The toll of fossil fuels on species

by Milan on February 23, 2010

in Climate change, Power plants, Wildlife

One of the most compelling passages from James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren seeks to trace back responsibility for biodiversity lost to climate change to the facilities that caused the warming:

If we continue business-as-usual fossil fuel use, a conservative estimate is that by the end of the century we will have committed to extinction at least 20 percent of the Earth’s species, that is, about two million species. Based on the proportion of twenty-first-century carbon dioxide emissions provided by one large coal-fired power plant over its lifetime, I conclude that a single power plant could be assigned responsibility for exterminating about four hundred species, even though of course we cannot assign specific species to a specific power plant… Those coal trains are death trains. The railroad cars may as well be loaded with the species themselves, carrying them to their extermination.

This grim assessment is even worse when you think about how we have gone about cataloging species. The bigger and cuddlier something is, the more likely it is that humans will have investigated it and given it a taxonomical categorization. There are innumerable smaller creatures (most of them unicellular) that we haven’t gotten around to calling species, but which may play important or even critical roles in some ecosystems. Hansen is talking about the number of species we already know about that are in danger of being wiped out.

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. March 16, 2010 at 11:40 am

The Naming of Things
Posted March 15, 2010

Here’s one small way in which the collapse of biodiversity could be slowed

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th March 2010

The names alone should cause anyone whose heart still beats to stop and look again. Blotched woodwax. Pashford pot beetle. Scarce black arches. Mallow skipper. Marsh dagger. Each is a locket in which hundreds of years of history and thousands of years of evolution have been packed. Here nature and culture intersect. All are species that have recently become extinct in England.

I cannot claim that I’ve been materially damaged by their loss, any more than the razing of the Prado would deprive me of food or shelter. But the global collapse of biodiversity hurts almost beyond endurance. The sense that the world is greying, its wealth of colour and surprise and wonder fading, is so painful that I can scarcely bear to write about it. Human welfare, as measured by gross domestic product, is doubtless enhanced by the processes which drive extinction. Human welfare, as measured by the heart and the senses, is diminished. We have no use for most of the world’s natural exuberance; it cannot be commodified or reproduced. Biodiversity does not belong to us: that is why it is worth preserving.

In Doha today, governments are engaged in their annual festival of frustration: the endless arguments over the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They are struggling against what often looks like an inexorable assault by technology, economic growth and sheer bloody idiocy. The latter is exemplified by the battle over the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Many governments want to ban the trade in this species for several years, but Japan is resisting furiously. Whether or not a ban is imposed, the effect on Japanese industry will be roughly the same, as the species is likely to become commercially extinct next year if current fishing levels continue. But the government would prefer one more year of raw exploitation to indefinite supplies in the future. There is no reasoning with this madness.

Milan August 11, 2010 at 3:48 pm

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