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Wilderness in a Warming World
Alex Steffen, 2 May 06

A new study shows that, without significant interventions, climate change and habitat loss could combine to wipe out one-quarter of all the species on the planet by 2050:

The study expands on a much-debated 2004 paper published in the journal Nature that suggested a quarter of the world's species would be committed to extinction by 2050 as a result of global warming. This latest study picks up where the Nature paper left off, incorporating critiques and suggestions from other scientists while increasing the global scope of the research to include diverse hotspots around the world. The results reinforce the massive species extinction risks identified in the 2004 study.
"Climate change is rapidly becoming the most serious threat to the planet's biodiversity," said lead author Dr. Jay Malcolm. "This study provides even stronger scientific evidence that global warming will result in catastrophic species loss across the planet."
Using vegetation models, the research is one of the first attempts to assess the potential effects of climate change on terrestrial biodiversity on a global scale rather than just looking at individual species.

The most serious threat to biodiversity posed by climate change, the study's authors point out, is that biological "hotspots" -- critical ecosystems like certain rainforests and coral reefs -- which cover only 1% of the Earth's surface but hold 44% of its biodiversity, are being transformed so rapidly that even if they are preserved from habitat destruction, they may not be able to provide a home for the plants and animals who live there now.

But the implications here extend to any piece of ground or water we care about. We are now re-engineering the entire planet, though we're doing it blindly and carelessly. If we're serious about preserving the diversity of life on Earth, we need to make climate foresight central to essentially all conservation biology efforts.

I wrote earlier about how environmental restoration needs to reconceive itself on a warming planet, but the lessons may be even tougher to wrap our heads around when it comes to environmental preservation. Places we have thought of as wild, as natural, as santuaries we need to leave alone we will increasingly have a moral and practical obligation to manage intensively if we want to see the critters they contain survive. And, as the yeti crab shows us, we need a crash course in the workings of our planet if we're going to have a chance of pulling that off. We need to dedicate ourselves to really knowing the Earth, if we are going to build bright green future upon it.

(image by Ariel)

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Is it possible that we are being shortsighted in our view of the impacts of climate change? I'm under the impression that global biodiversity has fluctuated greatly over geologic history - even though this time climate change is likely our (humanity's) fault, a decrease in species diversity does not spell the end of the world, instead just a changed, new world.

Posted by: Jonathan Krones on 2 May 06

Huh, that's a new form of denialist argument I hadn't yet encountered.

But to answer your question without snark, I don't think you're right at all, if what we're looking for is a stable planet condusive to human civilization.

We know that previous civilizations have eaten through their ecosystems and collapsed. We know that the dollar value of our planet's ecosystem services is greater than the value of the global economy, and that we will have a short bumpy ride of it if we undermine the systems that provide us with the essentials of life. We also know that those systems are globally interconnected, they're vulnerable to disruption and it's very difficult to tell what specific actions will tip them over.

The common analogy is that species are rivets in our spaceship: we can knock some rivets out, and keep flying, but at a certain point, we'll lose the wrong rivet and then we're in trouble. This study shows that we're about to knock a quarter of the rivets off our ship.

That would indeed spell a changed, new world: but it could be a new world changed to become catastrophically unstable; and once global systems destabilize, they may continue to collapse.

So yes, though biodiversity has fluctuated dramatically over time, we need to ask ourselves this: do we really want to be living in an era comparable metaphorically to the time shortly after an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, or do we want to keep living in a world more similar to that on which we evolved?

The dinosaurs didn't have a choice. We do.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 May 06

I don't actually believe that, I was just presenting an argument I had not yet heard a response to. Thank you for countering it.

Posted by: Jonathan on 2 May 06

Actrauly it is a fact that the earth will go on doing its thing just fine and has through mass extinctions far worse then this one but thats not the point the point is we dont want it.

Its simple as that we dont want this future we want to CHOOSE a better one. We are just having a small problem finding one.

I suspect in the end we will just geneticaly map all the things we can in the hopes of remaking them down the line.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 May 06

Maybe WE can survive on OUR spaceship with only one animal species, OURSELVES...

OUR problem is that WE are constantly talking about US, how things affect US... how WE must save this and that wilderness for the sake of OUR children, etc.

We should reflect more on the fact that we are but a strand in the beautiful web of life on this planet, and that every other strand has just as much right to exist as we do. We should cry at the extent that we have managed, through our greed and ignorance, to tear at more of this web in 100 years than has been spun in the last few million years.

I am not hopeful about our ability to meaningfully affect climate change at this point. You and I can (and should) try on a personal level, but what do you think it will take to turn governments and corporations away from their doomed 'endless growth' paradigm? Only a kick in the butt from Mother Nature can even begin to hope to do that, and by that time our socio-political-economic structure will be changing so fast that we may lose our bearings altogether.

Posted by: Vladimir Orlt on 3 May 06

Oh, we can have plenty more growth.  We didn't stop growing when we decreased the harvest of whale oil, we just grew differently.  Slashing output of GHG's doesn't have to mean contraction either, just expansion in different directions.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 4 May 06



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