Stag beetle on a log/ Bigstock
No one bats an eyelid at guys walking down Fifth Avenue with placards warning, “The World Ends Tomorrow. Read the Book of Revelation!”.
But if they put a critically-endangered Hawksbill Turtle on the placard, it turns all heads.
This week the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a summary of a terrifying 1500-page forecast of humanity's relationship with Mother Nature (yes, “Mother Nature” is back in vogue). The full report will be published later this year.
“Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history,” says the IPBES, “and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating.”
Grim, unparalleled, catastrophic, shocking, terrifying were just some of the adjectives decorating the world’s headlines. One summed up the media consensus: “UN: Life on Earth is nearing a state of collapse”.
What’s to be done? Walk down Fifth Avenue with another placard, “We’re all doomed. Revolution NOW”?
Well, yes, that’s basically it. The IPBES recommends “transformative change”, woolly words which could mean anything from restoring wetlands to amending the constitution. The IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, a veteran climate change bureaucrat, says that the world needs “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”. This is the rhetoric of revolutionaries, not of conservationists, of the Communist Manifesto, not of Silent Spring.
Many of the IPBES’s dire predictions may be true and should be heeded. It's impossible for a 1500-page report with 15,000 references written by 150 experts to get everything wrong. The extinction of a species, especially a cuddly vertebrate, is regrettable. Who would not like to see live dodos, or passenger pigeons, or Tasmanian tigers? But should we risk implementing radical “transformative change” to save the Seychelles earwig or the pygmy hog-sucking louse?
The media swallowed this turgid report whole without cutting it, chewing it or digesting it. It is an abdication of journalistic objectivity, scepticism and common sense. As astronomer Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. How many journalists fact-checked these dire figures?
Are one million plant and animal species really in danger of extinction? That’s the marquee question.
To put things in perspective, how many species are there? The answer is fundamental to discussions of biodiversity, but, surprisingly, all scientists can do is guesstimate. An influential 2011 paper in PLOS Biology estimated that there are 8.7 million species in the world, plus or minus 1.3 million. The IPBES seems to have adopted this figure. (There are no footnotes in its summary, making it difficult to check its claims.) Previous estimates of the number of species have ranged between 3 and 100 million. But of these 8.7 million, only about 1.3 million have been named and catalogued.
So the claim that a million species are at risk of being wiped out means that they are disappearing before we even know that they existed. This may be true, but it illustrates how mind-bending the extinction claim is. Taxonomy is a subtle science which depends upon algorithms nearly incomprehensible to the public. But that's the job of journalists: to make the incomprehensible comprehensible. Before repeating the IPBS's claim, they should have tried to understand or at least question the algorithm.
To grasp the difficulties involved, consider this 2007 quote from Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. “Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct”. Contrast it with the figure cited by the the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is regarded as “the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species.” According to the IUCN, “In the last 500 years, human activity is known to have forced 869 species to extinction”.
Isn’t there a disconnect here? Using Mr Djoghlaf’s figures, 20,000 extinctions a year for 500 years implies that 10 million species have become extinct. Yet we can only name 869 of them. How can we prove that the other 9,999,131 species are extinct — or even existed? Perhaps the word “extinct” means different things to different people, just as “democracy” means something different in Switzerland and North Korea.
In any case most of the world’s species are arthropods – mostly insects and spiders. As one naturalist recalls, “There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the distinguished British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles.’” So a high proportion of these extinctions must involve beetles as well.
No doubt beetles have a warm place in the heart of Mother Nature and the world will be a poorer place without the bark beetle-like fungus weevil and the coral pink sand dunes tiger beetle, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of beetles which will go extinct before we even knew that they existed.
But it takes a lot of cheek for academics to use a beetle apocalypse as a platform for arguing that “If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.” “Make Beetles Great Again” will be a tough sell for the IPBES, if its price is going to be a dramatic lowering of per-capita consumption and reducing human population growth.
The doomsday rhetoric of the IPBES and its unrealistic political demands are ill-advised.
Because we do face serious problems. As the report points out, land degradation may have reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100 to 300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
In 2015, 33 percent of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980; 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 “dead zones” in the oceans whose combined area is greater than that of the United Kingdom.
We do have a fraught relationship with “Mother Nature” and reconciliation is imperative.
But over-egging the case for reform with horror stories makes it politically impossible to sell. Reforms, however worthy, are destined to fade from the front page into obscurity unless the IPBES respects human dignity, national interests and the political process. Sir Robert Watson says that “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good”. The threats swaddled in this globalist gibberish will be spurned in Washington and Beijing, as well as Brazilia and Antananarivo. Elected politicians understand, even if the UN doesn't, that the survival, welfare and freedom of human beings is far more important than the fate of critically endangered salamanders.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.