Lind Initiative Recap: Elizabeth Kolbert on the Sixth Mass Extinction

Elizabeth Kolbert was the second speaker in this year’s Lind Initiative. A journalist and author best known for her 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Kolbert has also written for The New York Times and The New Yorker with commentary on climate change issues across the world. As of 2017, she is also a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board.

This year’s theme for the Lind Initiative was ‘America and the Climate Crisis,’ which featured insights from various academics and professionals on environmental issues in the US and across the world. The first speaker, Professor Robert Bullard spoke about environmental injustice in the United States, where a disproportionate amount of American minorities suffer from environmental problems such as pollution and poor disaster mitigation. Elizabeth Kolbert on the other hand, tackled climate change from an ecological perspective, where she discussed how rapidly warming temperatures have set our planet up for its sixth ever mass extinction.

The next extinction event is entirely man-made

The introduction and conclusion of Kolbert’s keynote each had a story about an endangered bird. She had met both of the birds she spoke of on her research expeditions, and they all had similar characteristics. One was a male Hawaiian Crow named Kinohi, whose species have become extinct in the wild, and the other was a male Kakapo parrot named Sirocco, whose species have also became critically endangered. In an attempt to restore their numbers in the wild, both Kinohi and Sirocco were raised in a breeding facility where birds were encouraged to mate. However, due to prolonged contact with humans, the birds ended up becoming sexually imprinted on humans and did not even want to mate with other birds. The ensuing struggles biologists faced to preserve the genes of these birds, said Kolbert, are just one of the many instances of a mass extinction that was already happening. She went on to add that unlike the past five extinction events which were caused by natural forces, the causes of the sixth one are completely anthropogenic.

According to Kolbert, man-made activity has caused our planet to undergo three major changes that is rapidly causing lifeforms to go extinct. Of course, the most well-known cause is the burning of fossil fuels, where humans add 10 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere annually. In the past few decades, global warming caused by this buildup of greenhouse gases has destabilised most of the Earth’s most delicate ecosystems, especially in the tropics where biodiversity is incredibly high. By constantly burning fossil fuels, we are perpetually turning the Earth’s geological clock backwards — reversing a process that normally takes millions of years in mere centuries.

To show how ecosystems can be easily damaged, she spoke of an experiment conducted by biologists in South America. In areas of the Andes Mountains where biodiversity is high, forests could house as many as 1000 different species of trees, whereas the boreal forests of Canada may only have as little as 20. The trees in the Andes have very little climatic range, where one would only find that specific tree within a tiny section of the forest. The experiment revealed that even a minute change in the climate would force both the trees and wildlife that depend on them to adapt, and many of them do not have the ability. As a result, species begin to die off which creates a chain reaction within the ecosystem. The tropics are not the only region in danger too, as the Arctic has been experiencing warming faster than the rest of the planet in a phenomenon known as polar amplification, which is why polar bears have become a symbolic image of endangered life. Global insect populations are rapidly dying off as well, and since they occupy around half of the planet’s animal mass, their decline would also severely affect ecosystems around the world.

The second cause is ocean acidification, another direct effect of burning fossil fuels. This phenomenon occurs when large amounts of carbon are quickly absorbed by the planet’s oceans. Compared to pre-industrial levels, ocean acidification levels today have increased by over 30 percent. This is especially harmful for marine life that are calcium carbonate-based such as shellfish, starfish, urchins, and coral, as they rely on the ocean’s naturally alkaline waters to survive. The gradual destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is one of the prime examples of how the planet is already being devastated by ocean acidification.

The final cause is a series of different activities that can be best attributed to globalization. Since flora and fauna do not travel across the world, the manner in which they have evolved has always been focused on mitigating local threats, allowing them to survive in their native home. But then came the humans, who by the 15th Century have began travelling worldwide at rate that continues to grow by both frequency and speed. This constant transfer of goods and people worldwide then introduced invasive species, where different animals and plants were brought to non-native lands. Depending on the species that gets moved, they either cannot adapt and die off in their new home or start wreaking havoc on their new ecosystem, as the native species there have no defences against them. Such examples include the European starling that has now been brought to North America, where they are outcompeting small birds such as chickadees and swallows for nesting space.

When life began on our planet at its earliest stages, only the continent of Pangaea existed. As plate tectonics slowly moved the supercontinent into the landmasses we see today, lifeforms also evolved in separate lineages to match the characteristics of their respective habitats. Kolbert also explained that most biologists would observe humans are now creating a new Pangaea by relocating species across the globe, and relinking all the lineages that had branched out before.

Final thoughts

From Kolbert’s talk, the biggest takeaway for policy students is how can we continue economic and technological development, but at the same time respect the planet’s natural systems and be held accountable for the damage we have caused? With information of the planet’s imminent destruction becoming more widespread, what can policymakers do to overcome the economic and political power of elites that wish to continue their harmful practices? Kolbert’s keynote did not even cover every malignant human activity that has negatively impacted Earth’s natural systems, such as desertification from inappropriate agricultural activity, the excess buildup of garbage in the oceans, and the emergence of super bacteria stemming from irresponsible use of antibiotics. Carbon emissions are only one item on a long laundry list of humanity’s abuses towards the Earth. Before she concluded her talk, Kolbert was hesitant to suggest potential solutions that would stop the current crisis, as in the current state of global politics, there are none to begin with.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s keynote was a sobering display of how much humans have devastated their planet in the past few centuries. Her presentation showed that beyond fossil fuel emissions, human society as a whole has plenty of other issues to rethink on how they can continue to progress without wiping out a substantial portion of the planet’s lifeforms.

The Phil Lind Initiative is an annual speaker series led by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Funded by Rogers Vice-Chair Philip Lind, the series focuses on a new policy theme each year, and invites academics and professionals across interdisciplinary fields. To find out more, visit the official website.

This post has also been published on The Pub, the online magazine authored by Master students at the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA).

Photos courtesy of the SPPGA.

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