Goodbye Alaotra grebe, it was nice knowing you

Alas, the Alaotra grebe has gone extinct. Scientists (including me) have not seen extinctions on this scale since the dinosaurs disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous.

It joins a rather heartbreaking list.

Here is a list of some bird extinctions since about 1500.

Upland Moa (1500) a bird similar to a emu but stockier and heaver, Thaitian Sandpiper (1777), Raiatea Parakeet (1777), White Gallinule (1788), Kosrae Starling (1828), Kosrae Crake (1828), Kittliz’s Thrush (1828), Bonin Islands Grosbeak (1828), Delalande’s Coucal (1834), Mascarene Parrot (1834), Oahu ‘O’o (1837), Huppe (1840), Tahiti Parakeet (1844), Great Auk (1844), Spectacled Cormorant (1850), Norfolk Island Kaka (1851), Kioea (1859), Jamaican Lieast-pauraqué (1859), Cuban Red Maca (1864), Seychelles Parakeet (1870), Chatham Islands Penguin (1872), Samoan Wood-rail (1874), Newton’s Parakeet (1875), Labrador Duck (1875), Himalayan Quail (1876), Brace’s Emerald Humming Bird (1877), Hawaiian spotted Rail (1884), Bonin wood-pigeon (1889), Lesser Koa Finch (1891), Ula-ai-hawane (1892), Kona Grosbeak (1894), Stephens Island wren (1894), Greater Koa Finch (1896), Mamo (1898), Chatham Islands Rail (1900), Chatham Islands Fernbird (1900), Guadalupe Caracara (1900), Greater Amakihi (1901), Aucklands Islands Merganser (1902), Piopio (1902), Choiseul Crested-pigeon (1904), Molokai ‘O’o (1904), Black Mamo (1907), Huia (1907), Bogota Sunangel (19909), Slender-billed Grackle (1910), Grand Cayman Thrush (1911), Guadalupe Storm-petrel (1911), Laughing owl (1914), Carolina Parakeet (1918), Robust White-eye (1918), Red-moustached fruit-dove (1920), Paradise Parrot (1927), Ryukyu wood-pigeon (1930s), Hawaii ‘O’o (1934), Pink-headed duck (1936), Laysan Rail (1943), Wake Island Rail (1945), Slender bush wren (1972), Barred-winged Rail (1973), Colombian Grebe (1977), Mariana Mallard (1981), Guam Flycatcher (1983), Atitán Grebe (1989), New Caledonian Rail (1990), K’ma’o (1995), Norfolk Island Boobook (1996), Sulu Bleeding-heart (1998), Pohnpei Starling (2000), Po’o-uli (2004),

There are lots of reasons for these extinctions. But things are looking worse than ever for Earth’s species: the Gulf oil spill, climate change (including changing habitats and ocean acidification), and massive deforestation in critical areas of the world. Lots of species are in trouble.

Do we need to do anything?

What does stewardship mean? Not causing the extinction of species I think is implied in there somewhere. Often I hear the refrain, ‘people are more important than x’ where x means some species that needs protection from human incursions. I also am confronted with, “Why should we spend trillions of dollars on global warming when we aren’t sure?” and “Hey, it’s been colder where I live. Isn’t this refuting climate change? (No! This is a global phenomenon. And it might be better called, as my colleague, a climate scientist two doors down at BYU does, Global Weirding. In fact, while the arctic and alpine regions are warming, places like the northwest might see colder and wetter weather.)

This sad news about a beautiful bird, has made me want to talk about ecological collapse in some detail. The claim that people are more valuable than the environment, is a stunning misunderstanding of what sustains and supports life on Earth. It is the equivalent of the cartoon character who sits on the branch sawing off his support. The claim, ‘I’m so important that what I do to this branch doesn’t matter,’ of course is seeped in breathtaking naivety about how gravity works and the consequences of losing your support. And sawing the branch to the very limits of what one thinks it can support, is also the epitome of stupidity, “Let me see how far I can saw, I’m sure I can make the cut at least this deep. Whoops!’ Not bright behavior when one is a hundred feet up. That’s why we can laugh at our cartoon character. It’s so silly.

Yet that is exactly how we are acting. In the next five posts, I will explore five questions about climate change and economics within the context of ecological collapse. They are:

(1) What does it mean the oceans are becoming more acidic? What are the implications for fisheries, coral reefs, and ocean life?

