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Climate Change and Loss of Species: Our Greatest Challenges

Farhana Haque Rahman is Senior Vice President of IPS Inter Press Service; a journalist and communications expert, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating. Credit: UN

ROME, Nov 19 2019 (IPS) - Mottled and reddish, the Lake Oku puddle frog has made its tragic debut on the Red List, a rapidly expanding roll call of threatened species. It was once abundant in the Kilum-Ijim rainforest of Cameroon but has not been seen since 2010 and is now listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct.

Researchers attribute its demise to a deadly fungal disease caused by the chytrid fungus. As noted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the skin fungus has devastated amphibian populations globally and holds the distinction of being the world’s most invasive killer, responsible for the decline of at least 500 amphibian species, including 90 presumed extinctions.

The IUCN’s Red List has expanded to cover more than 105,000 species of plants and animals, and its most recent update in July found that 27 percent of those assessed were at risk of extinction. No species on the list was deemed to have improved its status enough since 2018 to be placed in a lower threat category.

Human exploitation is often responsible, as with the now endangered red-capped mangabey monkey hunted for bushmeat while its forest habitat in West Africa is destroyed for agriculture; or the East African pancake tortoise critically endangered because of the global pet trade. Thousands of tree species now make the list too.

Farhana Haque Rahman

In its multi-faceted approach towards combating species loss, the IUCN has launched its First Line of Defence against Illegal Wildlife Trade program in eastern and southern Africa, engaging rural communities as key partners in tackling wildlife crime. But this is just a small part of a much wider challenge.

As Grethel Aguilar, IUCN acting director general, noted: “We must wake up to the fact that conserving nature’s diversity is in our interest, and is absolutely fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. States, businesses and civil society must urgently act to halt the overexploitation of nature, and must respect and support local communities and Indigenous Peoples in strengthening sustainable livelihoods.”

Jane Smart, global director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group, said the Red List update confirms the findings of the recent IPBES Global Biodiversity Assessment: “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.”

More than one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, “unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of bio-diversity loss”, according to a landmark report by IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

It bleakly warns that the global rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years, and the rate will accelerate if action is not taken.

A summary was released in May and the full report is expected to be approved soon, assessing changes over the past 50 years and offering possible future scenarios.

Frightening statistics detail how 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forest were lost across much of the highly biodiverse tropics between 2010 and 2015 alone. Put in perspective that totals an area nearly the size of all Germany.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Professor Josef Settele, co-chair of the report. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

Crucially, for the first time on such a scale of evidence, the report’s more than 400 authors rank the five main drivers of this global disaster. In descending order they are listed as: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

Clearly such challenges are interwoven and cannot be tackled in isolation. Some species are affected by all of these main drivers, or a deadly combination. Researchers into the fungal diseases wiping out amphibians like the Lake Oku puddle frog believe the most important factor in the spread of the pathogens is the global trade in wildlife. Some have also suggested that local changes in climate have also enabled the chytrid fungus to flourish in new habitats.

That governments are failing to address these warnings comes as little surprise, however.

“Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament,” declared 11,258 scientists grouped under the Alliance of World Scientists in a recent report, warning that the climate crisis is accelerating faster than most of them had expected and could reach potential irreversible climate tipping points, making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.

The UN Climate Change Conference, COP25, is to be held in Madrid from 2-13 December amidst severe signs of leadership stress. Brazil was to have hosted the summit but President Jair Bolsonaro ruled that out on his election and in the first nine months under his government over 7,600 sq km of rainforest were felled. The baton was then passed to Chile which pulled out because of ant-government unrest. And then this month President Donald Trump formally launched the process to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement.

COP25 has unfinished business from COP24, held in Poland’s coal-mining area of Katowice, namely negotiating the final elements of the Paris Agreement ‘rulebook’. Work must also start on future emissions targets ahead of the crunch 2020 conference next November in Glasgow, in the knowledge that commitments submitted by governments and current greenhouse gas emission trajectories fall far short of what is needed to achieve the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement.

“Loss of species and climate change are the two great challenges facing humanity this century,” warns Lee Hannah, senior scientist in climate change biology at Conservation International. “The results are clear, we must act now on both…”

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