Death by a Thousand Cuts

It’s common knowledge that polar bears, and their primary prey the ringed seal, might go extinct this century as the Arctic sea ice melts because rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG) are warming the planet.

Hearing this news, many Americans likely felt something akin to, “Gee, that’s a shame,” but the country did little more than shrug its collective shoulders before getting back to business as usual.

bee 400x267 Death by a Thousand CutsBut news keeps coming about species threatened by climate change via habitats becoming unlivable or collapsing of food webs. The latest sting came from Canadian researchers at the University of Ottawa who concluded that dozens of bumblebee species in North America and Europe could be headed for extinction because the southern reach of their habitat is becoming too hot. The study appeared in the July 10 issue of Science magazine.

Although no one knows how many different lifeforms could be wiped out if climate change continues unchecked, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) points to studies predicting that 35 percent of species could be “committed to extinction by 2050” if GHG from burning fossil fuels are not reigned in.

In March, the atmospheric CO2 content reached a new high of 400 parts per million (ppm), beyond the 350 ppm limit many scientists believe is a safe level above which we risk triggering irreversible consequences out of human control.

As emphasis, CBD has catalogued how each of 350 species of animals and plants are deemed at risk. Some of the higher profile animals are island or coastal dwellers already federally listed as endangered or threatened and now further imperiled by sea level rise, like Hawaiian Monk Seals that pup on island beaches and Key deer whose Florida habitat is already less than three feet above sea level. Sea level rise of at least three feet is projected this century if GHG emissions continue to rise.

But the majority of species thought vulnerable to climate change are not the kind that get made into cuddly children’s toys or are featured in animated films. For example, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is home to thousands of aquatic lifeforms imperiled because warming seawater causes the coral bleaching that has contributed to loss of half of the reef’s coral cover in the last three decades.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia say the populations of monitored seabirds around the world have dropped 70% since the 1950s, and the United Nations Environment Program estimates that 50,000 plant species are at risk of extinction in next 30 years, both partly attributable to climate change.

The sobering reality is that the earth is already in the grips of a sixth mass species extinction, the first to be caused by human activities including burning of fossil fuels.

Hubris is a strictly human trait leading many to believe that, even if untold plant and animal species were to die off from unbridled climate change, most humans will come out unscathed. We seemingly accept the risk that unlucky low-lying coastal communities could be wiped out by sea level rise or that more people than usual might starve from faltering crop production.

But runaway global warming is a Pandora’s Box, so the notion that humans could suffer on a colossal scale from, say, the unleashing of pandemic diseases and worldwide rioting and political upheavals, is not far-fetched. What if the oxygen-producing blue-green marine algae that originally produced our atmospheric oxygen 2-3 billion years ago, and still replenish the oxygen we breathe today, were wiped out by ocean warming and acidification?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the window of time to avoid the worst effects of climate change is just a few decades. But the global community’s apathetic response to this warning goes beyond hubris and is rooted in the nature of climate change itself. Climate change is not an event but a gradually unfolding pattern of changes. Because the overt manifestations, like floods, hurricanes and droughts, are not unique in human experience, it’s not possible to attribute any single occurrence, with certainty, to climate change.

A good metaphorical analogy is the frog which, when cooked alive on the stove in a pot of water, fails to jump out if the temperature rise is gradual enough.

Similarly, in a recent book titled, “Don’t Even Think about It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” Professor George Marshall, co-founder of the Oxford-based Climate Information Network, explains why humans continue to react with silence to the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is happening.

But for the growing number that are not remaining silent, hope is focused on the upcoming United Nations “Paris 2015” conference which aims to form a binding, universal agreement to keep global warming below 2°C.

This hope is heightened by growing support for a practical global solution to climate change called revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend, a non-partisan, market-based blueprint for transitioning to a clean energy economy by placing a rising fee on fossil fuels and returning the dividends to ordinary citizens to offset an expected rise in energy costs. If the United States took the lead, a simple border adjust fee could bring the rest of the world along too.

Maybe runaway climate change would not literally suck the oxygen out of our atmosphere and put an end to human life. No matter. We must heed the urgent calls of climatologists and religious leaders, like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, to act now before we bequeath to future generations a stark and unpredictable world where children have to visit libraries to glimpse the natural world as it once was, resplendent with species as majestic as the polar bear and as charming as the bumble bee.