Saturday, July 15, 2017

Nature Just Doesn’t Care

Long before Donald Trump and his bevy of climate change deniers, even before the go-go manufacturing boom of the 1950s-1980s and the global explosion of automobile usage, the industrial revolution combined with a Malthusian population explosion put the earth on what many scientists call a path towards massive “biological extinction.” True, we have had numerous opportunities to slow, perhaps even stop this rolling negative force, but we well may have passed the tipping point that may just not be stoppable. Maybe, but if there was ever a chance to take action, “now” may be our last opportunity. Nature’s response? Been there, done that. Shrug.
Nature – God to many – started with nothing, and thereafter earth has gone through five such massive species wipeouts. 443 million years ago, a devastating ice age sucked up sea levels and destroyed the majority of life on earth. 360 million years ago, climate change wreaked havoc and claimed almost 70% of the species on the planet. 250 million years ago, seeming due to massive volcanic eruption, 95% of life on earth was extinguished. That volcanic action happened again 50 million years later, snuffing out three quarters of then-existing species. Enter the dinosaurs to dominate the planet. 65 million years ago, a combination of volcanic activity and a massive asteroid slamming into what is today Mexico decimated the planet again. Exit dinosaurs and ammonites. Enter domination by mammals.
This time, number six, beginning with the industrial revolution, the devastation comes from a massive accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gasses, statistically and unequivocally linked to man’s uptick in the use of fossil fuel, and a human population explosion (milking habitat and natural resources) that has been wreaking environmental havoc all over the earth.
The deeply substantiated analysis of our precipitation of this “next” mass extinction is well detailed in an academic report – entitled “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines” – published this past May under the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences of the United States of America. It is depressing reading, not only of what we can expect to occur in future years but as to how much damage and species loss has already occurred… and seems to be accelerating. This report drills down on the death and contraction of living species reflecting this change. Here’s is the published abstract of that report:
“The population extinction pulse we describe [in the report] shows, from a quantitative viewpoint, that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions. Therefore, humanity needs to address anthropogenic [‘of, relating to, or resulting from the influence of human beings on nature’ per Merriam-Webster] population extirpation [‘to destroy completely’ per Merriam-Webster] and decimation immediately. That conclusion is based on analyses of the numbers and degrees of range contraction (indicative of population shrinkage and/or population extinctions according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature) using a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species, and on a more detailed analysis documenting the population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species. We find that the rate of population loss in terrestrial vertebrates is extremely high—even in ‘species of low concern.’ In our sample, comprising nearly half of known vertebrate species, 32% (8,851/27,600) are decreasing; that is, they have decreased in population size and range. In the 177 mammals for which we have detailed data, all have lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage). Our data indicate that beyond global species extinctions Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization. We describe this as a ‘biological annihilation’ to highlight the current magnitude of Earth’s ongoing sixth major extinction event.”
The July 10th issue of The Guardian (U.K.) adds some background color to this report: “Prof Gerardo Ceballos, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who led the work, said: ‘The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.’… Previous studies have shown species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than for millions of years before, but even so extinctions remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. The new work instead takes a broader view, assessing many common species which are losing populations all over the world as their ranges shrink, but remain present elsewhere.
“The scientists found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered and that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Detailed data is available for land mammals, and almost half of these have lost 80% of their range in the last century. The scientists found billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet, leading them to say a sixth mass extinction has already progressed further than was thought.
“Billions of animals have been lost as their habitats have become smaller with each passing year…. The scientists conclude: ‘The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.’
“They say, while action to halt the decline remains possible, the prospects do not look good: ‘All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.’” The Guardian also notes a World Wildlife Foundation study telling us that half of losses of the individual animal populations have occurred since 1970.
And it’s not as if the problems are fading. More people are being born. Fish and wildlife are depleting. More forests are being torn down, even in the developed world (the EU is taking member-state Poland to task for beginning to harvest one of the oldest forests on earth). And fossil fuel emissions spiked in 2016, despite actions to mitigate global warming. “The Annual Greenhouse Gas Index also shows that global emissions of greenhouse gases that lead to warming, primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity, increased 40 percent between 1990 and 2016, a significant measure of man’s influence on the climate…
Jim Butler, director of NOAA’s global monitoring division… said that the 40 percent growth in atmospheric greenhouse gases since 1990 was a noteworthy sign of human impact on the climate… ‘If you start at 1750, most of the increase is due to human activity,’ Mr. Butler said. ‘What this means is 40 percent of what has been emitted since 1750 has happened since 1990.’” New York Times, July 13th.
History – if there really are any historians left in that future apocalypse – won’t pay much attention to the utter stupidity of Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt (EPA head), a GOP Congress hell-bent on closing national parks, opening federal lands to new exploitation, repealing every environmental rule they can get their hands on or that body of American evangelicals (most non-U.S. evangelicals actually believe climate change is man-induced) who think they bear no responsibility for environmental disaster no matter what they do. Those last humans, gasping for breath, sick with toxins and starving slowly, probably won’t have any remaining libraries or digital records to remind them who accelerated their misery and demise. Nature can deal with it. She has before. Human beings? Not so much.
I’m Peter Dekom, and there is no delight in watching Trump supporters suffer from the policy decisions of his administration and the GOP Congress that has enabled those critical environmental missteps.

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