Will Marshall
Oct 19 · 6 min read

‘Climate change’ is missing the point. We have an Ecosystem Emergency.

— Why I support the principles and approach of Extinction Rebellion —

Mea culpa, humans. Whilst I care deeply about sustainability, I have a confession to make: I have not been clear in my language about saving our planet — interchanging without consideration the words ‘sustainability’, ‘climate change’, ‘environment’, ‘nature’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecosystem’, and others. Most commonly I used climate as a catch all. Nor have I read closely the data on where we’re at.

In the run up to the UN Climate Summit in New York a few weeks ago, I read some of the data and reports and came to two damning realisations that I feel compared to share.

  1. Ecosystem loss has taken place at catastrophic scales warranting emergency response. It is not a future issue: it’s happened and is happening.

A wide-spread misconception, partially masked by focussing on climate of which the effects generally are in future decades to come, is that ecosystem loss is a future issue. We hear things like ‘by 2050, extreme weather events will mean that once-in-a-century floods will happen yearly’ or ‘in 2100, sea levels will rise to a point that we lose XX% of islands’. Whilst true, this hides that when it comes to ecosystem loss, much has already happened and it is happening daily. Homo sapiens have long rampaged other species on Earth, wiping out many of the megafauna as we settled new continents. But the post industrial destruction rates are truly at a different scale (and we know we’re doing it). This is why the message of extinction and emergency of Extinction Rebellion and others ring true to me.

Let’s get some facts on the table. I have read many of the reports that came out in 2019: the UN IPCC report detailing how the glacial melt is accelerating; the WMO 2019 report detailing accelerating sea level (“on sea-level rise…since 1993 is 3.2mm per year…however, 2014 to 2019 the rise increased to 5mm per year”) and temperature rise (“global temperatures rose 1.1C since 1850…but up 0.2C between 2011 & 2015”); the UNEP report assessing progress on the environmental targets of the Global Goals finding we’re unable to even track a whopping 68% of them; the birds report showing that we’ve lost 3 billion birds (30%) since 1970 in N. America; and many others. All worthwhile reading.

However, none was more damning than the UN Biodiversity (IPBES) report released in May. What made the headlines was that ~1 million species — or ~25% of species — are at extinction risk. But whilst that news was future looking, what alarmed me far more was the past data therein. It made clear that since 1980 (roughly, during my lifetime) we have seen:

  • The global biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%.
  • Natural ecosystems declined by 47% on average, relative to their earliest estimated states
  • Live coral cover on reefs has nearly halved (this one over the past 150 years).

A related report by World Wildlife Fund from 2014 estimated that the number of animals living on the land has declined 40%, and the same for animals in marine ecosystems. Animals in freshwater ecosystems have declined by 75%. Looking more closely at a set of species, it found similarly to the IPBES report that the major drivers were not climate but habitat loss and exploitation.

Wait, what? Let us digest this again. 82% of the wild animals by mass already gone? 50% of live corals already gone? 75% of freshwater ecosystems gone? Not in some hypothetical future, but already gone? Holy shit.

Furthermore, today, we exterminate another 150–200 species per day. This is ‘tens to hundreds’ times the background extinction event, so 90–99% of these are directly due to human activity. That suggests we’re loosing 13–18% of all species each decade at the present rate. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that we don’t have too much time to loose most species at the present clip.

This is a colossal planetary emergency as it stands.

2. We need to switch our prime focus from climate change to ecosystem emergency.

A second problem is our very focus on climate change. Most of the public discourse about sustainability focuses on it as the main issue. This is sloppy thinking for three reasons. Firstly, it is not the climate per se we care about, but the effects that it has on life (us humans and other species) that matters. The Earth has gone through myriad shifts in climate and we don’t care about the mix of gasses and temperatures per se. We care about climate only insofar as it negatively impacts life. Though this reasoning is perfectly obvious, frequently, climate is confusingly substituted as the end issue which can skew discussions and distort the focus of action. The ethical catastrophe of our day, if one’s to be singled out, is biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction. Put in plain words: humans are decimating life both in number and kind (species).

Secondly, and more importantly, climate is simply not the dominant factor contributing to said ecosystem loss. It could become dominant in time, and thus for sure deserves our serious attention. It is not a hoax invented by the Chinese to trick the West into curbing it’s growth; it is very serious. As California Governor Gavin Newsom said last week, ‘if you don’t believe in Climate Change, just come and spend a week in California’ — such is the cadence of extreme wildfires afflicting the state. But it is not the dominant factor driving wildlife decimation. Today it’s the third most important driver. The top 5 drivers of biodiversity loss, according to the IPBES report are, in order: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution, and (5) invasive alien species. Climate will likely be an increasing driver of biodiversity loss — so it’s critical we work to reverse it — but even greater attention is deserved on the first two.

Thirdly, per above, ecosystem loss is already happening — not a future matter. By focussing on climate everyone tends to think environmental concerns can put off to the future. If one focuses on ecosystem loss, the need for immediate action is far more evident and compelling.

Thus, flipping from a climate change to ecosystem emergency centred discourse is critical.

Let’s talk about ethics.

There are three big moral errors of our age that are largely unseen and unspoken:

  • national discrimination — that we consider it ok to discriminate between people based on where people are born;
  • future generations — typically we put zero value to future generations in our our present ethical calculus; and
  • other species — similarly, typically, zero-value is attributed to other species in our present ethical calculus.

Arguably, the greatest is the last. Although it is routine for non-human life to have a weight of zero in practical considerations today, it is hard if one stops and thinks about it to not consider this an ethical challenge of the greatest proportions — in line with any other ethical challenge humanity has ever faced.

Why Extinction Rebellion (XR) is right

For these reasons, I wholeheartedly endorse the principles and approach we have seen to date by efforts of XR; the simple, calm, truth to power language we’ve heard from Greta Thunberg.

  • They are right to re-brand this about extinction — that’s what matters most (though I’d add ecosystem decimation as the broader category);
  • They are right to say this is an emergency — we’ve destroyed about half the animals on earth and are wiping out completely 150–200 species/day more; and
  • They are right to rebel by taking to the streets and do Gandhi-esque, peaceful non-cooperation with companies and the state until we see change, because that is the moral thing to do.

Let’s get behind them.

Will Marshall

Written by

Co-founder & CEO of Planet — launching fleets of satellites to image the whole Earth daily. Worked on lunar missions at NASA; Ph.D. in quantum physics.

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