The 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22nd passed without much fanfare. As we reported, the theme for this year's observance was "Protect Our Species."
While some may still argue that global warming isn't being caused by humans and that economic interests outweigh environmental concerns, a UN report on planetary health released this week contains a dire warning: human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems.
Most readers are surely aware that hippos, rhinos, and elephants are declining in numbers at an alarming rate. You probably knew that there are more tigers in cages than in the wild. Many, many other species--some of them with which you are familiar and others of which you may never have heard--are also progressing toward extinction. Now comes this report, which is and should be alarming, that the world’s leading scientists say the human population is also in severe danger.
The UN report announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.
From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests being turned into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the entirety of human history, according to the report, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.
Two in five amphibian species are at risk of extinction, as are one-third of reef-forming corals, and close to one-third of other marine species. The picture for insects isn't quite as clear, but conservative estimates suggest that one in 10 are threatened with extinction.
While it's certainly true that emissions from fossil fuel burning--cars, power plants, etc. is having an effect, we aren't going to tell you that it's the main culprit. Agriculture and fishing are the primary causes of the threat to species. Food production has increased dramatically over the last half century, which has helped feed a growing global population and generated jobs and economic growth--but it has been achieved at a high cost. Grazing areas for cattle account for about 25% of the world’s ice-free land and more than 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Crop production, by comparison, uses 12% of land and creates less than 7% of emissions.
"The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever," said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. "We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. We have lost time. We must act now.”
Hundreds of scientists compiled 15,000 academic studies and reports as they compared today's situation with the millennium ecosystem assessment of 2005.
We're not talking about deforestation in South America or environmental problems in Asia. The report does says that more than 12% of the eight million plant and animal species on earth are at serious risk of extinction over the next few decades, but according to Collin O'Mara, President of the National Wildlife Federation, "The problem is also here at home. About a third of all species right now in the US are at heightened risk of potential extinction in the next couple of decades."
"The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed," said project co-chair Josef Settele. "This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world."
Environmentalists and activists hope the UN report will help people see the bigger picture.
"It's not too late," one of the scientists who worked on the report said, "but if we don't do something soon, it won't be long until it will be."
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