Time Magazine: How climate change is causing a new age of extinction

While Newsweek is wandering off into pseudoscientific climate denial, Time continues to do the best science-based global warming coverage of any major national magazine.

I don’t spend a lot of time on species extinction here, since so many others do such a great job on that subject.  But the cover story, “The new age of extinction” is an excellent popular overview which I highly recommend.

In 2007, the IPCC warned that as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe. That is a temperature rise over pre-industrial levels of a bit more than 4.0°C.  Since we are facing a much greater warming than that (see “M.I.T. joins climate realists, doubles its projection of global warming by 2100 to 5.1°C” and “Hadley Center: “Catastrophic” 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“), we are presumably facing extinctions beyond the high end of that range.

Time focuses on what is happening right now.  Here are some notable, quotable excerpts:

There have been five extinction waves in the planet’s history “” including the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, when an estimated 70% of all terrestrial animals and 96% of all marine creatures vanished, and, most recently, the Cretaceous event 65 million years ago, which ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Though scientists have directly assessed the viability of fewer than 3% of the world’s described species, the sample polling of animal populations so far suggests that we may have entered what will be the planet’s sixth great extinction wave. And this time the cause isn’t an errant asteroid or megavolcanoes. It’s us.

When we pollute and deforest and make a mess of the ecological web, we’re taking out mortgages on the Earth that we can’t pay back “” and those loans will come due. Then there are the undiscovered organisms and animals that could serve as the basis of needed medicines “” as the original ingredients of aspirin were derived from the herb meadowsweet “” unless we unwittingly destroy them first. “We have plenty of stories about how the loss of biodiversity creates problems for people,” says Carter Roberts, WWF’s president.

Forests razed can grow back, polluted air and water can be cleaned “” but extinction is forever. And we’re not talking about losing just a few species. In fact, conservationists quietly acknowledge that we’ve entered an age of triage, when we might have to decide which species can truly be saved.  The worst-case scenarios of habitat loss and climate change “” and that’s the pathway we seem to be on “” show the planet losing hundreds of thousands to millions of species, many of which we haven’t even discovered yet. The result could be a virtual genocide of much of the animal world and an irreversible impoverishment of our planet. Humans would survive, but we would have doomed ourselves to what naturalist E.O. Wilson calls the Eremozoic Era “” the Age of Loneliness.

So if you care about tigers and tamarins, rhinos and orangutans, if you believe Earth is more than just a home for 6.7 billion human beings and counting, then you should be scared.

Time explains why so many conservation groups have begun to focus on global warming:

What good is a nature reserve “” fought for, paid for and protected “” if global warming renders it unlivable? “Climate change could undermine the conservation work of whole generations,” says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “It turns out you can’t save species without saving the sky.”

This is a terrific article from the national media.  I have only one tiny bone to pick over one word in the final sentence:

“We live on a very special planet “” the only planet that we know has life,” says Mittermeier. “For me, conservation is ultimately a moral obligation and simply the right thing to do.” That leaves us a choice. We can save life on this special planet, or be its unwitting executioner.

At this point, I think it’s hard to say that we are “unwitting.”  Opinion makers and policymakers know what we’re doing — as do most people, especially given the coverage in Time and elsewhere.  Right now, the better word is “uncaring.”

8 Responses to Time Magazine: How climate change is causing a new age of extinction

  1. Stuart says:

    Yes! Finally a national publication focusing on the ecological impacts of climate change. Keep up the good work Joe, don’t let the trolls get you down – the science speaks loud and clear.

  2. Modesty says:

    Since you have another reference to the MIT Joint Program thing, just wanted to urge the adoption of a standard temperature baseline. The 5.1 degree increase (9.2 F) by 2100 in the BAU case is from a 1990 baseline, not from the pre-industrial.

    See Bowman et al. “Creating a common climate language.” (Science, April 3, 2009) available at:

    “…we recommend referencing a standardized
    pre-industrial temperature baseline….
    [this] will help reduce confusion
    that has been inadvertently caused by
    reporting results that appear to be similar [such
    as…2°C above pre-industrial compared with the late
    20th century]…”

    (Second pair of square brackets not mine.)

  3. DavidCOG says:

    This issue is very important to me and I regularly point people at along with the argument that ACC is going to massively accelerate the process.

    How many species will we eradicate before enough people become aware and motivated to stop the slaughter?

