The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the coming catastrophe

A polar bear walks on ice last month near Tilichiki, Russia.
A polar bear walks on ice last month near Tilichiki, Russia. (Alina Ukolova/AP)

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. — A new United Nations report projecting the extinction of one-eighth of all animal and plant species should rattle the cages of any remaining skeptics regarding climate change and the central role humans have played in Earth's accelerating destruction.

The report is by far the most depressing and frightening bit of news among an exhausting list of dire predictions and seemingly incessant fire alarms, including threatened increases to U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, market plunges, North Korea’s missile tests and President Trump’s affronts to the Constitution. Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more.

Finding out that 1 million species face extinction without radical corrective changes in human behavior is akin to finding out you have a fatal disease. One day you have a thousand problems; the next, you have just one. Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the catastrophic potential posed by climate change and the decimating effects of careless consumerism around the globe.

Scientists on May 6 released a landmark United Nations report on the damage done by modern civilization to the natural world. (Video: Reuters)

The four horsemen of the apocalypse — generally considered to be conquest, war, famine and death — weren’t far off the mark. Today, we might revise the New Testament version to include plastics, emissions, deforestation and Homo sapiens.

Lest some folks become incensed by this apparent disparagement of man’s great works (see war and conquest), be assured that such evidence is everywhere abundant and noted. But men and women who can create plastic (my own great-uncle, a chemist, played a part) can surely find biodegradable — and profitable — alternatives. Dustin Hoffman may not don flippers and scuba gear to unwillingly celebrate the future of plastics, as famously portrayed in “The Graduate,” but perhaps a young congresswoman from the Bronx will lead a confetti parade driving a cardboard convertible.

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It’s time to change our habits and, pending a better cliche, save the planet. It’s dying, and we’ll die with it, eventually.

The report, a summary of which was released Monday by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), was the result of a three-year study by 145 authors from 50 countries.

Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as chair of the panel, wrote in a statement that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all 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.”

But, Watson also said, it’s not too late to repair and sustain nature — if we act now in transformative ways. It won’t be enough for us to recycle our Dasani bottles or tote our own shopping bags, though these are helpful and keep us mindful. But big companies have to sign on, and governments have to create incentives and policies to advance sweeping change. Needless to say, this won’t be easy.

In certain quarters, resistance to policy and procedures will be seized upon as a noble counter to regulatory zeal. Already, some so-called conservatives are gearing up to treat the report as a globalist attempt to hinder the United States’ return to greatness via more burning of fossil fuels, drilling for oil offshore and declassifying conservation areas. But conservatives by definition should lead the imperative. To conserve what is good — isn’t that the point?

The report makes the essential connection to human wellness, as opposed to merely caring about the horrors endured by sea creatures dying with their stomachs packed with plastic or Arctic animals starving to death as the ground melts beneath their feet. If something hurts economies and schoolchildren, we eventually get around to paying attention. As Watson noted, “We need to link it to human well-being; that’s the crucial thing. Otherwise we’re going to look like a bunch of tree-huggers.”

If only there were enough trees to go around.

What’s clear is that there’s no time for delay or partisan bickering. What’s different now is the degree of acceleration. Everything is speeding up, including the temperature and acidification of oceans, which contribute to the loss of coral reefs, themselves underwater ecosystems essential to more than 25 percent of marine species.

Meanwhile, the world’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by mid-century, according to the United Nations. Already, it has tripled since 1950. Collectively, we humans have altered 75 percent of Earth’s land and more than half of the marine environment. More people require more crops, more land and fewer trees, which ultimately results in warmer temperatures — and you know the rest.

Who knows? The end of everything may be the great unifier we’ve been looking for.

Read more from Kathleen Parker’s archive, follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Business as usual is not acceptable when it comes to protecting our planet

Eugene Robinson: We’re killing off our planet, and our enlightenment may come too late

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s climate change rhetoric won’t work

Paul Waldman: The GOP’s answer to catastrophic climate change? Trolling the libs.

James Downie: The fierce urgency of climate change

Here are 11 climate change policies to fight for in 2019