The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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The world’s last male northern white rhinoceros is dead.

His name was Sudan. He liked people, and was liked by them, and spent most of his 45 years in captivity. He was very old, very ill, and, recently, in a lot of pain. He was euthanized yesterday by a team of veterinarians who loved him.

He leaves behind just two other members of his subspecies, both female relatives of his, both unable to reproduce. His death doesn’t actually change the picture for his kind; recovery is not quite impossible–some of his sperm remains in storage, and one of the females, though unable to gestate, can produce eggs, which could be harvested–but it is an extreme long shot, and it was equally a long shot yesterday before he died. The death of the last member of a species or subspecies is a technicality.

The northern white rhino is part of the same species as the southern white rhino, which is not in quite such dire straights, but the distinction between the two matters. The northern white rhino may have been capable of ecological relationships that its southern counterpart can’t replace. Anyway, things are bad for rhinos in general, these days. We can’t take any subspecies’ survival for granted.

Periodically, someone questions whether we really need all these species and subspecies, whether the heroics enacted for the likes of Sudan are really worth the effort. Such questions ignore the fact that we almost certainly don’t know what we’re losing when a species dies. We don’t know how far the web of its relationships in the world went.

Climate change did not kill Sudan, not directly. But species loss is another symptom of the collapse that is causing climate change. As long as our species insists on using more resources than our planet actually has–something that is only possible with the use of fossil fuel–progressive biosphere collapse is inevitable. Climate change did not kill Sudan, but it’s possible that climate sanity could have saved him. What might climate sanity now still save?

Talk about climate change. Talk to your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your Congresspeople. Don’t let the issue be ignored.

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