Yes we are getting extinctions at a far higher rate than normal. But it is nowhere near a mass extinction yet. Just the start of a slide towards one that may play out towards the end of this century and in the 22nd century. Also we are not risking a major mass extinction like the Permian / Triassic one. The word “mass extinction” does not have a well defined threshold but I think many who read these stories think it means that there would be almost no animals, fish, trees, plants or insects left or hardly any. No it doesn’t mean that. It means fewer species of each but not a world without them.
My aim here is not to dispute the many scholarly articles about us being at the start of a new mass extinction, but rather, to clarify what they mean.
According to the Red List then more than 27% of nearly 100,000 species they assessed are endangered. If those all went extinct it would surely be at least a major extinction or perhaps a mass extinction, depending where you draw the line. With climate change its possible that more than that will become endangered in the future. Each year new ones are added, also other species are removed from the list.
But how many are from climate change? So far, though there have been local extinctions,only one mammal species is known to have gone extinct due to climate change. The numbers may go up but it is nothing compared to the "Big five" which each lost 60% or more of all species and the Permian / Triassic lost 90%, including 57% of all families, We do not risk that. On the 3.2 C path we are on we risk ~49% of insects, 44% of plants, and 26% of vertebrates with range reduced by more than 50% due to climate change, and that's a far cry from extinction, others of course see their range increase, at 2°C it falls to 18% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates see this paper.
When you hear these alarmist stories, remember the other side of this. Roughly half of them are of least concern, not at risk of extinction at all. Which includes us of course. Roughly 75% of birds and of bony fish are of least concern, and 55% of mammals, And rememer that our domestic animals, insects, garden plants, crops, they are not going to go extinct.
Also, a threatened species doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to go extinct. We can prevent this. For instance the Giant Panda in 2016 was moved from Endangered down to vulnerable and several other species have improved in their conservation status
“The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) previously listed as Endangered is now down-listed to Vulnerable. Sheilalau, public domain.”
The humpback whale is another example, moved from vulnerable to least concern in 2008. This magnificent creature will still be here for our generations grandchildren, and this is entirely due to conservation action
However it is true that we are losing species every year, and we could for instance lose more than half the African animals and bird species by 2100 if we aren't careful - Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change as well as having other preoccupations that make it harder to deal with the extinctions.
Humans are not going to go extinct for sure. We are survivors of the dinosaur extinction, a versatile tool using omnivore, able to live anywhere from the Arctic to the Kalahari with minimal tools. We are not the only ones, our world is full of many species some of them as adaptable as we are.
BLESSED WITH A MORE DIVERSE WORLD THAN AT MOST TIMES IN EARTH’S HISTORY
Though many species are becoming extinct, we are blessed with a far more diverse world than is usual. Much of the time the entire land masses form a single continent or many closely connected continents as for the dinosaurs. The present situation where we have ecosystems in Australia, Africa, and the Americas with few species in common - that’s rather unusual. That 27% of species at risk of extinction is in a world that has many more species than Earth usually has.
The biologist Christ Thomas says that many of the extinctions are a result of merging of ecosystems. He says that it is much like what would happen if our continents were to merge together into a single new supercontinent, but happening due to humans moving the species around rather than continental drift. Many of the ecosystems are actually becoming more diverse. For instance the UK is actually more species rich as a result of human activity and the species we introduce rather than less so.
And our crops, pets, domesticated insects like bees, garden plants and flowers like roses, peonies, carrots, apples, peaches, walnuts or whatever, they aren’t going to go extinct because we will preserve them. We could grow such things even on the Moon with no ecosystems at all.
Here are some central points
- The species we cultivate - our garden plants, crops, pets, domesticated insects, the seeds in our seed banks - they won’t go extinct. We could grow those even on the Moon.
- We are also acting to preserve biodiversity for both agricultural land and natural habitats worldwide
- Our world is more diverse than is usual due to the many isolated ecosystems in continents and large islands.
- While species are going extinct, many regions of the world are becoming more species diverse due to the extra habitats created by humans and introductions from other parts of the world.
- Even 12 °C warmer, which we are not headed for, changes most climates to ones already present elsewhere in the world. The main risk is migration, not extinction, except for species with a narrow temperature range and unable to move fast enough.
On his first point, the largest seedbank in the world in the UK aim to have 25% of the world's seeds by 2020. It already has all the UK's seeds apart from a few either too rare to collect the seeds, or that have seeds that can't be preserved. These won't go extinct. There are extra backups also of many of the world's seeds in the Svalbard seed bank.
Those 27% of species endangered are in a world that has far more species to start with than is usual on our planet.
MUCH WE CAN DO TO STOP IT GOING THAT FAR
Even if indeed more than 50% of African mammal and bird species go extinct by 2100 that means nearly half of them survive. There would still be many species of mammals and birds in Africa including extra ones introduced that weren’t there before humans.
But we can also stop it getting that far. There is much we can do. The 2017 IPBES report has many positives as well as the negatives.
Accompanying the stark concerns of the IPBES experts, however, are messages of hope: promising policy options do exist and have been found to work in protecting and restoring biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, where they have been effectively applied.
That’s from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) —set up in 2012 by the UN to track the planet’s ecological health.
