Mass Extinction Happening Again — Dare to Know
Learn more about the latest UN report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, its dire warnings about mass extinction and what you can d o.
Readers have probably heard about the alarming forecasts from the UN about climate change. A body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces them. Their last report got a lot of media coverage because it talked about the urgent need for action over the next fifteen years.
Last month, a similar kind of report came out, but it didn’t seem to get the same fanfare. The report came from another UN body called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It carried a message as dire as the one about climate change. The subject this time was the accelerating rate of species extinction.
Like the IPCC reports, this document is a monumental tome. The panel appointed 145 expert authors from 50 countries, along with 310 contributing authors to compile the report. The work took 3 years. It reviews the relationship between economic development and its impact on nature over the last 50 years. Drawing from over 15,000 scientific and government sources, the report also includes local indigenous knowledge for the first time.
Diversity is Declining Fast
Here is the report’s central message. “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”
We are experiencing a mass extinction as we speak. Our planet has faced mass extinctions before, but the one happening now is unprecedented. Over a million animal and plant species are facing extinction all at once. That is more than ever before in human history.
Part of the problem, of course, is climate change. We learn from the report that greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980. This raised the average global temperature by 0.7 degrees Celsius. This affects life on our planet all the way from individual genomes to complete ecosystems. In some cases, climate change is already a bigger problem than our land and sea use.
Five Main Drivers of Change in Nature
That doesn’t mean that it’s the main problem, though. The report ranks the five main drivers of change in nature. They are, in order of importance, land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.
We’ve all heard about conservation programs around the world. Our Dare to Know readers often support them through donations or volunteering. The report finds that these programs aren’t enough. The UN has set 20 targets for biodiversity called the Aichi Targets. We are making modest progress on 4 of them and losing ground on all the rest. The deadline for these targets is 2020 and the world will probably miss most, if not all, of them.
Loss of biodiversity is also causing the UN to fall short of its Sustainable Development Goals on issues like poverty, hunger, health and water. Mass extinction affects more than wilderness areas. It also affects social development, economics and security. This has become a moral issue.
Mass Extinction Results from Human Activity
Like climate change, mass extinction results from human activity. It comes from demographic and economic drivers of change. These drivers include population growth, mass consumption, new technology and weak governance. Typically, we extract and produce resources in one part of the world to meet the needs of people on the other side of it. This has led to global inequities.
Human activity has changed 75% of our land mass and 66% of our oceans. Over a third of our land surface and 75% of our freshwater now goes to agriculture. We have tripled our agricultural production since 1970, raised timber production by 45%, and we consume double the renewable resources we did in 1980. We catch 33% of our fish stocks beyond what’s sustainable, and we have maxed out another 60%. Our urban areas have doubled, and we have increased plastic pollution tenfold since 1980.
Our situation is serious but not hopeless. We have solutions available. Even so, the report warns that anything less than genuine, transformative change will mean the negative trends will continue unabated until 2050 and beyond. Transformative recommendations cover agriculture, fisheries, freshwater systems and urban planning.
We Need to Change our Approach.
Beyond these practical considerations, we need to change our approach. We have to include different value systems and diversity into our development decisions. In particular, we must involve indigenous people and local communities in the governance and planning of our resource management.
IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson tells us “We have already seen the first stirrings of actions and initiatives for transformative change, such as innovative policies by many countries, local authorities and businesses, but especially by young people worldwide.”
Watson was recently named a Champion of the Earth by the United Nations. He calls on us all to become champions of the earth by encouraging both the private and public sectors to set sustainable environmental policies.
Champion of the Earth
One way you can do that is through donation. Charity Navigator has built a database of charities that align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. You can access it here. https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=4742
We all need to learn to become environmental champions, if not of the world, then of our own backyards.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Originally published at https://daretoknow.ca on June 26, 2019.