Dangerous Attacks on Ecosystems

Protecting Species Means Saving Ourselves

Credit: Steve Sack, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, MN

Donald Trump has notoriously denied the fact that climate change exists (similar to what he did with COVID-19: “It will just disappear”), much less that it existentially threatens all life on the planet as we know it. Consistent with this denial of reality are his administration’s assaults on ecosystems, which are increasing, not diminishing, the climate threat.

The Trump administration is making drastic changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is weakening protections for “threatened” species (historically treated the same as endangered species) and for the first time is allowing economic analysis as a criteria in determining whether to protect species, which will allow more development in wildland habitats. It will also dangerously threaten our ecosystems’ ability to function, increasing the threat of global warming.

Ecosystems are nature’s machinery. They are communities of living and non-living things working together which support life on the Earth by manufacturing such things as clean air, clean water, food, and so on. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): “The health of ecosystems on which we all and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economy’s, livelihoods, food security health and the quality of life worldwide.” Healthy ecosystems depend on species diversity to function. The Trump administration’s attack on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is an attack on the very species diversity that make for successful ecosystems.

The Role of Species

The ESA is not just about protecting wolves, for example, from hunting. It’s about protecting the myriad of species (plants, animals, insects) that make up the ecosystems. It was designed to ensure the continued existence of the biological goods and services they produce, which we all depend on for life. With warming, and the attendant habitat destruction and pollution, the species that make ecosystems work are diminishing and disappearing.

Scientists estimate that approximately 8 million animal and plant species live on the Earth, including 5.5 million insect species. According to the IPBES, up to one million are threatened with extinction, many within decades. As the species disappear, the ability of ecosystems to function diminishes and disappears. In this context, removing protections from species, which by definition are part of an ecosystem’s ability to function, is both ignorant and dangerous.

The Trump rules mark the biggest change in a generation to America’s ability to protect species diversity. Endangered species have enjoyed protections based solely on biological scientific analysis since the 1970s. This administration is in the process of ending that. The Trump administration wants to consider only future factors that it deems “likely” in the context of the economic impacts of listing a species as endangered. This would not only allow development in wildland habitats (the intent of the change), it will endanger the ability of ecosystems to function by removing the mix of species which ensure their ability to function.

There’s more.

With the Earth’s oceans making up 70 percent of the planet, we are a water planet. However, fresh water, upon which ecosystems and all life depends, comprises only 2 percent of the water on the Earth. Due to climate change, fresh water is, because of drought, increasingly under threat — recall Santa Barbara’s seven-year drought and water shortages of just two years ago. Nevertheless, Trump’s EPA has promulgated a rule that threatens the viability of our fresh water supplies.

The Clean Water Act

The new rule redefines “waters of the United States”, under the Clean Water Act, to exclude protections from: all ephemeral streams (intermittent streams), which are essential to non-polluted fresh water supplies.

Intermittent streams are sometimes wet and sometimes dry. They are predominantly upstream habitats. Removing protection from them is intended to allow more development. However, it will also allow water pollution to occur upstream, resulting in both downstream polluted drinking and agriculture water. And, the new rule allows companies to monitor themselves; the EPA would not issue fines for reporting violations. By removing protections, we are doing irreparable damage to our non-replaceable fresh water sources.

Nature is attacking us through COVID-19 and climate change; it’s a cry for help. Rather than helping by protecting habitats which keep us away from animal diseases like COVID, and reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, our government is adding to nature’s decline by attacking our ecosystems and fresh water sources.

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