Climate Change and the New Age of Extinction

People easily forget “last of” stories about individual species, but the loss of nature also threatens our existence.

The first documented extinction of 2019 occurred on New Year’s Day, with the death of a Hawaiian tree snail named George. George, who was about an inch long, had a grayish body, grayish tentacles, and a conical shell striped in beige and brown. He was born in captivity, in Honolulu, and had spent his unassuming life oozing around his terrarium, consuming fungi. Researchers with Hawaii’s forestry department had tried to find a partner for him—George was a hermaphrodite, but he needed a mate in order to reproduce—and when they couldn’t they concluded that he was the last of his kind, Achatinella apexfulva. A few days after he went, presumably gently, into that good night, the department posted a eulogy under the heading “farewell to a beloved snail . . . and a species.” “Unfortunately, he is survived by none,” it observed.

George’s passing prompted a spate of headlines, and then, it seems safe to say, was forgotten. Americans have, by now, grown inured to “last of” stories, which appear with the unsurprising regularity of seasonal dessert recipes. (George the snail was named for Lonesome George, a Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos, also the last of his kind, who died in 2012.) In February, the Australian government declared a ratlike creature known as the Bramble Cay melomys to be extinct. The melomys, found on a single low-lying island between Australia and Papua New Guinea, appears to have been done in by climate change, which has shrunk its habitat and brought ever more damaging flooding. Then, in April, Chinese state media reported that the last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle had died. “Her species might die with her,” the Washington Post noted.

Last week, an international group of scientists issued what the Times called “the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity.” The findings were grim. On the order of a million species are now facing extinction, “many within decades.” “What’s at stake here is a liveable world,” Robert Watson, the chairman of the group, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, told Science.

The U.N.-backed I.P.B.E.S. is to flora and fauna what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to the atmosphere. Based in Bonn, it is funded by a hundred and thirty-two member nations, including the United States. More than three hundred experts contributed to its latest assessment, which runs to more than fifteen hundred pages.

The authors trace two diverging trend lines: one upward-sloping, for people, and one sloping downward, for everything else. During the past fifty years, the planet’s human population has doubled. In that same period, the size of the global economy has quadrupled, and global trade has grown tenfold. If hundreds of millions of people around the world are still mired in poverty, there are many more people living in prosperity today than ever before.

To keep nearly eight billion people fed, not to mention housed, clothed, and hooked on YouTube, humans have transformed most of the earth’s surface. Seventy-five per cent of the land is “significantly altered,” the I.P.B.E.S. noted in a summary of its report, which was released last week in Paris. In addition, “66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.” Approximately half the world’s coral cover is gone. In the past ten years alone, at least seventy-five million acres of “primary or recovering forest” have been destroyed.

Habitat destruction and overfishing are, for now, the main causes of biodiversity declines, according to the I.P.B.E.S., but climate change is emerging as a “direct driver” and is “increasingly exacerbating the impact of other drivers.” Its effects, the report notes, “are accelerating.” Watson wrote last week, in the Guardian,that “we cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.”

How long can the two trend lines continue to head in opposite directions? This is the key question raised by the report, and it may turn out to be the key question of the century. Many documented species have already disappeared—to take the example of Hawaiian tree snails, Achatinella apexfulva is just one of hundreds of species that have been lost—and probably even more vanished before they could be identified. Many others, like the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, are functionally extinct.

So far, it could be argued, the casualties haven’t slowed us down. The I.P.B.E.S. report cautions, however, against assuming that this pattern will continue. Nature, it succinctly observes, “is essential for human existence.” The report points to pollinators as one group of organisms that humans can’t readily do without. Ninety per cent of flowering plants and seventy-five per cent of all types of food crops rely on pollination by animals—birds, bats, and (mostly) insects. Cash crops including coffee, cocoa, and almonds are pollinator-dependent. In many regions, important pollinators, like native bees, are in decline. It’s not clear exactly why, but probably one of the major factors is an increasing reliance on synthetic pesticides, which don’t distinguish between insects that are useful and those that are unwanted. These chemicals are supposed to prevent crop failures; the danger is that they may end up causing them.

As much as six hundred billion dollars’ worth of annual agricultural production “is at risk as a result of pollinator loss,” the I.P.B.E.S. warned. In an earlier report, on pollinators and the food supply, the group predicted that “total pollinator loss” would decrease production of the most important dependent crops “by more than 90 per cent.”

We would, it seems, be well advised to shift course, if only for our own, species-centric reasons. And, according to the I.P.B.E.S., there is still time for “transformative changes” in the “production and consumption of energy, food, feed, fibre and water.” Regrettably, though, all signs point to more of the same. In 2018, carbon-dioxide emissions from the energy sector rose to a new high of thirty-six billion tons. Also in 2018, nearly thirty million acres of tropical forest were lost—an area the size of Pennsylvania. As the Web site InsideClimate News noted, this destruction occurred “even as more corporations and countries made commitments to preserve tropical forests.” As long as we continue to tear through the biosphere, expect the losses to continue to mount. ♦

Earth Overshoot Day Shows We’re Devouring The Planet’s Resources Much Too Fast

We need 1.7 planets to fulfill our appetite for stuff. And it’s getting worse.