It doesn't mean that you can't have a future. Remember we will still have all the crop species, insects, domestic animals, garden flowers and plants, it's not a world without onion or carrots or peonies
And no major ecosystem is threatened except the corals. Even for shallow ocean life, the seagrasses and kelp forests have a much more diverse temperature range than corals and don’t have the problem of acidification, indeed seagrasses would flourish in a world with more sunlight and CO2.
It's about a risk of the ecosystems having fewer species, not vanishing altogether.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY THE EXTINCTION RATE IS HIGH COMPARED OT HE BACKGROUND
You often hear figures such as that the extinction rate is 10,000 times the background level. So what does it mean? Well, first, yes, the extinction rate is high compared to the background levels. This diagram shows one estimate of how many years it would take to get the same number of extinctions as in the 114 years from 1900 to 2014 at the background extinction rate, for frogs its nearly 100 times longer, that’s assuming a background extinction rate of two species per century per 10,000 species:
But the actual numbers so far aren’t that large. Out of 5,513 mammals, 69 went extinct. Out of 10,425 birds, 477 went extinct, and so on - that’s including ones that are only extinct in the wild and ones that are probably extinct
In this table: EX = confirmed extinct, EW = extinct in the wild (survive in captivity) and PE = probably extinct:
At this rate it would be many centuries before it is actually a true mass extinction. Lets convert those to extinctions per century for a rough estimate:
There 1% per century means 0.01% per year. So the highest figure is for amphibians at 0.02% per year, but we have only 88% coverage.
The rate may go up, there are many at danger of extinction, on the other hand if we are careful we can protect many of those at danger of extinction, and already are doing a fair bit.
You sometimes hear that the extinction rate is 1000 to 10000 times the background rate. That is based on a paper that estimated a much lower background extinction rate of 0.1 extinctions per 10,000 species per century instead of the more usual 2 extinctions per 10,000 species per century:
The actual numbers of extinctions of the best studied ones such as mammals are a fixed point that everyone agrees on pretty much, because we don’t find many new mammal species, only a few per year, see List of mammals described in the 2000s - Wikipedia. So if one person says it is 10,000 times the background and another says it is 100 times the background, most likely this is a difference in view about the background rate. For more on this: What is Background Extinction Rate and How is it Calculated?
WHAT ABOUT THE KILLER FROG DISEASE?
This has been in the news recently again. However it’s nothing new, it's a retrospective analysis of a disease that was discovered in 1998 after two decades of puzzling extinctions of amphibians. The declines peaked globally in the 1980s before the disease was identified, and some 12% of the species are now recovering. Others have not yet started to bounce back and many of the world's amphibian populations are still declining. There are some areas of the world also that it has not reached yet.
This single fungus caused more extinctions than any other known diseases. It is similar in scale to extinctions by predator mammals such as cats and rats.
This is the Paramanian golden frog, which is now probably extinct in the wild due to the fungus disease chytridiomycosis.
There are over 500 individuals in captivity but they won’t be reintroduced into the wild until the disease is gone or some way found to make them resistant to it.
It was last photographed in the wild in 2006 for David Attenborough’s program “Life in cold blood”.
More about that here:
HOW MUCH IS DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE?
The frog disease was not the result of climate change, and there are many reasons why animals go extinct. Most of these are nothing to do with climate change.
Of all those mammal extionctions, so far only one maammal species may have gone extinct due to climate change, a small rodent called the "Bramble cay melomys". This is a small mammal that consisted of less than 100 individuals on this small coral island Bramble Cay, only 3 feet above sea level at the north end of the Great Barrier Reef. There was a proposed recovery program for it, which would have cost an estimated 258,000 Australian dollars or 184,000 USD. But they didn't do it. Due to sea level rise most of the vegetation on their tiny island was washed away in a storm. See First mammal species recognized as extinct due to climate change and Climate Change Claims Its First Mammal Extinction
So, how much of a risk does climate change itself pose to extinction?
This is hard to tell. There are many local "extirpations" where a species is no longer present in a region where it used to be, and many are due to climate change. One estimate is that 47% of local extinctions ("extirpations") are due to climate change. However they may still survive in other places and birds and animals especially can often move to a cooler or wetter or otherwise more optimal part of the world.
The IPCC report in 2017 (chapter 3) says that this is inherently difficult to quantify, but ones at risk of very high range loss can be compared.
There is no literature that directly estimates the proportion of species at increased risk of global (as opposed to local) commitment to extinction as a result of climate change, as this is inherently difficult to quantify. However, it is possible to compare the proportions of species at risk of very high range loss; for example, a discernibly smaller number of terrestrial species are projected to lose over 90% of their range at 1.5°C of global warming compared with 2°C
The paper they cite says that at least 50% of range loss happens in 49% of insects, 44% of plants and 26% of vertebrates with our current warming - and at 2°C it falls to 18% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates and at 1.5°C, to 6% of insects, 8% of plants, and 4% of vertebrates One and a half degrees on biodiversity and press release.
Of course those are not going to be necessarily endangered, but if we can stay within 1.5°C, the it seems that at most we lose 6% of insects, 8% of plants, and 4% of vertebrates from climate change, probably a lot less. Of course we can lose them due to other causes as before.
