Columnist Marty Nathan: Biodiversity report paints an ominous picture; window to act is now

  • FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2011, file photo, a lemur looks through the forest at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in Andasibe, Madagascar. Development that’s led to loss of habitat, climate change, overfishing, pollution and invasive species is causing a biodiversity crisis, scientists say in a new United Nations science report released Monday, May 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason Straziuso, File) Jason Straziuso

  • FILE - In this Dec. 4, 2018, file photo, birds fly past a smoking chimney in Ludwigshafen, Germany. Development that’s led to loss of habitat, climate change, overfishing, pollution and invasive species is causing a biodiversity crisis, scientists say in a new United Nations science report released Monday, May 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File) Michael Probst

Published: 6/6/2019 7:00:29 PM
Modified: 6/6/2019 7:00:18 PM

Last night my husband and I saw “The Biggest Little Farm,” an inspiring documentary about trying to farm “traditionally,” using species combinations and composting, rather than chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, to grow fruits and animals in California.

I walked out grateful for the “local food” and organic movements in our area that have explored and broadened ways of thinking about our relationship to the land and to the millions of other species that inhabit it and our oceans.

Many of us have had painful thoughts about that relationship, provoked by the new dismal United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Report on biodiversity loss. Released last month, it warns that species extinction rates are “accelerating” at an “unprecedented” rate due to the human-caused climate crisis and economic activity.

More than one million species have been pushed to the brink of extinction by “1) change in land & sea use, 2) direct exploitation, 3) climate change, 4) pollution, and 5) invasive species.”

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” declared Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES. “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 role of climate change in this disaster was punctuated last week by a story whose headline screamed for me to avoid it: “Mass Die-Off of Puffins.” We all love puffins. I have traveled miles by boat to see puffins. They are visually adorable, tough (spending most of their lives on water) and true (probably mating for life.)

And now rising temperatures in the Bering Straits off Alaska seem to have reconfigured the availability of the fish on which they survive, and they have starved to death in the thousands. Other huge seabird die-offs in the region have devastated auks and murres.

My intestines twist when I hear the present administration speak of its policies as “pro-life.” This corporate-directed government, in order to serve short-term crony profits, has wielded policies that champion all the first four of the five species-killing practices identified by the IPBES. It is pro-extinction, pro-death.

Again, per Prof. Watson, “It is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”

Hear that? That’s what it takes: “Transformative change.” “Fundamental, system-wide reorganization.” That means, among other things, the Green New Deal, limits on destructive development, claiming the real value of nature and giving real rights to indigenous and poor communities.

Transformative change does not mean burning our forests or building more gas infrastructure. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources held hearings in Springfield on Wednesday that will have a direct impact on the survival of species and local poor and working humans.

At Gov. Charlie Baker’s behest, the DOER is trying to sneak in regulations that would pay operators of large-scale biomass electric-generating plants like the one proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy on the east side of Springfield, the Asthma Capital of the Country. The burning of forests would qualify for subsidy in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, making the Palmer Renewable plant viable.

The change ignores the fact that burning wood is as climate changing and polluting for locals as is burning coal, and trees are only “renewed” after 20 to 30 years, well beyond our window to prevent catastrophic climate change. Send your testimony in opposition to the new regs to John Wassam at

In Holyoke, Mayor Alex Morse has taken a firm position on the side of that transformative change, opposing the pipeline Columbia Gas is proposing to bring more gas to his city and instead opting for conversion to renewables and energy efficiency. His remarkable display of leadership is an act other politicians would do well to study and emulate.

And in Longmeadow, the game citizens group Longmeadow Pipeline Awareness Group is encouraging voters to come out to vote yes on a nonbinding resolution to encourage the select board to pursue the possibility of exerting the town’s right of first refusal to block Tennessee Gas Pipeline from building a gas metering station to facilitate a big new high-pressured Columbia Gas pipeline to travel through the town to Springfield. Their resistance to the old fossil fuel paradigm follows the IPBES directive.

We face a climate and species crisis. Now is the window for action, the moment to turn this ship around. The transformation must be global, holistic and all-consuming. And it must start now.

Marty Nathan, MD, is a physician, mother and grandmother and serves on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She may be reached at

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