Ohio’s butterfly population has fallen by a third, and researchers say the findings spell trouble for bees

A study published Tuesday found that one-third of Ohio's butterfly population had died between 1996 and 2016. The results are troubling for more important pollinators like bees, researchers said.

(CNN)Aside from a crushing loss for biodiversity, the steep decline in the US butterfly population could represent a trend for fellow insects that power American agriculture.

In what they say is the largest and longest study of butterfly populations in North America, a team of researchers found that Ohio’s butterfly population declined by a third over 20 years.
From 1996 to 2016, thousands of volunteers recorded the number of butterflies they spotted across Ohio over a six-month period.
Researchers attribute the decline to climate change, habitat degradation and insecticides used in commercial farming, according to the findings, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS One.
But it’s occurring at a rate that outpaces previous estimates, researchers said, and it could spell trouble for important insects like bees.

Butterfly deaths could signal trouble for bees

The butterfly plays a small but vital role in keeping ecosystems alive. The insects pollinate flowers while they feed on nectar, a process that produces the crops humans eat. The US Forest Service estimates that 80% of the world’s crops rely on animal pollinators like monarchs to power the industry.
Butterflies don’t have anywhere near the same reach or frequency as power-pollinators like beesor even flies. But their decline could portend a downward trend shared by more significant insects for which research is lacking, said study author Tyson Wepprich, a postdoctoral research assistant at Oregon State University.
“We don’t know yet if what’s happening with butterflies is what’s happening in native bees,” he said. “But the worry is that the environmental effects that negatively impact butterflies have the same impact on bees.”

Ohio’s monarch butterfly was hit hard

While the overall butterfly population declined throughout the study, some species declined at a steeper rate.
Ohio’s monarch butterfly population was hit particularly hard, shrinking at a rate of 7% every year. The migratory insect spends the summer in Ohio before traveling to Mexico in the fall, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Scientists are split on the root of the monarch’s troubles. Most researchers, Wepprich said, believe that a decline in milkweed plants, which the monarchs feed on for toxins that keep larger insects and animals from eating them, across the Midwest is the primary factor. Herbicides that farmers use to control weeds on their land often kill milkweed as well.
Others argue that the stress that occurs in different stages of migration and the changing quality of its wintering site in Mexico are to blame. The culprit could be any or all of the three, Wepprich said.
Oddly, some species like the wild indigo duskywing thrived through the course of the study. Its population tripled over the course of the study as it learned to feed on exotic plants used along Ohio’s roadsides to prevent erosion, he said.
“I think each species has its own story,” he said. “If the resources are there, insects can recover.”

Earth’s Ancient Life Forms Are Awakening After 40,000 Years in Permafrost

main article image
A sample of the reawakened moss. (P. Boelen/BAS)

8 JUL 2019

From about 1550 to 1850, a global cold snap called the Little Ice Age supersized glaciers throughout the Arctic. On Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Teardrop Glacier extended its frozen tongue across the landscape and swallowed a small tuft of moss.

Thanks to this latest exploit, evolutionary biologist Catherine La Farge arrived centuries later at Teardrop’s melting edge to find the tuft of the species Aulacomnium turgidum finally free from its icy entombment. The moss was faded and torn but sported a verdant hue – a possible sign of life.

Climate change stories often highlight the teetering fragility of Earth’s ecological system. The picture grew even more dire when a United Nations report said that 1 million of our planet’s plant and animal species face the specter of extinction.

But for a few exceptional species, thawing ice caps and permafrost are starting to reveal another narrative – one of astonishing biological resilience.

Researchers in a warming Arctic are discovering organisms, frozen and presumed dead for millennia, that can bear life anew. These ice age zombies range from simple bacteria to multicellular animals, and their endurance is prompting scientists to revise their understanding of what it means to survive.

In 2009, her team was scouring Teardrop’s margin to collect blackened plant matter spit out by the shrinking glacier. Their goal was to document the vegetation that long ago formed the base of the island’s ecosystem.

“The material had always been considered dead. But by seeing green tissue, “I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty unusual’,” La Farge said about the centuries-old moss tufts she found.

She brought dozens of these curious samples back to Edmonton, lavishing them with nutrient-rich soils in a bright, warm laboratory. Almost a third of the samples burst forth with new shoots and leaves.

“We were pretty blown away,” La Farge said. The moss showed few ill effects of its multi-centennial deep-freeze.

It’s not easy to survive being frozen solid. Jagged ice crystals can shred cell membranes and other vital biological machinery. Many plants and animals simply succumb to the cold at winter’s onset, willing their seeds or eggs to spawn a new generation come spring.

Thanks to these adaptations, mosses are more likely than other plants to survive long-term freezing, said Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey.

On the heels of La Farge’s Canadian moss revival, Convey’s team announced it had awakened a 1,500-year-old moss buried more than three feet underground in the Antarctic permafrost.

“The permafrost environment is very stable,” said Convey, noting that the perennially frozen soil can insulate the moss from surface-level stresses, such as annual freeze-thaw cycles or DNA-damaging radiation.

The regrowth of centuries-old mosses suggests that glaciers and permafrost are not merely graveyards for multicellular life, but they could instead help organisms withstand ice ages. And as human-caused warming peels away ice cover in the Arctic and Antarctic, whoever makes it out of the ice alive is poised to dominate the budding polar ecosystems.

But “when something can survive in situ,” said Convey of the moss his team discovered, “that really accelerates the recolonization process.” These mosses can paint a lifeless landscape green almost overnight, paving the way for other organisms to arrive and establish.

While the elderly mosses discovered by La Farge and Convey are remarkable, the clique of ice age survivors extends well beyond this one group of plants.

Tatiana Vishnivetskaya has studied ancient microbes long enough to make the extreme feel routine. A microbiologist at the University of Tennessee, Vishnivetskaya drills deep into the Siberian permafrost to map the web of single-celled organisms that flourished ice ages ago.

She has coaxed million-year-old bacteria back to life on a petri dish. They look “very similar to bacteria you can find in cold environments [today],” she said.

But last year, Vishnivetskaya’s team announced an “accidental finding” – one with a brain and nervous system – that shattered scientists’ understanding of extreme endurance.

As usual, the researchers were seeking singled-celled organisms, the only life-forms thought to be viable after millennia locked in the permafrost. They placed the frozen material on petri dishes in their room-temperature lab and noticed something strange.

Hulking among the puny bacteria and amoebae were long, segmented worms complete with a head at one end and anus at the other – nematodes.

“Of course we were surprised and very excited,” Vishnivetskaya said. Clocking in at a half-millimeter long, the nematodes that wriggled back to life were the most complex creatures Vishnivetskaya – or anyone else – had ever revived after a lengthy deep freeze.

She estimated one nematode to be 41,000 years old – by far the oldest living animal ever discovered. This very worm dwelled in the soil beneath Neanderthals’ feet and had lived to meet modern-day humans in Vishnivetskaya’s high-tech laboratory.

Experts suggested that nematodes are well-equipped to endure millennia locked in permafrost.

“These buggers survive just about everything,” said Gaetan Borgonie, a nematode researcher at Extreme Life Isyensya in Gentbrugge, Belgium, who was not involved in Vishnivetskaya’s study.

He said nematodes are ubiquitous across Earth’s diverse habitats. Borgonie has found teeming communities of nematodes two miles below Earth’s surface, in South African mine shafts with scant oxygen and scalding heat.

