Extinction is a concept I first encountered as a child playing with plastic dinosaur toys on the playroom floor. Pitting a T-Rex against a Triceratops in a furious fight, I understood that these monsters once roamed the Earth — but no longer. But it still felt like fantasy. Surely, nothing like that could happen in modern times?
While not inevitable, mass extinction is highly probably given our current trajectory. Indeed, there have been five mass extinction events on Earth, and we’re leading the sixth.
Mass extinction now looms over 1 million species of plants and animals thanks to humans, according to a new United Nations report on biodiversity. Although extinction is a part of the natural selection process, we’re accelerating it at an unnatural rate — tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past.
More than half a million species on land "have insufficient habitat for long-term survival" and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, the report says, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are doing just as poorly.
Here are some of the ways we’re making things worse:
You might say it stinks to be an animal. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But remember that you’re one of them, too.
Though we often disregard it in our everyday discourse, humanity’s deep-set fear of oblivion expresses itself in art, culture and religion. Some of the most popular films and television series in the past two decades have been predicated on the idea of humans facing an extinction-level threat: The Walking Dead (death by zombies); Game of Thrones (death by snow zombies); The Avengers (death by space magic); Rise of the Planet of the Apes (death by super virus and smart monkeys); Independence Day (death by aliens); Armageddon (death by asteroid); The Terminator (death by evil robots). The list goes on.
If science fiction is a reflection of our present fears and future hopes, it’s clear that we’re self-aware of our self-destructive habits — yet we don’t change. It’s as if we’re enamored by the idea of our own demise.
I’ve always been fascinated by the highly-debated genetic bottleneck theory associated with the Toba super eruption some 75,000 years ago. A supervolcano, the theory says, nearly wiped out humanity — reducing us to between 3,000 and 10,000 surviving individuals. If true, this theory means that you, me and everyone alive today are descended from a small band of survivors who looked extinction in the eye and said: “Not today” (to make a recent Game of Thrones reference).
It’s not too late to turn avert the worst of this mass extinction, according to the UN. But it almost is.
We can start by focusing on reversing climate change. Savings species and addressing climate change go hand-in-hand — both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air.
In her seminal book on mass extinctions, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
What matters is that people change the world. Well, what are you waiting for?
This week began feeling like a failure, but ended with hope for humanity.
Yesterday, I finally gave in to the San Francisco public health warnings and purchased a respirator mask. For days, the air quality index has been hovering above 180, or in the “Unhealthy” range. It wasn’t even this bad when the Napa and Sonoma fires of 2017 blanketed the city with smoke.
These respirators represent a grim future I fear already is here — one in which breathing masks are the norm. I imagine a dystopian world where my grown up niece and nephews will consider shopping for the latest fashionable respirator as mundane as I might shop for shoes today.
As you’ve probably heard, my home state of California is on fire… again. The Camp Fire has taken the crown from the extreme fires I wrote about this summer as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It has annihilated several communities in the Sierra Nevada foothills, including Paradise and Concow. Other towns, such as Magalia, Centerville, Pulga and Yankee Hill, have all been devastated by the flames. As of this writing, 56 people have died from the fire and 8,817 structures have been destroyed. Hundreds are still missing. Meanwhile, the Woolsey Fire and the Hill Fires are raging in Southern California.
Climate change is one of those problems that is both everywhere and nowhere — nearly as invisible as the greenhouse gases that cause it. With the 2018 midterms being one of the most politically — if not emotionally — charged in recent memory, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that we’ve already got climate on lock with the lack of discussion around it.
With the exception of a few midterm ballots that could have an outsize impact on national climate policy, climate change largely has been absent from the conversation — having been, well, trumped, by more salient issues like immigration, healthcare and the economy. President Trump, in an effort to electrify his base in support of Republican candidates working to hold on to their seats in the Senate and House, has stoked fears of ‘migrant caravans’ invading the United States, Medicare’s Democratic destruction and economic Armageddon should the GOP lose control over Congress.
What all three of these issues have in common is that they are irrevocably connected to climate change.
This past week, I had the privilege of participating in several events surrounding the Global Climate Action Summit, including the main event itself.
I kicked off the week on Saturday joining colleagues and friends to march alongside tens of thousands of others calling for strong climate action in San Francisco for Rise For Climate Jobs + Justice. Those attending came from a variety of backgrounds and political beliefs — with many of them calling for an end to capitalism (and one sign even said to ban cars!). As for me, I showed up with a sign sayings: “Stopping Change Makes Business Cents.” That’s because, while I know that unrestricted capitalism is killing the planet, I believe that market-based solutions — when properly guided by sound public policy — can scale climate solutions better than any other mechanism human have yet devised.
On Tuesday, I headed to GCAS affiliate event Carbon Smart Building Day at the Mission Bay Conference Center at UCSF, where I converged with hundreds of stakeholders of the built environment, including architects, structural engineers, real estate developers, clean energy companies, materials manufacturers and policymakers to discuss actionable and profitable solutions to addressing the 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions coming from the built environment. Carbon Lighthouse showed up big at the event, and our CEO and Co-Founder gave the keynote.
It was there that The Carbon Smart Building Declaration, a document which I co-authored with Andrew Himes of Carbon Innovations, was unveiled. It recognizes the built environment as a key driver of climate change and one of the greatest areas for cutting carbon profitably — while declaring support for the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to challenge cities, states and regions to reach net zero emissions in all new buildings by 2030, and to retrofit existing buildings to meet net zero carbon targets by 2050. To date, the Declaration has been signed by several hundred organizations and individuals, including Johnson Controls, Interface, U.S. Green Building Council, World Resources Institute and the City of Boulder, among others. I invite you to sign it as an individual, and to urge your organization to do so as well.
A leading Republican presidential candidate once said:
“Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring.”
Speaking at a wind power plant in Oregon, the lifelong conservative promised to, if elected, “not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears” to act on climate.
The candidate’s rationale was simple: “We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great.”
That was back in 2008, and the candidate was, you guessed it, Senator John McCain. In typical maverick fashion, McCain’s practical views on climate change diverged greatly from many of his GOP peers. He was the only serious Republican presidential candidate to call for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. While his plan was to cut emissions only 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, when the leading Democratic candidates’ proposal was to cut them by 80 percent over the same period, it still was a plan to address climate change.
I began writing this blog post several weeks ago — without knowing McCain was in his final days. That’s because it’s tough to talk about the politicization of climate change in the United States without reflecting on what might have been had he been successful in his 2008 bid for the presidency.