Monarch butterflies.

Eastern Monarch butterflies flock in Mexico at the end of their migration journey.

(Photo: Brett Hartl)

44,000 Reasons to Phase Out Fossil Fuels

Climate change, along with habitat loss and exploitation, are accelerating extinction at a terrifying rate.

In 2019, we traveled with our colleagues to Michoacán, Mexico, to witness the great monarch butterfly migration. Scientists predicted that it may have been one of the last massive flourishes of this fast-dwindling phenomenon.

It can only be described as otherworldly to experience the great Eastern Monarch migration, where each winter millions of monarchs fly more than 2,500 miles south from Canada through the United States to Mexico.

At the end of their arduous journey, the butterflies’ fluttering tapestry of orange and black enveloped the clear blue Michoacán skies. Thick clusters of monarchs clothed oyamel trees to roost. The flapping of millions of pairs of wings bathed us in a sound dome like the pitter-patter of a summer rain.

Earth Week serves as a reality check that we have the tools to rapidly phase out the burning of fossil fuels driving our climate and extinction emergencies.

But the iconic monarch migration is at risk of being lost forever. And scientists say climate change is now the driving factor.

Though pesticides drove their initial decline in the early 2000s, the climate emergency has since taken the driver’s seat. Their migration is threatened year-round by severe and abnormal weather—winter storms, summer droughts, year-round forest fires.

Just this past winter, one of their overwintering forests in Mexico caught fire before all the monarchs took flight back north for spring. On the other end, warm temperatures are keeping them too long in the north and putting them at risk of fall freezes before they reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The climate crisis—largely fueled by burning coal, oil and gas—is driving higher temperatures and severe storm events that threaten the butterflies’ ability to survive, as well as the growth of milkweed they feed on. Meanwhile, destruction of Mexican forests and the widespread use of toxic pesticides on grasslands and milkweed endanger the butterflies’ critical habitats, flyways, and sustenance.

This year, monarch numbers dropped by 59% in Mexico, to the second-lowest level in recorded history. The current population is only a sixth of the size scientists say is needed to avoid migratory collapse.

The migratory monarch is but one of the over 44,000 species around the globe that are known to be threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

And that’s just the species we have data for. IUCN found that 28% of assessed species are at risk of extinction. The United Nations multiplied that proportion of species at risk by the number of species on Earth and estimated that 1 million species could be gone in the coming decades, especially as profound climate threats are expected to grow.

Climate change, along with habitat loss and exploitation, are accelerating extinction at a terrifying rate. Humankind has never witnessed so many species being annihilated so quickly and in so many places. This is an existential threat to continued human life, and all life on Earth.

Consider the coral reefs now facing an ocean heat-induced mass bleaching event on track to be the most extensive on record. Coral reefs are the rainforests of the ocean that support a quarter of marine life and the livelihoods of half a billion people.

Meanwhile communities across the United States—disproportionately low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and vulnerable workers—are suffering the intensifying consequences of climate chaos: fatal heatwaves and destructive wildfires, cycles of drought and catastrophic flooding.

2023 destroyed global heat records, and March temperatures marked the 10th record-breaking month in a row.

Last year saw a record 130 million Americans under heat alerts. Heat caused record-high rates of health emergencies. Arizona’s Maricopa County alone recorded a record 645 heat deaths.

Climate change combined with the hangover effect of the El Niño cycle may make this year even worse.

But Earth Week serves as a reality check that we have the tools to rapidly phase out the burning of fossil fuels driving our climate and extinction emergencies.

As the world’s top producer of the oil and gas driving the climate crisis, the United States has more power than any country on Earth to confront it. A suite of key actions across all agencies can launch us on the path forward:

  1. Declare a climate emergency to pause all new crude oil exports and curb the hundreds of billions of dollars that fund coal, oil, and gas projects abroad. Simultaneously declare an extinction emergency and unlock $1 billion for saving the diversity of life on Earth.
  2. Vigorously defend and make permanent the Department of Energy’s landmark pause on liquefied natural gas exports. This is the first step in what must be a systematic phasedown plan for the country’s fossil fuel production.
  3. Massively deploy community-based solar and storage in climate-vulnerable communities. That makes power bills affordable, keeps the lights on in our increasing climate disasters, and protects our ecosystems. Building off the Solar for All program for low-income families, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can simply redirect their current investments in fossil fuels toward the distributed clean energy future.

We have no more time to waste. The nation’s Fifth National Climate Assessment found that every region of the country is suffering increasingly harmful effects from climate change.

And Americans understand it: 75,000 people hit the streets of New York City last year for the March to End Fossil Fuels, a movement the Center for Biological Diversity co-led with environmental justice and youth partners across the country.

Unfortunately, the politicians and fossil fuel corporations treating our planet as simply a source for profit and greed view our wildlife in much the same way. But everything in the world is connected, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the lands and the climate that sustain us. When we destroy nature and what’s wild, we are writing humanity’s own death sentence. It may come later than other species, but it’s only a matter of time.

We can choose a different future for ourselves and the species around us, and this Earth Week is a great time to start.

We can commit to ending fossil fuels, locking in plans that are just and match the magnitude of the crisis that confronts us. And we can move with speed and urgency, as if all life on Earth depends on it. Because it does.

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