Big thud: UN reports human society at risk as extinction threatens 1 million species

By David Pendered

Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday with information from the Center for a Sustainable Coast and The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

That thud heard across the country was response to a landmark report from the United Nations that shows human society is at risk as 1 million plant and animal species are on the brink of extinction.

The relevance of the scant discussion about the report, issued May 6, was itself a matter of discussion Monday.

Georgia aster_Linda May_DNR

The Georgia aster is a threatened species in Georgia because development and the poisoning of plants in roadside and utility rights-of-way, according to Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Credit: Linda May/Georgia DNR

Environmental advocates suggested reasons that ranged from possible burnout on such reports to concerns about alienating donors who benefit from fossil fuels – the latter of which the report cites indirectly.

Whatever the reason, the dearth of discussion is not for a lack of trying by the report’s authors. In order to pique the interest of policy makers, the authors said they included the first-ever ranking, for a report of this global scale, the Top 5 drivers of change in nature. These drivers are:

  • “Changes in land and sea use;
  • “Direct exploitation of organisms;
  • “Climate change;
  • “Pollution;
  • “Invasive alien species.”

The UN’s report is chock-a-block with information this type of information, which usually would be a gold mine for environmental groups to share over time with their adherents. That’s not been the case.

The inclusion of information gathered from “Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities” suggests the report would have resonated with a broader audience than similar reports that typically exclude thoughts from these folks. That’s not been the case.

An uplifting nugget from the report, “it is not too late to make a difference,” would seem to engage an audience that may not be able to stomach one more report that begins with a dire prediction about threats to nature and global warming. That’s not been the case.

gopher tortoise

Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise, is now listed as a threatened species in the state and is a candidate for federal listing in Georgia because of the loss of habitat to farming and urban expansion, according to a report by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Credit: Emily Ferrall/Georgia DNR.

The national media timed most of its coverage of the report to the day the report was issued, or a few days later. Ongoing coverage appears to have been minimal in the general media and among publications targeted to environmental groups and policy makers.

At a national symposium that started Tuesday in Washington, the UN report came out too late to be featured on the agenda of Capitol Hill Ocean Week, a two-day event sponsored by The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, a spokesman said Tuesday in an email. Planning and organization was completed months ago.

As a result of the timing situation, individual speakers intended to address issues raised in the UN report as part of their presentations at the event. For instance, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Ca.) referenced some of the UN’s findings in his closing remarks in the symposium’s opening plenary, the spokesman said in an email.

The symposium attracts lawmakers, advocates and policymakers with an interest in the, “grand challenges in the ocean and Great Lakes, oceans and human health, sustainable fisheries, and conserving wildlife.”

The stature of this event is evident in its list of sponsors, which includes NOAA and the federal entity that oversees offshore mineral exploration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; The Walton Family Foundation; David and Lucille Packard Foundation; Pew Charitable Trust, and an entity involved in the UN report, UN Environment.

gopher frog

The gopher frog has become rare in Georgia as burrows created by gopher turtles become harder to find. Credit: John Jensen/Georgia DNR

One place the report has gained traction is in postings by the Center for a Sustainable Coast, based on St. Simons Island. David Kyler, the center’s executive director, said Monday the report’s implications of failing biodiversity cited in the report simply can’t be overlooked.

“The collapse of ecosystems … could be the leading edge of the collapse of marine- and land-based food supplies,” Kyler said. “If animals can’t survive because of the break-down of ecosystems … that would be tragic for humanity.”

The center has promoted the report on its Facebook page and includes a reference to a letter to the editor by Kyler:

  • “Unfortunately, many of our leaders — in both government and industry — evidently think that short-term corporate profit-making and re-election of business-friendly officials should dominate the decisions governing human use of the Earth.
  • “Are we willing to tolerate escalating threats to vital life-support systems because it’s just so profitable?”

The relative scarcity of ongoing commentary about the report isn’t because the report was obsure. The national media ensured the UN report was brought to attention.

An adult right whale and a juvenile off Georgia's coast (Sea to Shore Alliance_NOAA permit 20556)

An adult right whale and a juvenile swim off Georgia’s coast. The species has been listed as endangered since 1970. Only an estimated 450 of this most-endangered whale species remain, according to NOAA. Credit: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA permit 20556

For example, in The Washington Post, reporter Darryl Fears, formerly with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, observed that the UN report:

  • “[G]oes further than previous studies by directly linking the loss of species to human activity. It also shows how those losses are undermining food and water security, as well as human health.”

Smithsonian.com, in its breaking news report, said the forecasted extinctions could mark the end of the known world by:

  • “[P]utting human communities at risk by compromising food sources, fouling clean water and air, and eroding natural defenses against extreme weather such as hurricanes and floods.”

The summary of the report itself begins:

  • “PARIS, 6 May – Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely, warns a landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the summary of which was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary, meeting last week (29 April – 4 May) in Paris.

    Sir Robert Watson

    Sir Robert Watson

  • “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
  • “The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said. “Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.
  • “The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good,” Watson said.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Carolyn H. Rader says:

    The US government (this administration) seems to be encouraging the melting of the Arctic. Secretary of State Pompeo appears to be giddy with excitement that the Arctic is melting so that the US can be one of the first countries to lay claim to the vast fossil fuel reserves and other resources that have been sitting under all of that ice for thousands of years. Now is their big chance! Oh, and shipping channels opening up, too, for faster routes of useless, plastic objects from China to the US. One wonders if this shockingly fast demise of our climate has been planned all along by a greedy few (geoengineering, perhaps?), or at least in the past couple of years, completely disinterest in arresting the warming we are experiencing.Report

    Reply

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