When environmental conditions deteriorate, some nematode species can hunker down into a state of suspended animation called the dauer stage – dauer means duration in German – in which they forestall feeding and grow a protective coating that shields them from extreme conditions.

Vishnivetskaya is not sure whether the nematodes her team pulled from the permafrost passed the epochs in dauer stage. But she speculated that nematodes could theoretically survive indefinitely if frozen stably.

“They may last any number of years if their cells stay intact,” she said.

Borgonie agrees. While he conceded that the finding of Pleistocene-aged nematodes was “a huge surprise,” he said “if they survived 41,000 years, I have no idea what the upper limit is.”

He views nematodes’ virtuosic endurance in a cosmic context. “It’s very good news for the solar system,” said Borgonie, who believes these feats of survival may portend life on other planets.

Here on Earth, many species are spiraling toward extinction as humans jumble the global climate. But near the thawing poles, a hardy few organisms are revealing incredible stamina.

It is ecological gospel that some creatures – from birds to butterflies to wildebeest – survive by migrating vast and hazardous distances to find favorable habitat. More recent discoveries hint at a different migratory mode: through time.

After protracted slumber in Earth’s icy fringes, bacteria, moss and nematodes are awakening in a new geologic epoch. And for these paragons of endurance, the weather is just right.

2019 © The Washington Post

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.

Climate change isn’t our only existential threat

Ira Helfand, a medical doctor, is a member of the international steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. He is also co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the founding partner organization of ICAN and itself the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.

(CNN)America confronts a long list of critical problems and they all require urgent attention. But among them, two issues stand out: catastrophic climate change and nuclear war are unique in the threat they pose to the very survival of human civilization. The enormity and imminence of these twin existential threats cannot be overstated and how to confront them must be the central issue of any presidential campaign.

Ira Helfand

Climate change and the danger of nuclear war are closely related. As climate change progresses over the coming decades, large areas of the planet will beunable to support their human population. As a result, there will likely be forced migrations on a scale unknown in human history, and an enormously increased risk of conflict, including nuclear conflict. Nuclear war, should it come, would cause further catastrophic climate disruption and widespread global famine.
Fortunately, there is a much greater focus on climate change in this election cycle than in 2016 when it received scant attention in the campaign despite the enormous differences in the policies espoused by the major candidates. This time around, the growing demand for action, especially by young people, and the daily reminders of the escalating damage to the planet, are forcing this issue to the fore where it rightly belongs.
Progressives in Congress have put forward a comprehensive plan to deal with this crisis in the form of the Green New Deal, and there is the real possibility that a post-Trump administration will embrace this plan or some variant on it. Unfortunately, there is much less attention at this point in the campaign to the growing danger of nuclear war. That must change.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has said that the danger of nuclear war is greater than it was during the Cold War, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its iconic Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to a nuclear apocalypse since 1953, after the US tested the hydrogen bomb. Relations between the US and Russia are the worst they have been in three decades and the current tension is replete with nuclear saber-rattling from both sides. War between the nuclear superpowers is an ever-present threat.
Furthermore, research done over the last 15 years has shown that even a very “limited” nuclear war, involving less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear weapons, would be enough to cause catastrophic global climate disruption and a worldwide famine, putting up to 2 billion people at risk. Such a war would not necessarily involve the great powers. A war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could easily produce this level of global climate disruption.
Even if none of the nine nuclear-armed states makes a deliberate decision to launch nuclear weapons, the possibility of an accidental war remains. There have been at least six episodes during the nuclear weapons era when either Moscow or Washington began the process of launching its nuclear weapons in the mistaken belief that it was already under attack. As Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s defense secretary, famously stated, “We lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” As long as they continue to maintain nuclear arsenals, the security “policy” of the nuclear-armed states is essentially a hope for continued good luck.
The last time the world was this close to nuclear annihilation, in the 1980s, the need to prevent nuclear war was front and center in the nation’s political discourse. A vast popular movement formed that demanded and won a freeze in the nuclear arms race.
The danger today demands a similar response, and this time the effort must focus on the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
A campaign to focus national attention on this issue has begun to take shape around the Back from the Brink platform, a Green New Deal for the nuclear threat. Supported by more than 200 professional associations, faith communities, peace and environmental groups, it has been endorsed unanimously by the US Conference of Mayors, and by the municipalities of Baltimore, Los Angeles and DC, as well as being approved overwhelmingly by the California and Oregon legislatures and the New Jersey General Assembly.
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In 2017, 122 nations voted to establish the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The US boycotted those negotiations and has not yet signed the treaty. The Back from the Brink campaign calls on the United States to embrace the treaty and lead an international effort to prevent nuclear war. It specifically urges the US to enter now into negotiations with the other nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, timebound plan to eliminate their nuclear arsenals as the only way to guarantee that they are never used. We cannot know for sure that we will be able to eliminate nuclear weapons; we do know what is likely to happen if we don’t.
The United States cannot afford to elect a good president in 2020. It must elect a great president, and at this moment in time, greatness means the ability to deal successfully with the danger posed by climate change and nuclear weapons.

Deadly heat waves projected in the densely populated agricultural regions of South Asia


Eun-Soon Im,1* Jeremy S. Pal,2* Elfatih A. B. Eltahir3


The risk of human illness and mortality increases in hot and humid weather associated with heat waves. Sherwood and Huber (1) proposed the concept of a human survivability threshold based on wet- bulb temperature (TW). TW is defined as the temperature that an air parcel would attain if cooled at constant pressure by evaporating water within it until saturation. It is a combined measure of temperature [that is, dry-bulb temperature (T)] and humidity (Q) that is always less than or equal to T. High values of TW imply hot and humid conditions and vice versa. The increase in TW reduces the differential between hu- man body skin temperature and the inner temperature of the human body, which reduces the human body’s ability to cool itself (2). Because normal human body temperature is maintained within a very narrow limit of ±1°C (3), disruption of the body’s ability to regulate temperature can immediately impair physical and cognitive functions (4). If ambient air TW exceeds 35°C (typical human body skin temperature under warm conditions), metabolic heat can no longer be dissipated. Human exposure to TW of around 35°C for even a few hours will result in death even for the fittest of humans under shaded, well-ventilated conditions (1). While TW well below 35°C can pose dangerous conditions for most humans, 35°C can be considered an upper limit on human survivability in a natural (not air-conditioned) environment. Here, we consider maximum daily TW values averaged over a 6-hour window (TWmax), which is considered the maximum duration fit humans can survive at 35°C.

“The big challenge is still to deliver emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed, especially in a world where economies are driven by consumption.”

Sonja van Renssen.The inconvenient truth of failed climate policies. Nature Climate Change  MAY 2018

Published online: 27 April 2018 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0155-4

New Report Suggests ‘High Likelihood of Human Civilization Coming to an End’ Starting in 2050

The climate change analysis was written by a former fossil fuel executive and backed by the former chief of Australia’s military.

Image: Mark Garlick/Science Photos Library via Getty Images



A harrowing scenario analysis of how human civilization might collapse in coming decades due to climate change has been endorsed by a former Australian defense chief and senior royal navy commander.

The analysis, published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, a think-tank in Melbourne, Australia, describes climate change as “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization” and sets out a plausible scenario of where business-as-usual could lead over the next 30 years.

The paper argues that the potentially “extremely serious outcomes” of climate-related security threats are often far more probable than conventionally assumed, but almost impossible to quantify because they “fall outside the human experience of the last thousand years.”

