UN Predicts Loss Of A Million Species, Is That Terrifying?
National Park Service photo

The United Nations released a preview of a major "Hey, could we NOT fuck up nature quite so much please?" report today, predicting that habitat loss, combined with global climate change, is on track to lead to the loss of up to a million species in the near future. The full 1500-page report, to be published later this year, focuses not only on the severe consequences for the natural world, but also for us big-brained bipedal ape descendants who seem to think we exist separate from all the other species on the planet. Short version: Yeah, we need to change things or we're in big trouble.

And no, this isn't just a bunch of smelly hippies hugging trees, thank you, as the New York Times explains. The report,

compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization.

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."

Add climate change into the mix, and the loss of species is likely only to accelerate, particularly by "shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in." Nice wildlife preserve you have here. Bummer all the wildlife is moving outside the boundaries. And yes, this is a fine place to mention that Joshua Tree National Park may soon have no Joshua Trees, and Glacier National Park is getting pretty fucking short on glaciers. Don't worry though -- the Trump administration is taking care of it by downplaying the problem and sidelining park employees who make a fuss about it.

The new UN report is very insistent that the loss of biodiversity isn't just a matter of not having a bunch of plants, insects, and larger critters you've never heard of anymore. It's bad for people, as if that might get leaders' attention.

"For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake," said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which conducted the assessment at the request of national governments. "But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and 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.

Humans being characteristically selfish, short-sighted critters whose brains don't deal well with thinking beyond their immediate situations (unless there's the prospect of quick profit or sticking it to the tribe up the hill -- we HATE those fucking hill people!), that emphasis seems like a potentially useful approach. Maybe the corporate board won't care about a bunch of stupid tree frogs, but if we can get it through our thick skulls that losing wild pollinators will fuck up crop yields, and soon, maybe we'll think twice about cutting down and burning more rainforest?

Humans are producing more food than ever, but land degradation is already harming agricultural productivity on 23 percent of the planet's land area, the new report said. The decline of wild bees and other insects that help pollinate fruits and vegetables is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.

Nice try -- the people burning the forest want to graze cattle which bring good money, and cows don't eat bees. All talk of global systems is communist. But hey, let's at least try coupling facts and logic with enlightened self-interest, because what the fuck else is there?

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.

"It's no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy," said Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. "We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making."

Oh, honey. Human rights? We stopped thinking about those on January 21, 2017, too. The prospects for other species on the planet are even more discouraging than those for political prisoners, unfortunately:

"Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before," the report concludes, estimating that "around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken."

Unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species, the report said, do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.

The loss of wild species will affect humans, though, and not just in a "gee, I wish I could see a passenger pigeon" way (n.b: the damage to forest ecosystems caused by that one species' extinction is still being reckoned). We're relying on fewer and fewer animals and crops for food, and that kind of monoculture makes them vulnerable to disease. If a blight wipes out a major crop, having other varieties of seed to crossbreed a hardy replacement sure might be nice. Oh bummer, we eliminated huge swaths of South America for the sake of cheap Anus Burgers.

Climate change and habitat loss are also likely to create a dangerous feedback loop for species loss, the report suggests. Climate change may "only" result in the direct loss of some five percent of species -- if we can meet the Paris goals, which seems very iffy -- but the loss of habitat will be made even worse when the goddamn habitats themselves are changing worldwide:

"If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt," Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London, said. "But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can't move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands."

Hey, did you notice the cattle are panting a lot lately? Sure is warm outside. Guess we should move the herds to forage in ... Greenland?

Also, for tragicomic relief, eco-denialism is alive and well. Remember Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder* turned industry shill who promised "You can drink a whole quart of [Roundp weedkiller] and it won't hurt you" on camera, but backed down when the interviewer offered him a glass of the stuff? He had immediate thoughts on the New York Times just making all this shit up.

Please to ignore that "hundreds of scientists and thousands of scientific papers" stuff, OK. In other news, "medical science" may SAY smoking causes over 100,000 lung cancer deaths annually in the US, but the papers didn't list the names of all the people who died, so please issue a retraction!

*Update: Nah, Moore was an early member of Greenpeace, in 1971, but wasn't a co-founder. Wonkette regrets the error.

Lest we leave you terrified (you should be) and hopeless (you shouldn't be), let's also note our big monkey brains sometimes get used for good, not evil:

The report does contain glimmers of hope. When governments have acted forcefully to protect threatened species, such as the Arabian oryx or the Seychelles magpie robin, they have managed to fend off extinction in many cases. And nations have protected more than 15 percent of the world's land and 7 percent of its oceans by setting up nature reserves and wilderness areas.

And when you protect habitat to protect one species, you help a whole lot more species -- protecting wolves in Yellowstone has led to lower elk and deer overpopulation, and that's restored the health of streams and rivers and other species.

It would take a hell of a lot of work, and a level of international cooperation that has so far been the exception, not the rule. Not to mention finding ways of fighting greedheaded planet-rapers who happen to control the world's economies. But that's a fight worth having, no? Things are dire, and as one of the scientists puts it in the Times story, we're now looking more at damage control than saving all the species. But if our lifeboat is on fire, it makes more sense to throw water, not gasoline.

If only to make sure those fucking hill people don't outlive our tribe.

[UN IPBES summary / NYT / Revive & Restore / EarthJustice]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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