Prove your humanity

A million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction. That’s the state of affairs described in a recently released summary of a UN assessment on global biodiversity and ecosystems. Humans have altered wildlife habitat through development, agriculture, water pollution, and most notably in the assessment, climate change. And if things continue as they are, birds, frogs and insects won’t be the only casualties.

The full assessment, to be released later this year, highlights the ways that the health and wellbeing of people are tied to the diversity of plant and animal species. It’s a new report, but the problems have been mounting for decades.

The news made us think of an interview from a few years ago with Elizabeth Kolbert. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Kolbert is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She traveled to places like Alaska and Panama, reporting on climate change and how humans are driving this new age of loss and die-offs on the planet.

Here are highlights of that interview that originally aired on November 6, 2015:

On the most striking examples of climate change:

“I think the most extraordinary place that I went was the Great Barrier Reef, which is off the eastern coast of Australia. When you’re on a reef, there’s this extraordinary richness. It’s almost indescribable. You cannot simply see that many species gliding by you on land—turtles and rays and sharks, all passing by you. It seems to a land creature sort of unreal, almost like a dream landscape. And the scientists I went to the Great Barrier Reef with all are predicting the end of the Great Barrier Reef—and really, to be honest, all reefs in the world—by the end of this century. And that’s a very sobering thought. To imagine that these things could cease to exist is pretty horrifying. It certainly had a big impact me.”

On how dramatic our impact really is:

“The unifying theme of the book, and of the science on this subject, is that humans are taking the place of the great forces of nature—the great geological forces of the past. We are now basically in control of the planet. We may not be controlling it consciously. But unconsciously, we are changing the composition of the atmosphere; we are changing the chemistry of the ocean. And we’re moving species around in ways that they cannot move on their own. So we’re effectively bringing the continents into contact again.”

“White nose syndrome [in bats] is a very vivid example of this. It’s a fungus that’s been traced through very sophisticated genetics to Europe. And it has now spread to at least 22 states and five Canadian provinces in this classic way in which an epidemic spreads—killing millions and millions of bats.”

On how quickly humans are changing the planet:

“There have been vast stretches of time before humans arose as a species, and presumably, there will be vast stretches of time afterwards on this planet. Life will continue on. But one of the amazing things is that, in this relatively short time that modern industrialized society has existed, massive changes have occurred on planet Earth—changes on a geologic scale. So we are changing the planet very rapidly by any standard. Even if you look across all of the history of the planet, the rate of change right now is way, way up there.”

“It’s sometimes compared to the last major upheaval in the history of life, which was the extinction of the dinosaurs, which seems to have been caused by an asteroid impact. So you will often hear very sober-thinking scientists compare human impacts to an asteroid. And one day when an asteroid strikes the Earth or 200 years when humans are burning through the Earth’s store of fossil fuels—they’re going to look very much the same in the geological record when many millions of years have past.”