Climate change isn't the biggest danger to Earth's wildlife, a new study found. While sea level rise, freak weather, and temperature increase are taking a huge toll on biodiversity, our thirst for natural resources is even more damaging, the team reports.
For better or worse, human society has developed into a force that can shape an entire planet. This is much better news for us, however -- we have the know-how and means to make our lives longer, safer, and more comfortable than ever before -- than it is for Earth's non-human life.
Climate change is the prime example of this: it's a very real, and very dangerous phenomenon that is primarily driven by man-made activities. The associated sea-level rise would leave some 13 million Americans without a home, along with countless others around the world. The associated temperature increase will hurt our ability to work and our crops.
In short, it's gonna be really bad when it hits -- and we've already getting a taste of what's to come. But even though climate change is going to have a very powerful impact on plants and wildlife world-wide, climate change has also become a sort of scape-goat, with a “growing tendency for media reports about threats to biodiversity to focus on climate change,” write the authors of a new study analyzing the impact each sector of our society has on life on Earth. According to their findings, the real culprits are staple human activities such as logging, hunting, or farming, which pose a far greater -- and much more immediate -- danger to Earth's biodiversity.
"[Agriculture and rampant resource over-exploitation are] by far the biggest drivers of biodiversity decline,” the authors write in a comment published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
A team of scientists led by University of Queensland doctoral student Sean Maxwell analyzed thousands of species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species to determine exactly what we're doing to put them on that list.
They found that over-exploitation, including logging, hunting, fishing and the gathering of plants is the biggest single killer of biodiversity, directly impacting 72 percent of the 8,688 species listed as threatened or near-threatened by the IUCN. Agricultural activity comes second, affecting 62 percent of those species, followed by urban development and pollution which threaten 35 and 22 percent respectively. Species such as the African cheetah and Asia's hairy-noes otter are among the 5,407 species that find themselves threatened by agricultural practices, while illegal hunting impacts several populations such as the Sumatran rhino and African elephant.
Climate change on the other hand comes in on a surprising, if somewhat unimpressive, 7th place in the 11 threats identified by the team. Even when you combine all its effects, it currently threatens just 19 percent of the species on the list, the team reports. Species such as the hooded seal, which the team reports has seen a population decline of 90% in the northeastern Atlantic Arctic over the past few decades as a result of declining ice cover, are part of the 1,688 species directly impacted by climate change. The survey doesn't specifically mention corals in the analysis.
As such, tackling the “old foes” will be “key to turning around the biodiversity extinction crisis,” said Maxwell.
“If we don’t address them, we’re going to lose most of our biodiversity, no matter what we do about climate change,” said co-author of the report and head of IUCN’s science and knowledge unit Thomas Brooks.
The analysis's results were released just a few weeks ahead of the IUCN's World Conservation Congress which will be held from September 1st to 10th in Hawaii. Thousands of environmental policy-makers from around the world will meet to set conservation priorities during the congress, and the authors urge the delegates to use the results to tailor efforts towards the threats with the greatest contribution on species loss.
"Actions such as well managed protected areas, enforcement of hunting regulations, and managing agricultural systems in ways that allow threatened species to persist within them, all have a major role to play in reducing the biodiversity crisis,” said report co-author and director of science and research initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society James Watson.
The full paper, titled "Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets, and bulldozers" has been published in the journal Nature.