One Million Species Face Extinction, UN Report Finds

May 7, 2019

Industrial agriculture and the climate crisis are responsible for this ecological collapse, but it's not too late for transformative change, says Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch

Industrial agriculture and the climate crisis are responsible for this ecological collapse, but it's not too late for transformative change, says Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch


One Million Species Face Extinction, UN Report Finds

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor. Some one million plant and animal species are facing extinction because of human activity. That’s according to a new report from the United Nations’ leading research team on nature. The report is based on an analysis of over 4,100 studies. It’s the most comprehensive report on biodiversity in history and the first from the UN in almost 15 years. Industrial agriculture and human-caused climate change are, it found, are the main culprits of this crisis and economic growth and overconsumption are also central. A summary of the report was released on Monday in Paris. Now joining me to talk about this new report is Scott Edwards. Scott is the Director of Food and Water Justice at Food and Water Watch. Thanks so much for coming on today, Scott.

SCOTT EDWARDS Thank you for having me on.

DHARNA NOOR So this report from the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a bit of a mouthful, shows that about a million species could be totally annihilated, some within just decades. A quarter of species in the Americas face a high risk of extinction. Two in five amphibian species, a third of reforming coral species, almost a third of all other marine species, are at risk. What’s your reaction to just these crazy figures that we’re seeing, and what human activities are the main culprits?

SCOTT EDWARDS Yeah, I know the report is shocking and we’ve seen several wake up calls in the last few years on issues around climate and biodiversity and ecosystem health. This one really is a huge exclamation point on how we’re treating this planet and how we’re destroying the very fabric on which we rely and our ecosystems. So we’re just seeing a summary right now, but it’s fairly comprehensive and you’ve mentioned some of the most frightening statistics that are contained in the report. And you know, we hear this all the time, whether it was the IPCC report, last fall it came out, the UN reports that followed on the heels of that report. This is a meticulously researched and put together report. Over 100 scientists worked on this from countries around the world. They spent years putting this together. There’s really no arguing with their findings and in their predictions. It looked at the last 50 years with trends in this country as it relates to ecosystem health. So this is a really frightening projection of what we could be facing here and needs to be, has to be, a wakeup call.

You know, some of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in here—as someone who’s worked on aquatic health for many years, as an environmental attorney, and understand the importance of wetlands and the role that they play in maintaining ecosystem health—the report cites that since the 1700s, so you’re going back a few hundred years, we’ve lost over 85 percent of global wetlands. And again, that’s a disturbing number, but when you think about what’s happening in this country, the Trump administration just put out the Waters of the US rule. It contemplates leaving 51 percent of US wetlands unprotected, so we need to learn. Instead, we’re making the same mistakes and just creating an even higher trajectory for disaster.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah and it’s important to note, as you said, that it’s a higher trajectory, but of course this is already a crisis that’s begun. And this is terrible news for a lot of non-human life, but it also puts humanity at risk. The report shows that decreasing biodiversity can threaten humanity’s access to healthy food and water, for instance. And a lot of the activity that got us here in the first place— factory farming, for instance, as Food and Water Watch has noted, has had an atrocious impact on humans too. So talk a little bit about the impact of these behaviors, what they’ve had on people, and what the effects could be on people if that behavior doesn’t change?

SCOTT EDWARDS Right. Well, we don’t exist—I love when whether it’s climate deniers or conservatives who just refuse to buy into strong environmental protection support. The Pruitt EPA, or the Wheeler EPA now, they seem to believe that we exist separate and apart from the ecosystem.

DHARNA NOOR Right.

SCOTT EDWARDS Which is insane, right? You know, we rely on clean—They talk about jobs, jobs, jobs. All the jobs in the world won’t help you, if you don’t have clean water to drink and healthy air to breathe. So some of the things we’re seeing added with habitat destruction and they talk in the report about how they’re trying to wrap their arms around the insect, the loss of insect life, you know, critical ecosystem components that help generate and maintain healthy food systems, the level of biological diversity that’s needed to create healthy food systems, and water systems, and a healthy ecosystem. We rely on all those things from a public health perspective. We are shrinking our diversity. We are misusing our land. We are creating certainly climate change impacts, and this report talks about climate as one of the biggest impacts on species loss, that are going to make this planet uninhabitable. We’ve seen some of the impacts of climate even on the shores of this country. People here seem to think we’re immune from the impacts of climate when we see the cold storms. We’re going to face droughts, famines, loss of food sources, all kinds of impacts that are going to result if this doesn’t stop.

DHARNA NOOR And as you’re saying, the report says that industrial agriculture is a key driver of the collapse of biodiversity, climate change has increasingly become a central factor, and it shows that those two are not, you know, they’re not separate. Those are interconnected. Could you unpack that a little bit? How does that industrial agriculture system impact climate change and vice versa?