(2) Is it a choice between economics (jobs, prosperity, etc.) or ecological action?

(3) How is the African, Middle-Eastern, Asian drought affecting people’s lives? How bad is this drought? Do I need to care about the poor of the world? Who is my neighbor?

(4) Species are changing distributions in ways never seen before? So what if a few insects are moving northward? (Wait, what do you mean that they are agricultural pests of crops and livestock?)

(5) What does it matter if it’s a few degree’s hotter? That’s not bad.

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42 comments to Goodbye Alaotra grebe, it was nice knowing you

  • I love when you talk science, Steve. I feel smarter when I read your essays, and I’m looking forward to these five posts- even if they scare me.

  • I’m glad you are posting about this, especially if it is true that extinctions have not happened “on this scale since the dinosaurs disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous.” (But I am still interested in seeing data on that)

    That’s a tragedy. On a basic level, excitations are just a part of life and always have been. (And always will be.) However, if humans are making things worse this needs to be dealt with.

    Yes, part being good stewards is eliminating un-necessary death and destruction.

    I’m excited to read the 5 posts as well.

  • Jack

    Steve,

    I agree that this loss is very heartbreaking. And I agree that we should be better stewards of the earth, doing all we can to protect the environment — within the scope of reason.

    But some of your conclusions sound more ideologically driven that fact driven. I’m really beginning to believe that most scientists are pretty naive with regard to social/political machinery.

  • Matt A.

    The problem being, of course, that most political and social machinery is inherently self-destructive.

    I prefer science and the pursuit of knowledge, myself, as opposed to the naked pursuit of power that is politics.

    Looking forward to your posts, Steve. I think that stewardship of the earth is deeply intertwined with religious principles. If we deliberately and wilfully squander what we have been given here, how is it that we expect to be entrusted with greater gifts?

  • SteveP

    Yeah, natural realities can be such a bother to politics. It’s almost as if you can’t legislate natural laws.

  • Jack

    Matt A.,

    It is the very social/political machinery that you so disdain that has made untold billions of dollars worth of scientific research possible.

    That said, I should make it clear that I don not believe said machinery to epitomize virtue. I only mean to suggest that the science community seems to have difficulty understanding and working with social/political realities — however good or bad — in a rational manner.

  • Matt A.

    Fair enough, Jack. I inferred the support/approval of said systems, when it wasn’t actually there. Apologies.

    I do believe, however, that some social and political realities simply can’t be worked with at all because they are by nature self-serving and destructive. A failure to effectively persuade them is not necessarily a reflection of naïveté on the part of the persuader, but rather reflects their own immovable inertia and inconsistent ideologies.

  • SteveP

    Scientists have been poor at communicating. Somehow, something with huge evidentiary support like anthropogenic caused climate change, has been politicized in the US in ways scientists are still scratching their heads over. Even with peer reviewed papers running about 1000:1 they’ve failed to overcome the influence of uninformed internet amateurs mining the data to construct a story that does not scientifically exist. That does represent a failure of communication.

  • To help you out SteveP: (Just so we can see some numbers behind these claims.)

    “The background level of extinction known from the fossil record is about one species per million species per year, or between 10 and 100 species per year (counting all organisms such as insects, bacteria, and fungi, not just the large vertebrates we are most familiar with). In contrast, estimates based on the rate at which the area of tropical forests is being reduced, and their large numbers of specialized species, are that we may now be losing 27,000 species per year to extinction from those habitats alone. ”

    There, that’s more clear.

  • For as great as we humans like to think we are, there may be no greater threat to the continuation of life than the continuation of Homo sapiens.

  • Thanks Joseph!

    S. Faux. A sad state given what we know about the importance of this place from an LDS perspective.

    Matt, I think the key word you draw out there is ‘gifts.’ And yes we are squandering it.

  • No thank you SteveP. Always a pleasure to read your stuff. :)

  • Stan

    Another reason some people fail to appreciate the issues… “The world will be ending soon anyway so it doesn’t matter what we do.”

    Self fulfilling prophecy.

  • Stan:

    When I hear arguments like “the end is near and it does not matter what we do,” I am reminded of the words attributed to Wilford Woodruff:

    When asked when Jesus would return, he responded: “I would live as if it were to be tomorrow—but I am still planting cherry trees!

    Woodruff’s words symbolize many aspects of Mormon philosophy to me. Mormonism should be about conservation, building things up, making the world better, the steadfast pursuit of improvement, etc. The end may be near but we just keep planning and planting.

