TIME Environment

The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway—and We’re to Blame

Goodbye to all that: millions of earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest
Goodbye to all that: millions of Earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest Getty Images

The Earth has been stripped of up to 90% of its species five times before in the past 450 million years. Now it's happening again—and this time there's no rogue asteroid responsible

Here’s hoping the human species likes its own company, because at the rate Earth is going, we might be the only ones we’ve got left.

Nobody can say with certainty how many species there are on Earth, but the number runs well into the millions. Many of them, of course, are on the order of bacteria and spores. The other ones, the ones we can see and count and interact with—to say nothing of the ones we like—are far fewer. And, according to a new and alarming series of papers in Science, their numbers are falling fast, thanks mostly to us.

One of the first great rules of terrestrial biology is that no species is forever. The Earth has gone through five major extinction events before—from the Ordovician-Silurian, about 350 million years ago, to the Cretaceous-Paleogene, 65 million years back. The likely causes included volcanism, gamma ray bursts, and, in the case of the Cretaceous-Paleogene wipeout, an asteroid strike—the one that killed the dinosaurs. But the result of all of the extinctions was the same: death, a lot of it, for 70% to 90% of all species, depending on the event.

As increasingly accepted theories have argued—and as the Science papers show—we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the unsettlingly-named Anthropocene, or the age of the humans.

The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).

As the authors of all this loss, we are doing our nasty work in a lot of ways. Overexploitation—which is to say killing animals for food, clothing or the sheer perverse pleasure of it—plays a big role, especially among the so-called charismatic megafauna. So we get elephants slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos poached for their horns and tigers shot and skinned for their pelts, until oops—no more elephants, rhinos or tigers.

Habitat destruction is another big driver, particularly in rainforests, where 25,000 miles (75,000 km) of tree cover are lost annually—the equivalent of denuding one Panama per year, year after year. And you don’t even have to chop or burn an ecosystem completely away to threaten its species; sometimes all it takes is cutting a few roads across it or building a few farms or homes in the wrong spots. Environmental fragmentation like this can be more than sufficient to cut species off from food or water, to say nothing of mates, and start them in a downward spiral that becomes irreversible.

Then too there is global warming, which makes once-hospitable habitats too hot or dry or stormy for species adapted to different conditions. Finally, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh wrote in last week’s cover story, there are invasive species—pests like the giant African snail, the lionfish or the emerald ash borer—which hitch a ride into a new ecosystem on ships or packing material, or are brought in as pets, and then reproduce wildly, crowding out native species.

The result of all this species loss—what the Science researchers dub defaunation—goes far beyond simply leaving us with a less rich, less diverse world. After all, the Earth bounced back from far worse extinctions and did just fine. But it bounced back a different way each time, and the most recent version, the one in which we emerged, is the one we like—and it’s easy to destroy.

Loss of species, the authors point out, means loss of pollinators—which is a real problem since 75% of food crops rely on insects if they’re going to thrive. Nutrient cycles—the decomposition of organic matter that feeds the soil—collapse if mobile species can’t get from place to place and do their living and dying in a fairly even distribution. The same is true for water quality, which relies on all manner of animals to prevent lakes and rivers and streams from becoming too algae-dense or oxygen poor. Pest control suffers as well — when animals like bats are no longer around the eat the insect pests that attack crops, it’s bad news for autumn harvests. North America alone is projected to suffer $22 billion in agricultural losses as desirable bat populations continue to decline.

It oughtn’t take appealing to our self-interest to get us to quit making such a mess of what we’re increasingly coming to learn is an exceedingly destructible world. But it’s that very self-interest that led us to make that mess in the first place. We can either start to change our ways, or we can keep going the way we are—at least until the Anthropocene extinction claims one final species: our own.

TIME energy

Poll: Men and Women Think Differently About Energy

Energy Power Lines
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A new global survey for TIME shows how attitudes toward conservation may be guided by gender

More women than men worldwide say energy conservation is a “very important” issue, while men report greater personal concern about global warming, according to the results of a new global energy survey conducted for TIME.

The survey polled online respondents in six countries—the U.S., Germany, India, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea—on their attitudes toward energy. It revealed that conservation habits and perspectives about energy challenges differ along gender lines, and not always in the ways you might expect.

Nearly 70% of women said energy conservation was a vital issue, compared with less than 50% of men. At the same, 65% of males reported that global warming was a very important issue to them, far outpacing the 37% of females who said the same.

