We Ignore Thousands of Threatened Plant Species at Our Own Peril
By Lorraine Chow
Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.
But Kokia drynarioides — commonly known as Hawaii tree cotton, or kokio and hau hele'ula in Hawaiian — is also one of the loneliest plants on Earth. After more than a century of overgrazing from non-native animals, competition from weeds, wildfires and widespread habitat loss, these days, you can count with two hands the number of wild kokios that still remain.
"In the early 1900s, Joseph Rock, a famous botanist who worked in Hawaii, said kokios were in no threat of extinction because of cattle and other ungulates," Josh VanDeMark, a Hawaiian plant expert, told Truthout. "By the 1980s, the population dropped down to only a couple dozen individuals. Today, there are only seven mature individuals known that are wild."
Certainly, in a state dubbed the "extinction capital of the world," the Plant Extinction Prevention Program's (PEPP) mission feels Sisyphean. Due to its long history of extreme isolation and climatic conditions, Hawaii is home to some of the richest varieties of flora and fauna on Earth. But the arrival of humans and rapid development exposed indigenous species to predators, diseases and invasive species of which they were not evolved to withstand. Hawaii now claims 44 percent of the total endangered and threatened plant species in the U.S.
What's more, PEPP's $1.1 million-a-year budget has been supported by state and federal funds and grants, as well as public and private donations. But this year, due to the "current challenging fiscal climate," the program is operating on a shoestring budget reflecting "70 percent funding reduction," the group states on its website.
"Those kinds of things can set us back. We're still going even though we lost a lot of our funding over the past couple of years. We're still going, but at a reduced capacity," VanDeMark said. "But for some of these species, they just don't have the time. They need 10 times the resources that are available and they need it right now."
It goes without saying that we need plants. Plant ecologist Doria Gordon, a lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a conservationist for the last 30 years, helped list many of the reasons why: They provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine and oxygen. They host and nourish a vast number of species, such as insects, birds, mammals, fungi and lichens. Their roots are central to soil health, control erosion and improve water quality. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, making them a natural and crucial carbon sink. Their beauty supports our economy and nurtures our well-being. They inspire, they give life, and so much more.
"So it means that they are really vital for everything we do, for everything in our lives," Gordon said. "And even though animals are more charismatic and get more attention from the public, if we don't pay attention to the plants, we won't survive."
Not only that, four out of five Americans support the goals of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which is aimed at preventing the extinction of imperiled plants and animals. This amount of support has not wavered for the last two decades.
Yet, a lot of Earth's flora is at risk of vanishing completely. More than 20 percent of the world's known plant species, or one in five, are threatened with extinction, a 2016 study by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London found.
Gordon, who was not involved in the study, said that unless we take dramatic action, that figure is "unlikely to improve" due to the continued stresses that all of the world's species, including humans, are facing.
Some of the biggest threats identified in the Kew study include agricultural destruction (such as livestock farming and palm oil production); biological resource use (logging, gathering terrestrial plants); residential and commercial development; and invasive and problematic species. Climate change is also a growing threat.
"We're only slowly learning both the potential scope and the degree of threat [of climate change], but there are changes we can see now," Gordon said. For instance, she said, extreme events in temperature and precipitation are pushing the environmental tolerance of plants.
"We were seeing daffodils starting to come up in the D.C. area, and then, of course, we had massive snow and sleet [in February]," Gordon explained. Sudden weather changes not only harm the sensitive tissue of the daffodils, but over the long term, this disruption could also throw pollinators out of sync with the flowers they pollinate, which can then impact plant populations.
So, what can be done? Importantly, we must urge our representatives and lawmakers to protect threatened and endangered plants from extinction by defending and strengthening the Endangered Species Act.
Take Kokia drynarioides, the lonely Hawaiian tree. Although it has lost most of its former habitat, because it is federally listed as endangered, "a fair amount of work" has been done to plant the tree in protected areas, according to VanDeMark.
You can also advocate, donate and volunteer with conservation programs to help endangered plant species survive. We also need to support private and public landowners who are protecting swaths of native plant habitat and ensure those lands are properly maintained, Gordon advised.
"At the same time, obviously, climate change is a big looming specter," she added. "We all have individual roles to play, and [we should] encourage our elected officials to follow policies that reduce emissions."
Plants are all around us, so we often take them for granted or tend to forget about their importance. But for the thousands of species at risk of extinction, we must act now before they're gone forever.
"We're always asking ourselves: 'Why are we even trying?'" VanDeMark joked.
But for the PEPP team, the cause is simply much greater than themselves. "To me, a lot of these plants are very important culturally, and they're a part of the story of this place. These plants were here for millions of years before any humans arrived in Hawaii," VanDeMark said. "Just like any other place in the world has a unique story of their own plants and animals. Personally, I feel those stories are more important to humans than we fully appreciate."
Note: In July, then-statewide PEPP Manager Joan Yoshioka told Truthout that PEPP will be further integrated into the state system by district as a cost-saving measure. Yoshioka, who stepped down from her role as manager on August 1 as a result of this transition, said in an email that "the state will take on more of the management responsibilities of the program with a medium-term commitment to make PEPP a fully funded state program."
Lorraine Chow is a freelance environmental journalist based in South Carolina.
- Plant Extinction Is Happening 500x Faster Than Before the Industrial ... ›
- 97% of Endangered Species Threatened by 3 Common Pesticides ... ›
- Fungal Disease Is Threatening Native Hawaiian Trees - EcoWatch ›
By Ilana Cohen
Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.