  4. “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

    –Gaylord Nelson, former governor of Wisconsin, founder of Earth Day

  5. Joe,

    Great to see you mentioning the global extinction threat. As the former head of the IPCC, Robert Watson, has been articulating for years, the annual burning of some 14 million hectares of tropical forests release some 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. This has exceeded annual GHG emissions over the past decade from the total global transport sector (all vehicles, trucks, buses, planes, trains, ships), or about the same as emitted by the U.S. each year.

    As Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich and colleagues have written for years, in the wake of these destroyed forests some 1,800 species populations go extinct each hour — and population extinctions (or extirpations) are a strong indicator of which species are at most threat of going extinct.

    As the Stern report noted, carbon emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation, if not prevented, could increase atmospheric CO2 concentration by as much as 129 ppm in the next half century ( economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm )

    Remarkably, much of this deforestation leads to such little economic revenues for the poor people in these countries that as two recent assessments indicate, paying the farmers and ranchers as little as $5 per ton of CO2 not to burn down the forests would double the revenues over current practice. ( See the Eliasch Review, Climate Change: Financing Global Forests, 2008, UK Office of Climate Change,; and Strassburg report (Bernardo Strassburg, Kerry Turner, Brendan Fisher, Roberto Schaeffer and Andrew Lovett, An Empirically-Derived Mechanism of Combined Incentives to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation, CSERGE Working Paper ECM 08-01, Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment,

    According to the Eliasch Review on financing global forestation for climate mitigation, it is estimated that it would take between $17 and $32 billion per year to finance a 50% reduction in global deforestation by 2020. The Review estimates capacity building in 40 forest nations could cost up to $4 billion over five years, including three key areas: research, analysis and knowledge sharing; policy and institutional reform; and demonstration activities. The Review further concludes that failure to radically reduce deforestation will lead to $1 trillion per year climate costs by 2100, and “The total damage cost of forest loss for the global economy could be $12 trillion in net present value terms.” This does not include damage costs from other ecosystem services lost.

    The Eliasch Review repeatedly emphasizes the fact that due to the remarkably low cost of forest abatement compared to mitigation in other emitting sectors, the cost of cutting global carbon emissions 50% below 1990 levels could be reduced by up to 50 per cent in 2030 and up to 40 per cent in 2050 if the forest sector is included in a global trading system. These lower costs can enable the international community to achieve far more ambitious global stabilization targets more swiftly.

    The Strassburg assessment examined incentive costs to prevent deforestation in the top 20 developing countries by forest area, accounting for 77% of total forests in developing countries. They concluded from their projections that for an incentive of $5.63 per tCO2 all 20 countries would join and reduce their emissions by an aggregate rate of 94.5 percent.

    As I have written (REDD IS THE IMMEDIATELY AVAILABLE CCS — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation-Degradation – Carbon Capture & Storage, While CCS focuses on the projected doubling of new coal-fired electricity by 2030, the technology does not address the 3,800 GW of current coal generation worldwide, which emitted 11 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2005. When CCS does prove commercially scalable between 2020 and 2030 the storage cost is projected to average about $45 per ton CO2, adding about 3 cents to the cost of each kWh of coal-generated electricity. For perspective, hypothetically if CCS was suddenly immediately available and applied to the 2.4 billion tons of CO2 emissions from U.S. fossil-fired electricity generation at $45 per tCO2, this would amount to nearly $100 billion per year.

    In sharp contrast, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) IS immediately available at a rough cost of $7.50 per tCO2, six times lower cost than future CCS cost projections. This would only require $18 billion, and raise the cost of coal-fired electricity by roughly half a cent per kWh.

    A similar offset requirement, applied to gasoline when purchased at the gas pump, using REDD offsets that cost $10 per ton CO2 would increase the cost of a gallon of gasoline by just 9 cents. About 390 million gallons of motor gasoline are consumed in the United States each day or 142 billion gallons per year. Offsetting the 1.28 billion tons of CO2 would generate $12.8 billion per year. the CO2 offset costs could be recouped by vehicle owners several times over by simply practicing better vehicle driving habits and maintenance procedures (e.g., proper tire pressure), which are empirically shown to improve fuel economy by 10 percent. So, a 20-mpg SUV with annual fuel costs of $1,854 (at $3 per gallon) and a CO2 offset cost of $54, would see $169 in net annual savings from the improvement to 22-mpg (now $1,686 in fuel costs and $49 CO2 offset).

