Humans Are Driving a Million Species Towards Extinction, Says U.N. Report

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Humanity has long proven to be a planet-altering colossus, but an exhaustive and damning report from the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says our activities have thrust global biodiversity into an unprecedented and dangerous decline.

The 1,500-page report was compiled over three years by hundreds of environmental experts from 50 countries, and draws on thousands of scientific and government studies as well as knowledge from indigenous and local sources, according to a statement released Monday by the IPBES. A summary of its findings was approved last week by representatives from the United States and 131 other countries. The full report is set to be published later this year.

The bottom line — that the rate of extinction is increasing, and 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with disappearing — garnered significant media attention, though some argued it warranted more mainstream coverage.

More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened, according to the report. Top drivers of the decline in biodiversity were “changes in land and sea use” — like clearing native ecosystems to farm, build roads, expand cities, and raise livestock — and “the direct exploitation of organisms” through fishing, hunting, and poaching. Climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species were also major factors.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” said Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The report warns that land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the global land surface, and billions of dollars of annual global crops are at risk from the loss of pollinating species such as insects and birds. Invasive species, made more destructive by climate change, could also compromise the security of food systems around the world. The loss of coastal ecosystems also puts more people in danger during instances of extreme weather, which are likely to become more frequent as the climate warms.

Avoiding the worst case scenario is still possible, the report’s authors say, but only through a major course correction, what they refer to as “transformative change.” The world will need to adopt a new paradigm for sustainable growth that takes into account trade-offs between agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban growth, energy, finance, and other sectors, said the statement.

“Following the adoption of this historic report, no one will be able to claim that they did not know,” said Audrey Azoulay, head of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, at a conference announcing the report. “We can no longer continue to destroy the diversity of life.”

Also in the news:

• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expressed increasing concern about the widespread use and potential health effects of poorly-studied sunscreens. This February, the agency proposed tightening regulations and increasing safety testing of the over-the-counter products. Such concerns were reinforced after a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found some of the potent ingredients in sunscreens — such as avobenzone and oxybenzone — absorb surprisingly rapidly through skin and into the bloodstream. Further, not only did the compounds enter the circulatory system in just a few hours, a number of them remained in the bloodstream several days after application. The durability and chemical action of these same compounds has also drawn attention from environmentalists. Studies have found that sunscreens washed off swimmers can seep into ocean organisms, including corals. The damaging effect on coral reefs has drawn such serious attention that this week U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced legislation to limit their use. As to the effects on humans, the researchers acknowledge a need for more research into the risks — and highly recommend it. (Gizmodo)

• U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made news at this week’s meeting of the Arctic Council, not for the words he said but for the ones he didn’t. At the summit, convened to address international policy and collaboration in a region warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet, Pompeo declined multiple opportunities to utter the phrase “climate change.” The meeting, held in Rovaniemi, Finland, and attended by representatives from the eight countries of the Arctic Council — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. — failed to produce a sought-after joint declaration. Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini attributed that disappointment to “the inability to get the U.S. to agree on a text that included language about climate change,” the AP reports. Although Pompeo did acknowledge a shared responsibility to protect the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, he was keen to tout the potential economic advantages of global warming. As the Arctic’s ice cover disappears and new shipping lanes open up, he said, “Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century’s Suez and Panama canals.” (Associated Press)

• The case of Marcella Carollo, an astrophysicist at the elite Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Switzerland — known simply as ETHZ — seemed straightforward. Accused in 2017 of repeatedly mistreating students at the university, manipulating authorship of papers, and other academic sins, Carollo was suspended, investigated, and ultimately put on a fast-track for dismissal. But some professors at ETHZ and elsewhere have suggested there is more to the Carollo case than meets the eye, and that she may be the victim of a double-standard familiar to many women in the workplace. “If I just flip [Carollo’s] name with any name in the [physics] department, a male one,” Ursula Keller, the founding president of the Women Professors Forum at ETHZ, told Undark this week, “it never would have happened.” Where a male professor might be described as assertive, a female one, acting similarly, is too-often perceived as domineering and difficult, critics of Carollo’s case have argued. Those critics also pointed out that whatever faults ETHZ’s investigation attributed to Carollo — and there were many — the team empaneled to conduct the inquiry recommended against firing her. Leadership at the school, it seems, chose not to follow that finding. Late last month, the Swiss federal government notified ETHZ, along with another university, that it planned to investigate both schools for evidence of systemic gender bias. (Undark)

• In an experimental treatment, a cocktail of bacteriophages — viruses that prey on bacteria — beat back an aggressive infection in a critically ill teenager. In 2017, James Soothill called fellow microbiologist Graham Hatfull for help with a last-ditch intervention for a pair of teenagers at a London hospital with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Hatfull has collected bacteriophages since the late 1990s, enlisting undergraduate volunteers to collect specimens from around the world, and has amassed a trove of more than 10,000 viruses in his lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Hatfull and his team raced to identify viruses with a taste for the particular bacteria behind the teens’ infections. One of the patients died from the infection before a suitable virus could be located, but the other received three phages from Hatfull’s lab, one of which was scraped from a rotting eggplant, and made a remarkable recovery. Hatfull and Soothill published their results in Nature Medicine this week. While the particular treatment was specifically tailored to only one patient, the researchers see it as evidence of phage therapy’s greater potential. “It’s a whole new approach that opens the doors to treating multidrug-resistant superbugs,” Robert “Chip” Schooley, who advised Hatfull’s group, told WIRED. “With phages we’re really going back to the future.” (WIRED)

• A disaster is unfolding in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an outbreak of the Ebola virus disease continues to swell, due in large part to escalating violence and hostility towards health workers. A May 5 report from the World Health Organization said 1,506 cases of the disease had been confirmed and 979 people had died, making it the second largest Ebola outbreak on record. Community mistrust of health workers — rooted in decades of conflict and stoked by misinformation from politicians — has boiled over in recent months into attacks and fire-bombings at treatment centers, and assaults on workers. The situation is especially frustrating, senior WHO official Mike Ryan told STAT, since the tools and treatments to quell the outbreak are readily available. “What we lack right now is the environment, the access, the enablement,” said Ryan. Violence and fear have undermined the effectiveness of health officials elsewhere, including Nigeria and Pakistan, where polio has retained a stubborn foothold. (STAT)

• And finally: From May 1 to May 8, the United Kingdom did not burn any coal, marking Britain’s first coal-free week since it opened its first coal-burning power plant in 1882, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO). “As more and more renewables come on to our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to be a regular occurrence,” ESO director Fintan Slye told the BBC. The British government hopes to phase out its last coal-fired plants by 2025, as part of a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared to 1990 levels. To fill the gap left by coal, natural gas comprised 46 percent of the week’s energy supply, followed by nuclear at 21.2 percent, and wind power at 10.7 percent. The achievement comes on the heels of a report from the U.K.’s Committee on Climate Change urging the country to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (BBC)

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