Climate change is killing millions of plants and animals — and untold scientific discoveries in the process

Climate change is killing millions of plants and animals — and untold scientific discoveries in the process
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Declaring a climate emergency is the right move. But climate change is not our only existential crisis. Biodiversity loss deserves just as much of our attention. We are, in fact, living during the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth.

According to a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an estimated 1 million species are currently at risk. That your grandchildren will grow up in a world without many of the eagles, lions, butterflies and myriads of other species that we take for granted is tragic, but, more importantly, the economic consequences are — without question — massive and threaten our very ability to survive.

Some of the species we are losing provide us with essential and irreplaceable services. About one-third of our food comes from plants that need pollination, by birds or insects.

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The “insect apocalypse” about which The New York Times has written means that we are losing these pollination services: many are already lost and more will go within the next decade. I estimate that the insects that perform these services are an asset worth about $14 trillion, because of the role they play in our food supply. We are wantonly destroying this asset and, in the process, risking widespread starvation.

Tropical forests, which provide a habitat for many of the world’s plants, birds, mammals and insects, are being destroyed by logging, by cattle ranching, and by the growth of palm oil plantations. This not only drives species extinct, but also weakens our defenses against climate change. Forests soak up and store billions of tons of greenhouse gases every year, and their loss is a blow to our efforts to preserve a habitable world. 

The loss of little-known plants and insects has many less-obvious costs. Many of our most powerful medicines are derived from plants and insects — aspirin, one the most valuable medicines, comes from the bark of willow trees. Several recent anti-cancer drugs are also plant-derived. If 100,000 plants are lost in the next few decades, who knows how many might have yielded medicines as valuable as these? 

Obscure plants not only yield cures for human ailments, but also protect our crops. The grassy stunt virus infected Asian rice crops, destroying up to one-third of the crop and threatening to do worse. We were only saved from the loss of a major food crop by the discovery of an ancient variety of rice, no longer cultivated, that was immune to the virus and whose immunity could be transferred to current cultivars. At a stroke, it went from being valueless to being the savior of rice farmers the world over. 

What other possible saviors are we losing before we discover their value? The value of plants as sources of ideas for pharmaceuticals shows that it is not just material items we get from nature, but also ideas, in this case in the form of molecules that can cure diseases. Biomimicry takes this even further: Many ideas in engineering have come from structures used in nature. The aerodynamics of Japanese bullet trains are derived from those of a kingfisher’s beak. 

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The ongoing mass extinction is connected to climate change, as the example of forests indicates. Deforestation is a driver of climate change — and is also a driver of extinction. If we solve one, we go a long way towards solving the other.

Climate change is also acidifying the oceans and destroying coral reefs, and this is contributing to the destruction of fish populations, beyond the effects of overfishing. Moving away from fossil fuels can help with stabilizing the climate and its ecosystems. Renewable energy and electric vehicles contribute to the solution of both problems, and should continue to be a priority in the global fight against climate change.

But there are also solutions to the extinction epidemic that are specific to extinction, such as creating conservation areas like national parks or marine protected areas, and laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, a crucial item of legislation that the Trump administration is currently trying to undermine. Nature reserves and endangered species protection are key weapons in our fight against mass extinction.

So are investments in sustainable businesses. The stock market recently swooned over the startup company Beyond Meat, which makes meat substitutes from plants. Its competitor Impossible Foods has also raised nearly $1 billion in the lead up to a possible IPO. Companies like these can divert our diets away from meat, especially beef, since cattle ranching is a major driver of deforestation and of many other environmental harms. 

The loss of species is not just a matter for biologists and ethicists. It is a matter of urgency for politicians, economists, and business professionals across the world. Our livelihoods depend on natural systems that provide the crucial but unseen infrastructure for our societies, which in turn depend on thousands of species that most of us have never heard of. Lose one and we could see a massive degradation of the entire system. Mass extinction is a risk that we do not need to take — and should not take.

Geoffrey Heal, the Donald C. Waite III professor of Social Enterprise and a Chazen senior scholar at Columbia Business School, is the author of "Endangered Economies -- How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity."