Human survival depends on biodiversity, but species are vanishing faster than ever

Human survival depends on biodiversity, but species are vanishing faster than ever
© Saltwater Brewery

For 200,000 years of human history, the natural world has been our source for food, clean air and water, shelter, fuel, medicine and other necessities. These ecological benefits represent the true wealth of nations, and we are squandering them at record speed. Human activity has now driven up to 1 million animal and plant species to the brink of extinction, according to a United Nations report released on Monday. But it’s not too late to put nature on the path to recovery. As Congress considers its funding priorities for the coming year, it has an opportunity to ensure the U.S. is leading the way.

This report is the first comprehensive global report on nature, and it shows that species and natural habitats are vanishing at a rate never before seen in human history. That conclusion tracks with other scientific studies, including World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report. Wildlife populations monitored by our report experienced an average decline of 60 percent — in less than a single person’s lifetime.

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Critically, both reports also make it clear that people are the main culprit behind this staggering loss of biodiversity. From overfishing to pollution, climate change, the clearing of forests and grasslands for agriculture and more, we are transforming our oceans, rivers and land in unprecedented fashion. In doing so, we are pushing the planet beyond the natural boundaries needed to sustain all life, including us.

Quite simply, the survival of the human race depends upon biodiversity. The vast majority of the world’s food crops rely on bees and other pollinators that are in danger of disappearing forever. Many of the most significant modern medical breakthroughs started with discoveries made in nature. The forests we are decimating to expand our cities and feed our livestock are the only natural mechanism for removing carbon from the atmosphere — the very carbon that is accelerating climate change.

Monday’s report highlights the link between climate change and the degradation of nature. Mangrove forests are a powerful example of this dynamic at work. These coastal ecosystems sustain a rich variety of life and provide food, livelihoods and natural protection from storms for many communities across the globe. They also are more efficient at carbon sequestration than other forests on the planet — including rainforests. And yet rising seas, shifting rainfall and other consequences of unchecked climate change have already helped to wipe out half of the world’s mangroves. In losing the fight to save our planet’s natural bounty, we also risk losing our greatest natural ally in the fight against climate change.

Next year, in 2020, the world will have a unique opportunity — thanks to a confluence of international forums on climate, biodiversity and sustainable development — to combine our efforts on these fronts into one comprehensive agenda. Together we must create ambitious targets for halting both the loss of nature and fossil fuel emissions.

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But we don’t have to wait until 2020. The U.S. has long been a global leader in international conservation. Congress has spearheaded those efforts, with a tradition of bipartisan support for conservation programs carried out by U.S. agencies and multilateral institutions. Despite administration proposals to cut funding for many of these programs, Congress has protected and even grown them in recent years. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that saving nature is also about preserving our own security and future prosperity. The scale of the challenge continues to grow, and U.S. investments need to grow as well if we are to meet it. Congress must increase support for biodiversity conservation in the coming fiscal year.

The documented science around biodiversity has given us the roadmap. We have an opportunity to invest in tangible solutions that would benefit nature, support our strategic partners and foster political and economic stability around the world. Our leadership will set a powerful example to spur other governments into to action. 

Rebecca Shaw, Ph.D., is World Wildlife Fund's chief scientist.