But this November, he plans to cast a "protest vote" for a write-in candidate or abstain from casting a ballot for president. A determining factor in his 180-degree turn? Climate change.
Fractures Among Young Climate Conservatives<p>While young conservatives have united around the urgency of climate change, they remain divided over how to bring their concerns to the ballot box. Some embrace right-wing <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-attacks-republican-convention/2020/08/24/434e5b46-e66d-11ea-970a-64c73a1c2392_story.html" target="_blank">attacks</a> painting Biden as a "tool of the left" and find his climate agenda "radical." Others can't find a way to justify voting for Trump, even if it means breaking with their party.</p><p>Patrick Mann from Orange County, California, voted for Trump in 2016. But today, he's leading Aggies for Joe at Texas A&M University and is co-founder of Texas Students for Biden. </p><p>Mann grew up watching wildfires ravage his home state, nearly forcing his family to evacuate in 2017. The GOP is failing to "meet the moment" for climate action, Mann said. He's hoping Biden will deliver on a promise to "<a href="https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/caucus/2020/01/06/joe-biden-democrat-president-iowa-caucus-restore-soul-our-nation/2806422001/" target="_blank">restore the soul of our nation</a>." </p><p>Taylor Walker from Pensacola, Florida, is also determined to make her voice heard on climate, including by casting her first-ever vote for president—but not for Biden.</p>
A False Equivalency<p>Young climate conservatives may fear climate denial and delayed climate action, but more than that, they fear the growing political momentum around the Green New Deal, the massive spending it entails and <a href="https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/" target="_blank">Biden's citing of it</a> as a "crucial framing for meeting the climate challenges we face."</p><p>Many don't want to split with their party to support a Democrat whose <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/757220130/joe-biden-on-bipartisanship-gun-control-and-regrets-over-inaction-after-a-traged" target="_blank">allegedly bipartisan intentions</a> they doubt. If stymieing what they consider a radical green agenda means re-electing a climate change denying president, so be it. </p><p>"I'm scared of climate change, but I'm also scared of the Green New Deal and what it means for America," said Ben Mutolo, a republicEN spokesperson and junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. </p><p>Mutolo felt encouraged by former Ohio Governor John Kasich's <a href="https://www.rollcall.com/2020/08/17/kasich-speech-to-democratic-convention-follows-years-of-building-conservative-credentials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appearance</a> at the Democratic National Convention, but he still struggles to see himself voting for Biden. Though the candidate paints himself as a <a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-08-12/harris-biden-different-generation-similar-political-instinct" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">centrist,</a> Mutolo believes he's "cozying up to the ultra-progressive left." </p><p>Mutolo, who wants to see market-based climate solutions like a carbon tax, feels torn between a candidate whose climate plan relies on taking an "<a href="https://joebiden.com/environmental-justice-plan/#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">All-of-Government approach</a>," and one with no efforts to reign in global warming at all. <span></span></p><p>Leiserowitz said he appreciated how a conservative might feel Biden's climate plan "doesn't jive with their limited government, free-market approach."</p><p>But he sees a strong distinction between voting for a presidential candidate with a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan</a> that includes large renewable energy investments, which have <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/politics-global-warming-april-2020/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bipartisan support</a>, and a candidate trying "to take the country in the opposite direction, towards more fossil fuels."</p>
- 7 Republicans Joined Senate Democrats in Vote to Fight Climate ... ›
- Climate Change Acknowledged by Increasing Number of ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Monday that 64 high-income nations have joined an effort to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine fairly, prioritizing the most vulnerable citizens, as Science reported. The program is called the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, or Covax, and it is a joint effort led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- CDC Tells States to Prepare for a Vaccine Before November Election ›
- Fauci Warns Pre-Pandemic Normalcy Not Likely Until Late 2021 ... ›
By Gloria Oladipo
In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.
Toxins in water produced by cyanobacteria was likely responsible for more than 300 elephant deaths in Botswana this year, the country's wildlife department announced on Monday.
How Did Cyanobacteria Poison the Elephants?<p>Cyanobacteria are microscopic organisms common in water and sometimes found in soil. Some cyanobacteria produce neurotoxins.</p><p>The cyanobacteria "was growing in pans" or watering holes, the principal veterinary officer of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Mmadi Reuben, told reporters.</p><p>Reuben said the deaths had "stopped towards the end of June 2020, coinciding with the drying of pans."</p><p>"However we have many questions still to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only? We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating," added Reuben.</p><p>Similar elephant deaths have also been recorded in neighboring Zimbabwe.</p>
Climate Change to Blame?<p>Not all cyanobacteria are toxic but scientists say varieties dangerous to humans and animals are occurring more frequently as climate change drives up global temperatures.</p><p>Southern Africa's temperatures are rising at twice the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p>
Elephant Paradise?<p>Africa's overall elephant population is declining due to poaching. But Botswana, home to almost a third of the continent's elephants, has seen numbers grow to around 130,000.</p><p>Botswana's government said it was continuing studies into the occurrence of the deadly bacteria. In the winter, elephants hydrate themselves mainly by eating roots and bark, especially of the baobab tree.</p>
- Hundreds of Botswana's Elephants Are Dying From Mysterious Cause ›
- How Botswana's Sudden Elephant Deaths Impact the Species ... ›
- In 'Conservation Disaster,' Hundreds of Botswana's Elephants Are ... ›
By Alexandra Villarreal
As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.
- NYC Public Schools to Excuse Climate Strikers - EcoWatch ›
- Portuguese Youth Activists Sue 33 Countries Over Climate Crisis ... ›
- Students Rally for Fossil Fuel Divestment at Ohio State University ... ›