The survey suggests that women are more leery of nuclear power (by a 48% to 40% margin), slightly more convinced the earth is warming (60% to 56%) and more likely to report high degrees of concern over rising sea levels, pollution and gas prices. By a couple of percentage points, women also took a more favorable stand on the oil-and-gas industry’s role in the issue.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to say that rich nations should take the lead in the fight to reduce emissions (50% to 46%), and more likely to lay blame for the global warming crisis at the feet of the United States (45% to 38%), which has long held the ignominious title of the world’s largest carbon emitter.

The sexes were also split in their assessment of their home country’s role in the climate crisis. Sixty-three percent of women say their nation is part of the problem, compared with 54% of men. Men were more likely to say their country was part of the solution, by a 46% to 37% margin.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

TIME Environment

The Volunteer Army Hunting Florida’s Invasive Pythons

Finding an invasive python in the wild is difficult, which is why you need a volunteer army

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As I write in TIME’s cover story this week, Burmese pythons invaded Florida years ago, and they’ve thrived in the warm tropical climate. There may be tens of thousands of pythons slithering around south Florida, but the truth is that no one really knows. That’s because when they don’t want to be found—which is most of the time—Burmese pythons are all but impossible to locate. At a 2013 state-sponsored hunt, nearly 1,600 participants found and captured just 68 pythons. “For every one snake you’ll find, you can walk by at least 99 without seeing them,” says Michael Dorcas, a snake expert at Davidson College.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just ask experts like Jeff Fobb, a dangerous-animal specialist with Miami Dade County Fire Rescue department. Fobb helps train volunteers for the Python Patrol, an initiative begun by the Nature Conservancy and now run by the state of Florida. Training as many people as possible improves the chances of actually capturing a python when one is found. But it’s not always easy, as this video shows.

To see the full cover story click here: Invasive Species Coming to a Habitat Near You

TIME climate change

Global Warming Is Coming, but Climate Hysteria Doesn’t Help Anyone

The Guardian's dire report of a climate-change catastrophe unfolding in Miami is a case of premature evacuation

Help us! We’re drowning! It’s a catastrophe! DO SOMETHING!

Well, we’re not actually drowning. We do get damp every now and then, but it’s hard to see how some modest sunny-day flooding in my neighborhood at high tide justifies the Guardian headline that’s been generating so much buzz: “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away.” I’ve described South Beach as the canary in America’s coal mine for climate change, and the canary has started coughing a bit, but it isn’t dead or even very sick. I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn, but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.

The Guardian article — by Robin McKie, the science editor (!) — begins a block from my home, on Alton Road, which is “hemmed in by bollards, road-closed signs, diggers, trucks, workmen, stacks of giant concrete cylinders and mounds of grey, foul-smelling earth.” That’s a pretty ominous description of a basic construction project. The state is rebuilding the street, in part (not entirely) because Biscayne Bay is backing up through storm drains at high tide, in part (not entirely) because global warming has helped increase the sea level around South Florida by about 10 in. over a century. McKie describes this gentle backwater flooding with absurdly apocalyptic prose: “Tidal surges are turned into walls of seawater that batter Miami Beach’s west coast and sweep into the resort’s storm drains.” He also claims that the water then “surges across the rest of the island,” which simply isn’t true.

“The effect is calamitous,” McKie writes. Calamitous!

“City life is paralyzed,” he continues. Paralyzed!

Well, it does get hard to park at Whole Foods. Puddles form in front of Walgreens. A few cars have been damaged — or, as McKie described it, “ruined” by “surging seawaters that corrode and rot their innards.” McKie was apparently too lazy to talk to any actual victims of our ongoing calamity, but he did rip off a quote from a laundromat owner who told the New York Times that Alton Road flooding once blocked the entrance to his front door. What’s happening in the Middle East right now is calamitous. A blocked entrance is inconvenient.

Hey, it’s been inconvenient for all of us. I’m bummed that my favorite Alton Road burger joint just closed, although its downfall was the construction mess, not the flooding. But let’s get real. The Pacific island of Kiribati is drowning; Miami Beach is not yet drowning, and the Guardian’s persistent adjective inflation (“calamitous,” “astonishing,” “devastating”) can’t change that. We should fight global warming — and the powers that be, including Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott, should stop looking away — because it’s a potential disaster for Miami and the rest of this very nice planet. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s a disaster now.

