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Not on the candidates’ radar: The ‘sixth great extinction’

Scientists see extinction happening now but Democratic candidates have little to say about it

Climate change protesters blocked streets in Washington in September.
Climate change protesters blocked streets in Washington in September. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats running for the White House are talking about climate change often and in detail, but they don’t have much to say about one of its most catastrophic outcomes: the rapid disappearance of plants and animals that scientists call the sixth great extinction.

The Trump administration gave Democratic contenders a window in late January when it moved to relax federal rules against killing birds. The proposed rule, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would allow oil, gas, construction and other companies to “incidentally” kill birds in their standard operations — a decision that could place millions of birds in danger and weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

But presidential campaigns — heading into the Nevada caucuses on Saturday and a debate Tuesday in South Carolina — did not squawk back, at least not loudly.

Extinction does not appear prominently, if at all, on any websites of the eight candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, though many include provisions to conserve land and wildlife. Still, those elements don’t come up in debates, and their details are hidden deep in campaign websites.

[Five ways Democrats vying for president differ on climate and energy]

CQ Roll Call asked the campaigns of Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren what their candidates would do to address mass extinction and biodiversity loss.

Only the Klobuchar and Steyer campaigns responded.

Klobuchar campaign spokeswoman, C.J. Warnke, cited recent remarks the Minnesota senator made at stops in New Hampshire, where she described how climate change harms wildlife in New England and Minnesota, her home state.

“We are seeing the effects right here in New Hampshire, the oyster and lobster fishermen off the coast of Maine, off the sea coast,” Klobuchar told a crowd in Manchester. 

Warnke did not respond directly to questions about the senator’s endangered species plans.  

Steyer spokesman Luca Servodino  said the candidate believes addressing the causes of extinction is the way to solve the problem.

“Ultimately, Tom knows that the most destructive driver of species loss is our continued use of coal, oil and fracked gas — both in terms of the direct pollution impacts of these industries to our air, land, and water systems, but also in terms of irreversible habitat destruction that is occurring as a result of the climate crisis,” Servodio said in a statement. “Moving rapidly and equitably to a 100 percent clean energy economy, and restoring strong bedrock environmental protections that are supported by large majorities of the American public will benefit human health and well being, and is also the most effective means we have of preserving biodiversity globally.”  

Servodio said Steyer as president would work to protect the Endangered Species Act and “usher in new protections for arctic and marine ecosystems” federal monuments, watersheds and forests.

Hard to find

A U.N. report last year concluded that humans have pushed 1 million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction, and those species may vanish in decades.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net,’” said Sandra Diaz, one of the authors. “But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point.”

[Trump seeks weaker protections as 1 million species face extinction]

Cataclysmic events, like asteroids, severe ice ages and volcanic eruptions, triggered the last five waves of mass extinctions in the past half-billion years. This mass extinction, the sixth, would be the first humans caused.

Before he dropped out of the race in January, Julián Castro, housing secretary in the Obama administration, unveiled his Protecting Animals and Wildlife Plan, which would strengthen the Endangered Species Act, address animal cruelty and halt the import of animal trophies. 

Castro’s PAW plan called for annually and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for national lands, parks and sites — an idea other candidates have embraced — and protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030. 

That target is part of the Global Deal for Nature, an international movement researchers proposed in April. It would serve as an interim goal to achieve so-called “Half Earth.” The famed conservationist E.O. Wilson crafted the objective to set aside 50 percent of Earth’s water and land for non-human species.

At least five active and former lawmakers — Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as well as Castro and Biden — pledged to meet that goal if elected.

“There are plans out there, and there are good positions out there,” Matt Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, said in an interview. “Why aren’t they talking about wildlife extinction?” he asked. “Especially since they have these nice plans.”

He added, “Why do I have to be an investigative reporter to figure this out?”

Brett Hartl, chief political strategist for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said candidates are “tangentially” nodding at extinction. That’s an improvement from the 2016 presidential race, he said.

“I don’t think Hillary Clinton mentioned it at all,” Hartl said by phone. 

The U.N. report lists climate change, along with “changes in land and sea use,” exploitation, pollution and invasive species, as forces driving extinctions.

The two issues are related. Surging demand for meat, palm oil and other products from lush tropical nations like Brazil and Indonesia pushes ranchers to clear-cut forests, eliminating huge swathes of land that would otherwise capture heat-trapping emissions.

Yet steps to lower emissions will not necessarily protect plant and animal habitats.

Voters’ desire to protect federal lands ticked up after Donald Trump became president. A bipartisan Colorado College poll of western state residents found 76 percent think a lack of resources to maintain public lands is a “serious” problem, up from 63 percent in 2017. 

It also found 3 in 4 voters view environmental rollbacks as  “extremely” or “very” serious.

‘Wakeup call’

The U.N. report was a “wakeup call” to the public that species extinction is not under control, said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning group.

“But it hasn’t permeated the public consciousness the same way that climate change has,” said Lee-Ashley, a former Interior Department official. He added that advocates have “a lot of work to do” to explain the problem and solutions. “I think awareness of wildlife decline from the extinction crisis is relatively low.”

Efforts to protect endangered species enjoy bipartisan support from the public but a modicum from congressional Republicans, who often buck against environmental policies they say might interfere with business.

In May, Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., Peter T. King, R-N.Y., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., sponsored a bill to protect wildlife corridors. Then in September, Buchanan joined with Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and other House Democrats to file another extinction bill.

“Funding projects that reduce threats to critically endangered species is our best chance at ensuring their survival,” Buchanan said of his bill, which would establish a fund for animal protection.

Still, this looming extinction has not seeped from Congress to the campaigns.

One reason may be that extinction isn’t crossing the lips of early-state voters. “I think candidates will talk about things they’re being asked about,” Lee-Ashley said.

Davis said 2020 hopefuls might be keeping their powder dry since animal issues are bipartisan among voters.

“Animals stuff often tends to be bipartisan,” Davis said. “Why wouldn’t you talk about it? Everyone’s into animals.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re not hearing about it,” he continued. “It’s more helpful for them as a candidate for president to pick a fight.”

Not that they’re lacking opportunities. The Trump administration moved in August to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the bedrock U.S. law that protects at-risk animals and plants.

Judi Brawer, Wild Places Program Director for WildEarth Guardians, a Western environmental group, said climate change simply suffuses all other environmental matters. “Climate change is such a big issue.”

Campaigns to protect birds of prey, grizzly bears, wolves and other animals seem like fights of the past to much of the public, she said. And if voters don’t see plants or animals vanishing in their communities, they may not notice overall species decline, Brawer said. But climate change affects everyone, and the public views it as such a sweeping threat, that voters may think tackling the climate problem will snuff out mass extinction, too.

“It’s like trickle-down environmentalism,” Brawer said. “To imagine life without these species I think is heartbreaking.”

But it’s not too late for White House contenders to chirp about extinction. The number of birds in the U.S. and Canada has fallen 29 percent since 1970, accounting for a decline of about 3 billion birds, according to research published in Science magazine in September. 

“This was an astounding result, even to us,” said Ken Rosenberg, the lead author and a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, was blunter. He called it a “full-blown” crisis.

“The connection between birds and humans is undeniable — we share the same fate,” he said. “You don’t need to look hard for the metaphor: birds are the canaries in the coal mine that is the earth’s future.”

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