Millions of species feared extinct -- global warming is primary culprit
[Note: This was originally published on 13.7 Billion Years as part of "Reports from 2050," a series of imagined reports from the year 2050, based on current news, recent discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]
by Reynard Loki, 13.7 Billion Years
JANUARY 25, 2050 (Dublin) -- Over 45 years ago, in 2004, a study led by University of Leeds conservation biologist Chris Thomas predicted that global warming would doom millions of species to extinction by 2050. A collaboration between 18 scientists from around the world, the paper investigated 1,103 native species across six biodiverse-rich regions, including Europe, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and South America. It remains the largest study of its kind.
The researchers' worst-case scenario saw the extinction of a third of the world's species, while their best-case scenario wiped out 19 per cent. Though the numbers are still being tallied, scientists fear the worst. Most polar bears are gone. Adélie penguins have been declared extinct. Soon after rhino poaching reached an all-time high in 2010, they too, were completely wiped out. The bluefin tuna disappeared decades ago, a victim of human's taste for toro sushi and the failure to adopt an international fishing ban. Tigers have been wiped out due to the illegal trade in their body parts to supply the demand for traditional Chinese medicine. The list goes on.
In 2011, the New York Times noted that "the early effects of global warming and other climate changes have helped send the populations of many...species into a steep downward spiral, from which many experts say they will never recover."
A study the same year led by Ran Nathan, head of the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Science at Hebrew University, predicted that trees that need wind to disperse their seeds -- such as Aleppo pine, Syrian maple and Syrian ash -- will face extinction as they will be unable to spread at a rate that can deal with expected climate changes.
"It is important for those responsible for forest management in many parts of the world to understand that nature alone will not do the job," said Prof. Nathan. "Human action will be required to ensure in a controlled manner the minimization of unexpected detrimental byproducts, and that those trees which are very important for global ecological processes will not become extinct." Those trees, and many others, are now gone forever.
But while human activities like poaching, overfishing, aquaculture, mining, logging and the illegal trade in endangered species have all played major roles in the extinctions of species, the big killer has been anthropogenic global warming, fueled in large part by the livestock industry. The primary change in human behavior that may have prevented the ongoing species die-off was the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the world's industrial countries. But it never happened.
"Political gridlock both within nations and internationally, combined with ideological, economic and military wars, failing economies, terrorism and the human population explosion has sucked the energy of the human race into wasted lives, time and treasure," said Brigid Kildare of the Dublin-based Center for Extinction Studies. "And all species -- including Homo sapiens -- are paying the price of generations of gross inaction."
"For decades, mankind has had its foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal," Kildare said. "But what few cared about was the fact that the more we pushed that pedal, the more species were being pushed to their extinction."
The 21st century is facing a particularly intense period within the Holocene Extinction -- the massive extinction of species around the Earth that has been triggered by phenomena caused by human activity, such as the increase in global surface temperature from the emission of greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere.
"Climate change now represents at least as great a threat to the number of species surviving on Earth as habitat-destruction and modification," Prof. Thomas said.
"The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis is mounting,” said Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group, in 2009. "The latest analysis of the IUCN Red List shows the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met. It's time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it’s high on their agendas for next year, as we’re rapidly running out of time."
Sadly, for the millions of species that have been lost over the last four decades, governments never got serious about biodiversity and as a result, not only has the world lost these species forever, the critical environmental services that they once provided to humanity are also gone.
In his paper "Environmental Services of Biodiversity," which was published in 1996 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Norman Myers of Oxford University noted that these services include "the regulation of climate and biogeochemical cycles, hydrological functions, soil protection, crop pollination, pest control, recreation and ecotourism," adding, "particularly important is the factor of ecosystem resilience, which appears to underpin many of the services."
"Forests are important in many ways to man," said Prof. Nathan, "including the supply of wood, the safeguarding of water quality, and the provision of recreation and tourism facilities."
But because of the sheer number of humans -- and the bad decisions that those humans have made for so long -- the world's ecosystems have become quite threadbare. As a result, man will have to struggle to exist without the millions of species that have helped him survive for hundreds of thousands of years. Indeed, with regard to Mother Earth, mankind has been far from kind.
Adlai Stevenson once said, "Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species." That may be so, but more to the point -- could the reverse also be true?
image: The dodo, a bird of Mauritius, became extinct during the mid-late seventeenth century after humans destroyed the forests where the birds made their homes and introduced mammals that ate their eggs. (credit: anonymous artwork c. 1880; remake of 1626 painting by Roelant Savery; Wikimedia Commons)