    Just these two actions would raise the funds sufficient to cover the REDD costs detailed in the Eliasch and Strassburg assessments.

    Over the past decade the Climate, Community and Biodiversity standards ( have been developed as a high-quality, triple-benefit land-based standard that can be independently verified (requiring real carbon savings, plus real local community sustainability benefits, plus real biodiversity benefits). It has been peer-reviewed, including stakeholder input, field-tested, revised, and now being used worldwide. The CCS standards are also a component of the Voluntary Carbon Standard ( These standards are one critical element, combined with advances in satellite imaging, GIS tools, and ground-truthing that gives confidence that at the state and national level avoided deforestation can be a credible carbon mitigation (and adaptation) action, and should be included in creditable and tradable market schemes and policy commitments.

  6. Gail says:

    Although I am glad to see this story in Time, I am afraid that the policy decision made decades ago by conservation and environmental groups to focus research and publicity on “hot spots” has allowed the average US citizen to indulge in the mistaken notion that what is in danger are exotic creatures in faraway tropical lands.

    I have been told by several scientists that there is relatively very little research going on in the Eastern forests because they are not seen as biologically diverse compared to, say, Madagascar.

    It’s very obvious that the forests in the Western US are declining because the bark beetle damage is visible by satellite as well as on the ground. The ecosystem in the East is in collapse as surely as the ice sheets but it is going to take the insurance companies realizing losses from falling trees, and municipalities, home owners, and utilities seeing their tree removal budgets skyrocket, before most people will notice.

    And by then we will be committed to a denuded landscape with some ugly vines and weeds, if not, ultimately, a desert.

  7. For those interested in global warming, extinction and what we are really losing, here’s shameless self-promotion of my recent book:

    Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction:
    How Passion and Politics can Stop Global Warming
    (University of Vermont: 2007)

  8. Gary Braasch says:

    Hi Joe: All living things, from microbes to humankind, are dependent on the ecosystem services produced by the atmosphere, land, and oceans of the Earth. These services are threatened by rapid climate change. The very important Time article (thanks to Bryan Walsh their excellent science editor) still does not remind us strongly enough of the disintegration and degradation of the earth’s support systems and ecosystems everywhere, not just in the hotspots.

    These services have enormous economic and social value even if they are not traded and carry no price tags. One attempt at gauging the value of replacing seventeen natural services, from waste recycling to recreation, arrived at a figure of up to $54 trillion per year.[Robert Costanza et al., “The Value of theWorld’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital,” Nature 387 (15 May 1997)]. Human technology alone is insufficient to duplicate these services. Although some are part of the economic system, most are used daily without thought or acknowledgment; others are seen as part of the world commons, for all to use freely.

    A worldwide inventory, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, has found that approximately 60 percent of ecosystem services “are being degraded or used unsustainably.” [Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Eco-systems and Human Well-being: Synthesis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005] Most of the damage has been done since the mid-twentieth century as a result of overuse of the land, overfishing, and industrial pollution. Climate change exacerbates these abuses and brings new dangers.

    Unfortunately, ecosystems are unlikely to stay intact. “Communities of species do not move together,” according to conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy. “[Species] move individually at different rates and in different directions.” As climate change intensifies, the life zones and ecological associations familiar to us from introductory biology courses, represented by multicolored bands splashed across world maps, are not going to move in synchrony. Rather, they will deform unevenly as the plants and animals within them react in varying ways. No less than the ice shelves of Antarctica and the permafrost of the Arctic, ecosystems worldwide are rending and disintegrating. With this, the rich biodiversity of Earth, the flow of life that humans rely on, is threatened.

    And in a time of global warming, scientists have told the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, “genetically diverse populations and species-rich ecosystems have a greater potential to adapt to climate change.” [“Interlinkages between Biological Diversity and Climate Change,” CBD Technical Series 10, Montreal, 2003]

    A focus on particular protected areas often misses this larger point. As Thomas Lovejoy put it … “We have to stop thinking we can protect a few postage stamps with fences around them and use up all the rest.” The lands set aside in national parks and reserves, along with their ecosystem services to us, will deteriorate without strong interconnections with the surrounding land, water, and people who care about them. The reverse is likely true as well: the surrounding land, water, and people will deteriorate if the protected areas are lost. We need to protect biodiversity and whole ecosystems not for their sake alone, but also to help us survive climate change.

    (This – minus the comment about the Time article — is from my book Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World, updated in a paperback this month)