My Turn: Why we should pay attention to new report that calls nature’s decline ‘unprecedented’

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For the Monitor
Published: 5/9/2019 12:30:25 AM

A new report released this week from the highly respected Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services states that humans are changing the Earth’s ecosystems so dramatically that as many as 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction. Further, the report calls the current global response insufficient to stop this decline.

I’m glad to see that this report is getting worldwide attention, and that it will no doubt help to raise awareness of an issue that is misrepresented by some and misunderstood by many. I hope that it will also serve as a call to action, because the situation in which we now find ourselves is a serious one indeed.

The overall conclusion of the report, that we are on the brink of a major crisis and unless we change “business as usual” we will lose hundreds of thousands, if not 1 million-plus species, is consistent with what ecologists and conservation biologists have been saying for quite some time now.

In fact, Harvard emeritus professor E.O. Wilson (the scientist who coined the term “biodiversity”) has been making this very point for decades. It’s why he has recently recommended a “half Earth” strategy of assigning some sort of protected status to roughly half of the Earth’s land and sea area in order to prevent a sixth major mass extinction.

Part of the challenge is that species are interdependent in ways that can be difficult to predict. There are many metaphors that have been used by conservation biologists to shed light on the consequences of species loss. For example, imagine losing rivets from the wings and body of an airplane. How many rivets can be lost before the plane is unsafe to fly? How many species can be lost from an ecosystem before the system collapses and most species are lost?

Though there have been mass extinctions in the past, this would be the first caused by a single species. Perhaps we can use our intelligence to avoid this tragedy.

Many have made the point, and I happen to agree, that we have the technology to change course if we can find the will. A huge improvement would be to switch to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible. Not only would this have the benefit of preventing the worst-case climate change scenarios, it would result in significant reductions in habitat destruction and pollution associated with fossil fuels, both major contributors to species extinctions.

It’s interesting that a lot of the focus that I’ve seen in the media has been on how species extinctions will be detrimental to humans. That is absolutely true for countless reasons, including our ability to grow the food we need, maintain our health, find cures to diseases and sustain our quality of life.

Furthermore, many believe that there are ethical reasons to protect other species. There is certainly a case to be made that species have a right to exist beyond any utilitarian value they may have for humans. I hope this report can help convince the public, businesses and politicians that we need to find the will to change to a more sustainable way of living on the planet.

(Rhine Singleton is a professor of biology and environmental science at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, who studies, writes and teaches about ecology.)




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