‘We Should Be Worried’: Study Confirms Fear That Intense Ocean Acidification Portends Ecological Collapse

“We have been warned.”

A new study regarding fossil records reveals that ocean acidification could cause mass extinction. (Photo: Rodfather/Flickr/cc)

The acidification of the Earth’s oceans, which climate scientists warn is a dangerous effect of continued carbon emissions, was behind a mass extinction event 66 million years ago, according to a new study.

Small-shelled marine organisms survived the meteorite that struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, according to researchers at the GFZ geosciences research center in Potsdam, Germany, but the subsequent sharp drop in pH levels in the ocean caused the marine life to go extinct.

“We show ocean acidification can precipitate ecological collapse,” Michael Henehan, who led the study, told The Guardian.

Researchers examined shell fossils in sediment dating back to the time period just after the meteorite struck the planet, which showed that the oceans’ pH dropped by about 0.25 units in the 100 to 1,000 years after the strike.

“In the boundary clay, we managed to capture them just limping on past the asteroid impact,” Henehan said.

But, the newspaper reported, “It was the knock-on effects of acidification and other stresses, such as the ‘nuclear winter’ that followed the impact, that finally drove these foraminifera to extinction.”

“We have been warned,” climate campaigner Ed Matthew tweeted with a link to the research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, climate scientists warn that the continued burning of oil, gas, and coal is causing ocean acidification that, left unchecked, could cause a pH drop of 0.4 units.

If policymakers are able to help limit the warming of the globe to two degrees Celsius by ordering that fossil fuels be left in the ground and shifting to a renewable energy economy, the ocean’s pH level could drop just 0.15 units.

“If 0.25 was enough to precipitate a mass extinction, we should be worried,” Henahan told The Guardian.

As Common Dreams reported in July, MIT researchers also recently turned their attention to ocean acidification as well. The researchers released data showing that today’s carbon levels could be fast approaching a tipping point threshold that could trigger extreme ocean acidification similar to the kind that contributed to the Permian–Triassic mass extinction, which occurred about 250 million years ago.

What we lose when animals go extinct

Animals are disappearing at hundreds of times the normal rate, primarily because of shrinking habitats. Their biggest threat: humans.

No trace of the wild South China tiger, Panthera tigris amoyensis (critically endangered, possibly extinct in the wild), has been seen for more than a decade. Zoos hold fewer than 200 in… Read More
SUZHOU SOUTH CHINA TIGER BREEDING BASE

This story appears in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

LIFE, BESIEGED

Most of the animals shown here are among the more than 28,000 species of animals and plants that the International Union for Conservation of Nature says are threatened with extinction. That number actually understates the risk. Since 1964, when the IUCN established a “red list” of threatened species and began compiling data gathered worldwide, the list has become the preeminent global database of endangered life and an essential tool for conservation policy. Yet the IUCN has been able to assess only about 106,000 species of the more than 1.5 million species of animals and more than 300,000 plants that scientists have described and named—which they estimate is less than a quarter of what’s really out there. A recent intergovernmental report on the biodiversity crisis estimated that extinction threatens up to a million animal and plant species, known and unknown. The IUCN hopes to raise the number of species assessments to 160,000 by 2020. Next up on its agenda: a “green list” of conservation successes. It will be much shorter than the red one.

The large yellow-footed tortoise, Chelonoidis denticulata (vulnerable), from South America and the Caribbean, is hunted for its meat, which is considered a delicacy. It also is captured and traded as a pet.KANSAS CITY ZOO, MISSOURI

THE BIGGEST THREAT: HUMANS

Habitat loss—driven primarily by human expansion as we develop land for housing, agriculture, and commerce—is the biggest threat facing most animal species, followed by hunting and fishing. Even when habitat is not lost entirely, it may be changed so much that animals cannot adapt. Fences fragment a grassland or logging cuts through a forest, breaking up migration corridors; pollution renders a river toxic; pesticides kill widely and indiscriminately. To those local threats one must increasingly add global ones: Trade, which spreads disease and invasive species from place to place, and climate change, which eventually will affect every species on Earth—starting with the animals that live on cool mountaintops or depend on polar ice. All of these threats lead, directly or indirectly, back to humans and our expanding footprint. Most species face multiple threats. Some can adapt to us; others will vanish.

Left: Humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus (endangered)
Right: Arctic fox, Vulpes lagopus (least concern)
DALLAS WORLD AQUARIUM (LEFT) AND GREAT BEND–BRIT SPAUGH ZOO, KANSAS (RIGHT)
Lesser flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor (near threatened)CLEVELAND METROPARKS ZOO

If we lived in an ordinary time—time here being understood in the long, unhurried sense of a geologic epoch—it would be nearly impossible to watch a species vanish. Such an event would occur too infrequently for a person to witness. In the case of mammals, the best-studied group of animals, the fossil record indicates that the “background” rate of extinction, the one that prevailed before humans entered the picture, is so low that over the course of a millennium, a single species should disappear.

But of course we don’t live in an ordinary time. Everywhere we look, species are winking out. Just in the past decade, two mammal species have gone extinct: a bat known as the Christmas Island pipistrelle and a rat, the Bramble Cay melomys.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists more than 200 mammal species and subspecies as critically endangered. In some cases, like the Sumatran rhino or the vaquita—a porpoise native to the Gulf of California—there are fewer than a hundred individuals left. In others, like the baiji (also known as the Yangtze River dolphin), the species, though not yet officially declared extinct, has probably died out.

Bachman’s warbler, Vermivora bachmanii (critically endangered, possibly extinct)
One of the United States’ smallest native warblers, it may already be extinct because of severe habitat loss from development in the southeastern U.S. and its Cuban wintering grounds. The last time a live sighting was reported was in 1988.TALL TIMBERS RESEARCH STATION AND LAND CONSERVANCY, FLORIDA

And unfortunately, what goes for mammals goes for just about every other animal group: reptiles, amphibians, fish, even insects. Extinction rates today are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of times higher than the background rate. They’re so high that scientists say we’re on the brink of a mass extinction.

The last mass extinction, which did in the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, followed an asteroid impact. Today the cause of extinction seems more diffuse. It’s logging and poaching and introduced pathogens and climate change and overfishing and ocean acidification.

But trace all these back and you find yourself face-to-face with the same culprit. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson has noted that humans are the “first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.” Many scientists argue that we have entered a new geologic epoch—the Anthropocene, or age of man. This time around, in other words, the asteroid is us.

Gray woolly monkey, Lagothrix cana (endangered)
This young, malnourished woolly monkey from Brazil was raised as a pet. When she was captured, her mother likely was killed. Environmental police rescued her, and she’s been treated, but she’ll need to live in captivity the rest of her life.CETAS-IBAMA, BRAZIL

What’s lost when an animal goes extinct?

One way to think of a species, be it of ape or of ant, is as an answer to a puzzle: how to live on planet Earth. A species’ genome is a sort of manual; when the species perishes, that manual is lost. We are, in this sense, plundering a library—the library of life. Instead of the Anthropocene, Wilson has dubbed the era we are entering the Eremozoic—the age of loneliness.

This article is adapted from Joel Sartore’s new book, Vanishing, published by National Geographic Books.

Joel Sartore has been photographing animals for his Photo Ark project for 13 years. In an ever growing number of cases, animals housed in zoos or special breeding facilities are among the last remaining members of their species. In some instances, they are the only members.

Toughie, a Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog from central Panama, lived at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He became the last known of his kind when a fungal disease swept through his native habitat and a captive-breeding program failed. Toughie died in 2016, and it’s likely the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog is now extinct.

Romeo, a Sehuencas water frog that lives at the natural history museum in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was likewise believed to be a sole survivor. Scientists created an online dating profile for him. It linked to a donation page, and the $25,000 raised helped fund expeditions in the eastern Andes, where the species was once abundant.

Amazingly, the search has revealed five more Sehuencas water frogs, two males and three females. All were taken to Cochabamba; the one female mature enough to breed with Romeo was named Juliet. Whether she will prove a worthy mate and perpetuate the species, no one knows.

Was the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog beautiful? Not in the flashy way of, say, the Spix’s macaw (which is believed to be extinct in the wild) or the Gee’s golden langur (which is endangered). But with its expressive brown eyes and gangly limbs, it had its own kind of charm.

Niho tree snail, Partula nodosa (extinct in the wild)ST. LOUIS ZOO

Sartore treats all creatures—great and small, handsome and homely—with reverence. His photos capture what’s singular and, I’d also like to say, soulful about every living thing. One of my favorite images of Joel’s is of a Partula nodosa, or niho tree snail, laying down a trail of slime. There used to be dozens of Partula species in the South Pacific, occupying different islands and different ecological niches. Much like Darwin’s finches, they are the darlings of evolutionary biologists—living, slime-producing illustrations of the power of natural selection. The introduction of carnivorous snails from Florida drove nearly a third of the Partula species extinct; several survive solely thanks to captive-breeding programs.

Precisely because extinction takes place so frequently now, it’s possible to become inured to it. This desensitizing is what makes Sartore’s images so crucial: They show us just how remarkable each species is that’s being lost.

We live in an extraordinary time. Perhaps by recognizing this, we can begin to imagine creating a different one—one that preserves, as much as is still possible, the wonderful diversity of life.


THREAT: DISEASE

Since the 1980s, a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, likely spread through direct contact and by infected water, has ravaged global amphibian populations. More than 500 species have been affected; 90 of these may be extinct. The fungus disrupts transmission of electrolytes through the skin of a frog or toad, ultimately stopping its heart.