On our current trajectory, the report warns, “planetary and human systems [are] reaching a ‘point of no return’ by mid-century, in which the prospect of a largely uninhabitable Earth leads to the breakdown of nations and the international order.”

The only way to avoid the risks of this scenario is what the report describes as “akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilization”—but this time focused on rapidly building out a zero-emissions industrial system to set in train the restoration of a safe climate.

The scenario warns that our current trajectory will likely lock in at least 3 degrees Celsius (C) of global heating, which in turn could trigger further amplifying feedbacks unleashing further warming. This would drive the accelerating collapse of key ecosystems “including coral reef systems, the Amazon rainforest and in the Arctic.”

The results would be devastating. Some one billion people would be forced to attempt to relocate from unlivable conditions, and two billion would face scarcity of water supplies. Agriculture would collapse in the sub-tropics, and food production would suffer dramatically worldwide. The internal cohesion of nation-states like the US and China would unravel.

“Even for 2°C of warming, more than a billion people may need to be relocated and in high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model with a high likelihood of human civilization coming to an end,” the report notes.

The new policy briefing is written by David Spratt, Breakthrough’s research director and Ian Dunlop, a former senior executive of Royal Dutch Shell who previously chaired the Australian Coal Association.

Read More: Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise

In the briefing’s foreword, retired Admiral Chris Barrie—Chief of the Australian Defence Force from 1998 to 2002 and former Deputy Chief of the Australian Navy—commends the paper for laying “bare the unvarnished truth about the desperate situation humans, and our planet, are in, painting a disturbing picture of the real possibility that human life on Earth may be on the way to extinction, in the most horrible way.”

Barrie now works for the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University, Canberra.

Spratt told Motherboard that a key reason the risks are not understood is that “much knowledge produced for policymakers is too conservative. Because the risks are now existential, a new approach to climate and security risk assessment is required using scenario analysis.”

Last October, Motherboard reported on scientific evidence that the UN’s summary report for government policymakers on climate change—whose findings were widely recognized as “devastating”—were in fact too optimistic.


While the Breakthrough scenario sets out some of the more ‘high end’ risk possibilities, it is often not possible to meaningfully quantify their probabilities. As a result, the authors emphasize that conventional risk approaches tend to downplay worst-case scenarios despite their plausibility.

Spratt and Dunlop’s 2050 scenario illustrates how easy it could be to end up in an accelerating runaway climate scenario which would lead to a largely uninhabitable planet within just a few decades.

“A high-end 2050 scenario finds a world in social breakdown and outright chaos,” said Spratt. “But a short window of opportunity exists for an emergency, global mobilization of resources, in which the logistical and planning experiences of the national security sector could play a valuable role.”

Update: This story’s headline has been updated to reflect that the paper suggests 2050 is when the analysts suspect widespread global strife will begin.

Will climate change kill everyone — or just lots and lots of people?



The debate over whether climate change will end life on Earth, explained.

A sign on a trail in Austria marks how quickly glaciers are receding.
 Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Is climate change going to end human civilization for good, and so soon that we may as well not bother saving for retirement?

That’s the theory put forward in a recent viral Vice post: “New Report Warns ‘High Likelihood of Human Civilization Coming to an End’ Within 30 Years.’”

The Vice story summed up a new report from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, an Australian think tank, arguing that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysis of the impacts of climate change understates how much harm it’ll do, and that in reality we face something much worse, with runaway feedback effects amplifying the initial warming until the Earth is “largely uninhabitable.” It doesn’t actually argue that the world will end in 30 years, but it suggests we’ll reach the tipping point by then.

The story went up on Vice with an orange-tinged, haunting illustration of the Statue of Liberty submerged to the neck by rising seas. The post was shared more than 70,000 times on Facebook and left readers terrified, despairing, and sharing doubts about whether it’s ethical to have children.

The Breakthrough report — and the media coverage of it — frustrated many climate scientists. In a detailed response, six researchers argued that the report overstates the risks from climate change, and that subsequent reporting overstated it even further. The fact is that even the most pessimistic reports, evaluated responsibly, don’t suggest climate change will end human civilization, much less within our lifetimes. (Don’t stop saving for retirement.) Vice later altered the headline to “New Report Warns ‘High Likelihood Of Human Civilization Coming To An End’ Starting Within 30 Years’ — and even published a rebuttal.

But the Vice piece tapped into what’s actually been a long-running and sometimes contentious conversation about the climate crisis — specifically, about whether it’s merely just devastating or in fact an existential risk to humanity.

Beneath the disagreement over climate risks is a disagreement over worldviews. From one perspective, quibbling over whether climate change will kill millions or billions is a silly waste of time when, in either case, we urgently need to act. But from another perspective, the difference is deeply significant — for example, it changes whether potential solutions that carry significant risks, like some forms of solar geoengineering, are warranted.

Another broad disagreement is whether alarmism makes our prospects of tackling climate change better or worse. As some people see it, we’re not doing nearly enough to fight climate change, so we’d better focus in on the worst-case scenarios in case that will be what it takes to finally spur people to action. Others, though, worry that alarmism, far from motivating people, leads to paralysis — too much despair about the future to even bother working on it.

So, yes, the Vice story did hype up the threat from the climate crisis — and it likely won’t be the last of those stories we’ll see.

The argument that climate change will kill us all

The expected effects of climate change, according to organizations like the IPCC and the World Bank, are fairly terrifying.

They suggest the planet’s climate will change fast enough to cause widespread droughts and famines, the spread of insect-borne diseases, the displacement of populations, and a worsening of severe poverty.

But here’s one thing they don’t predict: mass civilizational collapse.

Most models warn that as a result of climate change, the incredibly rapid progress humanity has been making in life expectancies and in ending extreme poverty will stall — or that we could even lose decades of the progress we’ve made. If extreme poverty gets as bad as it was in 1980 due to climate change, that will be an immeasurable humanitarian failure, and hundreds of millions of people will die. But the 1980s definitely did have human civilization, and the future in this version would too.

Another way of looking at it is that the predicted effects of climate change are very bad, but not in a cinematic way. Sea levels will rise, but not up to the Statue of Liberty’s neck (if all the ice in the world melted, sea levels would rise to approximately the statue’s waist). Lots of people will die, most of them low-income. It’s not surprising that this gets less viral attention than extreme, extinction-focused scenarios.

But that isn’t to say extreme scenarios are made up from nothing. Where do some people conclude that climate change might swallow up civilization itself?

Well, for one thing, lots of climate policy analysts agree that the IPCC is too optimistic. In particular, the IPCC has kept insisting that it’s still possible to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius when at this point, that’s really unrealistic. As my colleague David Roberts put it:

Models have often included unrealistically low estimates of current and future emissions growth, unrealistically early peaks in global emissions, and unequitable estimates of emission curves in developing countries (implicitly assuming stunted development). … Models routinely show 4 or even 6 percent annual reductions, a rate of emissions decline that has never been achieved by anyone, anywhere, ever, much less consistently over 50 years.

So it’s not surprising that some people got interested in more pessimistic models. What if we assume that we don’t get our emissions under control? What if we assume that there are severe “feedback cycles” where warming causes the release of carbon dioxide currently contained in the land and in the oceans, fueling further warming? And what if, instead of trying to model the most likely outcome, we look at outcomes that may only have a 10 percent chance of occurring but would be particularly disastrous if they did?

