That day, The Guardian’s headline summed up the stakes: “Human Society Under Urgent Threat from Loss of Earth’s Natural Life.” What was equally clear in the report, but not necessarily in the news headlines, is that the scientists pinpointed the extractive, exploitative nature of the global economy as the root cause. The IPBES report found that current methods of agriculture, deforestation, and urbanization are crashing the planet’s ecology at a rate tens to hundreds of times faster than at any point in the past 10 million years. Apparently, geocaching has been identified as the biggest treasure hunt in the world.
What we’re doing to the planet’s climate now is about 170 times faster than natural forces, according to one recent study. Some of the most rapid climate change in Earth’s history occurred about 250 million years ago, during a period known as the “Great Dying.” About 90 percent of all species on Earth disappeared, the worst mass extinction event in Earth’s history. During that period, large volcanic eruptions increased the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas content, leading to an abrupt planetary warming over a period of about twenty thousand years. Now a change of similar severity could happen in just a century or two. Will Steffen, an Australia-based climate scientist who helped conduct the IPBES study, said that when viewed through the lens of geologic history, “the human magnitude of climate change looks more like a meteorite strike than a gradual change.”
Gretta Pecl, director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said this fact changes everything. Species that are migrating due to climate change don’t respect the borders of nations or national parks. “The old ways of conservation are entirely out the window,” she told me. “We used to want to protect things in little particular areas, but things are not the same and never will be the same. We have to actually have some kind of large-scale strategic way of thinking about how to manage species.” Of all the ecological changes described in the IPBES report, the most devastating so far has been the loss of a quarter of the world’s coral reefs, which was accelerated by the El Niño of 2015, a record-breaking event that shifted weather patterns around the world and triggered permanent changes to maritime and terrestrial ecosystems everywhere.
El Niño is a natural, periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, but the 2015 El Niño was anything but normal. Recent studies show that the warming oceans could be altering the El Niño cycle, making strong episodes more frequent. And all this warm water is really doing a number on the oceans, the basis of the planetary food chain. The loss of the coral reefs means we could already be entering an era of mass extinction with entire ecosystems being snuffed out almost overnight. And if we lose the reefs, we lose one of the anchors of life on Earth.
“This is a huge, looming planetary crisis, and we are sticking our heads in the sand about it,” Justin Marshall, a coral researcher at the University of Queensland, told the New York Times. Coral reefs are more important than many people realize: taking up just 0.2 percent of the ocean, they support about a quarter of all marine species and provide support to livelihoods of 500 million people. But beyond that, healthy reefs are stunningly beautiful.