THREAT: INVASIVE SPECIES

Kagu, Rhynochetos jubatus (endangered)
Like many island species, the nearly flightless kagu, native to the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, was seriously affected by the arrival in the late 1700s of European settlers and their animals. Roughly chicken size, the kagu continues to fall prey to non-native pigs, cats, and dogs. The birds nest on the ground, and rats eat their eggs. Recent population estimates suggest fewer than a thousand kagu survive. Scientists nevertheless have some hope for the future: Decades of successful captive breeding have resulted in the reintroduction of the birds to the wild, and predator control has allowed some populations to rebound.HOUSTON ZOO

THREAT: FRAGMENTATION

Mhorr gazelle, Nanger dama mhorr (critically endangered)
This subspecies of the dama gazelle was once widespread across the western Sahara. Now there are fewer than 300 damas combined in Mali, Chad, and Niger. Their range is broken up by grazing lands for livestock, and they’re at risk from hunting. Reintroduction of captive-bred animals has had mixed success.BUDAPEST ZOO

THREAT: HABITAT LOSS

Butterflies can fly long distances and feed on many types of flowers, but caterpillars are locavores, eating plants they hatch on or near. As those plants are lost to development or farming, butterflies disappear. The ones here aren’t listed by the IUCN—which has evaluated only 8,100 insect species—but are considered at risk by other authorities.


THREAT: POACHING

Asian elephant, Elephas maximus (endangered)
Early in the 20th century, perhaps 100,000 elephants roamed across Asia. Since then, their population likely has been cut in half. They’re killed not just for their ivory tusks but also for their meat and hides—and sometimes in retaliation for the damage they do to crops.LOS ANGELES ZOO

THREAT: DEFORESTATION

For tree-dwelling lemurs, there’s no life without the forest—or Madagascar, their only home. Yet the island nation has lost 80 percent of its trees to development, charcoal production, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Lemurs are squeezed into limited protected areas; 38 species are critically endangered. Fuel-efficient stoves are being introduced to encourage people to reduce wood use and protect forest habitat.

Diademed sifaka, Propithecus diadema (critically endangered)
Females may only be fertile one day a year, limiting this lemur’s ability to rebuild fragmented populations.LEMUR ISLAND, MADAGASCAR
Left: Aye-aye, Daubentonia madagascariensis (endangered)
Though rare, this lemur—the world’s largest nocturnal primate, at around six pounds—is still found across the island. But local lore holds that aye-ayes are bad luck, and they’re often killed… Read More
DENVER ZOO (LEFT) AND OMAHA’S HENRY DOORLY ZOO AND AQUARIUM, NEBRASKA (RIGHT)

‘It doesn’t feel justifiable’: The couples not having children because of climate change

Morgan and Adam have always wanted children but fears over climate change are making them reconsider.

The committed pair, aged 36 and 35, are part of a growing trend for young couples to abandon plans for a family because of the climate crisis.

Millions of people around the world rallied for climate action over the past two days, including 300,000 in Australia on Friday, ahead of a United Nations climate action summit on Monday.

Morgan and Adam have always wanted children but are worried about climate change.
Morgan and Adam have always wanted children but are worried about climate change.CREDIT:STEVEN SIEWERT

“I feel so sad, it’s such a hard thing to let go of,” says Morgan, who works in logistics. “My conscience says, ‘I can’t give this child what I’ve enjoyed, I can’t give them the certainty of a future where they can be all that they can be … or have the things they should have, like breathable air and drinkable water’.”

Morgan is feeling “pretty damn certain” a baby is off the cards, even though she fears she might regret it. She has at least two close friends in their early 30s, with good partners, who have made the same decision.

Her partner Adam, who works in web development, agrees. “I have a lot of love to give and would love to raise a child … but it doesn’t feel justifiable. The world is heading blindfolded towards catastrophe.”

Prince Harry made headlines when he revealed in an interview in British Vogue, in the September issue guest-edited by his wife Meghan, that the couple would have two children “maximum” for the sake of the planet.

The idea of limiting family size to two children to represent net zero population growth has been around for decades. But is no children the new two children?

Dr Bronwyn Harman, a lecturer at Edith Cowan University in Perth who studies people without children, says it is a progression of the same theme. She says some people are avoiding parenthood because they are worried for their unborn children, while others are motivated not to make things worse.

“They’re saying things like ‘we don’t want to add children into the mix and put more strain on the planet’,” Harman says. “It’s started coming up [in my research] in the past six months but it’s not very common.”

The phenomenon is growing. The Age and Sun-Herald have spoken to 20 and 30-somethings all over Australia wrestling with the dilemma. Most asked to use first names only to avoid online harassment.

“I’m terrified that in another 50 years, if my hypothetical child was all grown up, what would our world look like?” says Jessica Ivers, 29. The digital specialist and yoga teacher from Northcote in Melbourne says she is “100 per cent certain” about her choice.

In Mackay in Queensland,  community organiser Emma, 32, says she and her partner Mick, 33, were planning to start trying for a family next year but changed their minds after the federal election.

“After the LNP won – with no climate plan – we cried and agreed that the dream of a family wouldn’t be for us,” Emma says. “It’s a terrifying thought for us that the world will be uninhabitable in a few decades if we continue charging ahead with fossil fuels and approving coal mines like Adani.”

Melanie, 24, from Highgate Hill in Brisbane terminated an unplanned pregnancy last year and says the climate crisis was the “ultimate deciding factor”. She read scientific articles about the best and worst-case scenarios and decided she would never have children.

“It’s been a hard year coming to terms with the reality of the situation,” says Melanie. “I cannot justify bringing children into a world in the midst of a mass extinction event and facing total ecological collapse. “

Shalini and David would prefer to foster or adopt so they're not adding to the population.
Shalini and David would prefer to foster or adopt so they’re not adding to the population.CREDIT:LOUISE KENNERLEY

Shalini, 33, and David, 35, from Summer Hill in Sydney have decided not to have biological children but would like to adopt or foster in the future.

“It makes more sense for us to look after a child that is here and needs someone rather than make more children,” says David, a 3D animation artist.

Shalini, a public servant, says climate change is a big reason, along with her focus on career.

“I don’t eat meat and I’m really conscious about consuming goods and services that that are more sustainably produced and in the same vein, I don’t want to produce more people,” Shalini says. She finds it hard to discuss with friends because she doesn’t want them to feel judged.

Maddie, 32, from the lower north shore, sought counselling to deal with her grief and anxiety over climate change and her dilemma over having children.

“My psychologist is having more and more couples coming to her about this,” she says. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘this is not a manifestation of normal anxiety, this is a real threat and real grief that you’re carrying’.”

Maddie would love children but feels an obligation to fight for her newborn niece and friends’ children instead.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest one in four women aged 15 to 35 will never have children. Harman says roughly two-thirds of those women make an active choice to be “child-free” while one-third are “childless” because of circumstances, including fears over the state of the world.

A global trend

In Britain musician and activist Blythe Pepino, 33, kicked off the “BirthStrike” – a movement of people pledging not to have children “due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat”.

In February, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented on the grim scientific outlook and political inaction: “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK still to have children?”

American singer and actress Miley Cyrus, 26, told Elle magazine’s August 2019 US issue that Millennials didn’t want to reproduce because they knew the Earth could not handle it.

“We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child,” Cyrus says. “Until I feel like my kid would live on an Earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.”

Yet even at the coalface of climate change research, some see this as extreme. Earlier this month, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation (parent body of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), weighed into the debate.

“The latest idea is that children are a negative thing,” Taalas told a Finnish magazine. “I am worried for young mothers, who are already under much pressure. This will only add to their burden.”

He warned facts could be hijacked to justify “extreme measures” in the name of climate action.

Taalas told The Sun-Herald  in a statement he supports strong climate action and a science-based approach offers hope.

“We must not be driven to despair, given that reasonable solutions are available to the international community, governments and civil society,” he says.

David Attenborough – Humans are plague on Earth

Humans are a plague on the Earth that need to be controlled by limiting population growth, according to Sir David Attenborough.

Humans are plague on Earth – Attenborough

Sir David said commentary from presenters like himself is becoming less necessary as camera work is able to tell a story Photo: PA

The television presenter said that humans are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources.

He said the only way to save the planet from famine and species extinction is to limit human population growth.

“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,” he told the Radio Times.

Sir David, who is a patron of the Population Matters, has spoken out before about the “frightening explosion in human numbers” and the need for investment in sex education and other voluntary means of limiting population in developing countries.

“We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.”

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Sir David, whose landmark series are repeated from Monday on BBC2, starting with Life on Earth, has also spoken out about the change in wildlife documentaries during his lifetime.

The 86-year-old said commentary from presenters like himself are becoming less necessary as camera work is able to tell a story.

“I’m not sure there’s any need for a new Attenborough,” he said. “The more you go on, the less you need people standing between you and the animal and the camera waving their arms about.

“It’s much cheaper to get someone in front of a camera describing animal behaviour than actually showing you [the behaviour]. That takes a much longer time. But the kind of carefully tailored programmes in which you really work at the commentary, you really match pictures to words, is a bit out of fashion now … regarded as old hat.”

18 signs we’re in the middle of a 6th mass extinction

dead fish
A skeleton of a fish lies forgotten on the dry bed of Lake Peñuelas outside Santiago, Chile. 
Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters

The phrase “mass extinction” typically conjures images of the asteroid crash that led to the twilight of the dinosaurs.

Upon impact, that 6-mile-wide space rock caused a tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean, along with earthquakes and landslides up and down what is now the Americas. A heat pulse baked the Earth, and the Tyrannosaurus rex and its compatriots died out, along with 75% of the planet’s species.

Although it may not be obvious, another devastating mass extinction event is taking place today — the sixth of its kind in Earth’s history. The trend is hitting global fauna on multiple fronts, as hotter oceans, deforestation, and climate change drive animal populations to drop in unprecedented numbers.

These alarming extinction trends are driven by one key factor: humans. According to a 2014 study, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans weren’t around. A summary of a United Nations report released last month put it another way: “Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the authors wrote.

That report, which assessed the state of our planet’s biodiversity, found that up to 1 million plant and animals species face extinction, many within decades, due to human activity.

