Up to 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with devastating implications for human survival, according to a United Nations report released Monday.
The report’s findings underscore the conclusions of numerous scientific studies that say human activity is wreaking havoc on the wild kingdom, threatening the existence of everything from giant whales to small flowers and insects that are almost impossible to see with the naked eye.
But the global report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services goes a step further than previous studies by linking the loss of species to humans and analyzing its effect on food and water security, farming and economies.
Nature's current rate of decline is unparalleled, the report says, and the accelerating rate of extinctions "means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely." In a statement, Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as the panel's chairman, said the decline in biodiversity is eroding "the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide."
Human-caused climate change is a direct driver that is exacerbating the effects of overfishing, widespread pesticide use and urban expansion.
For example, the warming climate is altering ocean ecosystems, the study warns. Global trade has introduced invasive species to countries with devastating effects, such as crop-destroying stink bugs and tree-killing emerald ash borer in the United States. Travelers exploring forests in other countries have returned home with diseases lethal to animals, such as the white nose fungus that is killing millions of bats.
Coral reefs lost to warming and acidifying oceans, for example, could cause a collapse in commercial and indigenous fisheries, affecting billions of coastal residents who rely on seafood for protein. And the loss of pollinators such as bees and other insects is likely to have a devastating effect on farming.
"The most important thing isn't necessarily that we're losing . . . 1 million species - although that's important, don't misunderstand me," Watson said during a teleconference Sunday. "The bigger issue is the way it will affect human well-being, as we've said many times - food, water, energy, human health.
"We care about nature but we care about human well-being," Watson said. "We need to link it to human well-being, that's the crucial thing. Otherwise we're going to look like a bunch of tree-huggers."
The report has a positive spin, saying "it is not too late to make a difference." But that difference requires more than 100 developing and non-developed nations to work together to bring about change.
Nations that signed off on the study's findings acknowledged that opposition from rich people invested in the status quo is expected.
"Let's be quite candid," Watson said. "Since 1992, we've been telling the world we have a problem. Now what's different? It's much worse today than it was in 1992. We've wasted all of the time . . . the last 25 years." However, he said, "we have a much better understanding of the links between climate change, biodiversity, and food security and water security."
Nearly 150 authors from 50 nations worked for three years to compile the report. They relied on input from 300 contributing authors who assessed the impact of economic development on nature to estimate future effects.
They note that the world's population has doubled since 1950 and that urban areas worldwide have doubled since 1992.
The resulting pressure on natural resources has been enormous. Seventy-five percent of the land environment and well more than half the marine environment have been altered by humans.
On land, "more than a third of the world's land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production," the report said. Farms that cut into forests that trap carbon have expanded exponentially, increasing crop production by 300 percent since 1970.
At sea, a third of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015. "Sixty percent were maximally sustainably fished," meaning they were being pushed to the verge of collapse.
The U.N. report followed a study in January that predicted a bug massacre - 40 percent of all known species face extinction, including beetles, flies, moths, butterflies and bees, the result of habitat loss and pesticides, according to a recent study.
The United States is hardly immune to the loss of biodiversity. In recent weeks, the federal government moved to protect a declining group of Bryde's whales in the Gulf of Mexico with an endangered listing because fewer than 100, and possibly as few as 45, are estimated to exist.
In January, wild reindeer were declared extinct in the Lower 48 states. Wildlife managers in British Columbia caught the last female in a herd of caribou that once migrated between the Pacific Northwest and Canada and stuck her in a pen because "that animal was not going to survive," an official said.
Meanwhile, a doomsday count on the tiny vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California is nearing zero. As Mexican fisherman continue to poach shrimp and fish consumed in the United States, vaquitas occasionally show up dead in their fishing nets.
In Antarctica, the second largest group of emperor penguins, the tallest of all penguins, have not produced offspring for three years, assuring a catastrophic drop in their numbers.
The U.N. report “means that nature is collapsing around us and it’s a real wake-up call to humanity,” said Andrew Wetzler, managing director of the nature program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a conservation group.