Global Footprint Network, an international nonprofit that calculates how we are managing ― or failing to manage ― the world’s resources, says that in the first seven months of 2018 we devoured a year’s worth of resources, such as water and fibers like cotton, to produce everything from the food on our plates to the clothes we’re wearing and the gas in our cars.

This year sees the earliest Earth Overshoot Day since the 1970s, when humanity’s resource consumption first started to exceed what the planet could renew in a year.

GLOBAL FOOTPRINT NETWORK NATIONAL FOOTPRINT ACCOUNTS 2018

“At the moment, we’re able to live in this ecological debt by using up the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present ― in other words, we’re running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of Global Footprint Network, told HuffPost. “It might work for now, but as we dig ourselves deeper into debt it will eventually all fall apart.”

Wackernagel said he is certain that humanity will move out of overshoot. “The question,” he said, “is whether we do so by design or by disaster.”

Rampant deforestation, acute freshwater shortagescollapsing fisheries and dramatic biodiversity loss show some of the ways that our overuse of resources is already being felt.

There’s a human cost to all of this, said Michael O’Heaney, executive director of environmental campaign group The Story of Stuff.

“When we don’t live in harmony with the Earth’s ability to sustain itself, people get hurt ― you see ecosystem collapse in places primarily impacting poor people, people in the global south,” O’Heaney said.

Research indicates that while the effects of climate change will be felt everywhere, the poorest nations will be hit hardest.

Yet it’s some of the wealthiest countries that are creating the most ecological debt. If the world’s population lived like the U.S. currently does we would need five planets to sustain consumption levels, according to Global Footprint Network’s data. In contrast, if the world lived like India we would require only 0.7 of a planet to maintain annual resource demands.

Globally, we’re using up nature 1.7 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate. In other words, our planet relies on 1.7 planets worth of resources.

GLOBAL FOOTPRINT NETWORK NATIONAL FOOTPRINT ACCOUNTS 2018

“This is not an individual consumer problem,” said O’Heaney. “There’s a systemic problem here ― we have a system that chews up resources, creates products using those resources, spits them out and then makes them so that they’re not durable, makes them so that people throw them away. Take the example of bottled water. We all did fine without water in plastic bottles 25 years ago.”

As corporations have convinced us that we need things like bottled water, governments have been doing an increasingly bad job of protecting our natural resources, O’Heaney said.

Ultimately, he said, the solution lies in transitioning away from the “dinosaur economy” that relies on rampant consumption of resources and is powered by fossil fuels, and instead pushing for economies that use sustainable materials and run on renewables.

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HuffPost’s “This New World” series is funded by Partners for a New Economy and the Kendeda Fund. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the foundations. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com. 

Humans have long history with causing extinctions

Die-offs around the end of last Ice Age linked to people, not climate

If the Global Warming Doesn’t Kill the Humans…

I trust you’re all familiar with the Onion news, right? Good. In that case you’ll get it as you read my parody on the following “article” from
America’s finest news source, the Onion:

If The Heat Doesn’t Kill The Elderly, I Will
Jul 13, 2005
By Rudolph Milner

It is now high summer, and the sun is broiling the American Southwest, sending temperatures soaring upwards of 110 degrees. The heat has struck hardest among the elderly, dozens of whom have died of heatstroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you, like me, are a right-thinking person, your mind recoils in horror at this fact: The old and decrepit are dying by mere dozens?

Fifty years ago, a heat wave of this magnitude and duration would have claimed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of shriveled-up old codgers. The streets would have been littered with their withered carcasses. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. By providing today’s elderly with unprecedented access to air conditioning and situating them in safe, supervised retirement communities, we have thrown Mother Nature’s natural-selection process completely out of sync. And don’t look for winter to solve the problem, either: Even more old people have heating than have air-conditioning, and more and more are getting it every day.

Like you, I had high hopes for this summer. Like you, I am deeply disappointed in the low death toll among the elderly…

Call me warped, but I have to confess I got a good chuckle or two from this piece of pseudo news. Still, as much as I envied the Onion’s ability to make light of a serious issue like human mortality, I felt they were unfairly picking on the elderly when it’s actually the whole of the human race who deserves lampooning. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness to decrepit old codgers everywhere, I’m going to hereby restate this piece and edit out all the ageist rhetoric in hopes it will come across a bit more senior-neutral:

If the Global Warming Doesn’t Kill the Humans…

It is now high summer, and the sun is broiling the American Southwest, sending temperatures soaring upwards of 110 degrees. The heat has struck humans by the dozens, some of whom have died of heatstroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you, like me, are a right-thinking person, your mind recoils in horror at this fact: Homo sapiens are dying by mere dozens?

