In June of 2016, a group of scientists reported that a tiny rodent found only on a single island off the coast of Australia had officially gone extinct — the first mammalian causality, according to the scientists, of man-made climate change.
The tiny mammals might have been the first to go extinct due to man-made climate change, but it’s unlikely they’ll be the last. One in five species now faces extinction, and that trend could climb to as high as one in two by the end of the century, according to biologists attending a meeting this week at the Vatican aimed at discussing ways to stave off a major extinction event.
“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” biologist Paul Ehrlich, who is attending this week’s meeting, told the Guardian. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”
Organizers of the event are focusing extra attention on the way humans are competing with other species — and each other — for finite resources, such as arable land for raising crops and livestock.
“Some 11 percent of the world world’s ice-free land surface have been converted to crop agriculture, another 20 percent to grazing, most of it unsustainable, on natural grasslands,” the conference’s introductory booklet explains. “It is obvious that many of the kinds of organisms that occurred 10,000 years ago have already gone extinct, and that we are dealing with a reduced set of the organisms that existed when agriculture was first adopted by our ancestors.”
Scientific studies have pinpointed agriculture before as a primary driver of species extinction — singling out meat production as an especially dangerous activity for biodiversity. A 2015 study from researchers at Florida International University in Miami found that the impact of livestock production on land use is “likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions,” driven in large part by deforestation to make way for grazing pastures and cropland for animal feed.
But agriculture is hardly the only threat to biodiversity —lucrative animal trading and hunting, destruction of habitat, and increased pollution are all also pushing species to the brink. Several studies have recently suggested the Earth might already be in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event, and humans are primarily to blame. According to a study released in 2015 by Ehrlich and a team of scientists from around the world, the planet has been losing mammal species at rates 20 to 100 times higher than in the past.
Giraffes were recently listed as at risk of extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which increased the level of threat for 35 species this year at its annual biodiversity meeting. But not all species at risk of extinction are as well-known or visible as animals like giraffes, tigers, and rhinos. Nearly a third of the world’s amphibian species are threatened or extinct, for instance.
And while fighting extinction plays into the moral argument laid out by the Vatican and Pope Francis in Laudato Si, his encyclical on climate and the environment, biologists also argue that fighting extinction is in humanity’s self-interest as well. For instance, a majority of the medicine currently in use comes from plants and animals — and if one of those species goes extinct, our ability to fight disease might disappear with it. The same goes for species that perform crucial ecosystem services — whether its purifying air or helping pollinate crops.
“We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems,” Ehrlich told the Guardian. “We have the capacity to stop that. The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right.”