SCOTT EDWARDS So it’s a very complex system and we are shifting to these, or have shifted, to these industrial systems. Certainly, in this country, where you’ve got massive misuse of land, you’ve got the over concentration of animals, hundreds of millions, billions of animals that are raised for meat. The climate emissions of these animal factory farms are massive and having an impact on climate change, as well as destroying landscapes, as well as creating runoff of fertilizer nutrients into waterways that further exacerbate our ecological system downfall. So again, we’re in a very carefully balanced ecosystem in which one small part of it—We’re not the king of the ecosystem. We’re one species among the estimated 8.7 million species on Earth right now. And so, everything we do, all of these dire, drastic changes we’re making to the landscape, is having massive impacts across the ecosystem. We can’t control it. We think we can geo-engineer our way out of it all or come up with scientific solutions. It’s not going to happen. We’re not that smart [laughs]. We’re not that big in this whole system.

DHARNA NOOR I think, something that really drives home that idea that, you know, we as a people have just sort of ignored all these ecological impacts, is that the report shows that economic growth has been a huge contributor to ecological collapse. How? Talk a little bit about why that growth above all else, or growth at the expense of this kind of damage, has contributed to this loss of biodiversity?

SCOTT EDWARDS Yeah. So the report cites on native land species, for example, is one statistic where we’ve lost about 20 percent of—well, not 20 percent. Most of that reduction has been in the last hundred years. And so, we’re talking about sort of an industrial age here where resource extraction and the need to get minerals, fossil fuels and all these other resources, out of the ground to meet an increasing consumer-based society is really again making what’s happening here really hyper-charged over the last century or so and getting increasingly worse.

So in this effort to maintain this consumer lifestyle of transportation, resources, just consumer products, cars, and electricity, we are ramping up our impacts on the ecosystem. And what’s happening is, you know, we’ve been doing this in the United States. We’re a consumer society and we’ve been that way for a long time, but developing nations now want to catch up. And so, the resource extraction that’s happening in Africa and Asia are having massive impacts because people want to live the way the United States has done in the last several decades. We need to make fundamental shifts in consumption, whether it’s in energy and in food. And we’re not talking about not eating; we’re talking about eating differently.

DHARNA NOOR Right. Right.

SCOTT EDWARDS We’ve changed our eating patterns to become less efficient and more destructive. People were eating very healthy foods a hundred, a hundred-fifty years ago. We need to diversify our food system. We need to create energy efficiency, consume less energy, switch over to renewable certainly, so we’re not extracting coal, oil, and natural gas. We need a fundamental shift in basically across the board in the way we live.

DHARNA NOOR And it’s worth noting, I think that it’s not that—while humanity at large is responsible for this collapse, it’s not like we all share equal responsibility. I mean really, it’s elites who have created these sorts of systems that, I think, impact all of us in ways that are horribly destructive. And of course, will continue to get worse without real change, but that change is still possible. I mean, like the IPCC’s report on climate change in 2018 on the effects of reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, this report shows that it’s not too late to take action. But it says that that must be transformative action, transformative change.

In the summary, the lead author, Sir Robert Watson, wrote, “by transformative change, we need a fundamental system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.” But this report summary was released in Paris just days after the House, the US House, voted on the Climate Action Now Act, which is a bill introduced by Representative Kathy Castor that would prevent the Trump administration from withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. And this is the first big climate legislation to pass through the House in a decade, but your organization, Food and Water Watch, doesn’t seem to think that that represents that sort of transformative change that we need. Can you talk a little bit about that and what we do need instead?

SCOTT EDWARDS Absolutely not. You know, even when the Paris accord was signed, and the Paris accord was important for its symbolism, that there were nations around the world coming together and recognizing climate change. And so, I won’t denigrate the Paris Agreement. Its goals were not satisfactory. It’s not giving us what we need to save this planet. We need, as this report as you cited, transformative movement not incremental, inch-by-inch steps to try to fix our problems. This is a massive problem and the problem, again as you alluded to, arises from who is controlling our systems— whether it’s our food systems, our energy systems, we can talk about education [inaudible], and systems decisions across the globe. And those are corporate elites who are doing this purely for profit. Our extraction industries that are devastating this planet are so a handful of people can get wealthy. They don’t want to see solar and wind power because you don’t have to pay for solar and wind except for some infrastructure costs.

So we need to make fundamental shifts away from who is controlling our policies these days. And that’s what Food and Water Watch works on. We are an organizing organization that works to shift political power away from corporations who are devastating our planet and put it back into the hands of people where it belongs, so we can create those transformative changes by putting policy makers in place that react to the needs that we have. This, what just happened in the House, rejoining the Paris, again it’s a symbolic gesture. It’s fine, it is, but that’s all it is. It doesn’t give us what we need. We need a lot more and we need it now. We can’t afford to wait. That’s what makes the 2020 election so critically important. In 2018, was a good sign that we’re heading sort of in the right direction, but you need to go way beyond where we’re heading right now in order to fix this problem.

DHARNA NOOR Well, as your organization continues to work to make that transformative change, please keep us in the loop. We’d love to talk to you again soon.

SCOTT EDWARDS Thanks so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.

DHARNA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.