WHAT PERCENTAGE ARE CURRENTLY ENDANGERED?
You can use the red list to get an idea of our current situation, how many species are considered endangered.
Here the green region shows species that are not at any risk of extinction at present, least concern. The red ones have a high risk and the others are in between. Gray ones have insufficient data, so could belong to any of the other categories; they need more study.
Species assessed as Extinct in the Wild (EW), Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), Vulnerable (VU) Data Deficient (DD), Near Threatened (NT) and Least Concern (LC). Naturally enough humans are in the “Least Concern” category, we are not at risk of extinction. Summary Statistics from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
As you can see generally around half the species assessed are at no risk of extinction. For birds and mammals well over 50%, for sharks, reef forming corals, and cycads well under, for conifers, selected reptiles and amphibians then it’s around half.
More than 27,000 are threatened out of nearly 100,000 assessed so far, so, about 27%. This is their summary graphics
We can however do a lot to help save these threatened species. That’s the whole point.
CLICK BAIT EXTINCTION HEADLINES
You need to be wary about click bait headlines, which are also often used as climate slogans, here is one of them:
The journalist wrote in that article
“A species that makes it on to the "red list" means it is called "threatened" and it faces becoming extinct within the next decade.”
It does sound as if this means one in five of British mammals will be extinct in ten years, and some climate activists have understood it to mean exactly that. However, it doesn’t mean that at all; this is a common misunderstanding. I’ve already mentioned that the Giant Panda, previously Endangered is now down-listed to Vulnerable and the humpback whale has moved from Vulnerable to Least Concern.
Let’s take a couple more examples to see how it works. The iconic blue whale still is listed as endangered, but though the numbers remain low, in the low thousands, the available evidence is that they are increasing by 8% per year. There are about a thousand off Iceland, a few hundred in the Gulf of St Lawrence, but rare in the North Eastern Atlantic where they were once common. About 3,000 in the Eastern tropical Pacific and some in the North Pacific with evidence of an increase rate of 3% in the Gulf of California. The best guess is that it is recovering, but the evidence is not yet strong enough to remove it from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable”. See
Meanwhile to take an example of species going the other direction, the Yangste river dolphin is likely extinct, a supposed sighting in 2016 was by an amateur, with no photographic evidence, and is not proof that it survives. That would be the extinction of an entire mammal family - leaving only two remaining extant families of river dolphins in the world. The Yangste finless porpoise is critically endangered with evidence that the numbers are decreasing rapidly. The other river dolphins are endangered and face many threats but not immediate extinction. They have not done well in captivity.
The Hawaian Crow was last assessed by the red list in 2015 as Extinct in the Wild. However after a successful captive breeding program including taking in eggs from wild nests, there are now 19 birds in the wild (out of 21 released, two died) and they are forming breeding pairs. They were first released in the wild in 2016..This year, 2019, may see the first successful 'alala' to be bron in the wild since it was decleared extinct in 2002. See Alala poised to breed this year in the wild , These are one of only two crows known to be tool using.in the wild, they use tools to extract food from holes drilled in log, as juveniles without training or social learning. See "Scientists discover tool use in brilliant Hawaiian crow"
The Californian Condor never went extinct in the wild but it was down to only nine wild birds in 1985 and by 1987 the last few were taken into captivity for their protection, leaving only 27 in captivity. There are now more than 127 in the wild, a big success for a species that doesn't breed until age six.
Our generations grand children almost certainly will still have blue whales. We have already lost the Yangste river dolphin, but if we are careful it is still possible to leave them with a world with river dolphins in other places. And it's reasonably optimistic that they will have the Hawaiian crow and the Californian Condoer.
Those are just a few examples to give the idea. Endangered, even extinct in the wild, does not mean the species is gone, it's only gone once it is declared extinct.
To go back to the British mammals, ,many probably don’t realize that this climate slogan is also only talking about the UK range of the mammal. This for instance is the worldwide range of the red squirrel, which is endangered in the UK
So they do not risk extinction in the sense of becoming extinct worldwide, just in the sense of the local population in the UK becoming extinct. Meanwhile there are many measures being taken to preserve them and most of them probably won’t go extinct in the UK either, if we continue to adopt strong conservation measures for them. For details of some of these conservation stories, what is being done, and the challenges, see
Projecting to the future, some areas such as Africa are particularly vulnerable, and that’s partly because they have less resources to preserve them and many other problems. So it’s not so surprising it has a high percentage that are at risk. We are still not talking about the kind of a mass extinction that would e.g. wipe out all mammals even then. And nothing even remotely like humans going extinct.
GREAT VALUE OF THIS TREASURE HOUSE OF SPECIES
Of course it is important to keep these. They are like a treasure house. The world will be poorer without them. Some may be of importance to us in the future as well in ways we don't know yet and some are important for ecological reasons. But we don't need to panic that the world is going to fall apart and humans not be able to survive because of this. In terms of ecosystems only the corals are at risk of near extinction even at 2 °C or higher and even then eventually they would be replaced by some other ecosystem. Mostly it's displacement of ecosystems, it's not a case of them becoming lifeless. E.g. permafrost turning to vegetation and peat bogs or parts of the African jungle eventually becoming grassland with occasional trees, or whatever. That's the worst case for the future.
For more background see my
- Positive side of climate change facts, after two years of climate change action, heading for 3°C with 1.5°C well within reach
And desertification yes, deserts also are an ecosystem - but we can prevent and reverse that too, already are, Africa and China with their great green walls to start with. For more about those projects and reversing desertification see my
DINOSAURS DIDN’T HAVE A CHANCE
The dinosaurs didn’t have much of a chance. They lived in a bit of a tropical / semi tropical paradise. No ice at either pole. For millions of years just nice warm conditions as they slowly evolved to gigantic sizes.
The continents were bunched up together through all three of the dinosaur eras from the triassic through to the jurassic through to the Cretaceious. Constant warmth. No icebergs anywhere:
Relative positions of the continents during the time of the dinosaurs. A warmer world with no land near either poles and no polar ice caps. It was a world which didn’t really know winter, especially since the planet was also warmer than now, basically tropical. Where Did Dinosaurs Live?
Then wham, they were hit by forest fires worldwide, set off by the debris from the initial impact followed by sudden and prolonged darkness and winter in a world that had never experienced winter.
YET THERE WERE SURVIVORS - THE BIRDS AND US
And yet, there were survivors too. Us (well, our ancestors). Birds, river turtles, dawn sequoia, and some tiny mammals that evolved to us.
Our ancestors may have been little creatures like this scuttling at the feet of dinosaurs that happened to be warm blooded and well able to survive the coming asteroid winter:
These little creatures perhaps living in burrows were able to survive. Birds also survived it, perhaps by flying out to sea. Crocodiles survived it, and both river and sea turtles.
River turtle, Boremys basking on a Triceratops dinosaur skull, Credit: Brian T. Roach, Yale Peabody Museum
How Tough Turtles Survived Dino-Killing Meteor
We are descended from the survivors of a giant asteroid impact. As are the birds
However we do not face anything like that this time. We know what the causes are of this current fast extinction rate, and they just are not able to lead us into a mass extinction. The ones of least concern are projected to remain of least concern. We are not facing a world without conifers or mangroves, or seagrass, or kelp for instance.
For kelp and seagrass see my:
- Yes kelp and seagrass also have issues like coral bleaching - but only vulnerable spots near the warm edge of the species range
NOT A WORLD WITHOUT INSECTS
Talk mass extinction nowadays and many people will tell you confidently that we are headed for a world without insects. That was a non systematic study that was hugely misreported and should NEVER have been on prime time TV / news.
Most of their map was a complete blank, the only data points for China and Austrlaia were for the domestic honeybee, a bit like including sheep in a biodiversity report on mammals.
The map legend says “Data for China and Queensland (Australia) refer to managed honey bees only.”
They also explain that they found their papers with a literature search for "DECLIN*" which, other ecologists have commented, surely biased it towards declining populations. It was not a systematic survey and they should have made this clear, such surveys have value but cannot be used for conclusions like this.
This study took up minutes of time, including an interview with the researcher, on the prime time news in the UK.
Meanwhile none of these outlets which gave that study such prominence even reported the insects section of the UN biodiversity report published a week or two later which was systematic based in sent in reports from people from most of the UN countries on what was happening to insects in their country. The focus was on insects in agricultural settings. They found mixed trends, some increasing, some decreasing, some stable. Insects for pollination were decreasing only on livestock grassland-based systems. Everywhere else, stable or mixed trends.
The domestic honeybee can't even go extinct, any more than sheep can. At worse you have to replace hives more often. It is UTTER NONSENSE that we face a world without insects, doesn't even make sense.
The UN report also talked about many measures being done worldwide to protect insect biodiversity - which is often possible with relatively simple measures. For instance flower rich borders in the EU, and domesticating the stingless bee for honey production and pollination in Malaysia, and the German insects study has lead to a new organization set up to address the situation and do something about it, the Action Programme for Insect Protection.
WORST CASE IS MASS MIGRATION NOT MASS EXTINCTION
We are not headed for this scenario, nothing like it, with existing policies only a 3 °C rise. But if it gets 10 °C warmer, Aberdeen (14 °C) becomes like Barcelona (24 °C) and Barcelona like Dehli (34 °C) . The worst outcome is that we end up growing oranges and bananas in the UK, not that the UK becomes too hot for humans or that we can’t grow crops at all here anymore.
The very hottest places do get too hot for humans. Spain as hot as Dehli is okay. Dehli ten degrees hotter than it is now would be intolerable and impossible for humans.
Our existing policies plus unconditional pledges should keep us around 3 °C. At that point there is no risk of this happening. But if we were to reach 10 °C above pre-industrial then cities in India home to billions of people become hotter than any city has ever been before. They become so hot that humans can’t survive without technology to cool the air down during the occasional extreme heat waves. Probably most Indians would need to migrate to colder climates. There are parts of India of course that are much cooler, up near the Himalayas, and others maybe migrate to other countries.
But this is a highly undesirable outcome. So, it is no wonder that India is the populous country with the most ambitious policies already, aiming for below 2 °C with a population of 1.4 billion, and with < 1.5 °C well within reach.
