Biodiversity Emergency: School Strikes for Climate, Extinction Rebellion and the Movement for Environmental Action

Posted on February 16, 2019

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The planet is experiencing a biodiversity emergency brought on by the human race. This week in the UK schoolchildren took part in educational strike action to say ‘no more, fix the planet’. Extinction Rebellion, set up in 2018, has demanded governments tell the truth about our ecological crisis and create true participatory democracy to reduce carbon emissions to zero. The scene is set.

So what does biodiversity emergency look like? Well at its core it’s the extinction of species from tiny bugs to the largest mammals, oh and of course, humans. On 10 February 2019 a global scientific review was published in the journal Biological Conservation detailing the decline in insect populations due in large part to overuse of pesticides in modern food production. More than 40 per cent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered.

But insects are a vital link in the food chain and would affect bird species, fish and reptiles, plant viability and ultimately human survival. The current rate of extinction of insect species is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles, The UK has suffered the biggest recorded insect falls overall, though that recorded result is probably a result of being more intensely studied than most countries. Still the link is there – insects die, all life on earth follows.

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Three Faces of Challenge

In a report from the Colombian city of Medellin in March 2018, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said that land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss are “three faces of the same central challenge” and that challenge is driven by the dangerous impacts of our lifestyle. Above all, said IPBES chair Robert Watson, “we can no longer afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation.”

Biodiversity is under threat on every continent and in every country. After studying several thousand articles, government sources and local reports, the organisation (which is to biodiversity what the IPCC is to climate change) estimates that by 2050 between 38-46 per cent of animal and plant species could be eradicated from the planet.

Less than a quarter of the Earth’s land surface has escaped harmful impacts from human activity. This is likely to fall to a mere 10 per cent by 2050, some of it unusable, such as deserts, mountainous areas and polar regions.

Soil impoverishment is particularly serious in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Within 30 years, the number of people living in arid regions could rise from 2.7 to 4 billion, increasing the risk of migration crises. Globally, around a third of Earth’s land surface — not only soils but also forests, grasslands and wetlands — is moderately to severely degraded, with some land now unfit for agriculture.

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Oceans Failing

On top of that the oceans of the world are in crisis too. One indicator of that is falling seabird populations due to overfishing. Since 1950 global seabird numbers have plummeted by 70 per cent – and humans are largely to blame. Industrial fisheries have literally snatched food from the mouths of seabird species.

Researchers compared the amount of industrial fishing in two eras (1970-1989 and 1990-2010) and found that the global catch more than doubled between the two time periods. Study author, oceanographer David Gremillet said that terns and penguins are among the most threatened bird groups.

But other factors make up a grim picture of the challenge to seabird ecosystems including “breeding-habitat destruction and disturbance, invasive predators like rats and cats, and also pathogens,” said Gremillet.

“Seabirds also face the consequences of climate change, on land and at sea, as well as chemical and plastic pollution. Seabird bycatch by fisheries hasn’t been eradicated either. It all adds up.”

The loss of seabirds is a tragedy in itself but it has much wider consequences. “When you lose seabirds, you necessarily lose marine-ecosystem functionality,” said Gremillet. “Yet this goes even beyond ecology. Seabirds are central in human cultures around the world: when we lose seabirds we lose an irreplaceable heritage — creatures which have inspired every single maritime society since the dawn of humanity, by bridging the mysterious gap between us and the sea.”

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Species Reintroduction

So what are the solutions to the problems of human industrial activity and habitat destruction? Well there are small victories in conservation biology with the reintroduction of species to areas where there are either small numbers or populations were wiped out entirely. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Zoological Society of London have information on a number of animals that have been successfully supported by or reared in conservation programmes and reintroduced to the wild.

Most of these are land-based species, but the oceans play an even more important role in helping us combat climate change and environmental destruction. Seas and oceans have the capacity to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO​2) from greenhouse emissions. Roughly 25 per cent of CO2 produced by human activity is absorbed by the ocean meaning there is less in the atmosphere to produce warming effects.

