Species Loss Leaves Humans Poorer in Every Way
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- They called it the “Lord God Bird,” because onlookers couldn’t help yelping when they saw it: “Lord God, what a bird!” The ivory-billed woodpecker, which dwelled in the swamp forests of the American South, sent bird lovers into raptures for centuries. But as those old-growth forests disappeared over the years, so did the birds. Scientists, conservationists and admirers spent decades seeking them out — but all, it seems, in vain. The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of 23 endangered species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently said have disappeared forever.
The world can expect many more such grim announcements. As many as 1 million species are at risk of extinction worldwide, according to the latest, most comprehensive global biodiversity assessment, due largely to human-driven habitat loss and climate change. The warning signs are glaring: In the U.S., salmon stocks in the Yukon River have collapsed, creating an economic emergency in western Alaska. Off the Gulf Coast, stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna have halved since 1980. The American bumble bee could soon be named an endangered species.
The cause is us. Humans have increased the extinction rate by a thousandfold; many scientists believe we are living through a global mass extinction as profound, in its own way, as the one that befell the dinosaurs. But if humans are the problem, we can also be the solution. The same report that saw up to 1 million species on the verge of extinction also suggested an abundance of policy fixes: adopting sustainable agricultural practices, expanding protected areas, greening infrastructure, and more.
There’s every reason to act. Biodiversity offers beauty and spiritual solace. And it’s valuable in hard economic terms, as well. The OECD has calculated that the services biodiversity provides to the world — such as pollinating crops, purifying water, and storing carbon — are worth up to $140 trillion a year.
Conservation efforts haven’t been useless. The U.S. Endangered Species Act didn’t save the ivory-billed woodpecker, but only a tiny fraction of the 2,200 species it has protected have actually gone extinct. Many have been brought back from the brink — most famously the bald eagle, which rebounded from a low of about 400 breeding pairs in the mid-20th century to a population of roughly 350,000 today. Global conservation efforts have had similarly partial but real success.
Yet the status quo isn’t good enough. The global push to formally protect 30% of the earth’s land and sea by 2030 — a goal U.S. President Joe Biden aims to meet — is appropriately ambitious. New conservation efforts should also be paired with aggressive action to fight climate change, a key driver of species loss. The timing to underline the connection is right: Global leaders will meet at crucial climate summit at the end of this month.
Could sea otters, gorillas and polar bears go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker, existing only in natural history museums? How will the world grow crops if still more pollinators disappear? The people of this planet can leave their children a world rich in biodiversity — or one that’s strained, depleted, and poorer in every way. It isn’t too late to make the right choice.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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