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Dr. Terry Root & Dr. Stuart L. Pimm discuss recent research showing human beings are responsible for high extinction rates of species across the globe, and explain how we can prevent a sixth major extinction event

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

According to a recent study from Duke University, current extinction rates are higher than previous estimates, now believed to be 1,000 times that natural rate. The authors of this study say that the elevated extinction rate is due to human activity and is bringing the world to the brink of a sixth great extinction.

With us to discuss what is being lauded as a ground-breaking study are our two guests.

Dr. Terry Root is a senior fellow in university faculty at the Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. Her research addresses how wild animals and plants are changing with climate change, with a focus on the possible mass extinction of species with global warming. She was also the lead author of the assessment reports with the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change and a 2007 corecipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Also with us is the leader of the recent Duke University study, Dr. Stuart L. Pimm, who was a president of conservation organization, SavingSpecies, and is the Doris Duke professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University. He is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on extinction and efforts to conserve and protect endangered species and their habitats.

Thank you both for joining us.



ROOT: Thank you for having us.

WORONCZUK: So, Dr. Pimm, let’s start with you. Define for our audience scientifically what is an extinction event and what were the main drivers of the five previous extinction events of the past.

PIMM: Working out how fast species are going extinct it is rather like working out how fast people are dying. You look at the obituary notices in the newspapers and you check to see that there are not more people dying than you think. And that’s what we’ve done in this study. We’ve looked to birds, mammals, and amphibians over the last few decades and found that they are dying off at a pretty high rate. What we can do then is to compare that rate to what we know from the fossil record and molecular evidence in DNA. And that gives us a comparison between what’s happening now and what was happening in the past.

Now, this sixth extinction, as it’s being called, hasn’t happened yet, but if the current rates continue, then it will be an event in 100 years time that will have wiped out perhaps a third, maybe a half of all the species on Earth. And the last time an event of that magnitude happened was when an asteroid plowed into the Yucatán in modern Mexico about 60 million years ago.

WORONCZUK: And what do you see are the main drivers of this sixth extinction event? And what did your study find that’s unique about this, as opposed to the other extinction events?

PIMM: Well, the cause of this extinction rate is us. And we are having a number of major impacts. Clearly the biggest one is we’re destroying the habitats of the species. We’re chopping down tropical forests. We’re damaging coral reefs. We’re damaging a wide variety of different environments where species live. That’s one cause. In the oceans we’re overharvesting species. We’re harvesting species to the very brink of extinction. And then we’re also warming the planet [incompr.] hotter, the planet gets warmer, species move further north or they move up mountains. This is the expertise of professor Wood. And we know that eventually that can cause massive numbers of extinctions too.

WORONCZUK: And, Dr. Root, what do you think is the significance of this study?

ROOT: Oh, what we are finding from this study is is that indeed the extinction rate is going a lot faster than we had thought it was going. And that is of great concern, because what it is showing us, then, is it is on the same trajectory for us to be heading directly to this sixth the mass extinction. To some extent we’re hoping that extinction was not going to be quite as radical as it is now, but it is quite high, and we really do–the study is telling us that we really do need to do something about it.

WORONCZUK: And how does this relate to the issue of biodiversity?

ROOT: Well–Terry, go ahead.


ROOT: No, you go ahead, Stuart.

PIMM: Biodiversity is the total /proʊˈvaɪəty/ of life on earth. It’s the different kinds of genetic makeup of species, different the most obvious one is our own species. We are wonderfully diverse, have different languages, different cultures. It’s the diversity of species themselves, the fact that there are millions of different species. And then it’s the different kinds of habitats and ecosystems that species come together to form. And our paper was just about species, and how fast they’re going extinct, and where those extensions are taking place, and what we can do to correct them.

WORONCZUK: And what is the significance of biodiversity?

PIMM: I get up in the morning and I start with a cup coffee. I probably go to bed with a cup of hot chocolate. And without coffee and chocolate, both of which are plants from the rainforest, my day would be a lot poorer. We are dependent on species in a whole variety of different ways. But there were really important ethical issues. Watching the Wizard of Oz with my two daughters when they were small, Dorothy says, lions and tigers and bears, oh my, will there be wild things out there? And won’t it be an enormous tragedy if the answer were no?

ROOT: The other issue with that, Stuart, too, is is that we’ve got to worry about the species that we need in order for us to stay alive. And one of the things that you can look at that way is looking at pollinators, for instance. If we end up losing pollinators due to extinction, what then–not who, but what is going to be actually pollinating our crops? And then that really does become a who, because then people are going to have to go out and pollinate the crops in order for us to have food. And that’s a real concern.

PIMM: And it’s an example of a broad class of benefits of biodiversity that we call, technically, ecosystem services, nature services. And nature does an enormous amount of things for this. And those things have a financial value, and if we destroy them, then we are going to be quite literally, in a strict economic sense, poorer forward.

WORONCZUK: And, Dr. Pimm, your paper also discussed ways in which we can deal with this issue.

PIMM: Yes. You know, everybody tends to be concentrating on the bad news. There is bad news. In fact, it’s bad news and worst news. Species are going extinct. It’s worse than we thought.