It says, for example, “attention has been given to a ‘hothouse Earth’ scenario, in which system feedbacks and their mutual interaction could drive the Earth System climate to a point of no return, whereby further warming would become self-sustaining. This ‘hothouse Earth’ planetary threshold could exist at a temperature rise as low as 2°C, possibly even lower.”

“Our argument is in essence that on the present path, including the commitments in Paris, warming will be three or three and a bit degrees,” Spratt told me. “If you include climate cycle feedbacks, which are not included in the IPCC analysis, it’ll be effectively higher.” For both those claims, there’s significant published science backing him. Then he gets to the controversial bit: “Three degrees may end our civilization.”

For that claim, he cites climate scientist John Schellnhuber, who said in an interview early this year, “if we get it wrong, do the wrong things … then I think there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation,” and UN Secretary General António Guterres, who has said “The problem is that the status quo is a suicide.”

It’s hard to know how to interpret remarks like those in an interview, but Spratt’s take is that the end of human civilization is not just a possibility but a likely outcome if we continue down our current path. Many people had no trouble believing it.

Scientists objected. Here’s what they said.

Six climate scientists reviewed the accuracy of the report and Vice’s write-up at Climate Feedback, a nonprofit that works to improve climate reporting by getting comments from scientists on striking claims in the press. Their responses were scathing.

“This is a classic case of a media article over-stating the conclusions and significance of a non-peer reviewed report that itself had already overstated (and indeed misrepresented) peer-reviewed science,” wrote Richard Betts, who chairs the department for climate impact research at the University of Exeter and leads the European Union project that studies the impacts of extreme global warming.

The Breakthrough report does indeed gather claims from other papers, climate leaders, and thinkers. But it selected many of the scariest and most speculative papers and presented them without being clear about how plausible they are.

And some of its most outrageous claims are just wrong. The report argues that if temperatures continue to rise, “fifty-five percent of the global population are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions beyond that which humans can survive.” That’d be terrifying. But Betts points out that this is based on the definition of a “deadly heat wave” from a paper that defined a deadly heat wave as one above a threshold where at least one person is expected to die (based on historical data). And some of the temperatures identified as deadly are as low as 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) with high humidity — hot, but not what comes to mind from the phrase “lethal heat conditions beyond what humans can survive.”

“The report’s authors have merely read (or possibly seen without actually reading) a few of the scariest papers they could find, misunderstood (or not read properly) at least one of them, and presented unjustified statements,” Betts added.

“The scenario constructed in this report does not have a ‘high likelihood’ of occurring,” wrote Andrew King, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Spratt says that it needn’t be likely to be an important focus. “Sensible risk management is to look at what are the worst feasible options and take actions to stop them occurring,” he told me. “In risk management, we ask what is the worst possible outcome and avoid it. We don’t assume that middle-of-the-road outcomes are the worst thing around, because that’d be disastrous.” That said, he agreed that much of the media coverage, including the viral Vice article, was “over-the-top and often misleading.”

But the scientists who reviewed the article didn’t just object to the headlines. They felt that the core claim — that 3 or 4 degrees of warming could destroy civilization — was also deeply unlikely. “While there is plenty of scientific evidence that climate change will pose increasingly existential threats to the most vulnerable individuals in society and to key global ecosystems,” wrote UCLA researcher Daniel Swain, “even these dire outcomes aren’t equivalent to the ‘annihilation of intelligent life,’ as is claimed in the report.”

One important thing here is that “suicide,” “catastrophic,” and “end of civilization” are all nontechnical terms, and people may have very different things in mind when they use them — especially if we’re looking at interviews rather than at papers.

I also talked to some researchers who study existential risks, like John Halstead, who studies climate change mitigation at the philanthropic advising group Founders Pledge, and who has a detailed online analysis of all the (strikingly few) climate change papers that address existential risk (his analysis has not been peer-reviewed yet).

Halstead looks into the models of potential temperature increases that Breakthrough’s report highlights. The models show a surprisingly large chance of extreme degrees of warming. Halstead points out that in many papers, this is the result of the simplistic form of statistical modeling used. Other papers have made a convincing case that this form of statistical modeling is an irresponsible way to reason about climate change, and that the dire projections rest on a statistical method that is widely understood to be a bad approach for that question.

Further, “the carbon effects don’t seem to pose an existential risk,” he told me. “People use 10 degrees as an illustrative example” — of a nightmare scenario where climate change goes much, much worse than expected in every respect — “and looking at it, even 10 degrees would not really cause the collapse of industrial civilization,” though the effects would still be pretty horrifying. (On the question of whether an increase of 10 degrees would be survivable, there is much debate.)

Does it matter if climate change is an existential risk or just a really bad one?

That last distinction Halstead draws — of climate change as being awful but not quite an existential threat — is a controversial one.

That’s where a difference in worldviews looms large: Existential risk researchers are extremely concerned with the difference between the annihilation of humanity and mass casualties that humanity can survive. To everyone else, those two outcomes seem pretty similar.

To academics in philosophy and public policy who study the future of humankind, an existential risk is a very specific thing: a disaster that destroys all future human potential and ensures that no generations of humans will ever leave Earth and explore our universe. The death of 7 billion people is, of course, an unimaginable tragedy. But researchers who study existential risks argue that the annihilation of humanity is actually much, much worse than that — not only do we lose existing people, but we lose all the people who could otherwise have had the chance to exist.

In this worldview, 7 billion humans dying is not just seven times as bad as 1 billion humans dying — it’s much worse. This style of thinking seems plausible enough when you think about past tragedies; the Black Death, which killed a quarter to a third of all humans alive at the time, was not one-third as bad as a hypothetical plague that wiped us all out.

Most people don’t think about existential risks much. Many analyses of climate change — including the report Vice based its article on — treat the deaths of a billion people and the extinction of humanity as pretty similar outcomes, interchangeably using descriptions of catastrophes that would kill hundreds of millions and catastrophes that’d kill us all. And the existential risk conversation can come across as tone-deaf and off-puttingly academic, as if it’s no big deal if merely hundreds of millions of people will die due to climate change.

Obviously, and this needs to be stressed, climate change is a big deal either way. But there aredifferences between catastrophe and extinction. If the models tell us that all humans are going to die, then extreme solutions — which might save us, or might have unprecedented, catastrophic negative consequences — might be worth trying. Think of plans to release aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet back down in the manner that volcanic explosions do. It’d be an enormous endeavor with significant potential downsides — we don’t even yet know all the risks it might pose — but if the alternative is extinction then those risks would be worth taking.

But if the models tell us that climate change is devastating but survivable, as most models show, then those last-ditch solutions should perhaps stay in the toolkit for now.

Then there’s the morale argument. Defenders of overstating the risks of climate change point out that, well, understating them isn’t working. The IPCC may have chosen to maintain optimism about containing warming to 2 degrees Celsius in the hopes that it’d spur people to action, but if so, it hasn’t really worked. Maybe alarmism will achieve what optimism couldn’t.

That’s how Spratt sees it. “Alarmism?” he said to me. “Should we be alarmed about where we’re going? Of course we should be.”

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has taken an arguably alarmist bent in her advocacy for climate solutions in the EU, saying, “Our house is on fire. I don’t want your hope. … I want you to panic.” She’s gotten strong reactions from politicians, suggesting that at least sometimes a relentless focus on the severity of the emergency can get results.

