April 29, 2022 ‘Apocalypse Papers’: Scientists Call for Paradigm Shift as Biodiversity Loss Worsens

The towering saguaro cactus grows profusely throughout the desert landscape in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images
The towering saguaro cactus grows profusely throughout the desert landscape in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

When scientists from the United States and Europe published a study two weeks ago, warning that climate change was on track to push more than half of the world’s species of cactus—a plant known for its extraordinary ability to survive heat and drought—into extinction by midcentury, Tierra Curry simply filed it among the quickly growing pile of similar reports.

“I have a whole folder, I call them apocalypse papers,” said Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a prominent U.S. environmental advocacy and research center. “We pass them around everyday, like, ‘Oh here’s another one.’”

Curry is part of a growing chorus of scientists worldwide calling for an immediate paradigm shift in the way humans travel, produce energy, grow their food and consume goods. Such a shift is not only necessary to tackle climate change, Curry said, but it’s also critical to mitigating the threat of mass extinction, as a rapidly increasing number of species of plants and animals face the threat of losing their natural habitats to inhospitable heat and the growing footprint of human industry and agriculture.

In the last two weeks alone, a slew of research papers predicting horrific outcomes of biodiversity loss and mass extinction were published in major journals at an alarming pace, underscoring warnings from the scientific community that the consequences of global warming are becoming more intense and accelerating far faster than previously understood.

Last week, researchers reported in another study that the world’s insects were in dramatic decline in both population and diversity due to the combination of climate change and expanding agriculture. In some areas, overall insect populations dropped nearly in half, with more than a quarter fewer species found, the study said.

Then on Wednesday, in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers declared that more than 1 in 5 species of reptiles—including iconic animals like chameleons, Komodo dragons and king cobras—are now at risk of extinction as humans continue to take away their habitat for farming, urban development and other industry. And on Thursday, another study warned that the climate crisis is pushing Earth’s oceans toward a mass extinction event at a level not seen in about 250 million years, when scientists believe up to 90 percent of marine organisms went extinct due to overheated, acidic and deoxygenated oceans.

Taken altogether, the studies show how the rate at which animals and plants are going extinct because of human activity is getting worse and accelerating beyond what scientists had previously feared, Curry said.

Complicating matters further, two other reports—yes, also released this week—show that the majority of the world’s land is now farmland or has been developed for industry, and that nations are failing their global promise to preserve the Earth’s remaining rainforests.

A sweeping new report from the United Nations found that more than 70 percent of the Earth’s land has already been altered by human activity, primarily because of expanding agriculture. And another study published by the World Resources Institute found that the world is essentially losing 10 soccer fields worth of tropical forest per minute because of development and industry.

The public should be terrified by these findings, Curry told me. “The natural habitats are still being bulldozed and lost on a daily basis,” she said. “It has to become part of daily conversation and awareness, and it’s not right now.”

For years, climate campaigners have pointed to a growing disconnect between what climate science says must be done to avoid catastrophic warming and mass extinctions and the action world leaders are actually taking to address the issues. That disconnect is what is pushing many scientists, including Curry, to take up activism in recent years, departing from the traditional role as a neutral information provider to call for specific policies, including endorsing a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and a major restructuring of the world’s food systems.

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 scientists from around the world staged demonstrations and even faced arrest for civil disobedience as a way to decry a lack of action to address the climate crisis. And in a tragic scene last week, in what is believed to be a protest on climate inaction, a U.S. climate activist lit himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court and later died from his injuries.

In some ways, the latest batch of biodiversity studies should act as a clarion call to humanity to do far more to address the industries driving the climate crisis, including logging and agriculture, Curry said.

“You really need to remember that we are species on a planet, and our fate is tied to the health of all of the other species on this planet,” she said. “Killing the planet is killing ourselves, and that’s the message that everybody needs to absorb and start acting on.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

4,000

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