I get why the Obama Administration wants to emphasize that global warming is a today issue, not a someday issue. I understand that stories about how climate change is already affecting our cities and our farms and our lives — even our wine — can make the issue feel more pressing to ordinary Americans. But fortunately, the effects are not yet calamitous; the reason we ought to DO SOMETHING is that they’ll get calamitous if we don’t. If we think once-a-month ankle-deep water is drowning, then why should Americans care whether we drown?

TIME climate change

Climate Change Threatens Antarctica’s Emperor Penguin Population

A pair of Adelie penguins are pictured at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica on Dec. 28, 2009.
A pair of Adelie penguins are pictured at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica on Dec. 28, 2009. Reuters

The greatest hazard comes from warming temperatures' impact on sea-ice cover, which the penguins rely on for travel and hunting

New research suggests that Antarctica’s population of emperor penguins will be cut down by a fifth by the end of the century as a result of changing climates, which will impact the species’ feeding and mating patterns.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, there are currently about 600,000 emperor penguins living in Antarctica. Researchers, anticipating a 19% to 33% drop in their numbers, have encouraged governments across the world to list the species as endangered. Doing so would place restrictions on tourism, fishing and other activities that may prove further detrimental to their survival.

Still, the greatest hazard comes from warming temperatures’ impact on sea-ice cover, which the penguins rely on for travel and hunting.

TIME space

NASA to Re-Attempt Global Warming Satellite Launch

After first mission failed in 2009

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NASA will launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) on Tuesday to further scientific understanding of carbon dioxide emissions, the agency’s first mission to study greenhouse gases.

The $468 million mission will allow scientists to record detailed carbon dioxide measurements, contributing crucial information to the incomplete understanding of “where all of the carbon dioxide comes from and where it is being stored when it leaves the air,” according to a statement. A clearer picture of the global carbon cycle will allow scientists to evaluate methods to mitigate climate change.

“The observatory will use its vantage point from space to capture a picture of where the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide are, rather than our cobbling data together from multiple sources with less frequency, reliability and detail,” Gregg Marland, an American geology professor, told NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Officially cleared for launch on Sunday, the OCO-2 will be the second satellite to observe carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, after Japan launched the Greenhouses Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) in 2009. While the GOSAT records only one observation every four seconds — only 500 per day prove useful — the OCO-2 will log 24 observations per second. And thanks to a small one-square mile viewing frame, the OCO-2 will dodge clouds to report nearly 100,000 highly usable observations per day.

As the name’s appendage suggests, OCO-2 is a replacement for the mission’s original satellite, which was lost in 2009 when the Orbital Taurus XL launch vehicle, carrying the satellite, failed to enter orbit. A mishap investigation report determined that the failure to separate of the payload fairing — a heavy cover designed to jettison after launch — prevented the Taurus from achieving orbital velocity. The Taurus re-entered the atmosphere, igniting and disintegrating before plummeting into the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.

This time, the OCO-2, which entered its implementation phase in 2010, will launch atop the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. The Delta II was selected after a second Taurus rocket failed to launch in 2011 for a similar reason. NASA stated that “there are no issues or concerns with either OCO-2 or the Delta II,” noting a “zero percent chance” of a weather criteria violation.

The OCO-2 has a planned operational life of 2 years.

 

 

 

TIME

You Should Be Happy There Are Way More Sharks Near the U.S.

Great White Shark
Getty Images

Populations are rebounding. Here's why that's a good thing

Pity the great white shark. Yes, it can bite you in half without trying hard, and it’s so blindingly quick that if a great white takes it into its feeble but aggressive mind to attack, you’ll be in pieces before you know it. Just as well, really.

But the odds are astronomically low that such a thing will happen—and its got problems of its own. For every human killed by a shark, as we wrote in this cover story, about six million sharks are killed by humans in return. As a result of this wholesale slaughter, mostly in fishing operations, great white populations had plunged by more than 70% in the 1980′s, leading to the huge fish on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “redlist“of threatened species.In response, many countries put strict limits on fishing for great whites, and now two new studies in the journal PLOS ONE show that populations on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. have rebounded somewhat, to about 2,000 off the U.S. coasts, as we reported yesterday.

Even if you’re not a member of PETA, this is very good thing: Great whites are an apex species. Like lions and tigers and bears, they’re at the top of the food chain, where their inborn voraciousness keeps the populations of other species in check. Mess with that relationship and you can mess up an entire web of interactions that keeps the ocean ecosystem stable.

