Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Every Fifteen Minutes a Species Dies



By George Harvey

As scary as climate change is, there is one thing about it in which I have a great deal of confidence. We will stop it. Even our current technologies are sufficient to do the job. Renewable power sources that we have already developed can easily generate many times the amount of power we can use, and power storage is being developed rapidly. New technologies are being developed, as well.

The cost of renewable power has dropped to the point that they are our least expensive power sources. Solar is out-competing natural gas, even in states without solar incentives, and wind usually beats all comers. Grid stability has been proven to be less expensive with renewable power sources than with base-load power plants. Even with low natural gas prices, building a new fossil fuel plant requires justification for the costs involved.

In fact, not only will we stop climate change, but we have a very good chance of establishing ourselves in a far better style of living in the process. Distributed power implies a potential for distributed prosperity.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Not only can we imagine clean air, we can actually bring it into being. In today’s world, seven million people die each year from the effects of air pollution, according to the World Health Organization, and many millions more suffer from chronic respiratory problems. In tomorrow’s world, we are very likely to have better respiratory health. Cancer may also become less common, as our bodies have less need to fight the toxins they encounter from fossil fuels. There are many other reasons to end fossil fuel dependence.

This is a war we will win, one that we can all win together, in which all humanity is on the same side (though some do not yet know it).

Given my confidence, you might ask why I work so hard at trying to stop climate change.

Today we are in the middle of what scientists call the “Sixth Extinction.” This is a time when a great many species are passing out of existence. It has been nearly twenty years since an article in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, projected species loss at 140,000 per year (S.L. Pimm, G.J. Russell, J.L. Gittleman and T.M. Brooks, “The Future of Biodiversity”). At that rate, species were being lost every three and three-quarters minutes. Things have not improved since then.

Of course, scientists differ on how fast we are losing species. I called Nikhil Advani, who works on such questions for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Washington DC. He believed 140,000 was a bit high, but even so, species are dying altogether too fast because of global warming. Even at a quarter of the speed given, we lose one species every fifteen minutes.

Advani said the warming itself does not kill directly. Instead, it drives extinction. “One species we are worrying about is moose, at least in North America,” he said. “The slight increase in winter temperatures means that ticks can overwinter where they never had before, and in numbers great enough to cause serious damage. Moose are being killed by ticks.” Ticks are disease vectors, as many of us know, but they are already so bad they are killing moose by causing lethal anemia, by bleeding them to death.

Polar bear cubs - all photos from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Polar bear cubs – all photos from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

The National Audubon Society issued a warning on climate change last year, after conducting a seven-year study. According to them, more than half the species of birds in North America are at risk of extinction from climate change. Among those they listed were the American bald eagle and the Baltimore oriole.

One thing shocking about these species is that none is considered endangered, threatened, or even vulnerable, under current conservation status. They are all listed as being in the “Least Concern” category. Climate change, however, can kill them. And it can kill a host of other species we care about. Furthermore, in addition to species rendered extinct, many will be extirpated from our area, or rendered extinct locally. These include many of the animals, trees, and other plants of our forests. It will be a very different New England, unless we can change things.

There is a lesson here. Even if we are confident that we will stop climate change, we cannot afford to be complacent about it. We have heard the argument that we should delay action, perhaps by “just” two years, until we know the science better and can put more advanced technologies into place. But that translates into 70,000 or more species being utterly lost. Every fifteen minutes we delay dealing with climate change, another species may pass into history.

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