extinction [ɪkˈstɪŋkʃən]

1. the act of making extinct or the state of being extinct

2. the act of extinguishing or the state of being extinguished

3. complete destruction; annihilation

In the abstract, merely a word that describes the process or the state of complete eradication of some class of things or processes. In biology, those things which can suffer from extinction are living organisms: that is, plants and animals.

We are currently living through a period of one of the greatest mass extinctions in history. And the rate of extinction is the greatest in recorded history, thousands of times greater than at any time since the mass extinction event that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The title to this September 17th Reuters article, World examines “impossible” goal to halt extinctions is as ominous as it is blunt:

OSLO (Reuters) – World leaders will next week consider a target for halting extinctions of animals and plants by 2020 that many experts rate impossibly ambitious given mounting threats such as climate change and loss of habitats.

“Biodiversity losses are accelerating,” said Anne Larigauderie, executive director of the Paris-based Diversitas Secretariat, which groups international scientists and reckons the goal laid out in a draft U.N. plan is out of reach for 2020.

Let me be blunt. The world’s “political” leaders will do nothing to stop the rate of mass extinctions of species. Collectively, they lack the power or the will to act. Despite the majority of scientists who are “running around with their heads on fire” regarding the incredible loss of biodiversity the Earth is experiencing (i.e., the rapid extinction of plant and animal species) their warnings are being ignored, either foolishly or intentionally.

(cont.)

Larigauderie said scientists had been largely left out of defining new goals. “Until we have an organised process we will continue to have these sort of feel-good objectives that we are going to miss again,” she said of halting losses by 2020.

In the United States, the world’s second largest user of energy, and home to many of the major fossil fuel energy companies on the planet, Congress has shelved any debate on even modest climate change legislation for this year thanks to the opposition of Republicans in the Senate.

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Friday blocked a global warming bill that would have required major reductions in greenhouse gases, after a bitter debate over its economic costs and whether it would substantially raise gasoline and other energy prices.

Democratic leaders fell a dozen votes short of getting the 60 needed to end a Republican filibuster on the measure and bring the bill up for a vote. The 48-36 vote failed to reach even a majority, a disappointment to the bill’s supporters. […]

The bill would have capped carbon dioxide coming from power plants, refineries and factories, with a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 71 percent by mid-century.

Even capping carbon emissions 71% by mid century probably would have been insufficient to significantly effect the rate at which global warming and loss of habitat is wiping entire species from the face of the earth 1000 times faster than the normal or baseline rate. Yet even that paltry effort was blocked by the minority party.

With the likely pickup of Republican seats in the House and Senate in this years mid-term elections, it is even more unlikely that significant climate change legislation will be passed considering the antipathy of most Republican candidates to address the issue of the effects of human induced climate change or even to acknowledge that it exists at all.

This year, a host of Republican Senate hopefuls are trumpeting their rejection of climate science on the campaign trail. Christine O’Donnell became the latest to enter the spotlight last week when she rode tea party support to knock off Rep. Mike Castle — one of eight House Republicans who voted for cap-and-trade climate legislation last summer — in Delaware’s open-seat GOP Senate primary.

She joins Nevada’s Sharron Angle — who has dismissed man-made global warming as a “mantra of the left” — Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson — who blames warming on “sun spots” — Florida’s Marco Rubio, Alaska’s Joe Miller and Colorado’s Ken Buck as tea party-backed Republican Senate candidates who reject the science connecting human greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.

But the tea partiers are not alone. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and challenger to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), says Americans need to “have the courage to examine the science of climate change.” And at a debate last month in New Hampshire, all six Republicans seeking their party’s nomination to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) expressed their skepticism, including former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, the eventual nominee. […]

“You’ve got people in positions of prominence suggesting it’s a hoax,” said Boehlert, who was chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee before leaving office in 2006. “I don’t know if that is out of sincere conviction or political convenience, but they find when they demagogue on the issue, they score some points.”

Their skepticism, whether politically motivated, purchased by the campaign contributions of Energy Producers and Utilities, or simply based on idiotic conspiracy theories and the denial of the mountain of physical evidence and peer reviewed scientific studies, is proving toxic to the millions of species with whom we share this planet. They are literally ignoring the alarms raised by reputable scientists and scientific organizations. Take for example this portion of the Executive summary from the United Nations report “Global Biodiversity Outlook 3” (a/k/a GBO-3) released earlier this year:

There are multiple indications of continuing decline in biodiversity in all three of its main components – genes, species and ecosystems – including:

  • Species which have been assessed for extinction risk are on average moving closer to extinction. Amphibians face the greatest risk and coral species are deteriorating most rapidly in status. Nearly a quarter of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction.
  • The abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally, with especially severe declines in the tropics and among freshwater species.
  • Natural habitats in most parts of the world continue to decline in extent and integrity, although there has been significant progress in slowing the rate of loss for tropical forests and mangroves, in some regions. Freshwater wetlands, sea ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and shellfish reefs are all showing serious declines.
  • Extensive fragmentation and degradation of forests, rivers and other ecosystems have also led to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • Crop and livestock genetic diversity continues to decline in agricultural systems.
  • The five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.
  • The ecological footprint of humanity exceeds the biological capacity of the Earth by a wider margin than at the time the 2010 target was agreed.

For a more succinct summary of the GBO-3, read this article from CNN:

The world’s eco-systems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse” according to a new United Nations report. […]

Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD said in a statement: “The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history.”

The U.N. warns several eco-systems including the Amazon rainforest, freshwater lakes and rivers and coral reefs are approaching a “tipping point” which, if reached, may see them never recover.

The United States, for all its decline over the past 50 years is still considered the predominant Superpower on the planet. Yet, we are also one of the principal anchors delaying collective action regarding climate change, the destruction of our planet’s eco-systems and the mass extinction event that is accompanying humanity’s effect on our world’s global environment.

Our political discourse on climate change and the mass extinction that is accompanying it is paralyzed by the obstruction of the Republican Party (and some Democrats as well), the public’s ignorance of the facts as a result of poor media coverage, hostility toward the scientific evidence klargely generated by a deliberate disinformation campaign funded by major corporate interests and the outright greed of the fossil fuel industry (i.e., Big Oil and Big Coal).

Listen to Stephen Chu, Nobel Prize wining physicist and Obama’s Secretary of Energy in his interview by the SanJose Mercury News (via Climate Progress) as he compares the distortions being propagated by corporate interests regarding the effect of human activity on our world’s environment to the lies the tobacco industry told to deny the harmful health effects of smoking:

SJMN: Are you worried that the political will to enact a national policy or somehow tax or price carbon emissions is gone now? If you look at recent polls, the number of Americans who believe that global warming is real and man-made is declining. The political trends are not in your favor.

Chu: Americans were believing because of sound bites, and now they’re disbelieving because of sound bites. One can honestly say that if we don’t do this, we will not be economically competitive. Ten and 20 years from now, the price of oil will likely be higher — this is not a stretch of the imagination. The debate for whether smoking causes lung cancer and emphysema was actually in the first decade among scientists, but they muddied the waters for 2½ more decades. Climate change, on a global scale, is a much bigger deal, and people are trying to muddy the waters, particularly people who think they might lose. Unfortunately, it’s easier to propagate fear than seeing a vision of prosperity.

And the reality is frightening. For example, we are looking at a potential loss of 95% of the the species that dwell in our oceans:

“Today the synergistic effects of human impacts are laying the groundwork for a comparably great Anthropocene mass extinction in the oceans, with unknown ecological and evolutionary consequences,” Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a 2008 article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. […]

When it comes to the oceans, research shows a parallel to the Permian-Triassic extinction — also known as the Great Dying — which eradicated 95 percent of marine species when the oceans lost their oxygen about 250 million years ago.

The same phenomenon is taking place in many areas of today’s oceans. The entry of fertilizers into rivers and subsequently oceans is eating up the oceans’ oxygen — that runoff is the primary source of the Gulf of Mexico’s 3,000-square-mile (7,770-square-kilometer) dead zone. Around the world, the number of dead zones, some of which are naturally occurring, increased from 149 in 2003 to more than 200 in 2006, according to a 2008 report by the United Nations Environmental Program.

What’s more, the ocean surface is warming, driven by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This keeps the deeper waters, which are rich in nutrients but low in oxygen, from mixing with the oxygenated surface. According to a 2007 report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global surface temperatures increased by 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) throughout the 21st century, and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this decade is the warmest since record-keeping began in 1880.

One would have thought that the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster (much like Katrina before it) would have been that bell weather event that finally convinced people that something needed to be done immediately to halt the destruction of our planets species and ecolo-systems, but sadly it has largely had the opposite effect. Many people have simply gone into a deeper denial regarding the disasters to the environment caused by human actions, especially since the news media has moved on to other, more trivial yet (to the executives and producers) more enticing, entertaining stories. Even the “Year of Extreme Weather Events” from record heat waves, massive winter, spring and summer storms, unprecedented floods and wildfires, etc. has had little effect on the public consciousness.

For that kind of deep repression of the danger we ourselves face, I think you have to thank, in large part Fox News, which has been the leader in granting climate change “skeptics” a forum to air their propaganda (though the rest of the media is often complict in reporting the story as a “controversy” when the only controversy is the unbalanced and distorted media coverage of the science):

“I think it reflects a steady drumbeat by Fox News around the science of global warming and the coverage of the so-called ‘Climategate’ — which turned out to be nothing,” Massaro said. “The news media at first reported it ad nauseam, but when the investigation revealed that things had been taken out of context and the science was sound, the stories were buried on page 18.”

Yet, while the news media reports the falsehoods and inaccuracies of climate skeptics and deniers as legitimate news stories the real facts get buried. The most ominous story yet may be this one about the massive die-off of oxygen producing phytoplankton in the oceans:

Microscopic plants in the ocean, called phytoplankton, are among the most important creatures on Earth and produce half of the planet’s oxygen. But they are in trouble. A new study finds that since 1950, the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean’s surface waters — the basis of the ocean’s food web — has declined by 40 percent. […]

The cause is pretty clear: The declines are biggest where the ocean is warmest. As the surface of the ocean warms up, that hot water just sits there and prevents colder nutrient-rich waters from coming up from below, so the phytoplankton don’t get fertilized.

And this turns out to be critical not just for plankton, but for the fish that feed on them. […]

“You see die-offs of marine mammals, die-offs of marine birds — so to me, that’s just possibly the most tangible picture we can have of how important the productivity of these microscopic plants is to the welfare of the higher organisms that live and depend upon the ocean,” Behrenfeld says.

Phytoplankton are the critical species that allows other creatures in the oceans to survive. Less phytoplankton mean less fish. It also means a significant drop in the production of oxygen. And it means less of the CO2 that is emitted will be absorbed, thus increasing global warming. In short, if the phytoplankton go extinct there’s a good chance so will most human beings.

But our politicians are too timid (Senate Democrats) or too well paid by the fossil fuel lobby (Republicans) or too ignorant (Tea Party candidates) to do the right thing and work for passing legislation to lower carbon emissions. I feel that I am watching the world burn while my leaders party and dance to the tune of false media narratives and high paid energy lobbyists, and many of my fellow citizens ignore the flames.

On a day when we have learned that a new arctic sea ice minimum has been reached it is a sobering and depressing feeling indeed.

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