We’re Living Through One of the Most Explosive Extinction Episodes Ever

Twin crises afflict the natural world. The first is climate change. Its causes and potentially catastrophic consequences are well known. The second crisis has received much less attention and is less understood but still requires urgent attention by global policymakers. It is the collapse of biodiversity, the sum of all things living on the planet.

As species disappear and the complex relationships between living things and systems become frayed and broken, the growing damage to the world’s biodiversity presents dire risks to human societies.

The extinction of plants and animals is accelerating, moving an estimated 1,000 times faster than natural rates before humans emerged. Bugs on our windshields are no longer a summer thing as insect populations plummet. Nearly three billion birds have been lost in North America since 1970, diminishing the pollination of food crops. In India, thousands of people are dying of rabies because the population of vultures that feed on garbage is cratering, resulting in a huge increase in feral dogs that eat these food scraps in the birds’ absence.

This past week, federal wildlife officials, as if underscoring the point, recommended that 22 animals and one plant be declared extinct. They include 11 birds, eight freshwater mussels, two fish and a bat.

This is a future where zoonotic diseases are becoming increasingly common and the world’s food security is imperiled.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are locked together in a cycle of destruction and must be dealt with in tandem. The demise of the world’s coral reefs offers an example. Scientists predict that 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs will disappear over the next 20 years because of warming sea temperatures, acidic water and pollution. This will put at risk 4,000 species of fish and approximately a half billion people globally who depend on coral reef ecosystems for food, coastal protection and employment. Damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef alone could cost $1 billion a year in income from tourism spending and 10,000 jobs.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the window is closing fast to avoid the worst climate outcomes. But the biodiversity crisis is even more immediate, and at least as alarming. With climate change, we have a plausible, if imperfect, strategy to avoid the worst outcomes. The world needs to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by around 2050 by reducing emissions and taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

But for the biodiversity crisis, there is no comparable framework. There are no technological fixes to restore species that go extinct. And no cost-effective, man-made replacement for natural systems like wetlands, which provide protection against floods, replenish groundwater reserves and filter the water that flows through them. Worse, some climate change solutions exacerbate biodiversity destruction. For example, the push to expand renewable energy infrastructure on federal lands would clear managed land and ultimately destroy habitats. Addressing the climate and biodiversity together could improve the outcomes of both.

This fall, policymakers have two opportunities to act on biodiversity before it’s too late at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and at a virtual U.N. biodiversity conference.

First, government and business leaders should take a Hippocratic-like oath to protect the environment. Such a commitment should encompass investment decisions, business practices and government spending, including subsidies to industry.

Governments are now measuring carbon dioxide emissions and setting goals and policies to reduce them. Similarly, governments must develop strategies to protect the natural biosphere. Those who harm nature should be penalized; those who protect it should be rewarded.

The range of tools includes approaches that generate funding for ecological restoration, like user fees paid by tanker ships and polices that promote market-based systems to protect wetlands and forests. And just as the Paris Agreement called for the disclosure of climate risks, leaders in Glasgow should call for mandating corporate disclosure of the impacts of their actions on biodiversity.

In the United States, subsidies for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries that accelerate the destruction of our natural capital must be reformed. This value of nature to humans has been estimated at more than $125 trillion. It makes no sense, for instance, to encourage practices that jeopardize our long-term food supply.

Credit…Georgette Douwma/Getty Images

Governments must also create incentives to drive private-sector finance to protect and restore nature because the financial resources the private sector can bring to bear far exceed those of the public sector.

The Glasgow climate conference should encourage all governments to invest in nature-based solutions to climate change. Conserving and restoring grasslands, wetlands and forests as “carbon sinks” that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could provide up to a third of the emissions reductions needed by 2030.

Nature’s benefits are too often regarded as “free.” This is a dangerous path. It is much less costly to protect and conserve nature than it is to restore it or suffer the consequences of its destruction.

There is a clear economic, health and climate case for protecting nature. But just as important, there is an overwhelming case for preserving nature for its own sake. It is a source of much that is good about life — beauty, inspiration, innovation and intellectual curiosity.

The world is in the midst of one of the most explosive extinction episodes in history. But we are also undergoing a cultural transformation in awareness. I’ve seen a new sense of urgency around nature conservation issues, a rapidly growing interest in the field of green and sustainable finance, and a renewed sense that collective effort can make a difference. The combination of these forces has the potential to galvanize the world.

Henry Paulson is the founder and chairman of the Paulson Institute, which seeks to foster a cooperative relationship between the United States and China. He was Treasury secretary from 2006 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. Before that, he was chairman and the chief executive of Goldman Sachs. He also served as board chairman for The Nature Conservancy.

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