MSU a player in year’s top scientific discoveries

Dec. 3, 2019

An international group of sustainability scientists’ landmark cautionary narrative of human-caused mass extinction has been named one of 2019’s “most mind-boggling scientific discoveries.”

Business Insider cited April’s UN report that revealed approximately 1 million plant and animals species face extinction, many within decades. Michigan State University sustainability scholar Jianguo “Jack” Liu served as a coordinating lead author and assistant professor Andres Vina as a lead author for a global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Their contributions focused on new ways to holistically view complex human- nature interactions that span the globe. The telecoupling framework describes how distance is shrinking and connections are strengthening between nature and humans around the world. It’s an integrated scientific approach to examine one of the often-overwhelming consequences of globalization -- how an event or phenomenon in one corner of the world can have an impact far away.

The report estimated that 40% of amphibian species, more than 33% of all marine mammals and reef-forming corals, and at least 10% of insect species are threatened, largely as a result of human actions. Researchers also found that more than 500,000 land species already don't have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.

This finding contributes to a rapidly growing body of evidence that suggests Earth is the midst of a sixth mass extinction — the sixth time in the planet's history that species are experiencing a major global collapse in numbers.

Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, introduced the telecoupling framework in 2013. Since then, approximately 500 publications have cited the framework and the framework has been expanded to address more sustainability challenges.

“It is crucial we have a clear understanding of what is happening to our planet – not only the toll on nature, but also the human role both in those events and how humans are being affected,” Liu said. “Clear understanding is the first step toward effective action. Our work is far from done.”

Both Liu and Viña are with MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

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