But the paper was really about solutions. We’re in the position now to be much, much better informed about where species are going extinct. That comes from better databases on satellite imagery of where land use is being altered. But it’s also coming from millions of millions–and I do mean millions of millions–of people worldwide who contribute their observations to letting us know where species are. And if we know where species are, we can do something about it.

There’s a wonderful program–it’s produced by one of Professor Root’s colleagues at Stanford– called a iNaturalist. And my iPhone, I can take a picture of a species. If I don’t know what it is, I can get somebody to identify it. A few years ago, I did that with a tiny little orange frog that I found in the forests of Brazil. Turns out that nobody knew what that was. It was a new species. And that helped tell us that that particular piece of forest was going to be very important if we were going to protect biological diversity.

WORONCZUK: And what problems do we see arising, perhaps, like, right now from the loss of species diversity?

PIMM: Terry.

ROOT: Oh. I’m not sure I can actually answer that one, Stuart. What I can do is talk about what could be happening in the future more easily.

WORONCZUK: Sure, that sounds good. What future problems would exist for–.

ROOT: Well, the aspects that I’m concerned about, since I work on climate change, is how much warming is going to be affecting species. And as we continue to emit CO2 into the atmosphere, we’re having such rapid warming that species, wild species, are not able to keep up with that warming. And what that’s going to mean is they’re trying, they’re trying to move and stay in an area where it is still the right temperature for them, but it is warming so quickly that many of them are not able to do that.

The IPCC in 2007 came out and said that if we go up to 2 degrees Celcius–which is 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit–above what would be natural, we could lose as many as 20 to 40 percent of the species. That lower number is 400,000 species. And in that 400,000 species for sure will be species that we really needed to have in order to stay alive, for us humans to stay alive.

And, again, as what Dr. Pimm was saying, there is an ethical issue here: why does one species, humans, have the right to cause the extinction of that many species? And this is all going to happen in a fairly short period of time, when you’re talking about time of the earth, and it could happen within the next century or two. And that’s like a blink of the eye when you’re talking about the history of the earth.

PIMM: Okay. This is a conch shell, and it’s one of the species that we discussed in our paper. It’s a pretty marine shell, and you think might think that’s all it is. Conch shells are amazing. Even though they’re small slow-moving snails, they capture fish, and they do that by darting them with a little dart that’s on a long piece of tissue, and they completely paralyze the fish and they eat them. And you might think, well, that’s just a bizarre piece of natural history. It turns out that the toxins from conch shells contain some amazing, wonderful new classes of painkillers that are really important for the people who are terminally ill with cancer and in a world of pain.

Now, there’s a lot of bizarre, peculiar idiosyncratic value to nature. And if you destroy it, we simply don’t know what we’re going to lose.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Terry, you’ve also been involved with the UN and the IPCC. Do you think that the political will exists right now to turn this crisis around?

ROOT: We’re very excited here in America, because on a national level we’re having a lot of trouble getting the political will. Around the world, that really is not the case. There are national governments that are very strongly working at trying to decrease the CO2 emissions that they have.

Now, in America, we also have a political will. It may not be as strong nationally, but it certainly is much stronger on a local level. And I’m talking on a city level, county levels, state levels. There is a lot that is going on. I’m in California, and I’m very proud of California and their leadership in trying to decrease the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And it is only through the decreasing of the greenhouse gases that we really are going to, hopefully, be able to slow the extinction rate that we’re facing now.

PIMM: We are able to do a lot of things locally to avoid extinctions. We need to tackle the global issues that my colleague has just mentioned. But locally, if we go to places like Madagascar, the coastal forests of Brazil, the Northern Andes, the places there where we’re working with local communities, we can give them an alternative, a sustainable future that allows them to get a better livelihood and at the same time not destroy the forests where they live, and working, for example, in the northern Andes, where when people destroy the forests, heavy rain on steep mountain hillsides destroy the forest and take the entire mountainside away. Restoring the forests there prevents landslides, gives people the benefit from that, gives them the benefit from the ecotourism of people who want to go there. So there are solutions at all levels. There are international solutions, national solutions, state solutions. But let’s also recognize that a lot of the time we just have to work with local communities in often poor quite poor parts of the world.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Dr. Stuart Pimm and Dr. Terry Root, thank you both for joining us.

PIMM: Thank you so much indeed.

ROOT: Thanks for having us.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dr. Stuart L. Pimm is President of SavingSpecies and is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University. He is recognized as one of the world's leading experts on extinction and how we can conserve and protect endangered species and their habitats. Dr. Pimm received his Ph.D. from New Mexico State University in 1974. He is the author of many scientific papers about the loss of species and how to prevent extinctions. His books include The Balance of Nature? and, in 2001, the acclaimed The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the recipient of the 2006 Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences (The Netherlands), and the winner of the Tyler Environmental Prize in 2010.

Terry L. Root is a Senior Fellow/University Faculty at the Woods Institute for the Environment and a Professor, by courtesy, in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. Her research addresses how wild animals and plants will adapt or not with global warming. In addition to other honors, Root was awarded the Spirit of Defenders Award for Science by the Defenders of Wildlife in 2010. She was a Review Editor for the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II, 5th Assessment Report, and a Lead Author of Working Group II, 3rd and 4th Assessment Reports that came out in 2001 and in 2007, respectively. In 2007, she was one of the IPCC members recognized when the IPCC was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore.