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201705May08:33

Cli­mate change and bio­di­ver­sity: Two global chal­lenges for the price of one

Infor­ma­tion
pub­lished 05 May 2017 | mod­i­fied 19 May 2017
Archived

by Dar­ragh Cunningham

Healthy ecosys­tems and vibrant bio­di­ver­sity are cru­cial ele­ments to life on this planet. Ecosys­tems are del­i­cately bal­anced and even slight shifts in tem­per­a­ture can have con­sid­er­able knock-​on effects. Sub­stan­tial losses to bio­di­ver­sity and a range of ecosys­tem func­tions are pro­jected if we con­tinue with a ‘busi­ness as usual’ approach.

It takes two to tango and boy what a show we have in store

Ecosys­tems and bio­di­ver­sity are extremely vul­ner­a­ble to dete­ri­o­rat­ing cli­matic con­di­tions. Such trends have sig­nif­i­cant reper­cus­sions for both soci­ety and ecosys­tems. Cli­mate change can influ­ence crop yields, alter rain­fall pat­terns, affect the infec­tious dis­ease bur­den, human health and increase the fre­quency of extreme weather events.

Polar bear swimmingPolar bear (Ursus mar­itimus) swim­ming in ice-​less arc­tic sea.
Pho­tog­ra­phy Mila Zinkova. Cre­ative Com­mons license CC BY-​SA 3.0.

There is sub­stan­tial evi­dence that cli­mate change impacts bio­di­ver­sity. The Mil­len­nium Ecosys­tem Assess­ment reports that cli­mate change shall induce con­sid­er­able bio­di­ver­sity loss by the end of this cen­tury. Species are hav­ing to adapt through relo­cat­ing habi­tats, switch­ing life cycles or devel­op­ing new phys­i­cal traits. The world’s endan­gered species inhabit areas which are acutely influ­enced by global warm­ing. The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) fourth assess­ment report on cli­mate change of 2007 states that an aver­age tem­per­a­ture rise of 1.5°C could poten­tially put 2030% of species at risk of extinc­tion.

Things are heat­ing up, and not in a good way
Warm­ing of 3°C would put many ecosys­tems in a dire state. The Paris Agree­ment has a cen­tral objec­tive of main­tain­ing global tem­per­a­ture rises to 1.5°C. Unfor­tu­nately, the evi­dence points to a 2°C cap being insuf­fi­cient in terms of min­imis­ing per­ni­cious impacts to ecosys­tems. It’ clear that this limit was deter­mined on a con­ve­nience basis as it lacks a clear under­stand­ing of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and envis­aged future sce­nar­ios. Eval­u­ated atmos­pheric CO2 has raised the acid­ity of the oceans, severely dam­ag­ing many coral reefs. The recent mass bleach­ing on the Great Bar­rier Reef for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year is a prime example.

Cur­rent lev­els of warm­ing when com­pared to the pre-​industrial base­line are esti­mated to be between 0.80.9°C. Dis­tress­ing trends are play­ing out in many of the world’s great forests and rain­forests. Conif­er­ous forests in west­ern North Amer­ica are encoun­ter­ing wide­spread tree mor­tal­ity due to sig­nif­i­cant drought episodes and heat waves, cou­pled with out­breaks of dis­eases and plagues of insects. The Ama­zon houses excep­tional bio­di­ver­sity, around one quar­ter of all ter­res­trial species are cur­rently found there. It appears that its south­ern and south-​eastern regions are increas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to for­est dieback.

Last calls for new des­ti­na­tions
A sig­nif­i­cant impact of cli­mate change on wildlife is the vac­il­la­tions stem­ming from changes to regional cli­mates, namely tem­per­a­ture ranges and humid­ity. Mod­els indi­cate that each 1°C increase in tem­per­a­ture results in an eco­log­i­cal region being expanded by approx­i­mately 160km.

Species with a high adap­tive capac­ity could prove to be ‘win­ners’ in this ever-​changing envi­ron­ment. They could rapidly spread their geo­graph­i­cal zones, have shorter life cycles and larger num­bers of off­spring. It’s not all rosy though, newly incom­ing species could cause imbal­ances to exist­ing hier­ar­chies within ecosys­tems. Fur­ther­more, species may migrate closer to human pop­u­la­tion cen­tres and increased human-​wildlife inter­ac­tions could prove to be problematic.

Let’s take the case of sand lizards in Swe­den; recently pub­lished research sug­gests that the species could ben­e­fit from higher tem­per­a­tures as they can lay their eggs ear­lier, which in turn improves fit­ness and sur­vival changes for the off­spring. Addi­tion­ally, researchers have dis­cov­ered that lighter-​coloured insects in Europe are flour­ish­ing in the hot­ter sum­mer months. This is due to their abil­ity to shield them­selves from over­heat­ing by reflect­ing incom­ing sun­light. Their darker coloured cousins are not so for­tu­nate and must either migrate or risk extinction.

Putting much needed urgency into the pol­icy land­scape
To stem the tide, approaches which address these urgent mat­ters must take pri­or­ity on pol­icy agen­das. Actions which ensure that tem­per­a­ture increases are kept below 1.5°C are piv­otal. A rank­ing study pub­lished in March 2017 high­lights that only France, Ger­many and Swe­den in the EU are meet­ing their com­mit­ments under the Paris Agreement.

The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Science-​Policy Plat­form on Bio­di­ver­sity and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices (IPBES) must take a lead­ing role in tack­ling the plethora of com­plex issues. Closer ties must be forged with the IPCC to con­ceive an action-​plan which is holis­tic in nature and under­stand­ing the sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship between the cli­mate and the envi­ron­ment. Wher­ever one looks, the bios­phere is with­er­ing. The blame is squarely at humanity’s door. An arti­cle pub­lished in June 2012 in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Nature asserts that mankind is lurch­ing towards a future whereby global ecosys­tems shall reach a “tip­ping point” and dra­mat­i­cally col­lapse. This will result in rapid fluc­tu­a­tions to the bios­phere with min­i­mal warn­ing. In this sce­nario, an ecosys­tem can appear fine on the sur­face but may col­lapse in the metaphor­i­cal blink of an eye. How­ever, actions speak louder than words. There can be no more dither­ing, our time is up and we humans must choose which path we wish to follow.

(Source: POLITHEOR bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tem, op-​ed, 04.05.2017)


UN Biodiversity decade
WWF Stop Wildlife Crime
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End Ivory-funded Terrorism
Support Rewilding Europe
NASA State of Flux

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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