  • Owen

    Scientists have not failed to communicate. Much of the world has just failed to listen, and will continue to. All of the “if only the scientific community had”-s are ridiculous. it’s like blaming a perfectly competent instructor for the normal curve manifesting in her students’ scores. There is no way to use sex and violence to sell enlightenment and the love of truth, so the average American will never, ever be interested unless the message is that they can just keep doing what ever they want.

  • Owen

    As evidence, just look around the world. There are plenty of places where the message about global climate change has gotten through, as evidenced by acceptance of Kyoto. It’s not the scientific community that has a problem, it is the ignorance-worshipping American populace.

  • No. Its the idea that we Americans would rather destroy the world than be told what to do and how to do it. You might find that disgusting, but there you go. And yes, I am one of them who 1) doesn’t really believe in Global Warming (its called Weirding now? How convenient. Another change of the story to fit the narrative of us bad humans) because I don’t believe the science or the scientists. Then there is 2) scientists have made it political (i.e. Kyoto) and therefore a basis of attacking the American way of life. You don’t like that way of life? Well, I do. End of story.

    Extinctions have happened before, they will happen again. If we humans cause it this time, then at least we had a hand in our destiny.

  • Jack

    Owen, you have been caught by the “Litany” hook, line, and sinker.

  • Owen

    “How convenient. Another change of the story to fit the narrative of us…”

    So, when scientists respond to criticisms about a failure to communicate by coming up with better explanatory terminology (not a change of the story, just a more apt term that captures better how people experience climate i.e. locally), that’s not good enough either?

    So, you don’t believe it. Is there any evidence that would convince you? I’m starting to doubt that those who aren’t “convinced” yet could be.

    Designing public policy based on science is politicizing science? By this same logic, banning lead in paint was a politicization of science.

    And as for the American way of life, over time this concept has included slavery, treating women and children as property, genocide (native Americans), widespread drug addiction, and on and on. The “American way of life” is constantly changing, and thankfully so.

    You’re right, Jack, I am a total shill for empirical evidence and robust theory.

  • Jettboy, I’m disappointed. Your blogs have always seemed thoughtful. The America you hold up (and that’s founding principals you just ravished) was framed on the finest principals of rational inquiry and education available to its founders. It was framed in the context of the leading philosophies of the day. Franklin was then considered, and still is now, one of the leading scientists of his day. However, in the system they set up the implicit right to ignorance is unassailable. It just that I cringe when I see it argued for.

  • Your probably right. There isn’t any current evidence that would prove Global (what do you call it now) for me. I just don’t believe the evidence and don’t believe the politics. Maybe if a Prophet of the Lord (or a really good scriptural argument) was to make a statement about it, I would give it more of a thought. Right now I just see it as a bunch of environmental wackos, political elitists, and sky is falling scientists mouthing off.Those who are most vocal are also the most hypocritical about doing something about it themselves. If I can give any advice to scientists really concerned about Global —, I would suggest telling your non-scientist followers to back off the tyrannical proposals (Al Gore the top of the list).

    Besides, I believe the Earth is a lot stronger than what is given credit for. It might take us all out, but it will survive as it has in the past. This is the Lord’s planet. He is in charge, not us.

  • Ah, Jettboy’s #17 and 21 remind me of myself as a freshman at BYU. In freshman biology (Cates and St. Clair) I had to read Pres. Kimball’s “The False Gods We Worship” and then write an essay about resource devastation and idolatry.

    Well, I wasn’t going along with that liberal crap, so I wrote an essay rejecting the premise of the assignment. I remember arguing that if we ran out of a resource, we would just find another way, just like the Nephites used cement when they ran out of trees. In the back of my mind I think I was daring them to validate my dittohead views by giving me a poor grade. (Actually, it was graded by the TA.) Alas, I would not be a martyr; I got full credit.

    I guess the moral of the story is that there is still hope for Jettboy. Either that, or those liberals successfully propagandized my skull full of mush.

  • Here are some reasons I deny Global (cooling, warming, change, weirding) and think its a at best by some a well intentioned hoax:

    Climate worries go back at least to Titanic sinking days, if not farther. The 70s were all about the great new man-made Ice Age. Now its the burning. Every time a scientist finds a new discovery on the issue, the evidence and conclusions are found questionable at best. Worse, is that scientists are lying about or hiding facts that don’t support the climate change theory. Even the most trustworthy sources of science has produced deceptive data that should be of concern. Some info even states that climate change hasn’t really changed much in the last decade. There is a lack of falsification when anything can be pointed out as caused by climate change. What has been blamed on climate change is getting absurd. It a matter of too much false information spread as undeniable truths. I refuse to bow to Gaia (and her priests) with such specious data and conclusions.