On land, rising temperatures lead ice caps and glaciers to melt pouring more volume into the world’s oceans. Sea water levels rise with rising temperatures as warmer water takes up more volume than cold water. Sea ice melt adds to the problem. Then in tropical warm water areas the rise in temperature leads to a loss of oxygen, which can harm or kill sealife. Carbon dissolved in the ocean also increases the water’s acidity with more negative consequences for plants and animals.

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The Oceans Solutions Initiative has set out 13 ocean-based remedies for warming, habitat destruction and pollution. While recognising the efforts of local governments and conservation organisations, the group says a global emergency requires a global response. So it calls for replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, building up vegetation to absorb CO2, and reducing industrial pollution to protect marine ecosystems.

Project coordinator Jean-Pierre Gattuso said there are “no-regret measures” that should be implemented immediately. “This is the case of renewable energies like wind and tidal turbines — remarkably powerful energy sources. Others may not have huge potential for countering climate change but they come with numerous cobenefits. For example, conservation of a mangrove will also help to maintain food sources for the local population and to protect the coast from erosion as the mangrove acts as a barrier against large waves — cobenefits that make the solution worthwhile.”

More controversially the project talks about genetically modifying marine life to cope with temperature rise. It is also considering geoengineering policies such as brightening clouds with seawater to reflect the sun’s energy back into space, or coating the ocean with foam to stop sea warming.

Geoengineering belongs firmly in the ‘unknown, untested’ category, admits Gattuso. “Some techniques carry too many unknowns — and therefore risks — to be recommended for immediate deployment. As far as solar radiation management goes, no experiments have been conducted on these techniques, namely their toxicity. Another unresolved question is whether they might hamper the photosynthesis of ocean vegetation, and hence reduce the productivity of plants that could otherwise absorb CO​2.”

Political Will

The one change that Gattuso sees making a deep and lasting impact on the work of conservationists everywhere is politicians following through on promises to protect the environment. “It might sound a bit trite, but it’d be good to see politicians implement what they’ve promised to implement,” he said. More than three years on from the Paris Agreement and far less has been done than what was set out in the text to keep temperature rises to a minimum of 1.5-2 degrees centigrade this century.

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And so back to insects. In April 2018 the EU agreed a total ban on field spraying neonicotinoid pesticides (they can still be used in closed greenhouses). This was brought into effect because the pesticides were contaminating soil and water, leaching into wild flowers and killing bees and other pollinators outside of cultivated crop fields.

This was a bright point in an otherwise murky one for environmental political decision-making. The truth is that many politicians and industrialists concentrate on the lack of profit-making opportunities or growth in saving the planet. There is an unpalatable fact served up by environmental groups – capitalism in its current state is ruining the earth and making it unfit for habitation.

Extinction Rebellion is demanding direct democratic participation by people’s councils on where we go next. For politicians, some of whom are millionaires with industrial interests that would suffer diminished profits (or are supported financially by industry lobbyists and powerful economic figures), this is a clear money loser.

Cue a typically patronising right wing response to striking schoolkids – they are truants, their parents should be fined, they have been brainwashed by ‘Marxist’ groups. Never mind the weight of scientific evidence supporting their cause.

As comedian Bill Hicks once said in response to the human impact on the planet, ‘let’s work out this food-air deal first’. We are reaching a point in human history where growth is not possible. We cannot use a planet and a half worth of resources each year and expect a positive result – a new macro-econonic model is needed.

Earth Overshoot Day seems to be happening earlier and earlier each year. Check out their website for a serious discussion on what is needed to shift that date backwards by addressing energy, food, and population issues.

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In 2010 the economist Tim Jackson published Prosperity Without Growth. In the wake of the financial crisis that shook world economics to its core, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and far-sighted commentators started to see that prosperity is possible without GNP growth, and indeed that prosperity will soon become impossible because of GNP growth.

Jackson, who was the economics commissioner on the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission (and is now professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey) said “The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist.”

He focused on a revaluation of prosperity in society towards community, family and friends, stewardship of the earth and the value of our future. That was nine years ago. In the face of the political strongmen (Trump, Putin, Duterte et al) and the poison of so-called populist (actually right wing extremist) politics that have since emerged, we need that revaluation right now.

Why not check out another of our articles ‘Blue Planet 2: Can We Ever Learn How to Speak to Whales and Dolphins?

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