During the last week alone, the Taipei Times reported on dead fish in the Tamsui River (淡水河), overfishing by Taiwanese-owned fishing fleets and disappearing coral reefs and expanding jellyfish numbers because of storm damage, global warming, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution, which deprive fishermen of their livelihoods.
These are cumulative warning signs that we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis that may be even worse than the climate crisis. And this crisis is worst in lakes, rivers and oceans; maybe because humans don’t live there, even fewer people care about their well-being.
The Guardian newspaper recently carried an article in which one of the greatest living biologists, Harvard University professor Edward Wilson, described biodiversity loss as the Earth’s “immense and hidden” tragedy. With the climate crisis center stage next month in Copenhagen, public attention has been almost completely diverted from the problem of the biodiversity crisis causing even worse damage.
Unlike global warming, extinction of species is irreversible, while the collapse of ecosystems is very difficult to repair. People may be able to cope with higher temperatures, but they cannot do without essential ecosystem services such as food, fibers, medicines, clean water and other essentials for well-being. While there is a technological fix for the climate crisis called renewable energy, there is no such straightforward and simple solution for the biodiversity crisis.
As 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, it is time we recognize the urgency of the biodiversity crisis. Useful information is on the Web sites of BirdLife International, the IUCN, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Global Biodiversity Outlook of the Convention on Biodiversity and the WWF’s Ecological Footprint and Living Planet reports. The latter reports a 30 percent loss of biodiversity within 30 years, demonstrating the unbelievable pace of biodiversity loss, almost all because of unsustainable human activities.
Taiwanese scientists, government officials and NGOs should support ongoing biodiversity initiatives such as the Biodiversity Observation Network (www.earthobservations.org/geobon.shtml), The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (www.teebweb.org), which calculates the economic cost of biodiversity loss, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (ipbes.net/en/index.asp), which intends to bring biodiversity scientists and governments together in the manner of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
All this points to one conclusion: The short-term exploitation of ecosystems will come back to haunt us with a vengeance. Any other conclusion is based on wishful thinking, not science. We can ignore the facts and carry on, business as usual, ending up with an environment much less able to provide us with a pleasant life, or we can collectively decide to do something about it for the betterment of all humanity — but mostly for the poor of the planet, who are much more reliant on biodiversity and ecosystems and much less able to compensate for their loss by buying products from somewhere else. Protecting biodiversity is not about ideology, but about a very practical question of survival and quality of life.
Because the climate, pollution, water, energy and biodiversity crises reinforce each other, they cannot be solved separately. Renowned science commentator Jared Diamond said there is no single most important environmental crisis, and that we need to deal with all these problems at the same time because any one of them could do us in.
Even so, we should pay more attention to the biodiversity crisis — a crisis of life itself.
Bruno Walther is a visiting assistant professor of environmental science at the College of Public Health and Nutrition, Taipei Medical University.
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