UN Report Warns 1 Million Species at Risk of Extinction in Coming Decades

Interview with Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, conducted by Scott Harris

A sobering report from the world’s leading scientists warns that up to one million species could go extinct in the next few decades. However, the report also states that the world has a choice about whether or not human civilization will stand by and allow 13 percent of all the planet’s species to die off – or take urgent steps to coexist with nature.

The UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a summary of their 1,500 page report on May 6 that will be released later this year. Among other findings, researchers found that in parts of the ocean, little life remains but green slime. Some remote tropical forests are nearly silent as insects have vanished, and grasslands are increasingly becoming deserts. Human activity has resulted in the severe alteration of more than 75 percent of Earth’s land areas. And 66 percent of the oceans, which cover most of the earth, have suffered human impacts and more than 400 dead zones.

This report follows another UN paper released last year which warned that nations of the world have only 12 years to drastically start to reduce green house gas emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius which will trigger escalating climate catastrophe. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, who discusses the UN report and what the world must do to reverse the environmental conditions that are leading to the extinction of up to one million of our planet’s species.

NOAH GREENWALD: This a report that was put together by 145 scientists from 50 countries, with contributions from actually hundreds more scientists even than that. And so it’s, you know, scientists from around the globe getting together to essentially raise the alarm bells about biodiversity loss and the unraveling of the ecosystems that we all depend upon. And, at this point, actually just only the summary of the report has been released and I haven’t heard when the full report’s going to be released, but that summary of the report determines that roughly a million species are at risk of extinction. Many in just a couple of decades, you know, our human footprint that we’ve impacted (is) roughly 75 percent of the land area of the planet and – roughly a third of the oceans that we’ve lost half the coral reefs just since 1970. You know, we’re having really serious impacts on the ecosystems that we all depend upon.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The species that are at risk of extinction are certainly of critical importance unto themselves. But a lot of people will be asking, how does that relate to human life? How does that relate to our systems of agriculture and other necessities that we derive from nature?

NOAH GREENWALD: Right. And the report does a good job of explaining why we should care and there’s several reasons. One is, you know, that we depend on ecosystems and ecosystems are essentially made up of species. Species are the parts that make ecosystems. And those ecosystems provide services to us. So pollinating our crops, the vast majority of our medicines come directly from species, from plants and animals. Ecosystems moderate the climate. They reduce flooding. So all these services, all of our food crops come from ecosystems. All these services that they provide are at risk. If we continue to lose biodiversity, things just begin to unravel. So, for example, we’re losing in North America, we’re losing our bats to an introduced disease called white nose syndrome. It’s killed more than 7 million bats in the last five to 10 years. And bats eat millions and millions of insects every year.

So if we lose the bats, you know, we have a lot more insect pests. A lot of the things that we depend upon come straight from nature and ecosystems, so we have to realize that. And then another thing to realize is that if we’re losing species, it’s because we’re degrading the environment. So here in North America, the leading edge of the extinction crisis is in our rivers and streams. Estimates are that we’re losing species in freshwater habitats at a thousand times the rate of terrestrial species. So we’re losing them very fast. And that’s because we’ve polluted our rivers. We’ve dammed our rivers; we’ve done a lot of things to harm our rivers that also impact upon us. We have less fish to eat. You don’t have clean water to enjoy or swim in. So, you know, when we degrade the environment and we lose species, we’re essentially poisoning our own nest.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are we past the point of no return? And if we’re not, what are the most effective and meaningful actions that can be taken by our government and governments around the world to reduce the risk that we will lose up to a million species in the next 10 to 20 years.

NOAH GREENWALD: We’re not past the point of no return. And, the noted Harvard scientist, E.O. Wilson, who is kind of the grandfather of biodiversity has this organization called the Half Earth Project, and the idea is to protect half the earth for nature. And, we’re surprisingly not as far away from that as one would think, you know, the Amazon, the boreal forest (or snow forest), tropical forests in central Africa. You know, if we can, we just absolutely have to protect these places and, protect what’s left of nature now and start to restore those areas that have been impacted. So you know, that can work. And we have to rein in the fossil fuel industry. We have to reduce our emissions and stop climate change, and it’s imminently doable. It’s just a matter of political will. It’s a matter of, you know, taking it for what it is, which is a crisis.

For more information on the Center for Biological Diversity, visit biologicaldiversity.org.

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