  • one sentence should read:

    Some info even states that climate change hasn’t really changed much in the last decade.

  • Yes, there are internet sites that will support any position you want. That’s why science has standards that have given you the modern world. Go back to the middle ages and see a world without it. But be careful there. They hunt witches and attribute causes to demons. As the deniers do today.

  • “SteveP”

    Well of course. I stand corrected. Thank you for your brilliant refutations. What was I thinking?

  • I’ll leave this discussion alone now. Obviously it isn’t going to go anywhere and there won’t be any real discussions. The Global whatever is going to be taken at face value and I’m not going to budge in my disbelief or hostility toward the theory.

  • If ones opinion is not based on evidence, there is no amount of evidence that one will find convincing.

  • Owen

    I find the appeal to prophecy for information about the natural world to be interesting. I just don’t see that prophets have every given us much of that, and half of what people think is such information isn’t (e.g. creation story, Noah story). The D&C and PoGP have some interesting things to say, but just a drop in the bucket really. Why would anyone expect that source to be helpful?

    But a more general (threadjacking) question: does anyone have a consistent theory that explains the branches of science that suffer from the denier syndrome? So, like some people have a knee-jerk denial reaction to climate science and evolutionary biology, but accept just as uncritically all the rest of science. I’m sure there are others…psychiatry and sexology get some…there was a lot of denial about AIDS at first… Physics has an illustrious history of scandal and malfeasance, but no one is freaking out over truly wild new theories over there. Is this phenomenon ad-hoc or systematic?

    Maybe anthropologists/sociologists studying superstition have an explanation? Is there a common thread? Is it the conflict with religious notions? I get that with evolution, but not so much with climate science. What are the common elements?

  • Jack

    Owen,

    I don’t think you’re a shill for the scientific community. I happen to believe most of what they say. But some might be inclined to believe you’re a shill for the uber-greenies — a movement that believes nothing good can come of the “American way of life.”

  • Well Jettboy, it is difficult to discuss a link dump. Let’s just take the one in your #24–just in case you come back: It’s a total distortion of Jones’s meaning. (See the interview here.) Statistical significance is about statistical confidence that the results observed are not by chance. By convention, scientists often use 95% or 99%, but there is nothing sacred about those numbers.

    In a noisy system like the climate, trends are difficult to detect over short timescales. The more years you have to look at, the more confident of an actual trend you can be. If you look at the warming trend from the present back to 1975, there is definitely a trend that is statistically significant. But if you shorten that window to only 1995, it isn’t quite statistically significant to the somewhat arbitrary 95% confidence level. It is entirely misleading to take a long-term trend, slice it into smaller parts that don’t themselves show statistical significance, and then claim that there is no trend.

    In summary, in an interview where Jones said, “I’m 100% confident that the climate has warmed,” a technical point about statistical significance has been seized upon and distorted to make it sound like Jones denied that any warming has occurred for 15 years. That’s the kind of garbage that flies around the internet giving people the simultaneous impression that climate science is bogus, and that they are well informed.

    Here are two links of my own.

    I collected resources at my blog here.

    I also recommend Skeptical Science. It has a nice format for easily finding answers to questions.

  • Jack

    Owen,

    As to you more recent post–

    I think the driving factor for “knee-jerk” denial is the cost involved. While I agree that such over-the-top denial can be silly, I think there are good less knee-jerk-like denialist arguments that deserve more attention.

    This debate isn’t just about “the science” as most scientists are wont to believe. It’s about a host of things that must be managed prudently before the cost can be clearly determined.

  • Jack

    But Jared,

    When we’re talking about a trend that has a mere 30+ year history don’t you think that 15 years of statistical insignificance is, er, significant?

  • Owen,

    I think the best answer I have seen is that we are likely to adopt the views of others when we sense that they share our values. I guess the corollary to that would be that we reject views held by people who do not seem to share our values.

    Climate science began to be politicized in the late 80s/early 90s when the George C. Marshall Institute turned from cold war issues (such as ‘Star Wars’) that died with the Soviet Union to climate change because of the potential for government regulation. It kind of snowballed from there.