And as for you: Only about 100 people are attacked by sharks every year—last year, it was 27 in the United States—and only a fraction of those are killed. Given the millions upon millions of people who visit the world’s beaches every year—well, you do the math. But just for some perspective, vastly more people die from bee stings, lightning strikes and even falling out of bed than from a shark attack.

So yes, your chances of being eaten by a great white this summer have increased from essentially zero to essentially zero. But “hooray” is still the right way to think about it.

TIME climate change

Climate Change Report Warns of Economic Tidal Wave in U.S.

Climate Change And Global Pollution To Be Discussed At Copenhagen Summit
The coal fueled Ferrybridge power station as it generates electricity on November 17, 2009 in Ferrybridge, United Kingdom. Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

Study backed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg warns that rising seas and extreme heat could cost billions in lost property, crops and labor productivity

Rising seas and extreme weather could lead to billions of dollars in economic losses, according to a new climate change report that strives to reframe the debate in economic terms.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organization chaired by a bipartisan panel of former officials, including ex-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge-fund billionaire turned climate change advocate Tom Steyer.

The study estimates that climate change will have a disparate impact across different regions and industries. Rising seas could swallow up an estimated $66 to $106 billion worth of coastal properties by 2050, the report estimates. Rising temperatures, particularly in the South, Southwest and Midwest, could reduce the productivity of outdoor workers by 3 percent. Absent a change in crops, yields could decline by 14 percent.

“We still live in a single integrated national economy,” Kate Gordon, Executive Director of the Risky Business Project, said in a statement, “so just because it’s not hot where you are, doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

 

TIME Environment

Crimson on White: Hunting the Polar Bear

The images of a polar-bear hunt will be hard to view, but life in Canada's impoverished Inuit communities is just as hard

Ed Ou spent four months in 2013 photographing Inuit communities in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Here, many are cut off from the rest of the country — and food and supplies are brought in at an extremely high cost by land and sea. Because of this, the Inuit often depend on hunting for food. Environmental groups regularly criticize them for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals and polar bears. In the U.S., Washington has pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of polar-bear fur, meat and body parts. But the Canadian government opposes this on behalf of the Inuit.

Editor’s note: Given the isolation of the communities in the north of Canada, Ou helped offset the high costs of embedding himself with the Inuit community and contributed money for gas, groceries, heating, Internet and other expenses.


Ed Ou’s pictures are hard to look at. A polar bear emerges from the water, drenched in blood, turning its white fur crimson. Then the dead bear sprawled on the rocks, legs spread and jaw open, as if it were simply caught by surprise, even while the hunters begin the process of butchering the carcass. Finally the bear’s pelt, cleansed of blood, drying in a bathtub.

Polar bears have become the living symbols of climate change, with reason — as the planet warms, the sea ice that the bears use as hunting platforms is melting, putting the animals at risk. The idea of hunting and killing an animal that is listed as an endangered species, one that’s already under pressure from climate change, seems wrong on its face, like crimson blood on white fur.

But look closer at those pictures. Ou, a Canadian, traveled to the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in the far north not to document a polar-bear hunt, but to explore a part of his own country that had always seemed foreign. In remote towns like Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Ou found a culture grappling with extreme poverty, substance abuse and a legacy of mistreatment from the Canadian government, which for decades all but stole Inuit children from their parents, sending them to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. The last residential schools were only shut down in 1996, but the effects are still being felt among the Canadian Inuit whom Ou went to document, compounded by the extreme isolation of the Arctic and the painful transition from a traditional subsistence-hunting culture to a sedentary way of life. “Trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next,” says Ou. “Alcoholism is high, drug abuse is high, suicide rates are high. It’s a very traumatized place.”

In his photos, Ou shows Inuit like Kelly Amaujaq Fraser, a young woman who was sexually abused as a young girl, and whose father killed himself when she was just a teenager. Ou shows a near-empty refrigerator, the product of a place where unemployment is in the double digits, and where a simple carton of milk can cost more than $10. Given those bleak conditions, it’s not surprising that the Inuit would hunt polar bears, as their ancestors did before them — albeit not with high-powered rifles. A single polar-bear pelt can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market, and the meat can feed dozens of hungry people. As distasteful as the sight of a butchered polar bear might be to outsiders, to the Inuit, it’s a matter of survival — and of culture. “They feel their ability to hunt is one of their last sources of subsistence,” says Ou. “Before you judge them, you have to understand the socioeconomic factors driving this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s right to allow polar-bear hunts to continue. It’s unclear just how many polar bears are left, and the continued effects of climate change will almost certainly drive the species closer to extinction if nothing is done to save them. But it doesn’t seem that the burden should fall on the Inuit, who’ve already paid such a high price. “They ask, ‘Why do we have to pay the highest price for global warming when we contribute the least?’” says Ou. Justice is something else that’s endangered in the Arctic.


