With the onset of the industrial society the extinction of species on our planet began to take place much faster than the natural rate of extinction in the ongoing Holocene epoch. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, nearly 875 extinctions occurred between 1500 and 2013. Of the 129 recorded bird extinctions, 103 are known to have occurred since 1800, indicating an extinction rate 50 times that of the background rate.
Today, one in every four mammals and one in every eight birds is facing a high risk of extinction in the near future. A total of 15,589 species of plants and animals are known to face a high risk of extinction in the near future, in almost all cases as a result of human activities. This includes 32% of amphibian species, 24% of mammal species, 12% of bird species, 25% of conifers and 52% of cycads (an ancient group of plants).
The scientific consensus in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report is that: “There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5 °C (relative to 1980-1999) ...”
Many scientists have warned that the extinction rate is likely to accelerate. Unlike other mass extinction events in the earth’s geological history, the current extinction phenomenon will be distinguished by the fact that it will not be nature but a single species — humans — that will be primarily responsible for the incoming catastrophe.
Despite the existential correlation and inter-dependence of species, the extinction of other species has not moved us to take remedial actions. There are scientists and environmentalists who doubt the humans’ ability to last beyond the 21st century. In the midst of this crisis, is there still hope for survival? Yes and no, depending on how soon and how effectively we respond to the grim scenario. The positive development has been a greater understanding, awareness and acceptance among people about anthropogenic factors responsible for climate change.
(Shelley Vishwajeet is founder president, Earthcare Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal.)