Read more: Insects are dying off at record rates — an ominous sign we’re in the middle of a 6th mass extinction

Other recent research has led to similar conclusions: A 2017 study found that animal species around the world are experiencing a “biological annihilation” and that our current “mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume.”

Here are 18 signs that the planet is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, and why people are primarily to blame.

Earth appears to be undergoing a process of “biological annihilation.” Up to half of the total number of animal individuals that once shared the Earth with humans are already gone.

skeleton deer

Michael Kinnaman/Getty Images

2017 study looked at animal populations across the planet by examining 27,600 vertebrate species — about half of the overall total that we know exist. They found that more than 30% of them are in decline.

Some species are facing total collapse, while local populations of others are going extinct in specific areas. That’s still cause for alarm, since the study authors said these localized extinctions are a “prelude to species extinctions.”

More than 26,500 of the world’s species are threatened with extinction, and that number is expected to keep going up.

Amur Leopard
The Amur leopard is critically endangered. 
DigitalART/Wikimedia Commons

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, more than 27% of all assessed species on the planet are threatened with extinction. Currently, 40% of the planet’s amphibians, 25% of its mammals, and 33% of its coral reefs are threatened.

The IUCN predicts that 99.9% of critically endangered species and 67% of endangered species will be lost within the next 100 years.

According to the UN report, the number of species threatened with extinction could be closer to 1 million.

snow leopard

Getty Images/Mark Kolbe

The UN report estimated that 40% of amphibian species, more than 33% of all marine mammals and reef-forming corals, and at least 10% of insect species are threatened. The authors also found that more than 500,000 land species already don’t have sufficient natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.

Insects are dying off at record rates. Roughly 40% of the world’s insect species are in decline, according to one study.

Insects

Hillary Kladke/Getty Images

A study published earlier this year found that the total mass of all insects on the planet is decreasing by 2.5% per year.

If that trend continues unabated, the Earth may not have any insects at all by 2119.

“In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left, and in 100 years you will have none,” Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, a coauthor of the study, told The Guardian.

That’s a major problem because insects like bees, hoverflies, and other pollinators perform a crucial role in fruit, vegetable, and nut production. Plus, bugs are food sources for many bird, fish, and mammal species — some of which humans rely on for food.

Bee Bombus Ruderarius
The Red-shanked Carder Bee was once widespread in England, Wales, and parts of Scotland. But its population declined an estimated 42% between 1980 and 2013. 
Dave McDonnell/Getty

Another recent study published in the journal Nature Communications looked at 353 wild bee and hoverfly species in the UK, and found that one-third experienced declines between 1980 and 2013.

The study authors noted that the geographic ranges of bee and hoverfly species declined by 25% — that’s a net loss of about 11 species per square kilometer. The primary cause was a reduction in the pollinators’ habitats.

The recent UN report calculated that projected declines in the populations of wild bees and other pollinators could put up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk.

Insects aren’t the only creatures taking a hit. In the past 50 years, more than 500 amphibian species have declined worldwide — and 90 have gone extinct — due to a deadly fungal disease that corrodes frog flesh.

atelopus frog
A Panamanian Golden Frog outside El Valle, Panama. Most Atelopus frogs experienced a 90% decline or complete extinction from the chytrid fungus. 
Brad Wilson/Getty

recent study in the journal Science described the spread of chytridiomycosis, or chytrid fungus, and how quickly it has wreaked havoc on frog, toad, and salamander species around the world.

Humans have enabled the fungal disease to spread further than it otherwise could have, in large part because of the global wildlife trade.

According to the study authors, amphibian deaths associated with chytrid fungus represent the greatest recorded loss of biodiversity attributable to any one disease.

Another study published in the journal Current Biology noted that amphibians overall — not just frogs — are among the most highly threatened groups of animals, with at least 2,000 species estimated to be in danger of extinction.

The loss of even one species could also cause an “extinction domino effect” to ripple through an ecosystem, causing the entire community to collapse.

Gorilla families have already been formed thanks to the database.

Shutterstock

A 2018 study published in Scientific Reports predicted that scientists are likely underestimating how many species are vulnerable to extinction.

“Failing to take into account these co-extinctions therefore underestimates the rate and magnitude of the loss of entire species from events like climate change by up to 10 times,” study co-author Corey Bradshaw said in a press release.

The research suggested that the loss of one species can make more species disappear (a process known as co-extinction) by causing a sudden shift in a system. For example, a species of flower could not survive without the pollinator it relies on.

“Co-extinctions are often triggered well before the complete loss of an entire species,” the study authors wrote.

A 2015 study examined bird, reptile, amphibian, and mammal species, and concluded that the average rate of extinction over the last century is up to 100 times higher than normal.

A Monarch butterfly rests on the finger of a woman in the Amanalco de Becerra sanctuary, on the mountains near the extinct Nevado de Toluca volcano, in Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. The monarch butterfly population, like that of other insects, fluctuates widely depending on a variety of factors, but scientists say the recoveries after each big dip tend to be smaller, suggesting an overall declining trend. (AP Photo/ Marco Ugarte)
The monarch butterfly population, like that of other insects, fluctuates widely. But scientists say the recoveries after each big dip tend to be smaller, suggesting a decline. 
Marco Ugarte/Associated Press

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the book “The Sixth Extinction,” told National Geographic that the outlook from that study is dire. It means 75% of animal species could be extinct within a few human lifetimes.

In roughly 50 years, 1,700 species of amphibians, birds, and mammals will face a higher risk of extinction because their natural habitats are shrinking.

Black Rhino
Black rhinos are critically endangered. 
Phil Noble/Reuters

By 2070, 1,700 species will lose 30% to 50% of their present habitat ranges thanks to human land use, a 2019 study found. Specifically, 886 species of amphibians, 436 species of birds, and 376 species of mammals will be affected and consequently will be at more risk of extinction.

Koalas are already “functionally extinct,” meaning the population has declined so much that it no longer plays a significant role in Australia’s ecosystem.

koala

Anna Levan/Shutterstock

According to experts at the Australian Koala Foundation, only 80,000 koalas are left on the continent. The animals are struggling to survive in the face of deforestation, changing weather, and severe droughts.

Logging and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is of particular concern when it comes to looming extinctions.

Amazon deforestation
An aerial view of a tract of Amazon jungle recently cleared by loggers and farmers near the city of Novo Progresso, Brazil. 
Nacho Doce/Reuters

Roughly 17% of the Amazon has been destroyed in the past five decades, mostly because humans have cut down vegetation to open land for cattle ranching, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Some 80% of the world’s species can be found in tropical rainforests like the Amazon, including the critically endangered Amur leopard. Even deforestation in a small area can cause an animal to go extinct, since some species live only in limited, isolated areas.

Every year, more than 18 million acres of forest disappear worldwide. That’s about 27 soccer fields’ worth every minute.

In addition to putting animals at risk, deforestation eliminates tree cover that helps absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In the next 50 years, humans will drive so many mammal species to extinction that Earth’s evolutionary diversity won’t recover for some 3 million years, one study said.

elephant congo rainforest
African elephants like this one are frequent victims of poaching and are vulnerable to extinction. 
Kenny Katombe/Reuters

The scientists behind that study, which was published in 2018, said the planet will need between 3 million and 5 million years in a best-case scenario to get back to the level of biodiversity we have today.

Returning the planet’s biodiversity to the state it was in before modern humans evolved would take even longer — up to 7 million years.

Some paleobiologists suggested an even longer time frame for the planet’s recovery from a mass extinction: 10 million years or more.

FILE PHOTO: A newly born Mexican gray wolf cub, an endangered native species, interacts with his mother at its enclosure at the Museo del Desierto in Saltillo, Mexico on July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril/File Photo
About 110 endangered Mexican gray wolves remain in the wild today. 
Thomson Reuters

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that it took around 10 million years for Earth’s biodiversity to rebound from the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.

“Biodiversity losses won’t be replaced for millions of years, and so when you imagine extinctions in coral reef ecosystems, or rain forest ecosystems, or grasslands, or wherever, those places are going to be less diverse essentially forever, as far as humans are concerned,” Chris Lowery, a co-author of the study, told Business Insider.

Alien species are a major driver of extinctions.

zebra mussel
Zebra mussel shells pile up on a beach in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan. The zebra mussel is an invasive alien species in the Great Lakes. 
Corfoto/Getty Images

study published in February found that alien species are a primary driver of recent animal and plant extinctions. An alien species is the term for any kind of animal, plant, fungus, or bacteria that isn’t native to an ecosystem. Some can be invasive, meaning they cause harm to the environment to which they’re introduced.

Many invasive alien species have been unintentionally spread by humans. People can carry alien species with them from one continent, country, or region to another when they travel. Shipments of goods and cargo between places can also contribute to a species’ spread.

Zebra mussels and brown marmorated stink bugs are two examples of invasive species in the US.

The recent study showed that since the year 1500, there have been 953 global extinctions. Roughly one-third of those were at least partially because of the introduction of alien species.

Oceans absorb 93% of the extra heat that greenhouse gases trap in Earth’s atmosphere. That kills marine species and coral reefs.

Bleached coral
A bleached coral reef near Guam in the Pacific Ocean. A 2018 study found that severe bleaching outbreaks now hit reefs four times more often they did a few decades ago. 
David Burdick/NOAA/AP

Last year was the oceans’ warmest on record, and scientists recently realized that oceans are heating up 40% faster than they’d previously thought.

Higher ocean temperatures and acidification of the water cause corals to expel the algae living in their tissues and turn white, a process known as coral bleaching.

As a consequence, coral reefs — and the marine ecosystems they support — are dying. Around the world, about 50% of the world’s reefs have died over the past 30 years.

Species that live in fresh water are impacted by warming, too.

california red trout
The Goose Lake redband trout is endemic to tributaries in northeastern California and southeastern Oregon. 
Steve Howard/Getty Images

A 2013 study showed that 82% of native freshwater fish species in California were vulnerable to extinction because of climate change.