    I think the hot-button scientific issues generally involve God, country, and morality. If you are convinced that climate change is really about destroying America or making everybody live like granola hippies, then of course you are going to view it with extreme skepticism.

  • Jack,

    If Jones is only 90% statistically certain that the 15-year trend is real instead of 95% certain, is that important?

    This 15-year window thing is an attempt to sow doubt and delay. Essentially what critics are doing is saying, “OK, you’ve proven that it has warmed since the 70s. Now prove that the warming trend hasn’t stopped.” Well of course you can’t prove that, because it takes time to establish what the trend is.

    Another way to think about this is this: How big a deal is it if, in another year, Jones can finally say that the warming since 1995 is statistically significant at the 95% level? Of course critics can come back and say, “Well sure, but what about since 1998, the hottest year on record?”

    FYI, here are the data in question.

    Also keep in mind that we are talking about the British data. NASA’s data probably would show statistically significant warming in the last 15 years.

  • Jack

    That data is frustrating. First off who decides how to establish the “anomaly” — and by extension, what the “nominal” (or best) temperature for the planet? Second, what is the difference in temperature rise between 1910 to 1940 and the last 30 years — and have we really nailed down the difference in cause between the two? Thirdly, how is it that an increase in CO2 happened to step in just in time to keep the warming trend going that really started in the middle of the nineteenth century?

    It’s all just a little too quaint for me.

    Re: Statistical significance–

    What may seem insignificant in temperature measurements can be hugely significant in policy making.
    The “insignificance” is very significant.

  • Jack, Maybe you would find these sorts of Pascal’s Wager sorts of arguments for acting more convincing given the uncertainties:

  • Jack

    SteveP,

    Yeah, I watched that video centuries ago and still disagree with it. I think the thing that troubles me about it is that if we applied that principle to everything we would never leave our houses. We live life based on probabilities not worse case scenarios.

  • Jack,

    Notice that there is no optimum temperature given. Anomaly is just another way of saying change relative to a reference. I’m not clear on how they calculate the baseline or why they choose particular timespans, but the choice of baseline doesn’t change the shape of the curve, and it does not imply an optimum temperature.

    Anomalies are used because they allow better comparisons. Think about it: suppose I track the temperature on a mountain, and you in a nearby valley. My temperatures would run cooler than yours, so instead of comparing trends in absolute temperature, we would compare them by looking at relative change.

  • Owen

    On the topic of statistical significance, the issue is what type of error is more costly, thinking something is happening when it isn’t, or thinking it isn’t when it is. Google Type I and Type II error. 1 minus the confidence level is the expected maximum rate of Type I error, i.e. thinking there is global warming when there isn’t. So 90% vs 95% means being wrong 10% of the time vs 5% of the time. Which level one uses should depend on the costs of each type of error.

  • Owen

    Jack,

    Luckily there are many American ways of life. I get your point–it just doesn’t worry me much. The “we would all have to live like granola hippies” think is just a scare tactic that demonstrates a failure of imagination. There are all sorts of alternatives to worshiping ignorance and fouling our own living space that don’t involve dreadlocks! I think my overriding thought was that it is unfortunate how in America our level of education and orientation towards scientific knowledge is such that most people just don’t have the tools to make self-beneficial choices. Just look at our city planning (personal pet peeve)–how can we be so inept at creating places we would actually like to live in if we had an option?

    Remember, we’re talking about the country that has spent trillions on two wars whose locations most of us can’t identify on a map.

  • Owen

    OK, careening off topic…but my personal alternative to being a granola hippie (although granola is pretty tasty) is to embrace my pioneer and depression-era heritage. I tore up my front lawn and planted a garden for fresh eating and canning. In the back I planted an orchard. We walk the two blocks to church. I turn off my WIFI at night. When we drive long distances we use our smaller car. When they finish FrontRunner to Utah county, we’ll take the train to visit the grandparents. All of this saves me money, reduces my negative impact on the larger environment, and makes my own life and space more enjoyable. All of these things that are visible externally have also raised eyebrows in the neighborhood, not so much because they are unwelcome I think as because they are unexpected. Even here in the bastion of pioneer heritage, I don’t think most younger people know how to keep plants alive, put up food, or, it seems, leave the house five minutes earlier and walk to church. We have a ready alternative in our Utah culture to the status quo of resource overconsumption, but most of us don’t have the skills or motivation to embrace it.

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