extinction

Vaquita porpoise nearing extinction 01:53
Some scientists see those numbers as potentially misleading. Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke chair of conservation ecology at Duke University, told me that 58% is “a fairly silly kind of number to report because it mixes what’s going on in the ocean with what’s going on in the land.” He continued, “It mixes studies of bird populations in Europe with mammal populations in Africa. It has very few data points in South America. The idea that you in the media can only handle a single number to summarize the state of the planet — you should be insulted by that.”
I agree with Pimm that these numbers can be misleading, but that’s only if people misunderstand them. I also spoke with Anthony Barnosky, executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford University. He told me the most important thing to remember is that this report is limited in scope — it has little data from some important tropical regions, for example, and only covers animals with backbones. But it highlights an important and little-considered fact: It’s not just that species are going extinct at an alarming rate — at least 100 times what could be considered “normal,” and maybe much higher than that — but that populations of still-common animals are declining very rapidly.
“I don’t think I would quibble with the trend they’re pointing out — we’re losing individuals of species and geographic ranges at a really rapid rate,” he told me. “If you keep that up, extinction of lots of species is inevitable.”
Importantly, the WWF report deals with individual animals disappearing, not with entire species.
For first time in 100 years, tiger population growing

For first time in 100 years, tiger population growing 01:12
A mass extinction, by definition, means three-quarters of all species disappear.
That could happen in 100 or 200 years, Barnosky said, but not by 2020.
Don’t look at that figure and think we have time to count our blessings. Barnosky told me we have maybe 10 to 20 years to stop the sixth extinction from becoming an inevitability. If we do nothing, expect three-quarters of species to disappear over the next century or two. In other words, what we do (or don’t do) right now will shape generations on this planet.
“Yes, species are going extinct very, very much faster than they should be,” Pimm said, “which means we are depriving countless generations to come the extremely rich diversity we inherited from our parents.”
And others experts, including Paul Ehrlich, the Bing professor of population studies at Stanford University, say the sixth extinction is already here.
“We’ve probably lost, say, 200 species — kinds of big animals — over the last couple of hundred years, but we may well have lost on the order of a billion different populations,” he said. “We are basically annihilating the life on our planet and that is the only known life we know about in the entire universe. And it’s life that shaped the planet, that made it possible for us to live here. And it’s life that still makes it possible for us to live here. (If) we don’t have the diversity of other organisms, we’re done.”
Pimm told me we have “about a human generation” to do something before it’s likely too late.
Only four northern white rhinos are left

Only four northern white rhinos are left 01:10
“If we don’t start doing a lot of things to stop extinction, we are going to see very significant losses of species,” he said. “There are a lot of things we can do and I would rather concentrate on the positive (rather) than just wallow in this really appalling number” presented by the World Wildlife Fund.
“In the last 50 years, roughly, we’ve lost 50% of the individuals in these species,” Barnosky said. “If we lose another 50% in the next 50 years we’re down to 25% of the original. Basically, in a couple hundred years you’d have almost all of these species we’re talking about blinking out — if we keep going at that rate.”
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We know how to slow the rate of extinction. We need to ditch fossil fuels to blunt climate change. We need to protect more of the land and ocean on behalf of biodiversity. (The biologist E.O. Wilson has called for half of the world to be protected, a bold and exciting proposition.) We need to stop the spread of invasive species, and we’ve got to get a handle on illegal trades like that in ivory, which Barnosky said could wipe out Africa’s elephants in 20 years if poaching rates continue.
The first step, however, is waking up to the crisis and its monstrous scope.
“The best way to envision the sixth mass extinction,” he told me earlier this year, “is to look outside and then just imagine that three out of every four of the species that were common out there are gone.”
I’d rather imagine a world where we stop anything close to that from happening.

3 thoughts on “We have 20 years — at the very most — to prevent mass extinction

  1. Man: The ugliest, most predatory creature in the universe (!?). Man is unique but not an apex predator with trophic effects, but a tool maker, without fang or claw, fur, feathers great strength, speed, without his tools, a puny predatory creature, more of a disease or parasite of the Earth. We have movies about aliens and predators like Independence Day (movie) aliens. They are us. Impact of man: 38-40 million sharks a year, maybe more, for their fins, 1 in 3 species threatened or endangered, around 2 % true wilderness left in the continental USA! Genocide, sterilization of the earth, debating the last 1-2% for exploitation or not! For those of us who care we must be on the alert and take action over and over to protect wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, national forests and parks. Else, the march of civilization and its elements of development, recreational destruction destruction and harm of animals (I.e., hunting, trapping, bullfighting, rodeo, animal farming -aka ranching), and intrusion (euphemism is multiuse), extraction industries (oil, gas, coal, minerals, lumber), effects of global warming, those who do not care, who are indifferent, are anthropocentric thinkers (speciesism), have provincial rural attitudes and values reflecting the destructive elements, and human over population will destroy it all.

    The International Union for Conservation of Nature list percentages of threatened or endangered species (with lower and upper estimates) for each group are: cycads 63% (63-64%); amphibians 41% (30-56%); reef-forming corals 33% (27-44%); sharks & rays 33% (17-64%); freshwater crabs 31% (16-65%); conifers 30% (29-33%); mammals 25% (21-36%); groupers 17% (12-43%); birds 13% (12.5-13%); wrasses 5% (4-19%); lobsters <1% (0-35%). Half the worlds animals have disappeared in the past 40 years.

    A steady climb in greenhouse gases has been plotted and studied by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations. Graphs show a sudden and continuing climb of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution (late 1700’s). Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere warming the earth. Man’s activities and industry appear to be the major factors in global warming. Man and the Earth: See The Day The Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves, protecting the Earth from man. Yes, we need Acts like EPA, ESA, and all the conservation organizations we have to protect us against ourselves and the Tea Party and current set of republicans in the USA Congress and many red state legislatures. As well is needed is international humane to animals organizations and conservation organizations. The war on flora and fauna by civilization is on-going and embedded in cultures and psyche.

  2. Will anybody believe this and take it seriously? I fear it will be treated like climate change. We can’t even admit it and get the name right – it’s Anthropocentric Climate Change. I didn’t see the last Planet of the Apes film, but it really looked interesting.

    I know the Republicans have a lot of bad apples, but let un not forget those in the Democrapic Party too. I’m not convinced HRC would have done much for these matters but maintain the status quo. Trump purging his transition team of lobbyists was good news today.

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