So, even if we were to scrap all existing policies, burn fossil fuels like mad, and reached 8 °C or even 10 or 12 °C above pre-industrial, et even that is not a mass extinction scenario. It does become a mass migration scenario, yes, for sure, but not a mass extinction scenario.
A mass extinction means you no longer have, e.g. oranges or bananas anywhere in the world. Not just that though, perhaps even most species of tree are gone, and most animals, and so on. It's really major, a mass extinction. There is no way that can happen, even not accounting for humans domesticated crops / animals / insects and protecting species and ecosystems
The recent study where authors suggested in interviews that we are headed for a world without insects was absurd. Insects can’t go extinct. Some species yes, and others migrate into colder climates from warmer ones. It was not a systematic study. For instance, for the whole of China they had one study of honey bees - a domesticated insect. That’s a bit like including a survey of sheep populations in China in a survey of its wild animals! It was widely criticised by ecologists. See my:
- We Are NOT Headed For World Without Insects - Insect Decline Survey Hitting Headlines Non Systematic, Patchy&With Limited Data
A more systematic study by the UN published a week or two later found a mixed picture. This was focused on agriculture so their main attention was on pollinators and they found that the situation was mixed, some stable, some decreasing, some increasing (Nepal was one country reporting an increase in pollinators). For more about it see my UN Biodiversity Report Far From Bleak - Encouraging Survey Of Measures To Preserve, Mapping Ways Forward To Meet Challenges
DOMESTICATED ANIMALS, INSECTS AND PLANTS CAN’T GO EXTINCT
And then, our sheep, cows, dogs, cats, pet rabbits, goldfish, they aren’t going to go extinct because we look after them. Also all our crops, domesticated insects like honey bees, our garden plants, as long as we have gardeners we’ll have gardens. It’s not going to be a world without roses, or peonies or carrots or asparagus. We could grow such things even in space colonies on the Moon so we can certainly continue to grow them on Earth.
It's sunny at the poles, 24/7, year round, except during solar eclipses, and for a few days of the year when the sun dips below the horizon. This is a frame from a charming Russian movie about the Moon made in 1965, before humans landed there.
Looking out on the lunar surface from inside a Moon city, in a frame from the 1965 Russian film Luna
And here is a section of the movie itself with the peaches a few seconds in:
You can also watch The full movie, in restored colour, with machine translation subtitles for part of it.
For more on that:
We don’t need to go to the Moon to do that. We can do that on Earth far easier, in any future scenario, no matter what we do. Nothing we do can make Earth as uninhabitable as the Moon or Mars. We may do it on the Moon too, but not to escape from Earth.
So, it isn’t really a mass extinction because of our technology. It won't lead to any major groups of animals and plants going extinct.
Nor will any major ecosystems go extinct, except potentially the corals. That’s not a mass extinction. You'd barely notice in the fossil record. Kelp forests, sea grasses, even deep water corals, they won’t go extinct. They have a vast range from near the poles to equatorial regions, many different species and unlike corals they can’t go extinct.
- Yes kelp and seagrass also have issues like coral bleaching - but only vulnerable spots near the warm edge of the species range
MANY ECOSYSTEMS BECOMIING MORE DIVERSE - AND STARTING FROM A WORLD FAR MORE DIVERSE THAN AT MOST GEOLOGICAL ERAS
Indeed, many ecosystems are actually becoming more rather than less diverse. The UK has had 2000 species been introduced by humans, and they haven’t made any native species extinct. By and large we are compensating for the extinctions by mixing species from different continents then we are increasing the richness of ecosystems as much as we destroy them.
Also - though many species are becoming extinct, what some seem to forget is that we are blessed with a far more diverse world than is usual. Much of the time the entire land masses form a single continent or many closely connected continents as for the dinosaurs. The present situation where we have ecosystems in Australia, Africa, and the Americas with few species in common - that’s rather unusual.
Also the extreme range of temperatures from the poles to the equator.
We have many diverse isolated ecosystems that evolved independently from each other for millions of years. The same type of habitats in different parts of the world occupied by a completely different ecology.
Some at least of the extinctions are due to invasive species from one continent arriving in another. That leads to fewer species overall in the world as a whole, but often, paradoxically perhaps, to more species in each ecosystem as it contains a mix of local and foreign species. For instance the UK is more ecologically diverse as a result of humans than it would be if we weren’t here. That is because of introduced species and also many new habitats that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for humans. Our cities, houses, our fields and agricultural sheds and field margins, and meadows and even the mountains of Scotland where I live - naturally the mountains should be covered in forest but they are for the most part open grassland peat bogs. That habitat would hardly exist at all without humans and our sheep.
We tend to hear about the problematic species but many of them just mix in fine with no problems increasing the species diversity. That is something Chris Thomas has written about in his book
HOW NATURE IS THRIVING IN AN AGE OF EXTINCTION
Chris Thomas has written an interesting and challenging book. He’s a biologist and conservationist who has noticed that while yes, we are losing species, also, as species mix between the continents, ecosystems are becoming more rather than less diverse, and what's more, new species are already starting to emerge as well, as a result of human activity. Yes we are at the start of an extinction event that could be a mass extinction - but while many vulnerable species vanish or have to be carefully conserved to survive, others move to new places, or they spread and diversify, and the ones that are able to live with us aren't going to be going anywhere but will be part of the diverse future ecosystems of our world.