So where does this all leave us? It’s worthwhile to look into the worst-case scenarios, and even to highlight and emphasize them. But it’s important to accurately represent current climate consensus along the way. It’s hard to see how we solve a problem we have widespread misapprehensions about in either direction — and when a warning is overstated or inaccurate, it may sow more confusion than inspiration.

Climate change won’t kill us all. That matters. Yet it’s one of the biggest challenges ahead of us, and the results of our failure to act will be devastating. That message — the most accurate message we’ve got — will have to stand on its own.


 I decided not to have children when I was in my 30’s, about 15 years ago. It was really a heartbreaking decision, but I did not want to bring a new life into a world that was clearly out of control and destroying it’s own home. The details on climate change were already known, but mostly hidden and not talked about, and certainly not as dire as todays news. My goal was to adopt an older child, but without the support of my partner I did not pursue that plan, and am now childless. I know how hard that choice is, and would like to listen to and support others through their journey. There are so many ways to use my nurturing, caregiving, mothering desires in my life. I’m very happy and content with my decision.

Julie O’Keefe, 53
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown systemchange ecocide familychildren socialcollapse regeneration rewilding extinctionrebellion

 I am an Environmental Systems Scientist, 52 years old, and have been following climate science for a long time (although it´s not my research area). I used to give public talks on climate in Australia and New Zealand, then I went to sleep on the issue – children and every day life took over. It has only been in recent years that I have re-awoken to the likely horrors that await us. Things seem to changing faster now – I think they´ll progress faster than the scientists have predicted, as feedbacks start to kick-in. As I read recently, we have emitted 50% of all emissions in history in the last 30 years! I´ve seen the glaciers melting, the fires, the tornadoes, typhoons and cyclones, the devastated lives, and this is just the beginning. I fear for the future of my children, I imagine them dying with me when climate change decimates our food supply. I despair at the ignorance and willful greed and callous campaigns of the fossil fuel industries to maintain business as usual when they could have been part of the solution, and I´m disgusted at our politicians, who care more about pandering to powerful lobbies than protecting our futures. I love my children they are here, but had I realised how bad things are going to get, what the future brings, I would not have brought them into the world – I will certainly have no more – I had a vasectomy to make certain. I very strongly agree with the goals of BirthStrike, and ExtinctionRebellion and the school strikes – we need change more than ever.

Jeremy Wilkinson, 52
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown socialcollapse extinctionrebellionsystemchange children ecocide family climatechange

 I was planning on having a family in the future, I’m 25 and single and not currently in a position where I would be having children any time soon but I did certainly want to have children in the future.
I had been thinking since 2015 about other factors that effect how/when/if I should ever have children. Other existential risks as well as technological advances that I felt should be taken in to account with the decision.
It was the IPCC report last October that spurred me into realising Climate Change is also an existential risk and I quickly reprioritised and learnt as much as I could up to Christmas.
In a nutshell, the course humanity is currently on is far more dire than I had realised with regards to climate change, on top of all the existential risks I paying attention to prior to October. I know that unless we take action and successfully prevent a number of things taking place, then it is highly probable our species will be extinct before this century ends. I want to contribute to the survival of our species, as well as the countless other animal and plant species at risk. You can’t maintain a civilisation if no more children are born, of course, but right now I need a certain number of things to happen and for history to change course, big time, before I can accept that we have attained future suitable for starting a family in.

Oliver Graves, 25
birthstrike extinctionrebellion systemchange children familyecologicalbreakdown climatechange socialcollapse

 I first learned of climate change in the early eighties, when I was in my early 20s. This, combined with the efforts to turn then rural china and india into consumer populations, made it clear that bringing another American in the world would only accelerate planetary systems breakdown, which would then have to be borne by this child. Meanwhile, so many children already in the world need parents. Having children flew in the face of common sense then, and does so even more now.

Koohan Paik-Mander, 58
birthstrike systemchange extinctionrebellion ecologicalbreakdownsocialcollapse family children

 Humans are having a phenomenally profound negative impact on our earth and little seems to be done to halt and attempt to reverse the the effect of global issues, such as climate change and pollution. Drastic changes are long overdue and urgent political action needs to be taken to bring about social changes to the way in which we live and consume. Global warming must become the driving force behind the decisions that we as individuals make in our daily lives. As a young professional, I am already challenged to fulfill my personal and professional duties to the best of my ability whilst upholding high regards for the environment; subsequently I recognise that parenting would only make this harder. By refraining from bearing children, I will be able to invest more time and energy into making positive lifestyle changes which will reduce my carbon footprint and consumption of manufactured products. Achieving the plastic free and sustainable lifestyle which I aspire towards will be a timely process and one in which I do not, at present feel I could succeed in and achieve whilst raising a family.

K, 28
birthstrike extinctionrebellion systemchange childrensocialcollapse ecologicalbreakdown climatechange family

 Growing up, I always felt aware of the potential of environmental breakdown. For the last 30 years environmental studies have shown that we are heading for an unsustainable or even unsurvivable future on this planet, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to bring new life into this world.
My husband and I spent years trying to decide whether to have children, but ultimately the deciding factor was the uncertainty over climate.
I do not feel like I would be able to ensure that any child I had had a reasonable chance of a good future where they could thrive.

Louise H, 39
birthstrike systemchange extinctionrebellion climatechangeecologicalbreakdown socialcollapse children family

 I am 60. My daughter is 30…she isn’t planning on kids…many reasons. Geo-politically & environmentally speaking the world is moving toward an ugly breakdown that the act of bringing children into this world would render cruel and unusual punishment. Abrupt Climate Change is the be all and end all of critical situations the world shares, and if more children are born and not given the tools to adapt (if even possible) our current generation will set up the next generation for unimaginable hardships and horrors.

Sandy Blue Ocean, 60
birthstrike ecologicalcollapse ecologicalbreakdown climatechangesocialbreakdown children systemchange extinctionrebellion

I grew up in South Africa, it was a beautiful childhood but tainted by the apartheid government.  Even as a child I was aware of the planet and her fragility.

When climate change first reared her ugly head back in the 80’s I was constantly commenting on changing weather patterns (which no-one else thought was weird), I started to feel internally alarmed.

Then people began talking about the hole in the ozone layer,  & climate change suddenly became topical.  What alarmed me most was that although everyone was talking about it, no one  was doing anything about it.

It’s been that way ever since. We watch in horror as forests burn, species are made extinct, environments destroyed, over fishing, I could go on and on…Our planet is at crisis point. If we keep talking and don’t implement rapid and extreme changes, there will be no future for anyone.

Lisa Cohen-Veit, 51
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown socialcollapse fertility childrensystemchange extinctionrebellion

 Although I was never one of those young girls who fantasized about getting married and having children, I have recently been pondering the idea now that I’m entering my thirties. But along with my slowly growing interest in creating offspring, my knowledge and awareness of the climate crisis has increased at a much faster rate. I am now comfortable and at peace with my plan to not have children, and I no longer see my reasons as selfish. Instead, I view my choice as more of a self-less one. It is, of course, enjoyable to entertain the idea of having children, especially when you share your life with a partner you love very much. But I think it is unfair to bring a child into the world and place the immense responsibility of dealing with a severely unstable world on them. I have enough anxiety when I think of my future, let alone the future humans will have to deal with over the next 100+ years.

