By Suzanne York, HowMany.org, January 12, 2012
A new study by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology predicts climate change will disrupt the delicate ecological balance between interdependent and often endangered plant and animal species. It will lead to reduced biodiversity and adversely affect the Earth's water, energy, carbon and other element cycles.
Moreover, the study found that human activities – namely agriculture and urbanization – are increasingly destroying the planet's natural habitats.
Whether or not you accept the idea of human-induced climate change, the fact is the Earth is losing an astonishing amount of biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. Scientists believe we are on the brink of or are even already experiencing the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth, possibly losing 130 species each day. According to recent studies, one in five plant species faces extinction as a result of climate change, deforestation, and urban growth.
Extinction is a natural part of the Earth's ecosystem. Yet the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. The current species extinction rate is much greater than the rate at which new species come into being, leading to a net loss of biodiversity.
What should really concern us is that scientists have only identified roughly 10-15 percent of existing species. We don't even know what we are losing.
(chart: Economist magazine, http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/06/endangered-species)
According to Nature, extinction from habitat loss is the signature conservation problem of the twenty-first century. Urbanization, sprawl, population growth, deforestation, development, and industrial agriculture are all factors in this. Other key drivers are climate change, pollution, overexploitation, invasive (non-native) species, disease, human overconsumption, and illegal trade in wildlife.
There has been some discrepancy about the extinction estimates, that the rates might be overestimated. Yet no one knows even how many species currently live on Earth, and at the end of the day a species loss is an irreversible loss. “A modern global mass extinction is a largely unaddressed hazard of climate change and human activities,” according to H. Richard Lane, program director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences.
Some species on the verge of extinction include the Sumatran tiger, giant panda, Javan rhinoceros, black-footed ferret, Irrawaddy dolphin,mountain gorilla, blue-sided tree frog, Bornean orangutan, Russian sturgeon, Amur leopard, and Chinese alligator.
Our system of endless and unsustainable economic growth based on overexploitation of natural resources is taking a heavy toll. According to scientists at England's Royal Society, "...environmental change has always been prevalent, and has helped shape biodiversity patterns of today. In contrast, never before has a single species driven such profound changes to the habitats, composition and climate of the planet." Furthermore, as more species disappear at a rapid rate it could have may unintended consequences for the planet.
The previous five mass extinctions saw three-quarters or more of all animal species go extinct. Can we really afford this, and moreover, are we so complacent that we don't even want to try to avoid it? Massive extinction loss is a high price to pay to continue with growth at all costs and business as usual.
Suzanne York is a writer with the Institute for Population Studies (IPS) / HowMany.org