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Climate Change Will Drastically Harm at Least Two-Thirds of All Plants and Animals on Earth

But there is some hope, according to a new paper.
May 12, 2013, 10:02pm
White lipped green tree frog, via Fotopedia

Of all the creatures living around my house, I’d say the geese are most living on the climatic edge. They’re already migratory and, thus, uniquely mobile: from early-spring to fall, a dozen or so live around an old livestock pond across the road, hatching a bunch of adorable goslings around mid-spring, and then splitting for warmer climes in the fall, probably deeper into the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico. It’s these southern locales that stand to lose geese over the next 50 or so years as more and more places (like the Rocky Mountains) become suitable for temperate, year-round geese lifestyles (geestyles, if you will).

According to a paper out today in Nature Climate Change by researchers at the University of East Anglia, that loss would be just a drop in the bucket in terms of total biodiversity: a full two-thirds of all plant and animal life are expected to decline dramatically, if not disappear, if the planet continues on its current warming trend. That's a full-on disaster.

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Two-thirds is a staggering figure. Imagine wherever you are right now with even half of its plant and animal life. Even in the unwildest part of the largest, most industrial city on Earth, that’s an uncomfortable notion. Note that we’re not talking about the Gunnison Sage Grouse or other threatened species, but the day-to-day life we generally take for granted. And the day-to-day life that humans depend on for things like water and air purification, flood control, nutrient cycling, and eco-tourism. Not to mention slightly less tangible things like emotional well-being.

The study is no joke. It looked at 50,000 different species on Earth and how current warming trends are likely to change their habitats. The most affected include plants, amphibians, and reptiles. (Geese, by the way, are already in the process of abandoning their traditional southern winter habitats.) Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Amazonia, and Australia stand to lose the most in terms of both plants and animals, while North Africa, central Asia and southeastern Europe are particularly vulnerable in terms of plants. This is all the result of species having less and less habitable range as our new climate changes the landscape.

The threatened DeBeque phaceli/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“This broader issue of potential range loss in widespread species is a serious concern as even small declines in these species can significantly disrupt ecosystems,” explains Anglia’s Dr. Rachel Warren, one of the paper’s authors. No doubt you understand well-enough already that ecosystems are dense, interconnected networks, where a slight disturbance on one end can result in huge effects on the other.

Take for example the introduction of non-native zebra mussels to the Great Lakes: the mussels drop off a Russian cargo ship, multiply, and then filter the water as they feed on suspected nutrients; the now-clear water allows more sunlight to reach algae, which then multiply rapidly, sucking up oxygen needed by fish for survival. Eventually, once starved of oxygen and nutrients, the algae, fish, and lake itself die. A slight change yields catastrophe. Extrapolate that general idea to ecosystems affected by climate change, e.g. every ecosystem on Earth, and you begin to see the problem.

In fact, the sum total of the problem is probably much higher than the two-thirds figure. Dr. Warren explains, “We looked at the effect of rising global temperatures, but other symptoms of climate change such as extreme weather events, pests, and diseases mean that our estimates are probably conservative. Animals in particular may decline more as our predictions will be compounded by a loss of food from plants.”

Finally, there is an upshot to the study and, with it, the slight admission that we are not going to stop global warming. Figure that the current, theoretically liberal U.S. president is just now even admitting it is a problem to be dealt with. Making up the kind of ground industrial society would need to make up in order to put a full-stop on climate change is probably a fantasy, but we can, however, mitigate its effects significantly just through some greenhouse gas reductions.

“The good news is that our research provides crucial new evidence of how swift action to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases can prevent the biodiversity loss by reducing the amount of global warming to 2 degrees Celsius rather than 4 degrees,” says Warren. “This would also buy time–up to four decades–for plants and animals to adapt to the remaining 2 degrees of climate change." It’s kind of a sad but honest admission: fine, whatever, let’s heat this thing up. Just please give life on Earth as we know it a little more time to adapt.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.