The United Nations just released an alarming report that should knock the socks off of all of those who still wear them. The report, which was approved by the U.S. and 131 other countries, says the Earth is headed into a mass die-off of plant and animal species. Up to one-eighth of the planet’s species are in danger of extinction unless humans make dramatic changes in their planet-fouling behavior.
The report points to a number of factors that have seriously degraded the environment and threatened global biodiversity in recent decades, including deforestation, overhunting, invasive species, overfishing, pollution, pesticides, and ruinous farming and mining practices. The nearly 7 billion people engaged in these activities have altered the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”
Climate change poses the most serious danger to the world’s species in coming years. The report says that about 5% of Earth’s species will face extinction if the average global temperature rises another degree Celsius. Plants and animals that cannot adapt will perish.
The report concludes that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.” The panel’s chair wrote that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all 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.”
It may be that many of these plants and animals are not grand specimens--pesky insects and nondescript plants--but they still play a crucial role in maintaining life on the planet. Many lowly insects pollinate crops, break down feces, recycle and enrich soil and provide a food source for grander species which then provide a food source for even grander animals. Many of the lowly plants are also a critical food source for animals and even ingredients in medicines and other useful products for humans.
What makes our dire situation more discouraging is that the report does not tell us something that we did not already know. Scientists have been concerned for years about what is called the Sixth Extinction. About four years ago, I read an excellent, but frightening, book with that title.
The book’s author, Elizabeth Kolbert, writes: “Over the last half billion years, there have been five major mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.”
The present extinction is the result of human activity and we are doing precious little to head it off. Rather than making a concerted effort to bring a halt to practices that cause great harm to species which play a critical role in the food chain, we continue merrily along our destructive course. Instead of taking the drastic action needed to reduce pollution and curb planet-killing greenhouse gasses, we argue about whether climate change is a hoax.
The time for taking action to keep this planet from turning into a hell hole is running perilously short. We need to get with it and blunt the present extinction to the greatest extent possible. Continuation of a ho-hum attitude is not an option.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and a former Idaho attorney general.