Ed Ou is a photographer with Reportage by Getty Images

TIME energy

The (Slow) Greening of America

Solar panels
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A new poll reveals that the U.S. is reluctant to recognize and address climate change

Americans who don’t believe in global warming should visit my Miami Beach neighborhood at high tide, when Biscayne Bay surges through our storm drains and swamps our streets. In May, the New York Times ran a photo of sunny-day flooding outside my local Walgreens, above an article headlined, “Miami Finds Itself Ankle-Deep in Climate Change Debate.” Really, the debate should be over. Scientists have already documented 5 in. to 8 in. of sea-level rise around South Florida over the past 50 years. This kind of phenomenon has encouraged President Obama to start emphasizing that climate change is not a someday thing. “This is not some distant problem of the future,” he said recently. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

That’s true. But as a new global survey conducted by TIME about attitudes toward energy and conservation illustrates, many Americans don’t believe it. This sets them apart from the people Time surveyed in five other countries. Only 40% of Americans “strongly agreed” that the earth is getting warmer, even though the earth is, in fact, getting warmer; 71% of Indians strongly agreed. Globally, 57% of the 3,505 people surveyed strongly agreed that the polar ice caps are melting because of global warming, including the 39% of Americans who strongly agreed. On almost every question, Americans were the least likely to back the scientific consensus on climate–and among the least likely to support doing anything about it. One out of three Americans wanted their politicians to fight global warming, compared with 3 out of 4 Brazilians.

This may seem odd because, as Obama’s new National Climate Assessment makes clear, the U.S. is already feeling the effects of global warming. The first 13 years of the 21st century were among the 14 hottest on record. California is enduring a historic drought. Wildfires are getting worse throughout the West. And while it’s premature to blame climate change for any particular storm–that stock phrase seemed to appear in every story about Superstorm Sandy–our weird weather trends are consistent with expectations for a warmer world.

Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence of the viability of clean energy, with wind power often cheaper than coal, solar costs plunging over 80% in five years, energy-efficient lightbulbs taking off and every major automaker offering electric vehicles in the U.S.

But compared with citizens of Germany, South Korea, India, Turkey and Brazil, Americans were among the least likely to turn off the lights when leaving a room or power down their computer at night and by far the least likely to walk or take public transit instead of driving. Americans were also more opposed to carbon taxes, carbon limits and even bike lanes than the rest of the world. They were less concerned than the global average about polluted air, higher sea levels and almost every other problem the pollsters asked about except higher gas prices. (While Americans are somewhat more likely than citizens of other nations to believe that the U.S. could do more to fight global warming, they are by far the least likely to think the U.S. should accept “most of the burden” for reducing emissions.)

Why are we so unenlightened? green issues often take a backseat in tough economic times, but most of the world is enduring much tougher times than we are. Our relative apathy in part reflects our polarized politics. The Republican Party’s rejection of climate science during the Obama era has helped fuel denial among members of its base. In any case, addressing problems like climate change–requiring some perceived short-term sacrifice to avert long-term problems–is not exactly our national comparative advantage.

So Obama’s here-and-now arguments are understandable. But if global warming is our most important problem, it’s not our most imminent one. The real pain–from climate refugees to agricultural depressions–lies in the future. Even low-lying Miami Beach is not Kiribati, the Pacific island nation that’s on the verge of disappearing. We’ve got bigger headaches than the monthly flooding in the nearby Whole Foods parking lot.

If climate action depends on getting Americans outraged about what they can see now, we’re in trouble. There’s not much to see yet. The puddles at Walgreens are not gripping evidence of the need to limit emissions, although the danger of Miami Beach becoming Kiribati in this century ought to be. And while our expressed concern for future generations does not match the rest of the world’s, it does exist. That’s fortunate. Global warming has the potential to singe us, but it could roast our kids and grandkids. If we do nothing until the pain becomes unbearable, we’ll be way too late.

FOR MORE POLL FINDINGS, GO TO time.com/newenergy

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