The UN’s Great Extinction Scare

June 25, 2019 Updated: June 25, 2019


According to a new United Nations report, “around 1 million species [out of 1.8 million known species] already face extinction, many within decades.”

This disturbing prediction (by no means the first such prediction) appeared in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) “Summary for Policy Makers.” (In case you are not familiar with these U.N. summary reports, standard operating procedure is that the summaries are released weeks or months before the full-length reports prepared by the scientists who were chosen as contributors, and the inner circle in charge of preparing the summaries—most often not scientists, but policy bureaucrats—are free to modify what the scientists have written.)

If the IPBES prediction is true, that implies a horrific extinction rate of about 25,000 to 30,000 species annually within the next 30 or 40 years.

Before you get depressed by or upset about this dire forecast, let’s take a closer look at the issue of species extinction. First, we’ll sort through some of the questionable and conflicting numbers, then assess humankind’s role, and finally, take a look at what we humans can or should do in response to the challenge.

The Numbers

Dr. Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who has famously rejected the alarmist climate narrative, testified about the IPBES report to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife on May 22. Dr. Moore’s statement rightly pushed back against the IPBES’s highly questionable numbers. Indeed, the report’s assertion that there are 6.2 million species on Earth that haven’t been cataloged or assigned a place in biological taxonomy yet is highly conjectural, if not preposterous.

Who has a secret list of 6.2 million species that humans have spotted but biologists haven’t yet categorized? If they haven’t been identified, how can they be counted? That number either came from a highly speculative extrapolation or was plucked out of thin air.

Even more dubious, though, is the headline number: “1 million species” on the brink of extinction. Gregory Wrightstone, the author of the important, fact-filled book, “Inconvenient Facts: The Science That Al Gore Doesn’t Want You to Know,” uncovered egregious data manipulation about extinctions. Using data supplied by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in the IUCN Red List, the IPBES report featured their equivalent of the infamous, discredited global warming “hockey stick” graph. Wrightstone showed that when one uses decades instead of centuries as the time unit, extinctions peaked more than a century ago and today are trending noticeably downward.

Furthermore, Wrightstone pointed out that IUCN’s own tabulations show that “in the last 40 years, the average annual extinction rate was two per year” and that during the most recent full decade (2000–2009), there were four total extinctions—less than one-half per year.

Apparently, there is no official record of extinctions anywhere. There might have been even fewer animal species extinctions than the IUCN claims. One BBC report (and the BBC is very much on the climate change bandwagon) stated that there was only a single species extinction (a mollusk) between 2000 and 2012.

The Reason

Whatever the precise number of extinctions is, conditions would have to change massively to have species start dying off at a dizzying rate of 20,000 or more per year in the next few decades.

Climate change appears unlikely to trigger a huge wave of extinctions. Today’s temperature is several degrees centigrade cooler than the Bronze Age about 3,500 years ago, so any species that has been around for more than the last four millennia (presumably, that would be most species) should be able to tolerate a few more degrees of heat (if, indeed, such a temperature even happens, which is by no means certain).

Before you let the U.N. report make you feel guilty for letting fossil fuels enrich your life, you should understand that the one- or two-tenths of a degree difference that human activity may be responsible for isn’t significant enough to drastically revise the lineup of species on Earth.

The kinds of human activity that actually do jeopardize the survival of some animal species are the same three types of activity that produced the temporary increase in extinctions in the 16th to 19th centuries—overhunting, habitat destruction, and the human introduction (both intentional and accidental) of predators into new ecosystems.

Yes, human beings can be the agent by which a species goes extinct. But before you go beating up yourself, let’s put the phenomenon of extinction into perspective.

According to paleontologist David M. Raup’s 1991 book, “Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck,” species extinction has been a chronic occurrence on planet Earth. In fact, 99.9 percent of species that ever existed died off before Homo sapiens ever arrived on the scene. Far from Earth having been a safe habitat for the planet’s wide variety of species—a benign Garden of Eden until a plague called “mankind” shattered the peace—life on Earth always has been a precarious proposition. Just as climate change happened many times without humans being on the scene, so it has been with species extinction. These things are going to happen, regardless of whether human beings are present.

The Future

Instead of flagellating ourselves with undeserved guilt, we should celebrate the fact that, unlike any other species that has stood at the top of Earth’s food chain, humans have the capacity to understand the long-term implications of what we are doing. We can make conscious decisions to alter our behavior in attempts to preserve other species. While it lies beyond human ability to “freeze” the present constellation of species in place, and some species will die out no matter what we do, we may be able to save some species.

The question then becomes an economic one—economic in the sense that we humans have to set priorities, make choices, and pay the costs of our actions. We can’t afford to pay the tens and hundreds of trillions of dollars that some greens want us to pay to try to shave a couple of tenths of a degree off the world’s temperature, but we can, if we want to, afford to take steps to preserve crucial natural habitats for the species we target for preservation.

In addition to obvious steps such as ceasing to use lakes and oceans as trash receptacles or outgrowing superstitions such as believing that rhinoceros horns enhance sexual pleasure, I can think of two ways in which most greens are currently waging massive warfare against endangered species.

The two modern fads of renewable energy and “organic” food both result in vast overconsumption of land, thereby unnecessarily shrinking the natural habitats of multiple species. The footprint of wind and solar energy production is far larger than the footprint of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. And the organic food craze is even worse. If the whole world forsook contemporary agricultural techniques and returned to the “organic” methods of just a century ago, yields per acre would plummet so far that the amount of additional land required to maintain the current level of food production would be measured in the millions of square miles.

To repeat: We’re going to have to choose, people. Do you want to just talk the preservationist talk, or actually walk the walk? What do you value more: preserving certain species or eating organic food and using sun and wind power? As Bob Seger sang in the live version of “Beautiful Loser”: “You just can’t have it all.”

But remember the good news: (1) The U.N. scare story of mass species extinction isn’t true, so you don’t have to feel guilty. (2) Cheaper (e.g., cheaper food and cheaper energy) is not only better for humans, but is also better for wildlife—that is, sound economics is often compatible with sound ecology.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith & Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson is an economist, who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.