It also leads to a more optimistic view about our future, that though species go extinct, that if we are careful, our ecosystems after climate change, can be more diverse than they were before. And he means right away, not after a million years (as some have misunderstood him as saying) though after a million years it will be far more diverse than it is now, with all the new species that should arise.
He suggests that conservation should take account of this and recognize that sometimes we need to work with rather than against what is happening - that we shouldn't try to preserve the world as a snapshot in time exactly as it was, but be more flexible in conservation.
In this interview he says:
“Nothing that I’m saying lets us off the hook in terms of maintaining the biodiversity that we currently have, but if we accept that it’s a dynamic system rather than a static one … if we are prepared to accept biological gains as much as we regret losses, then we can take a much more optimistic view [of] conservation,”
Of course it's a challenging message and approach, and could seem to be just an excuse to be lazy but he doesn't mean it like that, but as part of active conservation work to preserve species and biodiversity, and that we can help to ensure that we continue to have robust and diverse ecosystems in a warming world. In his book he goes into it in detail. I've only just started it and look forward to reading it.
Scientist Chris D Thomas: 'We can take a much more optimistic view of conservation'
You can read the start of the book in Amazon here Inheritors of the Earth: how nature is thriving in an age of extinction.
FOOD SECURITY INCREASING AND ALMOST NO PRACTICAL LIMIT - NOT GOING TO HIT ANY THEORETICAL “CARRYING CAPACITY” OF THE WORLD
At present food security is increasing year on year. It's one of the challenges we face to feed a larger population of 11 billion by 2100 but there are road maps to get there. We are not at risk of dying of hunger. We have lots of play in the system indeed.
We already managed to go through a similar crisis in the 1950s to 70s with the Green revolution. Billions would have died without the Green Revolution which dramatically increased crop yields through genetic improvements as well as improvements in agricultural techniques.
Of the 3.5 billion increase in population predicted to 2100, then 3 billion of it is in Africa which as it happened missed out on the green revolution. Just applying the same technique of improved varieties and improved agricultural techniques would make a huge difference. The agriculture in Sub Saharan Africa is ten times less efficient than it is in the US and China.
And we are not expanding in population exponentially. The simple idea that we increase until deaths balance births is not happening. Instead population growth is slowing down due to prosperity not scarcity. Japan has a decreasing population. So does the EU, only kept steady and increasing through immigrants who as soon as they immigrate into the EU themselves have a declining population. Many other countries worldwide are either leveling off or already declining. That is why the population is predicted with middle of the range figures to level off at 11 billion by 2100. We could level off at several billion less if Sub Saharan African can move to the same levels of prosperity as the rest of the world faster.
We have a huge margin indeed. Just rationing meat and using the crops grown for animals in the US and Brazil for humans instead would feed an extra 2.5 billion people. That by itself would mean we can feed 10 billion people on the same land as we now use to feed 7.5 billion.
Then biointensive agriculture increases crops several fold by intercropping and the techniques of space agriculture even more so by growing crops with a 30 day cycle from seed to food, and staggered crops, aquaponics and aeroponics soil-less gardening and artificial lighting. That can feed 100 people to an acre. Even on the Moon, it can do that, and so much easier with an atmosphere we can breathe, water we can pipe in (for instance sea water for the salt water greenhouses) etc.
The road map to food security through to 2100 doesn’t require either of those approaches. It just involves improvements in conventional agriculture mainly in Africa. Which doesn’t mean it is easy. It involves a lot of work to make sure it happens on time and we don’t get caught out.
So we are not limited in the near future in any theoretical way by any "carrying capacity" of the Earth to feed humans". Especially as the population is projected to level off at around 11 billion now by 2100 even with middle of the range projections.
So it's a case of balancing what is needed with what is easy and practical by way of near future technology.
And - we can feed ourselves even in space colonies in principle without any native plants at all. After all they have figured out how we could do this on the Moon (say) with greenhouses pressurized and high tech. There are no native plants on the Moon. Not even an atmosphere. Doing it on Earth is far easier than that. This shows that we don’t even depend on our ecosystems to feed everyone. We could do it even without soil, with nothing except water from the sea if needs be. At least if the space colonization advocates are right, and these systems have been tested by the Russians especially in the BIOS-3 experiments. Again it is not needed except as a thought experiment to show how vast the margins are in principle.
So long as the oceans and atmosphere are there, then floating sea colonies in the Pacific with populations of billions would be far easier to construct than any space colony. And with that sort of technology, mainly vegan diet, space technology cropping, then there would be no resources used for agriculture except sea water as inputs. Not exploiting any natural resources.
So, if you want a theoretical carrying capacity, I'd say more like a trillion than ten billion people, if you look at it that way. At any rate a vast margin at ten or eleven billion.
Of course I’m not saying we should just let the ecosystems disintegrate and concentrate on feeding humans. And our ecosystems make things vastly easier for us. But there is no way we can end up with an uninhabitable Earth or hit a hard limit carrying capacity this century, when you look at it with this space colonies perspective.