Lyndsay R, 29
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown systemchange fertilityclimatechange children socialcollapse extinctionrebellion

 Our world is dying. If carbon emissions globally ended tomorrow, the environment still would not ever completely recover. In my lifetime, we have seen catastrophic loss of species and life globally including ocean dead zones and food desserts. This is the result of an unsustainable way of living, this is the result of human interference with the environment and the mentality of harvesting what was never ours to take. To bring a human being into this world only to live with the consequences of our destruction is the most cruel thing I could bestow on another being. I hope one day the earth can heal in ways we can’t predict but for now, I do all I can. I reject the concepts of property ownership and live minimally and low waste. I have rejected the idea that my life is any more valuable than any other species and work to promote animal rights nationally and globally. We will not change the world unless we drastically and urgently change our understanding of our origin story. That humans were placed on earth not as Masters of all that it holds but guardians and protectors from the harms we have the potential to cause. Change must come now, if not for our natural world, for the sake of the future generations who will call what is left of the planet, home.

Elene Rangel, 20
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown climatechange children familyclimateaction zerowaste extinctionrebellion systemchange

 I’m a teacher, and see the young coming through, and it scares me! The decline in general health is scary, and the attitude towards the world, breaks my heart. Many of the next generation is more of a parasite than my own, more concerned with consumption and their rights than anything else. This world now is not good enough for my offspring… I wouldn’t wish this future on anyone else, never mind my own child.

Christine A Coxon, 41
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown socialcollapse climatechangechildren family systemchange

 The future terrifies me, it terrifies me that one day we won’t have wildlife, our oceans will be full of nothing but plastic and poison, the only nature we will see will be in books. The wonders of the world will disappear amid a caving climate – I don’t want to bring children into that kind of world and I don’t want to add to the pressure on an already breaking environment, since a young age I have researched the detrimental affects humans have had on the planet and that is what first introduced me to the notion of not having children and not bringing them up in a world where the hope of things improving are dwindling.

Sophie Milano, 27
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown systemchange climatechangechildren family future extinctionrebellion

 I think if I were to have a child and they were to turn 18, what will life be like for them? Current governments staying in power is bad enough, corporations running everything even worse but worse of all is climate change and it’s ignored by corporations, government, media and by so many people. So, I think if nothing huge is changed, my child at 18 will never be able to see so many animals in the wild such as elephants, rhinos etc, my child will be constantly hearing of food, water, land shortages on the news, wars being fought over these things. The fact we moaned about 1.5million people coming to Europe in the last few yrs but will face 10’s of millions heading to Europe in the next decades purely due to climate change and how this will affect jobs, food, and literally everything we take for granted. Disasters constantly all over the world. Places like Miami, New York and many other coastal places, Islands all over the world flooded daily or even gone. I’m 37 and will witness all this and I’m terrified of my own future as I still can’t even afford to move out my parents and get stable work, how on earth is my child suppose to survive in the future we have destined for them

Drew, 37
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown ecologicalcollapse socialbreakdownfertility climatechange children family systemchange

 I am on Birthstrike because the number one parental responsibility is to keep your child safe, and therefore in a world like this, to fulfill your parental responsibilities ironically means not having your own children, but to strive to save ALL of life instead and to enable future generations to be able to be born safely in the future. When scientists predict the last harvest in the UK to be in roughly 60 years, I’m terrified for my generation’s life, let alone future generations. There are countless people that feel this way, but #BirthStrike is the first platform to give us a voice.

Anna, 20
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown ecologicalcollapse climatechangeclimateaction systemchange extinctionrebellion children fertility

When I was a child the mere mention of climate change would cause me to have a panic attack. The idea that the world could go through such a catastrophe, or that I would live to see it happen, was too much for me to handle. It fostered mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. I went through periods of denial because that’s the only way I knew how to deal with it.

Now I’ve come to terms with the reality that climate change is real, and knowing how that anxiety robbed me of my childhood and caused me so much suffering, I can’t bring an innocent child into the world knowing that they will have it even worse than I did, and that they will not even begin to have a full life.

Amber W, 22
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown ecologicalcollapse socialcollapseclimatechange climateaction systemchange children

The driving force behind global challenges, including climate change, is our current economic models do not account very well for the externalities they cause.

Secondly, our political and economic systems, well at least most, are predicated on growth as a key function of their stability.

Third, the hegemony of the day has set the two final pavings stones of philosophy between two books. One is, Huntington’s a clash of civilizations and the other is Fukyama’s The End of History and The Last Man. This means the past and the future are cut off and we are driving around in a cul-de-sac of capitalism and conflict.

Combined, the orthodoxy has entrenched itself to protect a way of life that is not tenable on this planet.

There are alternatives, for example Kate Raworth brings up doughnut economics which adds many important concepts. For example, that the household should be recognized as part of the real economy and that the cost of the externalities should be calculated into price. Of course, this is transitional thinking needed to move forward. Moving all the way, would cause those living over their personally allotted ecological carrying capacity to be severally taxed to the point where they could not…we have a long way to go. “

Shane Murray, 46
birthstrike systemchange ecologicalbreakdown ecologicalcollapsechildren fertility extinctionrebellion 6thmassextinctionclimatechange

I created the website dietdissonance.com to create awareness of the diet and why/how people decide to follow a plant-based lifestyle. While the information on that website is focused on dietary choices, it is thoroughly researched and I’ve included a Facts Page where people can find links to the research available on the covered topics (http://dietdissonance.com/facts_regular.html) It was during this research phase of building this website that I really began to feel like humanity was too stubborn and so strongly driven by immediate gratification, that any sizable change to our health or the health of the planet was unlikely to take place. Even at the risk of death and disease of ourselves and the world around us, people continue to eat meat. I’m not sure how to convince others to change their ways, but I’d like to figure it out before it’s too late.

I’ve always been anxious about my biological footprint, and became vegan five years ago in an effort to decrease my global impact. Once vegan, I found it easier to pursue other areas of environmental impact, and have tried to follow a zero waste lifestyle as well as participating in activism/outreach and my local DSA. At this point, for me, I really enjoy zero waste and veganism, but every time I read/hear about the environment, or when there is a big storm, or our government (or other governments) do things that are in direct disregard for the natural world/our future on this planet, I feel really lost. This “lost” feeling is also a feeling of emptiness. It is very depressing to feel powerless, to feel like the people in your life (and the ones who aren’t) somehow don’t care at all about the future that we are all creating together. I don’t understand how others are able to just ignore or disregard the facts, especially now that we are experiencing more dangerous natural storms.

Katie Jundt, 23
birthstrike ecologicalbreakdown ecologicalcollapse childrenfertility climatechange climateaction systemchange

 I’ve been undecided whether or not to have children. But now this world definitely does not seem to be a a place to bring a little life into. Also doing that would just add to the draining of our planetary resources.

Anne-Sofie Raundahl, 33

BirthStrike: The people refusing to have kids, because of climate change

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Climate change is so scary, these people are going on birth strike 01:26

London (CNN)Climate change is rapidly changing the environment we live in. But how far would you be willing to go to help save the planet?

Would you skip school? Eat pig’s feet? Deliberately get arrested? How about forgo having kids?
For 33-year-old British musician Blythe Pepino the latter is a reality. Her fears about climate change are so strong she has decided not to have biological children.
“I really want a kid,” she told CNN. “I love my partner and I want a family with him but I don’t feel like this is a time that you can do that.”
Pepino believes that there will be an “ecological Armageddon” and founded BirthStrike at the end of 2018. BirthStrike is a group of people who are declaring their decision not to have kids because of climate change.
So far, over 330 people have joined, of which Pepino estimates 80% are women.

