A 1,000-page report from a United Nations panel made the dire claim this week that more than 1 million of Earth’s species face extinction in the next several decades. The predictions by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) may obscure the real work needed to protect creation and the good news about the environment.
Compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries over three years, the report reviews 15,000 scientific and governmental documents assessing environmental changes over five decades. It predicts mass extinctions from habitat loss caused by urban and agricultural development and overfishing. The report also blames climate change, pollution, and invasive species for declining numbers of wildlife.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” IPBES Chairman Sir Robert Watson said.
The report’s authors based the 1 million extinctions prediction not on current evidence but a projection of an extrapolation. The panel relied on a list of threatened species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which estimated that about 25 percent of the species it investigated were threatened. But scientists have only examined a small fraction of the estimated 8 million species on Earth, and the IPBES panel took the IUCN prediction and projected it onto unknown or unexamined species. The IUCN lists 27,000 threatened species, and the summary of the report itself says only 680 vertebrate species have gone extinct since the 16th century.
Geologist Gregory Wrightstone, author of Inconvenient Facts: The Science that Al Gore Doesn’t Want You to Know, said that while the UN report is particularly large-scale, it differs little from other claims made over the past several decades and makes many of the same mistakes.
“We’ve seen other claims very similar to this over the last 20 to 30 years claiming huge rates of extinction,” he told me. “Most of those have been based on climate models and projections of what will happen rather than documented rates of extinction that are happening.”
That’s not to say humans never cause extinctions. Wrightstone said history has seen massive waves of extinctions as people move into new areas such as the Pacific Islands or Australia. Those extinctions peaked in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and “we have seen a significant decline in over the last 100 plus years,” he said. “Man in the developed world, I think, has done a great job preserving large areas for wildlife. We’ve done a great job of looking out for the creatures that are endangered.”
Wrightstone also pointed out that many of the solutions proposed to solve climate change would further harm the habitats of vulnerable species. For example, solar panels and wind turbines, popular renewable energy sources, require paving over land and destroying forests on a huge scale.
Research by Wrightstone and others suggests the planet’s current warming trends have actually helped biodiversity. Contrary to the picture of “Earth becoming a desert,” he said, information from NASA shows formerly arid deserts blooming with plant life and the Earth growing greener as warming causes more precipitation, moister soil, and other phenomena that actually make the planet more hospitable.
The IPBES report does list some concrete problems that have workable solutions. For example, plastic pollution, particularly in the ocean, has increased tenfold since 1980.
“There are things we should address and we can address,” Wrightstone said. “And plastic pollution is something that I think that should be addressed and gone after. But that’s a targeted pollution problem limited to mainly southeast Asia. I think we should have a concerted effort to try and reduce that, for sure, and … continue to do the many good environmental policies that have made the United States and industrialized nations more environmentally secure and improved.”
And on that front, there is good news. The United States has seen improved environmental conditions due to practical, limited policies. Wrightstone specifically mentioned improved air and water quality and cases of species moving back into areas that have been restored. Humans can and should care for the Earth, but they don’t have to resort to prophesying catastrophe to make it happen.