The concern is not so much about whether we can feed everyone, but about what kind of a world we leave to the next generation. It will be sad to leave a world with no coral reefs, no giraffes, rhinos, hippos, lions etc, no tropical jungles etc. They are also like treasure chests of genetic diversity for our future. But we can do something about it.
WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT
We can also do something about it and there are many conservation actions and conservation successes too. Of course preservation of blue whales is one that everyone knows about. If it weren’t for conservation efforts we’d be living in a world without the largest mammal that has ever lived. Also we’ve saved the giant pandas, and other iconic species. But things like that are going on in a small way all the time. Each big iconic species is also associated often with many smaller or inconspicuous species preserved in the same habitats.
Here are twelve success stories
Here are nine successes of 2018 from the WWF
We can all help in small ways too, help our little area of the world be a little more diverse, whether it’s a nesting box, a “bug hotel”, conservation work, beach clearing to help do our bit towards the problem of plastic waste on wildlife and so on. Or maybe it is a farmer decides to preserve hedgerows and keep a strip of uncultivated ground around a field to benefit wildlife. It makes a difference when large numbers of people do such things.
We can prevent extinctions and we are continuing to do so, saving many species and large areas of habitats on land and in the sea.
The recent UN biodiversity report on farming and agriculture was an example. It was widely reported in articles full of doom and gloom, but looked at another way it highlighted the many things countries worldwide are doing to preserve diversity.
This is their conclusion of the report:
Positive global developments include, on the one hand, growing awareness internationally of threats to the sustainability of food and agriculture, including those related to the loss of biodiversity, and on the other, upward trends in levels of adoption of various management practices that potentially contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of BFA (Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture).
These developments need to be built upon by the global community. Knowledge gaps need to be filled, cooperation strengthened, including cross sectorally and internationally, and financial, human and technical resources mobilized. Effective legal and policy frameworks need to be put in place. The country-driven process of preparing The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture has led to the identification of numerous gaps, needs and potential actions in the management of BFA. The next step is to take action.
Over the years, the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has overseen the development of global plans of action for genetic resources in the plant, animal and forest sectors. Implementation of these instruments needs to be stepped up. Consideration also needs to be given to how the international community can more effectively promote synergies in the management of all components of biodiversity, across these sectors and others, in the interests of a more sustainable food and agriculture.
For more about it see my
- UN Biodiversity Report Far From Bleak - Encouraging Survey Of Measures To Preserve, Mapping Ways Forward To Meet Challenges
POSITIVE QUOTES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Here I've taken the positive side and recommendations from several of the articles about these reports. It's not to try to make it rosier than it is but to give the other side that is not getting enough attention.
I see no value at all in a hopeless and exaggerated "we are doomed" message but "Look this is our situation and here are some things we can do about it"
Here are some posts about it, where I’ve deliberately picked out some of the more positive sides of the reports. Do read this as well as the negatives. Many people just read the negatives and get hopeless and scared. The positives are the very reason for the report, they did it to encourage us to find a way forward from this situation.
But the scientists do point to possible solutions: creating more protected areas, restoring degraded zones, and rethinking subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture.
Crucially, governments, businesses, and individuals must integrate biodiversity considerations in all decisions: whether it concerns farming, fishing, forestry, mining, or infrastructure development.
Ending food waste — as much as 40% of all that is produced — is also key. If this can be achieved, food production may not need to double to meet the population explosion predicted.
Consumers, too, must be more responsible, by reducing their intake of meat — a resource-hungry and polluting protein resource — for example. Different regions will require different solutions, said Mr. Watson, adding: “It’s not too late” to halt, or even reverse, some of the harm. “Can we stop all of it? No. Can we significantly slow it down? Yes,” he concluded.
The IPBES will bring out a fifth report on the global state of soil, fast being degraded through pollution, forest-destruction, mining, and unsustainable farming methods that deplete its nutrients.
The report doesn’t paint a rosy picture of global biodiversity, but it does point toward some promising policies that could help us recover, if only incompletely. A combination of policy options — like incorporating biodiversity into national welfare estimates, rather than relying solely on gross domestic product and improved public awareness programs — can help protect the biodiversity that remains.
And richer ecosystems are a bulwark against some of the extremes that climate change will bring with it in the coming decades.
“Richer, more diverse ecosystems are better able to cope with disturbances — such as extreme events and the emergence of diseases,” said Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of IPBES. “They are our ‘insurance policy’ against unforeseen disasters and, used sustainably, they also offer many of the best solutions to our most pressing challenges.”
Amid the gloom, there were some bright spots.
Forest cover had risen by 22.9 percent in China and other nations in northeast Asia between 1990 and 2015. Parks and other protected areas were expanding in many regions, including the Americas and Asia-Pacific.
And populations of animals such as the Iberian lynx, Amur tiger and far eastern leopard were coming back from the brink of extinction thanks to conservation.
There are glimmers of hope. In northern Asia, forest cover has increased by more than 22% as a result of tree-planting programs, mostly in China. But this was from a very low base and with far fewer species than in the past. In Africa, there has been a partial recovery of some species, though there is still a long way to go.
Watson – a former chair of the IPCC and a leading figure in the largely successful campaign to reduce the gases that were causing a hole in the ozone layer – said the biodiversity report was the most comprehensive since 2005 and the first of its type that involved not just scientists, but governments and other stakeholders.