‘Inheriting a world worse than ours’

The BirthStrikers have decided they can’t bring children into a world where scientists predict climate change will bring bigger wildfires, more droughts, and food shortages for millions of people.
In 2018, the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the planet only has 11 years to prevent catastrophic climate change.
“You are gambling with someone else’s life,” said Cody Harrison, a 29-year-old who recently joined the group. “If things don’t go well, that human is not going to have a very good life.”
“When climate change gets worse, it multiplies other things. It’s like dominoes that are falling,” said Lori Day, another member of BirthStrike. “It goes beyond sea level rise and storms. It affects food production, migration, resources and war.”
BirthStrike is one of a number of groups around the world that are questioning the ethics of having children in a warming world. Conceivable Future, a network of women in America, was founded in 2015 to bring awareness to “the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice,” although that group’s members haven’t discounted having children.
“The data says there’s a ticking clock,” said Josephine Ferorelli, a co-founder of the group. “The 11-year window more or less approximates a lot of our reproductive windows as well.
“What kind of harm will a hotter and more painful world inflict on my child? Nobody has the answers for that,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a news conference unveiling the Green New Deal resolution, February 7, 2019.

In March, US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told her 3 million Instagram followers, “there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult… is it still ok to have children?”

More children, more emissions

In addition to fears surrounding the quality of life for future generations, some BirthStrikers don’t want to have children because of the extra emissions that their kids, and their descendants, will produce.
Population Matters, a UK-based charity that boasts David Attenborough as a patron and aims to achieve a “sustainable human population,” argues that as the population increases, so will carbon emissions and loss of tropical forests, as well as other environmental impacts.
By 2030, the UN estimates there will be around 8.5 billion people on the planet and by 2100, there could be as many as 11 billion.
Currently, the World Bank estimates the average person emits 5 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Most of the world’s projected population growth will be in developing countries, but developed nations have much higher average CO2 emissions. The average American emits 15.6 metric tons per year, while Sri Lanka and Ghana emit less than one ton per capita.

Consumption, not population?

So, should everyone in industrialized countries consider having fewer children, to reduce emissions? It might not be that simple.
A 2014 study concluded that reducing the human population is “not a quick fix for environmental problems.” Using models, it found that even a worldwide one-child policy would give a global population of around 7 billion by the end of the century — much the same as today’s population.
The scientists concluded that although reducing population “might benefit our great-great-great-great grandchildren,” it is not a short-term “elephant in the room” solution.
Instead, the study suggests society should focus on reducing the carbon footprint we already have and limiting per-capita consumption.
“If everyone consumes the way the US did, we would need another four to six earths,” said Meghan Kallman, co-founder of Conceivable Future. “It’s not actually about the number of people. It’s how those people consume.”
“From a carbon perspective, one baby more one baby less, the way that you approach it as an individual has no significant impact whatsoever,” said Ferorelli. “It’s about why it is so carbon intensive in the West to have a child in the first place.”

The opportunity cost of a child

Both BirthStrike and Conceivable Future are quick to say that they do not endorse coercive population control methods or judge anyone for having children.
Nor should the groups be conflated with the anti-natalist movement, the philosophy that it’s morally wrong to procreate, because of the suffering that comes with life.
“I try not to judge anybody for their own choices,” said Harrison. “Once I’m ready I’d like to adopt.”
Day even wondered whether a child that is due to be born could be the child who solves the climate crisis.
“Sometimes I wonder, what if Greta Thunberg’s mother had not wanted to have children because of climate change?” said Day, referring to the 16-year-old girl who has inspired youth climate protests worldwide, after staging a sit-in outside the Swedish parliament every Friday.

Creating political action

For the groups, their declarations are less about individual actions and more about a collective effort to prompt political change.
“I did have a sneaky feeling that it was going to rock the boat of certain patriarchal groups,” said Pepino. “I wanted it to freak people out and I think that it has.”
Pepino said that there had been a “violent backlash” online after an interview she did on Fox News, but says now there is a lot more solidarity.
“Knowing that there are people out there who feel the same way helps us come together and say something really politically powerful,” said Kallman. “This is a huge freaking problem and we need to solve it right now.”
The groups also hope to channel the energy they would have used to raise children into activism and rebellion.
“I am in a position to be an activist,” said Pepino. “It’s a stronger calling than motherhood, even though I still mourn the idea.”
“Now is the time to create the disruption and bring the system to its knees because it is just ignoring it,” she said.
“Every day that we don’t act is another day that more people will die, more species will become extinct and more likely we will be heading to a completely uninhabitable planet.”

Frogs are dying off at record rates, an ominous sign the 6th mass extinction is hitting one group of creatures hardest

  • Our planet is in the middle of a mass extinction — the sixth time in Earth’s history that animal and plant species are disappearing in enormous numbers.
  • Amphibians, particularly frogs, are among the hardest hit by this extinction crisis, as are insects and reptiles.
  • At least 2,000 species of amphibian are in danger of extinction, according to a recent study. A report from the United Nations confirmed that 40% of amphibian species are threatened.
  • Here are photos of 15 endangered frogs, geckos, and snakes that might soon disappear.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Human activity has killed off 680 mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, and fish species since the 1500s. As much as half of the total number of animal individuals that once shared the planet with us are already gone.

That death toll is likely to rise dramatically over the next decades.

A recent report from the United Nations found that between 500,000 and 1 million plant and animals species face imminent extinction. At least 10% of insect species and more than 33% of all marine mammals and reef-forming coral are threatened, it found.

But one group is expected to suffer most of all: Amphibians. An estimated 40% of amphibian species face extinction, according to the UN report. A study published in the journal Current Biology estimated that at least 2,000 amphibian species are in danger of extinction.

This group includes frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts.

In the past 50 years, more than 500 amphibian species have experienced population declines worldwide, and 90 of them have gone extinct, due to a deadly fungal disease called chytridiomycosis (or chytrid fungus), which corrodes frog flesh.

Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction…[Yet]

At the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin took the podium to address a ballroom full of geologists on the dynamics of mass extinctions and power grid failures—which, he claimed, unfold in the same way.

“These are images from the NOAA website of the US blackout in 2003,” he said, pulling up a nighttime satellite picture of the glowing northeastern megalopolis, megawatts afire under the cold dark of space. “This is 20 hours before the blackout. You can see Long Island and New York City.”

Erwin is one of the world’s experts on the End-Permian mass extinction, an unthinkable volcanic nightmare that nearly ended life on earth 252 million years ago. He proposed that earth’s great mass extinctions might unfold like these power grid failures: most of the losses may come, not from the initial shock—software glitches in the case of power grid failures, and asteroids and volcanoes in the case of ancient mass extinctions—but from the secondary cascade of failures that follow. These are devastating chain reactions that no one understands. Erwin thinks that most mass extinctions in earth’s history—global die-offs that killed the majority of animal life on earth—ultimately resulted, not from external shocks, but from the internal dynamics of food webs that faltered and failed catastrophically in unexpected ways, just as the darkening eastern seaboard did in 2003.