Most native fish populations are expected decline, and some will likely be driven to extinction, the study authors said. Fish species that need water colder than 70 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive are especially at risk.

Warming oceans lead to sea-level rise. Rising waters are already impacting vulnerable species’ habitats.

bramble cay melomys
The Bramble Cay melomys is the first species to go extinct because of human-driven climate change. 
nmulconray/Getty Images

Water, like most things, expands when it heats up — warmer water takes up more space. Already, the average global sea level is 5 to 8 inches higher than it was in 1900, according to Smithsonian.

In February, Australia’s environment minister officially declared a rodent called the Bramble Cay melomys to be the first species to go extinct because of human-driven climate change — specifically, sea-level rise.

The tiny rat relative was native to an island in the Queensland province, but its low-lying territory sat just 10 feet above sea level. The island was increasingly inundated by ocean water during high tides and storms, and those salt-water floods took a toll on the island’s plant life.

That flora provided the melomys with food and shelter, so the decrease in plants likely led to the animal’s demise.

Warming oceans are leading to unprecedented Arctic and Antarctic ice melt, which further contributes to sea-level rise. In the US, 17% of all threatened and endangered species are at risk because of rising seas.

FILE PHOTO: Two Adélie penguins stand atop a block of melting ice on a rocky shoreline at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, in East Antarctica in this January 1, 2010 file photo.    REUTERS/Pauline Askin/File Photo
Two Adélie penguins standing atop a block of melting ice in east Antarctica. 
Pauline Askin/Reuters

Melting ice sheets could raise sea levels significantly. The Antarctic ice sheet is melting nearly six times as fast as it did in the 1980s. Greenland’s ice is melting four times faster now than it was 16 years ago. It lost more than 400 billion tons of ice in 2012 alone.

In a worst-case scenario, called a “pulse,” the glaciers that hold back Antarctica’s and Greenland’s ice sheets could collapse. That would send massive quantities of ice into the oceans, potentially leading to rapid sea-level rise around the world.

Sea-level rise threatens 233 federally protected animal and plant species in 23 coastal states across the US, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity. The report noted that 17% of all the US’s threatened and endangered species are vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges, including the Hawaiian monk seal and the loggerhead sea turtle.

If nothing is done to address climate change, one in six species is on track to go extinct.

penguin
An emperor penguin chick soaks up the warming rays of spring sunshine. 
National Geographic

An analysis published in 2015 looked at over 130 studies about declining animal populations and found that one in six species could disappear as the planet continues to heat up.

Flora and fauna from South America and Oceania are expected top be the hardest hit, while North American species would have the lowest risk.

A new study found that almost 40% of the world’s primates will be at risk of extinction due to extreme weather events associated with a warming planet.

Bornean orangutan   REUTERS Tim Chong (SINGAPORE)

REUTERS/Tim Chong

According to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change, 38% of primate species — including orangutans, monkeys, and gorillas — are vulnerable to droughts and tropical cyclones.

Previous mass extinctions came with warning signs. Those indicators were very similar to what we’re seeing now.

Clouds above earth

Aleksandar Georgiev/Getty Images

The most devastating mass extinction in planetary history is called the Permian-Triassic extinction, or the “Great Dying.” It happened 252 million years ago, prior to the dawn of the dinosaurs.

During the Great Dying, roughly 90% of the Earth’s species were wiped out; less than 5% of marine species survived, and only a third of land animal species made it, according to National Geographic. The event far eclipsed the cataclysm that killed the last of the dinosaurs some 187 million years later.

But the Great Dying didn’t come out of left field.

Scientists think the mass extinction was caused by a large-scale and rapid release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by Siberian volcanoes, which quickly warmed the planet — so there were warning signs. In fact, a 2018 study noted that those early signs appeared as much as 700,000 years ahead of the extinction.

“There is much evidence of severe global warming, ocean acidification, and a lack of oxygen,” the study’s lead author, Wolfgang Kießling, said in a release.

Today’s changes are similar but less severe — so far.

There’s still some debate about whether we’re truly observing a sixth mass extinction.

Brazil Agent Wood Natural Resources Logging
Agent Alex Lacerda of Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources carries a sample of wood that was confiscated at an illegal sawmill. 
Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Scientists still argue about whether the Earth is truly in the midst of another mass extinction. Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin, an expert on the Great Dying, says we’re not there yet, according to The Atlantic.

But Kolbert told National Geographic that “by the time we have definitive answers to that question, it’s possible three-quarters of all species on Earth could be gone.”

Already, there is consensus on one aspect of the extinction trend: Humans are to blame.

According to a 2014 study, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans weren’t around.

“There are very few, if any, extinctions that we know about in the last 100 years that would have taken place without human activity,” Kolbert said.

The recent United Nations report may have ended the debate.

india farmer pesticides
A farmer sprays pesticide on a paddy field at Mohanpur village, about 45 km (28 miles) west of Agartala, India, July 25, 2013. 
REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

According to the report, 75% of all land on Earth and 66% of oceans have been significantly altered by people. More than 85% of global wetland area has already been lost, and more than 79 million acres of primary or recovering forest disappeared between 2010 and 2015 alone.

This disruption and degradation of animals’ natural habitats is undoubtedly accelerating the rate of extinctions, the report authors said.

Hugh Possingham, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, told Business Insider that the disappearance of so many species will “fundamentally affect the global economy and the health of every human being.”

U.S., Canada have lost 3 billion birds since 1970. Scientists say ‘nature is unraveling.’

“It’s an empty feeling in your stomach that these same birds that you grew up with just aren’t there anymore.”
Image: Common Nighthawk

The population of birds at the start of breeding season in the U.S. and Canada has fallen from just over 10 billion to a little more than 7 billion in the last 50 years. Above, a common nighthawk.Joaquin Paredes / 500px / Getty Images/500px Plus

Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It’s The “Lungs Of The World,” Is Wrong

The dramatic photos shared by celebrities of the fires in Brazil weren't what they appeared to be

WIKIPEDIA

The increase in fires burning in Brazil set off a storm of international outrage last week. Celebrities, environmentalists, and political leaders blame Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, for destroying the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, which they say is the “lungs of the world.”

Singers and actors including Madonna and Jaden Smith shared photos on social media that were seen by tens of millions of people. “The lungs of the Earth are in flames,” said actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” tweeted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” tweeted French President Emanuel Macron.

And yet the photos weren’t actually of the fires and many weren’t even of the Amazon. The photo Ronaldo shared was taken in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon, in 2013. The photo that DiCaprio and Macron shared is over 20 years old. The photo Madonna and Smith shared is over 30. Some celebrities shared photos from Montana, India, and Sweden.

To their credit, CNN and New York Timesdebunked the photos and other misinformation about the fires. “Deforestation is neither new nor limited to one nation,” explained CNN. “These fires were not caused by climate change,” noted The Times.

But both publications repeated the claim that the Amazon is the “lungs” of the world. “The Amazon remains a net source of oxygen today,” said CNN. “The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs,’ because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming,” claimed The New York Times.

I was curious to hear what one of the world’s leading Amazon forest experts, Dan Nepstad, had to say about the “lungs” claim.

“It’s bullshit,” he said. “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”

Plants use respiration to convert nutrients from the soil into energy. They use photosynthesis to convert light into chemical energy, which can later be used in respiration.

What about The New York Times claim that “If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’”?

Also not true, said Nepstad, who was a lead author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so do soy farms and [cattle] pastures.”

Some people will no doubt wave away the “lungs” myth as nit-picking. The broader point is that there is an increase in fires in Brazil and something should be done about it.

But the “lungs” myth is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider that CNN ran a long segment with the banner, “Fires Burning at Record Rate in Amazon Forest” while a leading climate reporter claimed, “The current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.”

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago, Nepstad said.

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago.

INPE

One of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists agrees that media coverage of the fires has been misleading. “It was under [Workers Party President] Lula and [Environment Secretary] Marina Silva (2003-2008) that Brazil had the highest incidence of burning,” Leonardo Coutinho told me over email. “But neither Lula nor Marina was accused of putting the Amazon at risk.”

Coutinho’s perspective was shaped by reporting on the ground in the Amazon for Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine, for nearly a decade. By contrast, many of the correspondents reporting on the fires have been doing so from the cosmopolitan cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which are 2,500 miles and four hours by jet plane away.

“What is happening in the Amazon is not exceptional,” said Coutinho. “Take a look at Google web searches search for ‘Amazon’ and ‘Amazon Forest’ over time. Global public opinion was not as interested in the ‘Amazon tragedy’ when the situation was undeniably worse. The present moment does not justify global hysteria.”

And while fires in Brazil have increased, there is no evidence that Amazon forest fires have.

“What hurts me most is the bare idea of the millions of Notre-Dames, high cathedrals of terrestrial biodiversity, burning to the ground,” a Brazilian journalist wrote in the New York Times.

But the Amazon forest’s high cathedrals aren’t doing that. “I saw the photo Macron and Di Caprio tweeted,” said Nepstad, “but you don’t see forests burning like that in the Amazon.”

Amazon forest fires are hidden by the tree canopy and only increase during drought years. “We don’t know if there are any more forest fires this year than in past years, which tells me there probably isn’t,” Nepstad said. “I’ve been working on studying those fires for 25 years and our [on-the-ground] networks are tracking this.”

What increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching as a strategy to gain ownership of land.

Against the picture painted of an Amazon forest on the verge of disappearing, a full 80% remains standing. Half of the Amazon is protected against deforestation under federal law.

“Few stories in the first wave of media coverage mentioned the dramatic drop in deforestation in Brazil in the 2000s,” noted former New York Timesreporter Andrew Revkin, who wrote a 1990 book, The Burning Season, about the Amazon, and is now Founding Director, Initiative on Communication & Sustainability at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Deforestation declined a whopping 70% from 2004 to 2012. It has risen modestly since then but remains at one-quarter its 2004 peak. And just 3% of the Amazon is suitable for soy farming.