Despite the grim outlook, he said there was cause for hope. The report outlines several different future paths, depending on the policies adopted by governments and the choices made by consumers. None completely halt biodiversity loss, but the worst-case scenarios can be avoided with greater conservation efforts. The missing link is to involve policymakers across government and to accept that biodiversity affects every area of the economy. Currently, these concerns are widely accepted by foreign and environment ministries; the challenge is to move the debate to incorporate this in other areas of government, such as agriculture, energy and water. Businesses and individual consumers also need to play a more responsible role, said Watson.
“We don’t make recommendations because governments don’t like being told what to do. So, instead, we give them options,” he said.
The IPBES report will be used to inform decision-makers at a major UN conference later this year. Signatories to the Convention for Biodiversity will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh in November to discuss ways to raise targets and strengthen compliance. But there have been more than 140 scientific reports since 1977, almost all of which have warned of deterioration of the climate or natural world. Without more pressure from civil society, media and voters, governments have been reluctant to sacrifice short-term economic goals to meet the longer-term environmental challenge to human wellbeing.
“Biodiversity is under serious threat in many regions of the world and it is time for policymakers to take action at national, regional and global levels,” said José Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
The assessments did find some progress. For example, in the Asia-Pacific region between 2004 and 2017, terrestrial protected areas grew by 0.3% and marine protected areas by 13.8%. But simply establishing protected areas is insufficient, says Watson. Biodiversity issues must be incorporated into the development of policies in areas such as agriculture and transport, he says.
IPBES hopes to bring political attention to biodiversity in the same way that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done for climate science. Biodiversity urgently needed a body such as IPBES, says James Mayers, a natural-resources scientist at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. But he doesn’t yet think it has the clout of its sister organization. “It’s not taken as seriously yet. There is hope, but it’s unrealized,” he says.
Watson agrees that the organization is still finding its footing, but also says that the body has attracted more member governments in its first five years than the IPCC did over the same time frame.
See also my more recent:
- UN Biodiversity Report Far From Bleak - Encouraging Survey Of Measures To Preserve, Mapping Ways Forward To Meet Challenges
NOT AT RISK OF EXTINCTION FROM ASTEROIDS - UNLIKE DINOSUARS, WE CAN DEFLECT THEM AND NOT LIKELY FOR MILLENNIA INTO THE FUTURE
Also despite the many fake news stories about “NASA Asteroid warning”, in actuality NASA have never issued such a warning (they missed Chelyabinsk because it was so small and approached from the direction of the sun).
We can spot large asteroids well in advance. A one kilometer asteroid can’t surprise us and we know 95% of them or more, and we already know all the ones of ten kilometers or larger as a result of the extensive surveys in the last ten years or so. The largest undiscovered short period comet or asteroid “Near Earth Object” is probably around 3.5 kilometers, most likely with no risk at all of hitting Earth. And it is extraordinarily unlikely that even a one kilometer asteroid hits us in less than a few centuries. The nearest future possibility is 1950 DA in 2880.
As a result we no longer have a significant risk of an asteroid or comet that could make us extinct like the dinosaurs. The nearest future possibility of such an impact that we know of is comet Swift Tuttle in 4479. That indeed would be devastating, far worse than the dinosaur impact, hard even for humans to survive, could boil away meters from the oceans. But it is a million to one chance, never been anything like that for the last three billion years, and it is plenty of time for us to deflect it in the remote possibility that it is headed our way. Unlike dinosaurs we can prevent extinction by asteroids or comets.
- Why you don’t need to be scared of asteroids - far less scary than lightning
- Did you know, NASA have NEVER issued any ASTEROID ALERT - most likely future warning: Tiny Asteroid to Splosh Harmlessly in Pacific Ocean
- Robert Walker's answer to How vulnerable are we to a catastrophic asteroid impact? Are there people whose job is to watch for them?
For extinction generally see also my
For more about climate change
- Positive side of climate change facts, after two years of climate change action, heading for 3°C with 1.5°C well within reach
See also my
- Not as scary as it seems: Planet at risk of heading towards “Hothouse Earth” state
- Order Patterned With Chaos - How Climate Is Predicted For Decades - With Exact Forecasts Only For Days
- What The IPCC Scientists Really Said - NOT 'All Going To Die' - Key Points, Press Conference And Some Highlights From The Report
- Yes, We Can Rise To The IPCC Target To Keep Global Warming Within 1.5°C (2.7°F)
- Some of my posts on climate change debunking the journalistic hype and junk science - also about resource depletion by Robert Walker on Debunking Doomsday
Seven tips for dealing with doomsday fears
If you are scared: Seven tips for dealing with doomsday fears which also talks about health professionals and how they can help.
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Top news without the fake sensationalist nonsense
I’ve done a custom search engine to search top mainstream reputable news sites. Various versions, see:
You can also make your own custom search engines like that - easy to do in Google, I explain how I did it in New: Google News Without All The Nonsense - Top Astronomy News - Top Space Mission News - Top Science News - Top News
If you need help
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If you are suicidal don’t forget there’s always help a phone call away with the List of suicide crisis lines - Wikipedia