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.”