It’s hard to imagine a more dire assessment of what we humans have done to the world than the 1,500-page United Nations report released Monday in Paris that says, among other things, that our collective activities have put some 1 million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, many within decades. While environmentalists and other scientists have warned for years that humans are uniquely dangerous to the habitability of the planet, the new report takes a deep and broad look at exactly what those impacts have been so far, and what they foretell. It isn’t pretty.

The report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services involved the work of more than 450 researchers and relied on 15,000 scientific and government reports; it took three years to complete. It’s an astounding accounting of what we have wrought, warning that extinction rates are accelerating rapidly and making clear that without fundamental changes to how we live and organize human societies, the massive decline in biodiversity will endanger humankind as well, because our fate is so deeply interwoven with that of other species.

“The overwhelming evidence … presents an ominous picture,” said Robert Watson, chair of the U.N. body that presented the report. “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 rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years, the report says, “is unprecedented in human history.” Not coincidentally, the world population has increased from 3.7 billion to 7.6 billion since 1970.

Despite the dire risk from our burning of fossil fuels, it seems that climate change is only the third biggest threat to existence of global species, at least for the moment. At the top of the list is land use, including development, logging, hunting, mining and harvesting, and man’s impact on the oceans from pollution and overfishing.

Three-quarters of the earth’s surface bears the scars of human presence, as does two-thirds of the marine environment, the report says. Urbanized areas have doubled since 1990 and pollution from plastics has increased tenfold. Over-hunting and overfishing have undercut the natural diversity crucial to sustainability.

Some scientists argue that the global ecosystem is undergoing a “sixth extinction,” much like what happened to the dinosaurs and other lifeforms during five previous global catastrophes. But this is the first such crisis in which the blame does not fall on a massive asteroid strike or pervasive volcanic activity but on the behavior of a single species: us.

The message is clear: Unless the world drastically reorders its priorities and alters its policies, the despoliation of nature will continue.

So what is to be done? A lot of hard work. The report recommends a wide range of actions, including less intrusive and lower-impact land-use policies and integration of agriculture with development, stronger focus on conservation and retention of ecological diversity, localization (and “improved distribution”) of agricultural food chains, stronger marine protections and use policies, and in urban areas a better focus on sustainable development in making planning decisions.

Of course, those steps require political will, and if the decades-long fight to counter the worst effects of climate change from global warming is any indicator, we may be in trouble. The issue is global, and correcting the course of human behavior takes leadership and international cooperation.

In the U.S., we’re saddled with a presidential administration that seeks to increase production of fossil fuels rather than reduce it, and to roll back environmental regulations. Republicans in Congress also have targeted the Endangered Species Act, apparently believing that the need to protect threatened species is less important than economic development and giving industries free rein to exploit natural resources.

Fortunately, the United States was among the more than 130 nations that approved the summary of the report’s findings, signaling at some level a recognition by this administration that the natural world is paying a deep and escalating price for human behavior. We hope this report, and a global consensus on the dangers we face from climate change and a variety of other behaviors, will lead to smarter, less damaging policies. This isn’t a matter of balancing the survival of one species or another against the human need for food, water and shelter. This report warns in no uncertain terms that we face an existential threat of our own making. It’s humankind’s to fix, and the urgency of doing so can’t be overstated.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times

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