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A group of biodiversity experts have proposed an inter-governmental panel modeled on the IPCC to synthesize information on the biodiversity impacts of climate change and provide an interface between policymakers and scientists.
This is a sensible step. Humankind is highly adaptable. Come what may, there will likely be a lot more people on the earth in 100 years than there are today, and they will likely be far wealthier than we are. The same can not be said for the rest of the biosphere. Someday we may look back on species loss as the single biggest tragedy to result from global warming. Right now, though, it’s extraordinarily difficult to gauge the extent of the problem and the severity of the threat. Hence the need for a coordinated effort.
See, for example, this recent New Yorker profile of Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace who was ejected from the organization decades ago and subsequently refashioned himself as an ocean-going vigilante who confronts whaling ships and illegal fishing vessels wherever he is able to find them.
Watson is a complex and fascinating figure, but what struck me most about the article is how little we presently know about the health of the oceans:
It was not until the mid-nineties that fisheries scientists turned their attention to the spiral of exploitation and attempted to gauge its consequences. They discovered that their discipline had been measuring biodiversity with a very narrow lens: looking, for instance, at habitats only in a particular region of the ocean, or at the rise or decline of a particular species, and usually with respect to benchmarks that had been set just decades earlier. No one had tried to determine what the full spectrum of life in the ocean looked like a hundred years or five hundred years in the past…
Humanity had been eating its way down the ocean’s food web; as large marine predators became scarce, people developed a taste for smaller and smaller fish. Animals that were once used for bait or that were considered worthless (hagfish, sea cucumber) were later taken in large quantities for human consumption. “Bait thirty years ago was calamari,” Pauly told me. “Now it is served in a restaurant. It is very nice. But it was bait before.” Future generations, Pauly predicts, only half in jest, will grow up on jellyfish sandwiches.
Probably not even half in jest. I only recently learned that the Japanese and others are actively harvesting krill, the tiny shrimp-like organisms that form the base of the Antarctic food chain. We’re now only a step away from plankton. Let’s hope that new panel convenes soon.
Image available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Brainware3000.