Climate Action Isn’t Enough. Biden Must Take a Bold Stand Against the Extinction Crisis Too.

Democratic Party leaders take note: Climate change and the extinction crisis are not the same.

By Jimmy Tobias

September 30, 2020

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Sierra Club.

Earth’s biodiversity is like a beautiful old library—a giant collection of genetic information, each species an irreplaceable book on evolution’s shelves. Many of the books are millions of years old. Many of them have never been studied. Most crucial: We humans didn’t build the library, and we didn’t write its books. It’s all a priceless gift. And yet, armed with awesome technology, humanity is on track to burn it all down.  

The science invites shivers: The planet’s life support systems are in steep decline. Last year, a UN-backed panel of international scientists warned that as many as 1 million species could be condemned to extinction in the coming decades. Already, the size of the world’s animal populations has collapsed by nearly 70 percent since 1970 as deforestation, oil and gas drilling, mining, road building, urban sprawl, overfishing, and agricultural expansion wipe out wildlife across the globe. And the problem is only accelerating, with everything from Florida panthers and polar bears to little Texas lizards at risk of eventual annihilation. 

This spring, a group of eminent researchers published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that described the extinction problem like this: “The ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization, because it is irreversible.” 

“What is at stake,” write the report’s authors, “is the fate of humanity and most living species.”  

And yet, American political leaders are mostly silent about the global extinction emergency. Consider the case of Joe Biden, the de facto leader of the Democratic Party. So far this election cycle, he and his party have failed to confront biodiversity collapse in a serious fashion.   

Yes, the Biden campaign has released a slew of exciting new climate policy proposals in recent months, including plans to pursue renewable energy development and environmental justice. But global climate change and the extinction crisis are not the same. Mass extinction is its own phenomenon. It has its own causes, its own impacts, and few easy solutions. While the extinction crisis poses as serious a planetary danger as climate disruption, it gets just a fraction of the attention, including from Democrats. 

In a lengthy page on the campaign’s website devoted to climate policy, Biden offers only a couple of brief, if intriguing, talking points about wildlife conservation. The campaign commits on “Day One” to “protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates, and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.” Biden also promises to promote “reforestation,” to protect “areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters,” and to create new national parks and monuments. Elsewhere, he proposes a Civilian Climate Corps that would restore coastal ecosystems, plant millions of trees, and improve wildlife corridors. The Democratic Party’s 2020 policy platform, meanwhile, mentions extinction only once—buried deep on page 55.  

All of this is a start, but it is not nearly enough to meet the scale of the extinction emergency. The extinction crisis is not some little glitch that can be repaired with talking points and vague proclamations. It is a monumentally complex problem that will require a deliberate and determined strategy to solve. And right now we are going in the wrong direction as the Trump administration continues a systematic assault on biodiversity protections at home and abroad. From gutting key endangered species safeguards to rolling back critical environmental review regulations to fast-tracking harmful energy and mining developments in every corner of the nation, the current administration is like a gang of arsonists at the door of the biodiversity library.  

The Biden campaign to date has barely grappled with this reality. I have yet to hear the candidate mention the extinction crisis himself. Should he be elected, his policies must improve in a major way if they are to adequately address the problem. What is Biden’s plan to revitalize our country’s most important wildlife agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which paltry funding, political attacks, and a risk-averse internal culture have hollowed out? How will he strengthen the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, two foundational wildlife laws that President Trump has undermined at every turn? And what will a Biden administration do to restore nationally important ecosystems like the San Francisco Bay Delta, the Florida Everglades, and the western sagebrush steppe, where rampant development threatens to push imperiled fish, birds, and mammals over the brink? What will Biden do about vanishing wolverines, whooping cranes, and northern white rhinos?  And how will he pursue his plans for renewable energy, rail, and infrastructure development without further fragmenting wildlife habitat? 

A Biden plan to preserve wildlife habitat and combat extinction could be immensely popular. The American people want to protect this country’s land and wildlife. The Endangered Species Act, for instance, finds support among 74 percent of conservatives, 77 percent of moderates, and 90 percent of liberals, according to a 2018 survey conducted by Ohio State UniversityAnd a recent poll of voters in five western states found that voters strongly favor enforcing environmental laws and conserving 30 percent of America’s land and water for future generations. What’s more, the same habitat destruction that drives the extinction crisis also fuels the emergence of wildlife-derived pathogens that cause pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, as well as other diseases like Lyme. Degraded land and wildlife lead to degraded public health. This crucial fact should be broadcast to the American people and used to build public support for bold new ecosystem protections.   

The fires of extinction are gaining force across the globe. The well-being of countless species, including humans, is at stake. Joe Biden—and the rest of the Democratic Party—need to show up and help put out the flames. 

Paid for by the Sierra Club Voter Education Fund, which seeks to raise key environmental issues in the discussions around elections and encourage the public to find out more about candidates’ positions on key environmental issues.