I had written to Erwin to get his take on the contemporary idea that there is currently a sixth mass extinction under way on our planet on par with the so-called Big Five mass extinctions in the history of animal life. Many popular science articles take this as a given, and indeed, there’s something emotionally satisfying about the idea that humans’ hubris and shortsightedness are so profound that we’re bringing down the whole planet with us.Given how severely humans have damaged the natural world over the millennia, it was an idea I found attractive, and it’s one even shared by many geologists and paleontologists. Our destruction is so familiar—so synonymous with civilization—in fact, that we tend to overlook how strange the world that we’ve made has become. For instance, it stands to reason that, until very recently, all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass. This Frankenstein biosphere is due both to the explosion of industrial agriculture and to a hollowing out of wildlife itself, which has decreased in abundance by as much as 50 percent since 1970. This cull is from both direct hunting and global-scale habitat destruction: almost half of the earth’s land has been converted to farmland.

The oceans have endured a similar transformation in only the past few decades as the industrial might developed during World War II has been trained on the seas. Each year fishing trawlers plow an area of seafloor twice the size of the continental United States, obliterating the benthos. Gardens of corals and sponges hosting colorful sea life are reduced to furrowed, lifeless plains. What these trawlers have to show for all this destruction is the removal of up to 90 percent of all large ocean predators since 1950, including familiar staples of the dinner plate like cod, halibut, grouper, tuna, swordfish, marlin, and sharks. As just one slice of that devastation, 270,000 sharks are killed every single day, mostly for their tasteless fins, which end up as status symbol garnishes in the bowls of Chinese corporate power lunches. And today, even as fishing pressure is escalating, even as the number of fishing boats increases, even as industrial trawlers abandon their exhausted traditional fishing grounds to chase down ever more remote fish stocks with ever more sophisticated fish-finding technology, global fish catch is flatlining.

So things don’t look so good, no matter where we look. Yes, the victims in the animal world include scary apex predators that pose obvious threats to humans, like lions, whose numbers have dropped from 1 million at the time of Jesus to 450,000 in the 1940s to 20,000 today—a decline of 98 percent. But also included have been unexpected victims, like butterflies and moths, which have declined in abundance by 35 percent since the 1970s.Like all extinction events, so far this one has been phased and complex, spanning tens of thousands of years and starting when our kind left Africa. Other mass extinctions buried deep in earth’s history have similarly played out over tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years. To future geologists, then, the huge wave of extinctions a few thousand years ago as First Peoples spread out into new continents and remote archipelagoes will be all but indistinguishable from the current wave of destruction loosed by modernity and its growing appetites. Surely we’ve earned our place in the pantheon next to the greatest ecological catastrophes of all time: the so-called Big Five mass extinctions of earth history. Surely our Anthropocene extinction can confidently take its place next to the juggernauts of deep time—the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous extinctions.

Erwin says no. He thinks it’s junk science.

“Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were,” he wrote me in an email. “It is absolutely critical to recognize that I am NOT claiming that humans haven’t done great damage to marine and terrestrial [ecosystems], nor that many extinctions have not occurred and more will certainly occur in the near future. But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons.”

I had a chance to sit down with Erwin after his talk at the annual geology conference. My first question—about a rumor I had heard from one of his colleagues that Erwin had served as a sort of mass extinction consultant to Cormac McCarthy while the notoriously secretive author was constructing the post-apocalyptic world of The Road—Erwin coyly evaded. But on the speculative sixth mass extinction, he was more forthcoming.

If his power-grid analogy is correct, then trying to stop a mass extinction after it’s started would be a little like calling for a building’s preservation while it’s imploding.“People who claim we’re in the sixth mass extinction don’t understand enough about mass extinctions to understand the logical flaw in their argument,” he said. “To a certain extent they’re claiming it as a way of frightening people into action, when in fact, if it’s actually true we’re in a sixth mass extinction, then there’s no point in conservation biology.”

This is because by the time a mass extinction starts, the world would already be over.

“So if we really are in the middle of a mass extinction,” I started, “it wouldn’t be a matter of saving tigers and elephants—”

“Right, you probably have to worry about saving coyotes and rats.

“It’s a network collapse problem,” he said. “Just like power grids. Network dynamics research has been getting a ton of money from DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. They’re all physicists studying it, who don’t care about power grids or ecosystems, they care about math. So the secret about power grids is that nobody actually knows how they work. And it’s exactly the same problem you have in ecosystems.

“I think that if we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon,” he said.

Erwin’s other point, that the magnitude of the Big Five mass extinctions in earth’s past dwarfs humanity’s destruction thus far, is a subtle one. He’s not trying to downplay the tremendous destruction wrought by humans, but reminding us that claims about mass extinctions are inevitably claims about paleontology and the fossil record.

“So there are estimates of what the standing crop of passenger pigeons was in the 19th century,” said Erwin. “It’s like 5 billion. They would black out the sky.”

Passenger pigeons all but serve as the mascot of the “sixth mass extinction,” their extirpation an ecological tragedy on a massive scale, and proof that humans are a geologically destructive force to be reckoned with.

“So then you ask: in a non-archaeological context, how many fossil passenger pigeons are there? How many records are there of fossil passenger pigeons?”

“Not many?” I offered.
 “Two,” he said.
“So here’s an incredibly abundant bird that we wiped out. But if you look in the fossil record, you wouldn’t even know that they were there.”

Erwin likes to recall a talk he once went to by an ecologist who had documented the troubling losses he had seen over his career in high-altitude rainforests.

The fossil record is incredibly incomplete. One rough estimate holds that we’ve only ever found a tantalizing 0.01 percent of all the species that have ever existed. Most of the animals in the fossil record are marine invertebrates, like brachiopods and bivalves, of the sort that are both geologically widespread and durably skeletonized. In fact, though this book (for narrative purposes) has mostly focused on the charismatic animals taken out by mass extinctions, the only reason we know about mass extinctions in the first place is from the record of this incredibly abundant, durable, and diverse world of marine invertebrates, not the big, charismatic, and rare stuff like dinosaurs.

“So you can ask, ‘Okay, well, how many geographically widespread, abundant, durably skeletonized marine taxa have gone extinct thus far?’ And the answer is, pretty close to zero,” Erwin pointed out. In fact, of the best-assessed groups of modern animals—like stony corals, amphibians, birds and mammals—somewhere between 0 and 1 percent of species have gone extinct in recent human history. By comparison, the hellscape of End-Permian mass extinction claimed upwards of 90 percent of all species on earth.

When mass extinctions hit, they don’t just take out big charismatic megafauna, like elephants, or niche ecosystems, like cloud forests. They take out hardy and ubiquitous organisms as well—things like clams and plants and insects. This is incredibly hard to do. But once you go over the edge and flip into mass extinction mode, nothing is safe. Mass extinctions kill almost everything on the planet.

While Erwin’s argument that a mass extinction is not yet under way might seem to get humanity off the hook—an invitation to plunder the earth further, since it can seemingly take the beating (the planet has certainly seen worse)—it’s actually a subtler and possibly far scarier argument.

This is where the ecosystem’s nonlinear responses, or tipping points, come in. Inching up to mass extinction might be a little like inching up to the event horizon of a black hole—once you go over a certain line, a line that perhaps doesn’t even appear all that remarkable, all is lost.

“So,” I said, “it might be that we sort of bump along where everything seems okay and then . . .”

“Yeah, everything’s fine until it’s not,” said Erwin. “And then everything goes to hell.”

Or put another way, mass extinctions may unfold the same way that a dissolute character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises explains that bankruptcies do: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

“The only hope we have in the future,” Erwin said, “is if we’re not in a mass extinction event.”

This article has been adapted from Peter Brannen’s new book, The Ends of the World.