Both Nepstad and Coutinho say the real threat is from accidental forest fires in drought years, which climate change could worsen. “The most serious threat to the Amazon forest is the severe events that make the forests vulnerable to fire. That’s where we can get a downward spiral between fire and drought and more fire.”

Today, 18 – 20% of the Amazon forest remains at risk of being deforested.

“I don’t like the international narrative right now because it’s polarizing and divisive,” said Nepstad. “Bolsonaro has said some ridiculous things and none of them are excusable but there’s also a big consensus against accidental fire and we have to tap into that.”

“Imagine you are told [under the federal Forest Code] that you can only use half of your land and then being told you can only use 20%,” Nepstad said. “There was a bait and switch and the farmers are really frustrated. These are people who love to hunt and fish and be on land and should be allies but we lost them.”

Nepstad said that the restrictions cost farmers $10 billion in foregone profits and forest restoration. “There was an Amazon Fund set up in 2010 with $1 billion from Norwegian and German governments but none of it ever made its way to the large and medium-sized farmers,” says Nepstad.

Both the international pressure and the government’s over-reaction is increasing resentment among the very people in Brazil environmentalists need to win over in order to save the Amazon: forests and ranchers.

“Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable,” said Nepstad. “There’s outrage at Macron in Brazil. The Brazilians want to know why California gets all this sympathy for its forest fires and while Brazil gets all this finger-pointing.”

“I don’t mind the media frenzy as long as it leaves something positive,” said Nepstad, but it has instead forced the Brazilian government to over-react. “Sending in the army is not the way to go because it’s not all illegal actors. People forget that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burns to knock back insects and pests.”

The reaction from foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil stems from a romantic anti-capitalism common among urban elites, say Nepstad and Coutinho. “There’s a lot of hatred of agribusiness,” said Nepstad. “I’ve had colleagues say, ‘Soy beans aren’t food.’ I said, ‘What does your kid eat? Milk, chicken, eggs? That’s all soy protein fed to poultry.’”

Others may have political motives. “Brazilian farmers want to extend [the free trade agreement] EU-Mercosur but Macron is inclined to shut it down because the French farm sector doesn’t want more Brazilian food products coming into the country,” Nepstad explained.

Despite climate change, deforestation, and widespread and misleading coverage of the situation, Nepstad hasn’t given up hope. The Amazon emergency should lead the conservation community to repair its relationship with farmers and seek more pragmatic solutions, he said.

“Agribusiness is 25% of Brazil’s GDP and it’s what got the country through the recession,” said Nepstad. “When soy farming comes into a landscape, the number of fires goes down. Little towns get money for schools, GDP rises, and inequality declines. This is not a sector to beat up on, it’s one to find common ground with.”

Nepstad argued that it would be a no-brainer for governments around the world to support Earth Alliance (Aliança da Terra), a fire detection and prevention network he co-founded which is comprised of 600 volunteers, mostly indigenous people, and farmers.

“For $2 million a year we could control the fires and stop the Amazon die-back,” said Nepstad. “We have 600 people who have received top-notch training by US fire jumpers but now need trucks with the right gear so they can clear fire breaks through the forest and start a backfire to burn up the fuel in the pathway of the fire.”

For such pragmatism to take hold among divergent interests, the news media will need to improve its future coverage of the issue.

“One of the grand challenges facing newsrooms covering complicated emergent, enduring issues like tropical deforestation,” said journalist Revkin, “is finding ways to engage readers without histrionics. The alternative is ever more whiplash journalism — which is the recipe for reader disengagement.”

It’s the End of the World as They Know It

The distinct burden of being a climate scientist

It’s the End of the World as They Know It

In a row house made of cinder blocks on the tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she monitored the American election results, using a satellite uplink that took several minutes to load a page. When she saw Donald Trump’s victory, she felt shock and soon descended into severe depression. “I had the firm belief that Washington would act on climate change and would be acting soon,” the 44-year-old Cobb says. “When Trump was elected, it came crashing down.”

Kim Cobb entered an “acute mental health crisis” when Trump was elected and she realized the government would not be taking climate action.

Back home in Atlanta, Cobb entered what she now calls “an acute mental health crisis.” Most mornings, she could not get out of bed, despite having four children to tend to. She would sob spontaneously. She obsessed about the notion that the US government would take no action to address climate change and confront its consequences. “I could not see a way forward,” she recalls. “My most resounding thought was, how could my country do this? I had to face the fact that there was a veritable tidal wave of people who don’t care about climate change and who put personal interest above the body of scientific information that I had contributed to.” Her depression persisted for weeks. “I didn’t recognize myself,” she says.

You can also listen to David Corn’s story read aloud:

For more articles read aloud: download the Audm iPhone app.

Nine months after the election, Priya Shukla, a Ph.D. student at the University of California-Davis who studies how climate change affects shellfish aquaculture and coastal food security, was in the Bodega Marine Laboratory, examining data showing rising ocean acidity caused by greenhouse gas emissions. She was also binge-listening to the podcast S-Town, which focused on an eccentric and troubled man prone to obsessing—ranting, really—about the possible apocalyptic effects of climate change. Shukla, 27 years old, realized she was “emotionally exhausted” by the toll of constantly scrutinizing the “huge tragedy” happening in the oceans. “I did not want to experience that fatigue,” she says, “because then I wouldn’t want to do this work anymore.” She decided to see a therapist. And these days she sometimes has to stop reading scientific papers: “I’m tired of processing this incredible and immense decline—and I’m a contributor to the problem. I have to walk away from the papers and don’t want to face myself in the mirror. I feel profound sadness and loss. I feel very angry.”

It’s hardly surprising that researchers who spend their lives exploring the dire effects of climate change might experience emotional consequences from their work. Yet, increasingly, Cobb, Shukla, and others in the field have begun publicly discussing the psychological impact of contending with data pointing to a looming catastrophe, dealing with denialism and attacks on science, and observing government inaction in the face of climate change. “Scientists are talking about an intense mix of emotions right now,” says Christine Arena, executive producer of the docuseries Let Science Speak, which featured climate researchers speaking out against efforts to silence or ignore science. “There’s deep grief and anxiety for what’s being lost, followed by rage at continued political inaction, and finally hope that we can indeed solve this challenge. There are definitely tears and trembling voices. They know this deep truth: They are on the front lines of contending with the fear, anger, and perhaps even panic the rest of us will have to deal with.”

While Americans feel “an increasing alarm” about climate change, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, scientists have been coping with this troubling data for decades—and the grinding emotional effects from that research are another cost of global warming that the public has yet to fully confront. Before you ask, there is no scientific consensus regarding the impact of climate research on the scientists performing it. It hasn’t been studied in a systematic way.

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But in a single study, two years ago, Lesley Head and Theresa Harada, two geography scientists in Australia, published a paper examining “emotional management strategies” used by a sample of Australian climate scientists. Head and Harada found that daily immersion in the subject caused anxiety for the scientists, exacerbated by the difficulty of “protecting the psyche from the subject matter of climate change.” The scientists’ thinking was more often “pessimistic than optimistic,” and they tended to use “diverse distancing practices” to “separate themselves from emotions.” They generally said they enjoyed their work, but Head notes that “it’s hard to imagine it’s not something that could cause manifestations down the track. For the most part, these academics are well-established in their jobs and already have demonstrated resilience in a competitive system. But you can’t help but wonder what the burden is doing to people that may or may not be visible.”

Are scientists, then, canaries in a psychological coal mine? Is understanding their grief important because their anxiety could become more widespread within the general population? “That’s why,” Head explains, “I chose them as a research sample.”

Put another way, climate scientists often resemble Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise, who knows of a looming catastrophe but must struggle to function in a world that does not comprehend what is coming and, worse, largely ignores the warnings of those who do. “An accurate representation” of the Connor comparison, one scientist darkly notes, “would have more crying and wine.”

“I’m always thinking about [climate change],” says Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist.

So what is it like to be cursed with foreknowledge that others ignore? Peter Kalmus, who received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and Columbia, respectively, spent about a decade working in astrophysics. He then moved to ecological forecasting based on satellite data, and something shifted for him. “Studying earth science and thinking about climate change is a totally different ballgame than thinking about astrophysics,” he says. “Astrophysics was pure science. I was looking for gravitational waves. It had no implication for the possible collapse of human civilization.” But the unrelenting momentum of climate change does. “I’m always thinking about it,” he says. “That can be a burden. Whenever friends talk about flying off to vacation, I feel compelled to point out the large carbon cost to flying. I’d like to take a vacation from thinking about it. I’m not sure that is psychologically possible.”

During the recent wildfires in California, where he lives, Kalmus became irritable because the link between natural disasters and climate change was not front and center in media coverage. Like many climate scientists, he is often hit by waves of grief. Kalmus once called his congressional representative to support a piece of climate change legislation. “I was explaining to the staffer why it was urgent, and I started crying,” he says. “For me, the grief comes up unexpectedly.”

Sarah Myhre, a former senior research associate at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography, experiences “a profound level of grief on a daily basis because of the scale of the crisis that is coming, and I feel I’m doing all I can but it’s not enough,” she says. “I don’t have clinical depression. I have anxiety exacerbated by the constant background of doom and gloom of science. It’s not stopping me from doing my work, but it’s an impediment.” She tried anti-anxiety medication, which didn’t improve things, so she cut back on caffeine. She tries not to think too much about the future that awaits her five-year-old son.

