Monday 19 August 2019

Luke O'Neill: 'Wake up and smell the coffee or it will be gone'

It's no exaggeration to predict the end is nigh unless the world starts to change its environmentally wicked ways, writes Luke O'Neill

Devastation: 70pc of the Earth's forests have been destroyed since the time of the industrial revolution, and there is now half the number of fish in its oceans
Devastation: 70pc of the Earth's forests have been destroyed since the time of the industrial revolution, and there is now half the number of fish in its oceans

You've probably seen people in big cities shouting 'Repent! The end is nigh!' And you've probably ignored them as crazy people. Well, guess what. No less a body than the United Nations is worried that stark prophecies of life on Earth ending may actually come true.

The UN has just issued a report that doesn't beat about the bush. We are now in the middle of a great extinction event and what makes it especially disturbing is we ourselves are causing it.

Human activity is threatening the existence of one million plant and animal species. I'll say that again: one million species.

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The science behind this is as compelling as it gets: 145 experts from 50 countries analysing 15,000 government and scientific sources. You'd better wake up and smell the coffee because soon there may not be any coffee left to smell.

The chair of the UN committee said in a press release: "We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide" - or put another way: we've had it unless we do something, and fast.

How could we have come to this disastrous situation? Science again has the answer. There are more than eight million species estimated on Earth. If one million go, that will be a huge dent with significant knock-on effects.

The creatures that will initially suffer the most are amphibians, insects and reef-dwelling organisms in the oceans.

A big reason is our destruction of forests. There are 70pc fewer forests now than before the industrial revolution. Ireland used to be covered in forests and then we chopped them down. But the problem is more severe in tropical forests in South America and Asia. Half of species on Earth live in tropical rainforests.

Things are also bad in the oceans, where we've over-fished to the extent that there is now half the number of fish since the industrial revolution. One third of fish stocks are under threat. More than half the coral reefs have been destroyed.

Wetlands like marshes and swamps have been reduced by as much as 90pc. The report is wholly consistent with the World Wildlife Fund which released data last year showing a drop of 60pc in the numbers of vertebrates between 1970 and 2014.

The rapid loss of species is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, all caused by humans.

And 99pc of threatened species are at risk from human activities - population growth, consumption and most importantly human-made climate change.

Life on Earth has seen this before and just about survived, adapting and evolving. There have been five other mass extinctions. A gamma ray from a distant star 500m years ago killed off 70pc of life. A meteorite 66m years ago wiped out the dinosaurs.

That particular extinction event left room for mammals to evolve with one line evolving into us. We would not be here, with all our supposed cleverness, machines, computers, smart phones and burnout if that meteorite had not struck the Earth.

It threw up so much dust that the sun didn't appear for several years, wrecking plant life and starving the dinosaurs.

Our majestic species is a testament to the wonders of evolution and yet here we now are, way too smart for our own good, destroying the planet and putting our Spotify playlist on loud to stop the screaming coming from Mother Earth. Maybe if we played Eve of Destruction we might cop on to ourselves and do something to stop the storm that's coming.

What will that storm look like? The report starkly states that what's happening is undermining progress for 80pc of the targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to eliminate poverty, hunger and to improve healthcare.

The extinctions that are happening will destroy food systems and affect energy generation with huge consequences for economic growth especially in the developing world.

What is especially unfair is the poorest countries, who are not responsible for most of the causes of the extinctions, will suffer the most.

A bit like bankers who got away with wrecking the economy leading to the poorest in society bearing the brunt of the damage. When it comes to the sixth great extinction event, we are all a bunch of bankers (you could even use another word that rhymes with it).

Very importantly, the report isn't just doom and gloom. It makes strong recommendations. A key driver is agriculture. We're making food with no regard for ecosystems and that has to stop. We need to farm local and shop local.

We have to start conserving species of plants and animals and hugely reduce food waste. We have to protect the oceans, reduce run-off and industrial pollution. Our cities need a major increase in green spaces.

The report says we can still avoid extinction, but only through 'transformative change'. There will be opposition from the usual vested interest groups but these have to overcome for the broader public good.

What can you do? You need to insist that our politicians lead us, so we must keep challenging them. Only buy products from renewable species. Recycle, reuse, reduce and teach your children well.

Trump says that scientists who "believe" humans are affecting global climate have "a political agenda". It's not a "belief".

The evidence is hugely compelling. Instead of laughing at the people shouting that the end of the world is nigh, we should listen.

A global movement of schoolchildren held marches and a day of protest earlier this year, including in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Their message was clear: "If we do not do this, we won't have a world."

To paraphrase Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: all you politicians and mothers and fathers, get out of the way if you can't lend a hand. Because guess what, the times they are a-changin', and as Darwin taught us: life means change or you die.

Luke O'Neill FRS is professor of Biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin

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