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Elizabeth Kolbert: Humans Are Causing Largest Die-Off Since Dinosaur Age

Will this bring the 6th mass extinction in Earth's history?
 
 
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In the history of the planet, there have been five known mass extinction events. The last came 65 million years ago, when an asteroid about half the size of Manhattan collided with the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and bringing the Cretaceous period to an end. Scientists say we are now experiencing the sixth extinction, with up to 50 percent of all living species in danger of disappearing by the end of the century. But unlike previous extinctions, the direct cause this time is us — human-driven climate change. In "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History," journalist Elizabeth Kolbert visits four continents to document the massive "die-offs" that came millions of years ago and those now unfolding before our eyes. Kolbert explores how human activity — fossil fuel consumption, ocean acidification, pollution, deforestation, forced migration — threatens life forms of all kinds. "It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion," Kolbert writes. "The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys."

Transcript

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Aaron Maté : In the history of the planet, there have been five known mass extinction events. The last came 65 million years ago, when an asteroid about half the size of Manhattan collided with the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and bringing the Cretaceous period to an end.

Well, we turn now to a new book that explores what scientists call the sixth extinction, the massive dying off of animal and plant life that is happening today. Up to 50 percent of all living species are in danger of disappearing by the end of the century. But unlike previous extinctions, the direct cause this time is us: human-driven climate change.

Amy Goodman : In "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History," New Yorker reporter Elizabeth Kolbert visits four continents to document the massive "die-offs" that came millions of years ago and those now unfolding before our eyes. Kolbert explores how human activity—fossil fuel consumption, ocean acidification, pollution, deforestation, forced migration—threatens life forms of all kinds.

The figures are staggering. She writes, quote, "It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys," she writes.

Yes, Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and one of the country’s leading science journalists. Her previous book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, explored the science and politics of global warming.

And now you take this a step further, Elizabeth. Welcome to Democracy Now! To say the least, a chilling title, "The Sixth Extinction." So, take it forward. What does that mean, exactly?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, as Aaron mentioned, there have been, you know, five previous—I guess we call them major mass extinctions, because I should say there’s sort of an oxymoron—you can also have a minor mass extinction—but five major ones that we see in the fossil record, the most recent being the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. And so now human impacts on the planet—burning fossil fuels, acidifying the oceans, cutting down the rainforests, just altering the surface of the Earth—moving species around has enormous effect. You know, everyone has heard of invasive species, but we are moving so many species around the world, we’re really sort of reverse-engineering the planet, bringing—in effect, bringing all the continents back together. So, all of these things have the unfortunate side effect of causing extinction.