When she was a graduate student in 2010, Myhre recalls, she attended a summer program that included the world’s top scientists on climate modeling. One presented research on how increased CO2 levels posed frightening scenarios. She asked him how he was able to talk to nonscientists and communicate the implications of this work, which can be hard to understand. “I don’t talk to those people anymore,” she remembers him replying. “Fuck those people.” After that, Myhre went to her hotel room and wept. As she saw it, his anger was driven by the fact that his expertise—his foresight—was not broadly recognized. “People don’t know what to do with their grief, and it is manifested in anger,” she says.

Jacquelyn Gill, a paleontologist at the University of Maine who co-hosts a podcast on climate change called Warm Regards, says she’s “not depressed but angry, all the time, and anger can be empowering or debilitating. I swing between both. Being constantly angry is exhausting.” But, she adds, it takes a certain resilience to be a scientist in America: “There are so few jobs, so few grants. You’re always dealing with rejection. You have to have a built-in ability to say ‘fuck it.’”

Katharine Wilkinson, who has a Ph.D. in geography and the environment, is vice president for communication and engagement at Project Drawdown, a group of scientists and activists that assembles proposed climate change solutions. She makes a distinction between denialism and bystanderism, which takes the form of people saying “they care about it” but not engaging in meaningful action: “That’s when I want to shake people and say, ‘You know how little time we have?’” She has noticed that almost everyone in her line of work seems “to have one dark emotion that is dominant. For some, it’s anger or rage. For me, it’s deep grief—having eyes wide open to what is playing out in our world, and we have a lukewarm response to it. There is no way for me not to have a broken heart most days.”

For several years, Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist-turned journalist, has written about his own efforts to contend with climate change–induced depression. “I lose sleep over climate change almost every single night,” he wrote last year. “I can’t remember how long this has been happening, but it’s been quite a while, and it’s only getting worse. I confess: I need help.” Holthaus went to see a counselor and, as he put it, the therapist “seemed unprepared for my emotional crisis. His simple advice was, ‘Do what you can.’”

Scientists have been contending with a form of this anguish for years. In 2014, Camille Parmesan, a biologist who in 2007 was involved in the climate change work that shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, told Grist that two years earlier she had become so “professionally depressed” that she had considered quitting the climate research field. Faith Kearns, a climate scientist specializing in wildfires and water management, noted in a 2013 blog post that conducting research in this area can be a “grief-filled endeavor.” And she asked, “What are we to do with that grief?” Professionally coping with grief is part of the job training for doctors, caregivers, and those working in humanitarian or crisis situations. But for scientists? “It’s a subject rarely broached,” she says.

“Maybe I’ve become better at suppressing my feelings…But my dominant strategy is to intellectualize it and say, ‘What a crazy species we are.’”
—Ken Caldeira

“There was a veritable tidal wave of people who don’t care about climate change and who put personal interest above the body of scientific information I had contributed to.”
—Kim Cobb

“I’ve trained my brain to not torture myself about things that are outside my control.”
—Peter Kalmus

Bodega Bay sits on the rocky Northern California coast.

Some climate researchers speak of experiencing stark alienation, even as they try to have faith that what they and their colleagues are doing can make a difference. Myhre describes it “like I’m looking at the world through a looking glass, like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.” The joys of adult life—new cars, trips on planes, even having children—become fraught with implications for increased emissions. She finds it painful to watch “scientific colleagues standing on the sidelines being silent” and not participating in the political fray over climate change. With her expertise undervalued generally, she observes, “I feel like I’m walking around in an isolation chamber.” Kalmus notes that when he moved into climate change science, “I felt totally alienated from the people around me. My parents didn’t get it. My friends didn’t want to talk about it. Other graduate students didn’t want to talk about it…It was a very weird disconnected feeling.” About a year ago, Shukla and her partner decided not to have children out of a concern about contributing to climate change. “I feel uncomfortable discussing this with colleagues,” she says. “It seems nihilistic.” She avoids conversations in which she might have to explain this decision, which further exacerbates her “sense of isolation.”

Certainly not all climate scientists feel quite so burdened. David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist and critically acclaimed author who focuses on planetary climate evolution, acknowledges his anguish over the fact that society is not adequately responding to the science-based warnings, but instead of experiencing a deep funk, he says, “I’ve had the opposite sense.” Grinspoon is buoyed by his encounters with younger people he finds idealistic and hopeful: “I would expect the opposite. I would expect more nihilism. Sure, there is a lot of sardonic humor at the bar at our scientific meetings. But I’m more struck by the lack of cynicism and despair generally among scientists, even though there are some who are discouraged and cynical.”

Ken Caldeira’s “dominant strategy is to intellectualize it and say, ‘What a crazy species we are.’” 

Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a Stanford professor, also studies the impact of climate change on coral reefs. “I see reefs that are over 90 percent dead. That’s a real tragedy. I see it and experience it,” he says. And his emotional reaction? “I plod on.” He adds, “Maybe I’ve become better at suppressing my feelings…I can still see this is really tragic: Fossil fuel emissions killed 90 percent of this reef. But my dominant strategy is to intellectualize it and say, ‘What a crazy species we are.’ As a scientist, my only role is to generate useful information.”

For Grinspoon and Caldeira, engaging in work that addresses the problem—Grinspoon is an award-winning science communicator and Caldeira has been developing ideas for alternative fuel systems and consults with Bill Gates on climate change—can alleviate some of the frustration and anger that come with the job. Michael Mann, the well-known climate scientist who has spent yearsclashing with climate deniers, observes that “colleagues who have convinced themselves we have crossed a tipping point—physical or political—and we won’t avert catastrophic climate change clearly become depressed.” But Mann, who has had to contend with death threats and campaigns to have him fired from Penn State, derives motivation from being in battle: “My involvement in the public discourse is empowering.” (Still, he noted in a recent video that he does occasionally cry when he talks to an audience of young people about the “denial industry,” and how it has misled people about the “greatest challenge we face as a civilization.”)

Caldeira offers a blunt comparison: “I had a girlfriend once who was a social worker who had to deal with abused children. She had to deal with real shit every day. Climate scientists have it easy.” And Kate Marvel, a climate scientist and science writer, went even further in a tweet in January: “In a world where people have to deal with racism, inequality, and resurgent fascism, the notion that climate science is uniquely depressing is…weird.” But she later conceded, “If you’re a gloomy person, this work gives you a lot of reinforcement.”

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Are some climate scientists falling into a trap of believing their own issue is paramount? Are some just being too sensitive? Four years ago, Renee Lertzman, who describes herself as an environmental psychologist, published an academic book titled Environmental Melancholia, a term she defines as a pervasive state afflicting people who become overwhelmed about the environmental challenges they encounter. As a researcher, she has found that climate scientists face a distinct dilemma: “They have to deal with the surrealism of knowing what we know and living within a society choosing not to know or willing itself not to know…For them it’s incredibly difficult to find yourself in a role not asked for: ‘I didn’t choose to be suddenly in the midst of a swirl of political and cultural and social trauma.’” And comparing climate science work to social justice activism—or anything else—is misguided, Lertzman argues: “Different social-political traumas have different registers. It’s not more or less. Climate change is its own unique trauma. It has to do with human existence.” And yet, even given the legitimacy of the trauma others experience, she points out there’s something unique about the climate crisis: “Climate scientists are dealing with what we don’t want to deal with”—not just the existential planetary threat but the consequences of our own actions.

Among the most effective coping strategies for scientists stricken by their work is talking about their pain—which may not be as simple as it sounds. The culture of professional science places a premium on objective facts and dispassionate discourse—not subjective feelings and emotional conversations. Speaking out about the implications of climate research, the lack of sufficient government action, and the personal impact of all this might be alien to a scientist trained in data-is-all methodology. Some wonder whether such disclosures could undercut their standing in their academic communities and impede grants and professional advancement. “As a woman scientist, I am concerned that any portrayal of me as being hyperemotional can be corrosive,” says one scientist, who asks not to be identified. “The culture of science upholds certain gender norms and behaviors.” But for some, openly acknowledging and expressing their emotions, as Kim Cobb says, is the “pathway” forward.

A month after being crushed by post-election depression in 2016, Cobb was at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, where she joined a couple dozen scientists speaking at a Stand Up for Science rally, which protested Trump’s dismissal of climate change as a global threat. On the steps of a church near the Moscone Convention Center, where 24,000 of her fellow scientists were meeting, Cobb called on her colleagues to combine their research with public engagement: “We have for too long as scientists rested on the assumption that by providing indisputable facts and great data that we are…counter[ing] the forces against science. And obviously that strategy has failed miserably. What we need right now is all the scientists who care so deeply…to shake off the fear that holds them back from engaging in this space.” This was, she says, the first time she had placed her “personal voice and body on the line.”

Two weeks later, on New Year’s Day—the sixth birthday of her twins—she made a “climate resolution”: She would walk her kids to school twice a week and ride a bike to work twice a week. (She went on to become a daily bike commuter.) She put solar panels on her roof. She became a vegetarian. Then she began discussing her feelings during her scientific presentations. After showing time-lapse photos depicting the devastation of reefs, she would end with a black screen and acknowledge that she had previously fallen into depression. She would next describe what she was doing personally to reduce emissions and provide ideas to the audience for doing the same. She realized that scientists cannot simply say, “‘Read the IPPC report.’ We have to say, ‘Science tells us that it’s not too late, but we have to pull hard, every day, together, to make a difference. And look over here—I’m loving my low-carbon life, and this city is thriving with its low-carbon choices, and we’ll be healthier and happier if we do this. Will you join me and millions of other Americans who are building a sustainable world?’ You don’t have to know where we’ll end up. You just have to know what path we’re on.”

This approach—adding emotion to data—did not go over well with all her scientific colleagues. “Some questioned it. Some have smirked,” she says. “This is not what a scientist is supposed to look like.” Others—mainly those on the younger side—have thanked her for sharing: “I hear from colleagues that others say they disapprove of my interaction with the media and what they call my advocacy. But I have tenure and am an endowed professor. The rest of my life is about Impact with a capital I.”

