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After the Storm

When you’re in the middle of a forest fire, trees exploding all around you, smoke burning your lungs, and fireballs dropping from the sky, it’s hard to think about much except getting out of there alive.  That’s kind of where we are with thinking about global warming nowadays—the direct impacts on people.  How many lose their homes when sea level rises?  What new diseases are going to make their way out of the tropics?  How many dollars will it take to cut carbon emissions? But really, those flames and fireballs are just the beginning of the problem, if you survive them. It’s the aftermath you have to live with—a burnt out shell of a forest.  Not much fun to live there, if you even can. That’s why it’s important to think about how global warming is changing not only what people can do, but is actually changing the Earth we depend on. It’s changing nature itself. By “nature” I mean those things you need that you may not even know you need. Things like ocean fisheries that you think of as tuna in your sandwich, or compounds in tropical plants and snakes that you think of as little pills to keep your blood pressure from rising to dangerously high levels. Another name for those kinds of nature is “ecosystem services.”  Ecosystem services are the ways we benefit from the non-human species that we’re riding the planet with. Of course, species aren’t much good if they’re extinct, which is why people worry about another face of nature, called “biodiversity”.  The more species on Earth, the higher the biodiversity, and that’s a good thing for ecosystem services.  The problem is, biodiversity is dwindling—best estimate is that in the past four centuries, species have gone extinct somewhere between 17 and 377% faster than they ought to, as judged from extinction rates over the long course of geological time.  (And that’s without global warming, by the way). Loss of biodiversity means more than loss of ecosystem services—there is the intrinsic loss of the species themselves.  We’ve already got a world that lacks half of the big animals that should be there (things like mammoths, giant elk, giant beavers, and wombats the size of a small car), and many of the small ones as well.  And of what’s left, many are teetering on the brink. For instance, by last count, around one quarter—more than 1300 species—of the 5487 known species of mammals are on the road to extinction. You have to ask yourself—would the world really be as good a place without chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, pandas, and tigers, to name just a few? There’s a third face of nature too: wild places, no matter what species are found there, places bigger than ourselves that feed the human spirit.  These are places where people don’t control—or at least only influence minimally—which species live there, and how those species interact. The problem is that global warming all of a sudden puts all three faces of nature—ecosystem services, species (ultimately biodiversity itself), and the feeling of wilderness—under siege as never before. Which means that as far as nature and global warming are concerned, there are three rules to live by: 1. Be afraid (but don’t panic) 2. It’s not too late (but it will be soon) 3. We can fix it (to some extent) Stay tuned. I’ll touch on each of these in later blogs. ——— Since 1990, Anthony D. Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of professor of Integrative Biology, curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Barnosky is author of the book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Click here to visit his website.