A new report on climate change-driven mass extinction paints a sobering picture of the future humans have created for ourselves. The danger we pose to different species is well-documented: In the 1960s, there was Silent Spring, the landmark investigative book that linked human activity and the use of pesticides to the mass death of birds. Today, we have the polar bears and the bees, one a grand symbol of the ravages of climate change, the other an essential pollinator, a small but powerful piece of the food chain whose climate change-driven disappearance could and would spell disaster for humanity.
As if images of starving polar bears and alarming reports about the disappearance of pollinators weren’t terrifying enough, a new report shows that human-caused climate change’s impact on the global animal and plant population is much worse than we thought. In fact, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a UN body, the rate of animal and plant extinction is “unprecedented” — and fully caused by humans. Upwards of 1,000,000 species are threatened, and if humans don’t do anything to save these species, it could spell the end of humanity as we know it.
What exactly is in this report on climate change and mass extinction? We break it down.
What does the report actually say?
First and foremost: nature is in decline, and it’s our fault. Not only is the rate of species extinction across taxonomic domains accelerating — meaning everything from mammals to microbes are at risk — but if we continue down the path we’re going, the coming mass extinction will have a grave, potentially ruinous, impact on humanity and possibly the Earth itself.
How do the people behind this report know this? This isn’t mere conjecture. Rather, the multidisciplinary report was compiled by “145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors.” The hundreds of people involved studied “changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature.”
The largest takeaway: 1,000,000 species are at risk of extinction if we don’t act now. Per the report, this threat spans all ecosystems and lifeforms:
The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. 10% [of insects are additionally] being threatened.
Why does this matter? Because biodiversity is essential to a functioning planet. Everything from oxygen production to pollination to pest control is possible thanks to maintaining biodiversity.
What does mass extinction have to do with us?
According to National Geographic, over “90 percent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are extinct.” So what the hell does this report have to do with us?
A lot. The report states that the rate of extinction is “tens to hundreds times higher than the average over the last 10 million years” and it is a direct result of human activity. How? Despite the fact that there have been at least five major die-offs in the history of the planet, the sixth extinction, which is happening right now, is “predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.”
The five major drivers of this threat are as follows, in descending order of impact:
- changes in land and sea use
- direct exploitation of organisms
- climate change
- invasive species
Report co-chair Eduardo S. Brondízio, a professor who splits his time between Brazil and the U.S., clarified how these drivers work:
Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability. A pattern that emerges is one of global interconnectivity and ‘telecoupling’ – with resource extraction and production often occurring in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.
This is, in other words, a human-caused biodiversity crisis that could destroy the food chain, access to clean water, human health, and more.
How is this report related to climate change?
Sure, sure, climate change is on the list, but it’s not the worst thing on there. But scientists believe it will be as the planet continues to warm. Climate change is already having devastating impacts on the earth. Take, for example, coral reefs. Since 1980, the planet has warmed by approximately 0.7 degrees Celsius; similarly, the world’s oceans have warmed significantly in this same time period. This warming is a driving force behind coral reef bleaching, which has reached unprecedented levels in the past five years and is now occurring faster than reefs can recover.
In the future, climate change’s “impacts [are] expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers,” according to the UN report.
Does this have anything to do with the 2018 report on global warming?
This is one of the catastrophic outcomes the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change hinted at in an October 2018 report.
Less than two years ago, the IPCC released a similarly foreboding special report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C” which paints a dire picture if the Earth warms 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Essentially, the world has approximately 12 years to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius — 2 degrees Celsius at the most — above pre-industrial levels, or the results will be catastrophic.
In fact, according to the Green New Deal, some of the consequences of allowing the temperature to rise more than two-degrees Celsius are as follows:
- A loss of 99 percent of coral reefs on earth
- Wildfires that, by 2050, will burn twice as much land as pre-2019 levels
- A loss of approximately $500 billion in annual economic output by the U.S. economy
- Upwards of $1 trillion in damage to public infrastructure and real estate along the U.S. coastlines
- 350 million people exposed to “deadly heat stress” by 2050
As previously stated, though climate change ranks as only the third main driver of extinction (out of five), the extinction report predicts that it will become the number one cause for extinction as the planet warms — especially if it warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Is there anything we can do, or are we just screwed?
One important thing to note: humans are making progress — but not fast enough.
According to the report, “Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the Report also finds that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”
That said, the report outlines numerous strategies — local and global alike — to effect what they call “transformative change.” Some of the suggested solutions include:
- implementing effective quotas for fishing
- creating more marine protected areas, which are highly effective at protecting marine populations
- implementing educational initiatives to raise awareness and educate people about the importance of biodiversity
- improving access to green areas for urban populations
- reducing food waste by reforming supply chains and promoting equity
- increasing “multifunctional landscape planning” which decreases homogeneity and soil degradation and increases food security
One radical solution? Looking to indigenous communities for a respectful model that supports biodiversity. Per the report, “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.”