Priya Shukla works to “unguilt” herself by driving a Prius, telecommuting, and buying offsets after flying.

Shukla first responded to her own climate research grief by seeing a therapist—once. But, despite knowing that a truly effective response demands radical policy shifts, she still altered her lifestyle practices. Now she drives a Prius and telecommutes. “I unguilt myself,” she says. “When I fly, I’m wracked with climate guilt and will buy offsets. I tell myself a lot of ‘at leasts.’ At least I’m trying. At least it’s not that bad yet.” And in a process she describes as “more therapeutic than a therapy session,” she talks about climate change to people who are not scientists. For Sarah Myhre, talk therapy has been useful—and she has found consolation as a science communicator: “I don’t wonder what to do with my life. There is a lot of clarity. My job is not to peddle hope. I talk about anger, courage, joy, and grief.” Faith Kearns has turned to yoga and nature-related activities for respites. “I grew up in an alcoholic family,” she says. “You have to learn you’re not in control of everything…That can come handy when dealing with climate change.”

Peter Kalmus meditates often. “I’ve trained my brain to not torture myself about things that are outside my control,” he says. He also founded No Fly Climate Sci, a group of earth scientists, academics, and members of the public who have pledged not to fly or to fly less often. He too has become an outspoken advocate about emissions. But when it comes to emotions, he says, “I still haven’t figured out a good venue for talking about this. Scientists are not trained to discuss how data makes us feel. They are trained to quantify and evaluate and communicate it with clarity to our colleagues.” Perhaps scientists discussing their distress is a good first step: “Once we figure out how to talk about this with each other, maybe we can figure out how best to talk to the public. To pretend we are Vulcans without emotions and are perfect machines makes the problem worse.”

Are these scientists experiencing the Cassandra Dilemma: seeing the potential calamity ahead yet not being heeded by much of society? That could certainly throw anyone into a psychological tailspin and cause them to wonder, what’s the damn point? Yet Cobb notes the goal is to avoid such despair: “The way I see it, my role is to provide hope…And right before folks decide whether they’re going to care or not, whether it’s worth the fight…they will likely look to those of us who were proven correct, who have always had their facts straight.”

But the despair experienced by some scientists might have a benefit. “More scientists are bringing their emotions and hearts to the forefront of their work—getting bolder, more impassioned, more provocative,” says Christine Arena, the producer of the docuseries on climate change. “In a way, this collective grief is making their outreach more effective.”

Katharine Wilkinson points out, “Right now, we prioritize technical training in science and policy. But the tools of the trade will become increasingly emotional and psychological.” At a recent panel discussion, she recalls, she blurted out, “I have no child and I have one dog, and thank god he’ll be dead in 10 years.” Afterward, people asked Wilkinson if she truly believed that. “The truth is, I do,” she says. “And it’s only going to get more intense—the emotional nature of this work—as climate change happens and the necessary actions become more urgent.”

The fossil fuel industry and its promoters will reverse the human population boom

The result could be the mother of all economic busts

Lance Olsen

The human population boom has been the bedrock of economic boom in sector after sector. The stakes are high. Broadly put, the long-ongoing human population boom has meant more customers for businesses and industries, and human labor made cheaper simply by its abundance of supply. It’s also brought cheer to generals dreaming of bigger armies and religions competing for more followers. Over and over again, the long-ongoing human population boom has afforded the political elites and local boosters an opportunity to boast of a booming economy, sometimes raising local and even national concerns that they tout growth at any cost.

In the US alone, the booming human population has been the wellspring for surging numbers of visitors to the likes of Demali and Yellowstone National Parks, city managers bent on promoting growth, and the basis of soaring demand for logging to supply housing for a growing human herd. It’s also been the bedrock foundation of a profit boom for the fossil fuel combustion industries that now put it at risk. 

But there’s long been doubt that it could go on, and on, and on. So, what would happen if it came to an end?

It’s possible that, now, with the added pressure from our booming combustion of fossil fuels, a human population bust could be kicked into gear sometime “by” — a.k.a. before — 2050, or within the next 30 years. To the extent that this holds true, it would be, among other things, the mother of all economic crashes.

We all know what follows an economic boom

In the preface to his 1992 book on the economic history of the United States, James Grant reminded readers that, “Booms have consequences.” Politicians and local boosters who boast of booms seldom if ever mention consequences, but they’re no secret. In July, 2001, The Economist advised its readers that “It is no coincidence that the deepest and most protracted recessions in recent decades have taken hold in countries that experienced booms.” 

The mother of all economic busts?

Climate scientist Kevin Anderson has advised anyone willing to listen that, if we fire up the fossil fuels enough to hike atmospheric heat by 4C, only around half a billion people will survive. Anderson says, “I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by” — a.k.a. before— “2050 and you hit 4C, 5C or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving<<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Anderson_(scientist)>>.”

The consequences of human die off at that scale would sprawl widely across both ecological and economic realms. Just in economic terms alone, it would trigger a mass loss of customers for every business and industry across the world. The numbers of tourists flocking to US national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite would plummet. Vast supplies of housing would be left vacant, and the demand for logging crushed. In an irony to cap all ironies, the mass consumption of fossil energy would hit the floor. All in all, Anderson’s stark scenario would add up to economic catastrophe beyond compare.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme to be extreme

Anderson’s reference to reaching 4C added heat is well within the realm of possibility. But his scenario of mass death doesn’t have to reach the extent he indicates in order to be extreme. For example, if 4C won’t wipe out all but half a billion people, it would still have profound effect if it wiped out all but a billion, or two billion. 

Even if it only wiped out all but 3.5 billion, it would wipe out half of today’s human population. Human die off at even this less extreme scale would put the politically popular cause of economic growth in extremely sharp reverse.

And recent research has turned up signals of economic damage from combustion of fossil fuels, even without mass death. The June 30 2017 issue of Science published a densely detailed article under the title, Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States. The authors found that the mid-Atlantic and southern states would be hit hard by the heat forced on the region by continued combustion of fossil fuels. 

But the impact wouldn’t stop there. Instead, the impact would ripple across the nation, partly just because of mass migration away from the hardest hit states. When Time Magazine interviewed the lead author, he told Time that  “Conflict and political instability — those kinds of things we don’t see today, but could be baked into the future.” He said, “If we continue to emit, you go into this recession and you get stuck in it forever,” <<https://time.com/4837020/climate-change-economy-recession/>>.”

There’s a lot of money at stake

The moneyed world has recently come wide awake to the economic damage made likely by continuing the combustion of fossil fuels. In an article under the headline, Climate change threatens to wreak havoc on the global economy,” the January 25 2019 issue of World Finance magazine advised its readers that, “It is becoming more and more apparent that the developing threat of climate change is not simply damaging the earth’s natural ecosystem, but is also harming the world economy<<https://www.worldfinance.com/markets/climate-change-continues-to-wreak-havoc-on-the-global-economy>>.”

More specifically, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, reportedly managing climate-vulnerable assets worth more than twice the value of the entire Chinese economy, has launched a campaign of lobbying governments to get away from thermal coal, and put an end to subsidizing all the fossil fuels, and to get on with putting a price on carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion<<https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/10/business/climate-change-investors-cop24/index.html>>.” This amounts to a direct pushback against policy touted by Trump and the Republicans and, since pushing back, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change ranks have grown from 415 to 477.

Plainly enough then, the moneyed world’s worries are  beginning to sound a lot like those voiced by advocates of the Green New Deal and campaigners of Fridays for the Future and the Extinction Rebellion.

Where do the politicians stand?

Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee recently grilled Fed Chairman Jerome Powell on the Fed’s response to a changing climate. They made no reference to Kevin Anderson’s dire scenario, or to risk of a recession that goes on forever. They may even have been unaware of either scenario. They did, however, succeed in getting Powell’s opinion that human-caused climate change does pose financial risk.

Republicans, meanwhile, launched a conservation caucus aimed, according to The Hill, at battling the perception that their party doesn’t care about climate change. Like the Democrats, they made no reference to Kevin Anderson’s dire scenario, or to risk of a recession that goes on forever. They too may even have been unaware of either scenario. They did, however, have something to say. Sen. Lindsey Graham said the  Green New Deal is “crazy economics,” adding that “We believe our friends on the other side care about the environment, but they care so much they’re going to destroy the economy in the name of saving the environment<<https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/452399-republicans-form-conservation-caucus-to-take-on-environment-climate>>.”

In an editorial on July 13, 2019, the right-leaning Washington Examiner picked up that accusation with a headline declaring that, “The Green New Deal was never about climate change; it’s just AOC’s excuse to destroy America’s economy<<https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/editorials/the-green-new-deal-was-never-about-climate-change-its-just-alexandria-ocasio-cortezs-excuse-to-destroy-americas-economy>>.

Avoid change, and get change 

The first sentence of the executive summary of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5C advises policymakers that,“Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”  If we avoid making the sacrifices necessary to that particular set of far-reaching and unprecedented changes, we’ll get another — and nastier — set of far-reaching and unprecedented sacrifices in all aspects of society. In a nutshell, we’ll give up a lot to get a soft-as-still-possible landing, or we’ll give up a lot more in a crash. 

Interestingly, according to The Hill, the Republican “caucus members on Wednesday stressed that traditional energy sources like coal, oil and gas would remain a part of the mix.” In an irony of all ironies, the Republicans, who have long claimed the role of guardians of the economy and defenders of capital, now push the world closer to 4C ? Huh?

——————————————————————————————————————————
“I just want it to be clear that the mainstream environmental movement has been asking very little of people for decades. They’ve been using a strategy of not trying to scare people,” said Bea Ruiz, also an organizer with the U.S. national [ Extinction Rebellion ] team. “There’s no element of, ‘We are in an emergency. We all need to do more than what we’re doing.’ There’s a lot of emphasis on positivity and hope.”

