Two of the most experienced authors in environmentalism have sat down with The New Yorker to discuss a new report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report's revelations on the scale of extinction have been greeted with alarm.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on April 10, 2019

In an extended interview in The New Yorker authors Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben reflected on a UN report released earlier this week which concluded that nature is being obliterated at an unprecedented rate.

The report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), was released on 6 May. It found that the survival of a staggering one million species is being threatened. This represents one in every eight species on the planet.

It also shed new light on the depth of the problem of biodiversity loss. “The evidence is incontestable,” IPBES Chair Robert Watson said as he released the report. “Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our well-being at least as much as human-induced climate change.”

The report was the most comprehensive to date; almost 150 scientists from 50 countries compiled it and more than 300 others contributed.

UN report has inspired widespread debate and concern over our response to environmental degradation

In the interview, Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction said that the Trump administration had actively frustrated attempts to curb environmental damage.

She noted that there was growing activism on environmental issues, but also said that the US was also polarised. “At the same time (as the activist movements) you have just the most remarkably retrograde Administration in Washington, which isn’t just not making progress on these issues but actively rolling back whatever modest progress was made under the Obama Administration.”

McKibben also mentioned the School Strike for Climate Change and Extinction Rebellion mass movements, but lamented that there message was not getting through to politicians.

The Gandhi Peace Award winner McKibben said that inaction on harm to the environment had resulted from an embrace of small government and free markets.

“The idea now…that if you leave corporations alone they’ll get done what needs doing, this reigning ideology came just at the wrong moment.

“It came at precisely the moment when we actually needed governments to be doing something very strong to deal with climate change.”

The UN report has massive implications for world economies, food production, global health

Watson said the report had drawn on expertise from a range of fields and had painted painted an “ominous” picture of the earth’s future.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.

“The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said. “Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably… fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

The UN report found that humans have already significantly altered some three quarters of the earth’s land and two-thirds of its oceans. Much of this change has been a result of agriculture.

It also outlined widespread loss of biodiversity; a third of all coral species, sharks and marine mammals, and 40% of amphibians, are on track to become extinct.