Since 1970 about half of individual animals have died. Half of land mammals' homes have shrunk 80%, forcing them to live within compact geographic ranges. The species these animals belong to may be the lucky ones though. Unlike the eulogized dodo bird or less well-known species like the western black rhinoceros or Japanese river otter, at least some of them are still alive. We are currently living during the sixth mass extinction. The main cause? Humans.
Habitat destruction, deforestation, toxic pollution, and the resource demands of 7.7 billion humans are taking their toll. Over the past two million years, only two species went extinct every century. In the 20th century, about two hundred have. Billions of non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have been lost as their species have gone extinct or been damaged otherwise. Perhaps, as a result of overreliance on fossil fuels and several other actions, humans are next.
That’s the primary finding of an October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Humanity, the report warns, has twelve years to limit climate change catastrophe. Rising sea levels, ocean acidification, increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and other consequences of climate change may ravage humankind for generations to come. To some extent, these impacts are unavoidable due to past carbon emissions. Nevertheless, humans still have an important question to answer. How much action are we willing to take now to reduce the severity of the problems in the future?
Currently, the answer seems to be not much. While fossil fuel emission levels remained stable from 2014 to 2016, they increased by about two percent in both 2017 and 2018. Meanwhile, the IPCC finds that carbon pollution must be reduced 20-45% by 2030 to avoid the catastrophic impacts. Even if every commitment of the November 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change was met, this would only accomplish a third of the necessary carbon emission reductions. Donald Trump cancelling the participation of the United States in the agreement in June 2017 only makes this more difficult.
Despite all of this, we are not helpless and we still have time to fix this. Most policymakers and activists have kept their focus on climate change mitigation, which means reducing carbon emissions. These emissions are the biggest contributor to climate change, so even if there’s economic, political and social barriers to fixing humanity’s fossil fuel dependence, directly solving the problem may be our best option even if we’ve failed in the past. However, a growing group are advocating for a focus on climate change adaptation, which means preparing for climate change to reduce our vulnerability and cope with its impacts. Examples include developing drought resistant crops and techniques to prevent flood surges and coastal erosion. Sometimes, attempting to solve the problem is wasting the resources that could be used to prepare for it.
The resolution for the Spring 2019 season grapples with this dilemma:
Resolved: Countries should prioritize climate change adaptation over mitigation.
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