“We’re trying to put out there what’s necessary, not what people think is politically possible. And then we’re trying to be part of helping to change what’s politically possible through direct action,” Ruiz said. “We are really, literally, almost out of time, and if we don’t make the reductions that are needed based on the science, we’re going to be in serious trouble. We can’t negotiate with reality.”

Extinction Rebellion’s radical philosophy
July 22 2019
https://thinkprogress.org/the-radical-philosophy-of-extinction-rebellion-5857d3955b57/

The animals that will survive climate change

With one in every four species facing extinction, which animals are the best equipped to survive the climate crisis? (Spoiler alert: it’s probably not humans).

“I don’t think it will be the humans. I think we’ll go quite early on,” says Julie Gray with a laugh. I’ve just asked Gray, a plant molecular biologist at the University of Sheffield, which species she thinks would be the last ones standing if we don’t take transformative action on climate change. Even with our extraordinary capacity for innovation and adaptability, humans, it turns out, probably won’t be among the survivors.

This is partly because humans reproduce agonisingly slowly and generally just one or two at a time – as do some other favourite animals, like pandas. Organisms that can produce many offspring quickly may have a better shot at avoiding extinction.

It may seem like just a thought experiment. But discussing which species are more, or less, able to survive climate change is disturbingly concrete. As a blockbuster biodiversity report stated recently, one in every four species currently faces extinction. Much of this vulnerability is linked to climate change, which is bringing about higher temperatures, sea level rise, more variable conditions and more extreme weather, among other impacts.

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Some caveats are in order. While the seriousness of climate change is undeniable, it’s impossible to know exactly how those effects will play out for species vulnerability, especially far into the future. Methods of forecasting vulnerability are ever evolving, while limited and inconsistent data, plus the complex interactions of policies, land-use changes, and ecological effects, mean that projections aren’t set in stone. Climate change vulnerability assessments have had biases and blind spots (just as humans do more generally). (Read more abouthow our cognitive biases prevent climate action). Moreover, the indirect effects that are responsible for many climate change impacts on populations, such as in the food chain, are more complex to model than direct effects.

Species of Australia’s quolls already have been made locally extinct by invasive species

Some species of Australia’s quolls already have been made locally extinct by invasive species, a trend that will intensify with climate change (Credit: Getty Images)

Another source of uncertainty has to do with life forms’ capacity to adapt. Take ectotherms (cold-blooded animals like reptiles and amphibians), which have historically been slower to adapt to climatic change than endotherms. For one thing, they are less able to adjust their body temperatures. But there are exceptions, like the American bullfrog, which may actually find more habitable environments as a consequence of warming.

The American bullfrog could be one of few species to benefit from global warming

The American bullfrog could be one of few species to benefit from global warming (Credit: Getty Images)

And, of course, there is an alternative: we humans could get our acts together and stop the climate crisis from continuing to snowball by adopting policies and lifestyles that reduce greenhouse gases. But for the purposes of these projections, we’re assuming that’s not going to happen.

Tenacious trends

Even with the uncertainties, we can make some educated guesses about broad patterns.

Heat tolerant and drought resistant plants, like those found in deserts rather than rainforests, are more likely to survive. So are plants whose seeds can be dispersed over long distances, for instance by wind or ocean currents (like coconuts), rather than by ants (like some acacias). Plants that can adjust their flowering times may also be better able to deal with higher temperatures. Jen Lau, a biologist at Indiana University Bloomington, suggests that this may give non-native plants the advantage when it comes to responding to climate change.

We also can look to history as a guide. The fossil record contains signs of how species have coped with previous climatic shifts. There are genetic clues to long-term survival too, such as in the hardy green microalgae that adapted to saltier environments over millions of years – a finding only made in September 2018 by Fatima Foflonker of Rutgers and colleagues.

Importantly, though, the uniquely devastating nature of the current human-made climate crisis means that we can’t fully rely on benchmarks from the past.

“The climate change that we see in the future will differ in many ways from the climate change that we’ve seen in the past”, notes Jamie Carr, an outreach officer for the Climate Change Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The historical record does point to the tenacity of cockroaches. These largely unloved critters “have survived every mass extinction event in history so far”, says Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil biogeochemist at the University of California, Merced. For instance, cockroaches adapted to an increasingly arid Australia, tens of millions of years ago, by starting to burrow into soil.

Cockroaches have survived every mass extinction event in history thus far

Cockroaches have survived every mass extinction event in history thus far (Credit: Getty Images)

This shows two characteristics, says Robert Nasi, the director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR): an “ability to hide and protect in buffered conditions (e.g. underground)” and a long evolutionary history, as in general “ancient species appear more resilient than younger ones”. These are among the traits that, Nasi says, are linked to surviving large catastrophic events which triggered major changes in climate.

Cockroaches also tend to not be picky eaters. Having broad diets means that climate change will be less of a threat to the food sources of species that are not too fussy about their food, such as rats, opportunistic birds, and urban raccoons.

As a comparison, take an animal like the koala. Koalas eat primarily eucalyptus leaves, which are becoming less nutritious due to increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. As a result, climate change is increasing their risk of starvation.

Climate change is increasing the risk of starvation for koalas (Credit: Getty Images)

Climate change is increasing the risk of starvation for koalas (Credit: Getty Images)

As well as having a specialised diet, koalas have low genetic diversity – one reason that chlamydia has ravaged wild koala populations. These are worrying traits in terms of extinction risk. “In many cases, specialised species are those that we expect to see disappear first,” says Carr. This extends to species in microhabitats like high elevation montane forests, or those in narrow ranges, like some tropical birds or small-island plants. Also vulnerable are species that depend on pristine environments.

That’s compared to the “early successional” species that succeed in disturbed habitats, such as grasslands and young forest. These species “might do well under climate change because they thrive in states of change and transition”, says Jessica Hellmann, who leads the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. “For example, deer (in the US) are common in suburban areas and thrive where forests have been removed or are regularly disturbed.”

Species that Carr calls “mobile generalists”, which can move and adapt to different environments, are likely to be more durable in the face of climate change. While this adaptability is generally positive, it might come at a cost to other parts of an ecosystem. Invasive species like cane toads, which are poisonous, have led to local extinctions of other species like quolls (carnivorous marsupials) and monitors (large lizards) in Australia. And Hellmann says that the versatility of invasive plant species “leads to the worry that, in addition to losing vulnerable species, a warmer world will be a weedier world”. The weeds typically found along roadsides may be especially long-lasting in comparison with other plants.

Deer, which thrive in states of change and transition, may be more resilient

Deer, which thrive in states of change and transition, may be more resilient (Credit: Getty Images)

Of course, many organisms are intrinsically less mobile. Most plants will be unable to move quickly enough to keep pace with rapid heating, although they’ve done so in response to the slower climatic changes of the past.

Buffer zones

The good news is that some specialised species might have a buffer known as climate change refugia: areas that are relatively protected from climate change’s consequences, such as deep sea canyons. Although deep sea zones are heating up and declining in oxygen concentrations, Jonathon Stillman, a marine environmental physiologist at San Francisco State University, suggests that deep sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems, specifically, might be one bright spot in an otherwise mostly bleak situation.

“They are pretty much uncoupled from the surface of our planet and I doubt that climate change will impact them in the least,” he says. “Humanity didn’t even know they existed until 1977. Their energy comes from the core of our Earth rather than from the Sun, and their already extreme habitat is unlikely to be altered by changes happening at the ocean surface.”

Similarly, Douglas Sheil, a tropical forest ecologist at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, suggests that “at some point in the future the only vertebrate species surviving in Africa might be a blind cave fish deep underground”. As in the deep sea hydrothermal vents, “many species remain undiscovered and thus unknown – Europe’s first cave fish was only found in Germany in 2015.”

Heat-adapted organisms living in extreme environments are likely to be less affected

Heat-adapted organisms and microbes living in extreme environments are likely to be less affected by climate change (Credit: Getty Images)

Thermophiles (heat-adapted organisms) living in extreme environments like volcanic springs are also likely to be less affected by surface temperature changes. Indeed, the organisms best able to live in severe circumstances are microbes, as noted by many of the scientists I’ve surveyed. Computer modelling suggests that only microbes would be able to survive increasing solar intensity. Soil biogeochemist Berhe says of archaea, one of the major types of microbes, “these critters have figured out how to live in the most extreme of environments”.

Not quite as tiny but also nearly indestructible are tardigrades, commonly known as water bears. Environmental physiologist Stillman enthuses: “They can survive the vacuum of outer space, extreme dehydration, and very high temperatures. If you are a Star Trek fan, you have learned about them in a sci-fi setting, but they are real creatures that live across most habitats on Earth.”

The future will have not only more extreme environments, but also more urban, human-altered spaces. So “resistant species would likely be the ones that are well attuned to living in human-modified habitats such as urban parks and gardens, agricultural areas, farms, tree plantations, and so on”, says Arvin C Diesmos, a herpetology curator at the Philippine National Museum of Natural History.

CIFOR’s Nasi sums it up. “The winners will be very small, preferably endotherms if vertebrates, highly adaptable, omnivorous or able to live in extreme conditions.”

In the words of the IUCN’s Carr, “It doesn’t sound like a very pretty world.”

Endangered plants like the Brodiaea are likely to be vulnerable with climate change

Endangered plants like the Brodiaea are likely to be increasingly vulnerable with climate change (Credit: Getty Images)

Of course, to some extent we already know what’s neededto limit the bleakness of the future natural world. This includes reducing greenhouse gases; protecting biodiversity; restoring connectivity between habitats (rather than building endless dams, roads and walls); and reducing interrelated threats like pollution and land harvesting. Even species that are close to extinction, like Saiga antelopes, can be brought back from the brink with enough conservation effort. To reflect the power of sustained conservation, scientists are developing a Green List of species on the road to recovery and full health, to complement the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.

The political barriers are daunting. But scaling them, it seems, would beat surrendering the planet to the microbes.

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