UN – One Million Species Face Extinction

The long awaited report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was published on May 6th. The Report clearly shows that human activity is having dramatic consequences to Mother Earth. Approximately one million species are at risk of extinction due to climate change, pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats. It is a grim report. 

Its Chairman Sir Robert Watson concluded that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” On a positive note the Report indicates that we can take corrective actions if all nations work together to address the myriad issues. However, transformative change is required at all levels of society in all countries. By transformative, the Report means “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” 

The Report was created over a three-year period by 145 authors from fifty countries, with an additional 310 contributing their expertise as well. They reviewed approximately 15,000 papers from governmental and scientific sources.

The key takeaway is the Report indicates that approximately 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. Some within decades, others within a longer period of time. This is more than ever before in human history. This loss of biodiversity could have profound consequences on human society as the Report clearly shows the linkages between humanity and nature. It indicates that as the availability of serviceable land withers so does its capacity to support humans. All too many of us think that we live outside nature, that somehow we are greater than nature. We aren’t. Mother Earth always wins any confrontation. This Report is another wake-up call.

Monday’s New York Times article about the Report indicated that “in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion on non-monetized benefits to humans each year.” 

The Washington Post’s article pointed out an important quote from Sir Robert during his press conference on Sunday. The issue, he said, “is the way it will affect human well-being, as we’ve said many times – food, water, energy, human health.”

My favorite paper, the Guardian, wrote “the study paints a picture of a suffocating human-caused sameness spreading across the planet, as a small range of cash crops and high-value livestock are replacing forests and other nature-rich ecosystems.”

Let’s look at several of the key metrics taken from the IPBES Report:

  • up to 1 million species at risk of extinction
  • the habitat of approximately 9% of the 5.9 million terrestrial species is unsuitable for their long term survival
  • more than 40% of amphibian species at risk of extinction
  • more than one-third of marine mammals at risk of extinction
  • nearly one third of reef forming corals, sharks and their relatives at risk of extinction
  • approximately 25% of all species at risk of extinction
  • at least 680 vertebrate species have gone extinct since the 16th century due to human activity
  • approximately 10% of domesticated breeds of mammals have become extinct by 2016, with one thousand more at risk
  • approximately 10% of insect species at risk of extinction
  • 70% increase in the number of invasive alien species across 21 countries
  • 30% reduction in global terrestrial habitat 
  • climate change has negatively impacted approximately 47% of terrestrial flightless mammals and 23% of birds
  • 23% productivity reduction of land areas
  • approximately 11% of the world’s population is malnourished
  • 33% of fish stocks in 2015 harvested at unsustainable levels
  • more than 55% of the ocean is subjected to industrial fishing
  • up to 33% of fish caught illegally
  • 40% of the global population does not have access to safe drinking water
  • between 300 – 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities dumped annually in the world’s waters
  • increase in plastic pollution 10 fold since 1980
  • 23% of land area has seen productivity degradation

In the media release, Sir Robert was quoted as saying “The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

I question whether it can be overcome. The US economy is a laissez-faire, unfettered form of capitalism that is not structured to consider the public good. Transformative change, of the type envisioned by Sir Robert, is generally not a high priority of shareholders and corporate executives. I think regularly about a quote from Fran Lebowitz: “In the Soviet Union, Capitalism triumphed over Communism. In this country, Capitalism triumphed over Democracy.” Now, we have to ask ourselves whether we will allow it to triumph over the future of our way of life.

The Guardian quoted one of the Report’s main authors, Andy Purvis, a professor at the Natural History Museum in London. He stated: “This is the most thorough, most detailed and most extensive planetary health check. The take-home message is that we should have gone to the doctor sooner. We are in a bad way. The society we would like our children and grandchildren to live in is in real jeopardy. I cannot overstate it. If we leave it to later generations to clear up the mess, I don’t think they will forgive us.” Amen, Brother.

If we ignore the contents of this Report, we would not deserve their forgiveness. It is a stark warning that demands our attention and action. Not smirks, snickers, and ridicule.

If you want to make a small difference, vote the environment in 2020.

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