Book Review- Driven to Extinction by Richard Pearson

He should have started with chapter 2. In chapter 1, Pearson invokes the IPCC model scenarios and the contention that human carbon dioxide emissions will produce a temperature rise of somewhere between 2-to 11 degrees F, and that will “likely” cause extinction of 20% to 70% of species. There is, however, no physical evidence which shows that human carbon dioxide emissions have a significant effect on global temperatures. That being said, let’s imagine that the world will continue to warm, regardless of cause, and examine what the consequences might be.

In chapters 2 through 5, Pearson takes the reader on expeditions to Madagascar, Costa Rica, the British Isles, North America, and South Africa where he examines how specific species are reacting to global warming. This is mainly a study of range changes pole-ward and to higher elevations for plants and animals. Some species expand their ranges, some ranges contract, while others are not affected. There are winners and losers. Pearson notes that some amphibians are more susceptible to disease as temperatures “converge on a range that is just right to promote disease outbreaks.” He also examines how plants and animals may react to changes in the onset of the seasons (phenology). Pearson notes that there may be some observation bias in these studies and does point out potential problems.

I did detect one error in this section. On page 88, Pearson says “the world’s oceans are gradually turning acidic.” Not true, the oceans are alkaline, and there is a natural cycle of pH variation within the alkaline range (see my rebuttal here).

Chapters 6 through 8 discuss extinction risk modeling and experiments. Pearson fairly points out areas of uncertainty. He also discusses the ability of plants and animals to adapt to changing conditions. Here, too, there are winners and losers. He discusses complicating factors such as habitat loss due to human encroachment. Pearson says, “we cannot really expect to accurately predict how an ecological community will respond to climate change.” And, “climate change has the potential to rearrange species, assembling new communities as plants and animals shift their ranges and adjust their phenology. The consequences of this reshuffling will be alterations to existing interactions between species as well as the creation of novel sets of interactions.”

Chapter 9, entitled, “Cry Wolf?” discusses exaggeration of scientific studies by the press, and whether scientists should or should not be political advocates. Pearson does not mention possible scientific bias in the competition for research grants.

In the final chapter, Pearson, himself, becomes an advocate for more conservation parks, connectivity between reserves, and for reducing our use of fossil fuels.

Pearson’s thesis is that the current warm period is unprecedented due to human emissions of carbon dioxide, and this may cause many adverse effects on plants and animals. He seems unaware that during the last 10,000 years the world  experienced several warm-cold cycles. At least three of the warm cycles were warmer than now and warmer than the high range of IPCC predictions. How did species cope with these changes? Except for extinction of megafauna near the end of the last glacial epoch, an extinction that was abetted by an abrupt cooling period (the Younger Dryas), where are the bodies of victims of global warming from these previous cycles?  Many studies of the fossil record during times when the temperature quickly rose at least 4 degrees C, found changes as Pearson describes in chapters 6 through 8. But those same studies found very little evidence of broad scale extinctions.

 In spite of my criticisms of this book, I found it well-written and a very interesting read.

About the author: Richard Pearson is Director of Biodiversity Informatics Research at the American Museum of Natural History. He has a PhD. (2004) from Oxford University in biogeography, and is a research scientist in the museum’s department of herpetology.

The book was published by the Sterling Publishing Co. Inc.

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7 comments

  1. Dinasours lived and died,planets lived and died. Humans, just because we know it will happen does not mean that we can stop it. Slow it down maybe, maybe not. Weather has been recorded for only 125 yrs and notes of special events by other means. Relax and enjoy the ride.

    1. Yea, “don’t worry, be happy”. Silly us. Due to human encroachment and habitat fragmentation, there is far, far less habitable space for species to migrate to seeking more favorable conditions than there was during previous warming periods. 

  2. It is not that incorrect to say the oceans are gradually turning acidic. Regardless of whether the pH is in the acidic or alkaline range, pH is still a measure of acidity(neg. log of  hydrogen ion concentration. It would be more correct to say the oceans are gradually becoming more acidic. Either way, it’s nit-picking.

    1. If you read the link, you will realize that the oceans are cycling between a narrow range on the alkaline side, so overall, they are not becoming more acidic.

  3. Has anyone done any studies about critters that (instead of being harmed by human encroachment) have moved into urban habitats and thrived?

    I remember seeing lots of pygmy owls living in Hermosillo….

    Was looking at Tucson and Phoenix from the air…and while there are claims 90% of the riparian habitat has been destroyed….I wonder if anyone counts the restored riparian areas along rivers where effluent is flowing….and all the trees inside cities….

    1. I am not aware of a formal studies, but reports from newspapers and similar sources say the following adaptable animals are thriving in and near human habitat: coyotes, rabbits, racoons, squirrels, opossum, deer, red foxes, harris’ hawks, peregrine falcons, black bears (in the East), wild turkeys, rats, starlings, sparrows, pigeons, beaver, Canada geese, and mountain lions, just to name a few.

      1. In the Casas Adobes neighborhood within a few hundred feet of the corner of Ina and La Cholla, behind my house I’ve seen bobcats, coyotes (lots of coyotes) javelinas, snakes, lizards, rodents, Harris hawks, red tail hawks, a plethora of other bird species, bobcats and a mountain lion. This is about 5 miles and 2 major intersections away from the nearest “open space.”

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