Fifty years ago, a heat wave of this magnitude and duration would have claimed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of humans. The streets would have been littered with their carcasses. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. By providing today’s humans with unprecedented access to air conditioning and situating them in safe, supervised communities, we have thrown Mother Nature’s natural-selection process completely out of sync. And don’t look for winter to solve the problem, either: Even more people have heating than have air-conditioning, and more and more are getting it every day.

Like you, I had high hopes for this summer. Like you, I am deeply disappointed in the low death toll among humans…

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Ignorance is Such Selfish Bliss

Practically every day I receive ignorant comments from hunters which reinforce my theory that—despite their overweening attitude—their understanding of the science of biology is inherently lacking. Just yesterday I trash-canned a comment from a defensive sportsman who obliviously declared, “You might be related to primates, but I’m not,” before going on to accuse me of being ignorant!

Another well-worn classic hunter excuse I hear on a weekly basis—one that must be a contender for the top ten feeblest rationalizations for hunting of all time—is some variation of the ridiculous notion that, “Our sharp teeth are proof that we’re meant to be carnivores.” I could go on all day refuting this absurd figment, but I don’t want to bore the educated reader with something so off-base. (If you happen to be one of those who consider that statement an accepted truth, please take some time to look it up and learn a little about physical anthropology and humankind’s ancestry.)

The history of how Homo sapiens became the species we are today harkens back a bit farther than 10,000 years (as young-Earth creationists believe) or even 100,000 years, as those who tout the caveman diet might suppose. Every species here today has an extensive backstory. As you may well know, we all started out as sea creatures at one time (long before the first biped sharpened the first stone for butchering carrion).

During the reign of the dinosaurs, all of us mammals were rodent-sized creatures who scurried about and tried to stay out from under foot. After the extinction spasm that ended the dinosaur’s days, mammals had a chance to flourish and diversify. Some went through more radical changes than others.

Whales were once wolf-like mammals that returned to the sea between 60 and 37 million years ago, in the early Eocene epoch, eventually becoming the largest animal ever to grace the oceans or the Earth. In terms of physical changes, our species’ story is nowhere near as dramatic as that of the whales. But as far as our impact on all other life forms, it’s a doozy.

No other species of animal has come from such humble beginnings as a tree shrew, progressed through the monkey-types and on to forest-dwelling apes, only to climb down out of the acacia and kill off the largest, mightiest or most numerous of species. But rather than weighing on our species’ collective conscience, it’s gone to our collective head, in the form of an over-inflated ego that is a key trait of the genus Homo. No other species can claim responsibility for changing the Earth’s climate to the detriment of all life or—Homo sapiens’ crowning achievement—causing a planet-wide mass extinction event.

As blissful as it must be to have our collective head in the clouds, when it comes to human origins, it’s critical that we come down to Earth once in a while and keep ourselves informed of reality, lest ignorance facilitate our own demise.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

That Fateful Day

Without a doubt, our species, Homo sapiens, has made some staggering achievements over the ages. No other animal has ever harnessed fire, split the atom, invented a religion or come up with a way to leave Earth’s atmosphere, travel through the void of space and land on the lifeless dust ball we call the moon.

Meanwhile, none of our bestial kin can be credited with singlehandedly changing the planet’s climate or causing a mass extinction.

And it can all be traced back to that fateful day when the first pre-human took to hunting, killing and eating other animals.

At that point in our distant past, early human ancestors, running around unclothed, with no more worldly possessions to their name aside from maybe a bone or sharp rock, wouldn’t have been considered by anyone to be anything except bipedal primate mammals. But modern hominids, (often sporting bling, ear-buds, tattoos and clean-shaven heads), are seen as vastly superior specimens in many ways to our ancient ancestor. And yet, as full-fledged human beings, we’re killing the planet. Worse still, we know it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There was a time, long before humans devised clever hunting tactics like digging trapping pits for mammoths or driving herds of terrified horses off cliffs, when we shared the land with a branch of now-extinct hominids who lived a peaceful existence of plant eating, as the entire primate line always had. These gentle giants lived hand to mouth on seeds, nuts, fruit, roots, leaves, grasses and sedge, while the branch of hominids in our direct lineage began to acquire a taste for rotting flesh.

As the carnivorous line of hominid’s hunting skills “improved” they grew weary of carrion and began to prey on larger and larger “game,” eventually wiping out enough of our fellow animal species to set in motion a mass extinction spasm that could soon lead to their own undoing.

There are seven billion humans on the planet today, most of whom consume mass quantities of animal products. Meat production is the greatest contributor to global warming, while hunting and fishing continues to reduce the Earth’s biodiversity.

It’s not too late to step back and say whoa to the madness of meat-eating. Millions of people worldwide are living proof that modern humans can live healthier and more sustainable lives on a plant-based diet like our earliest of primate ancestors enjoyed.  Perhaps by collectively going vegan, the human species might still stand a chance of averting their own extinction.