A UN report released today paints a sobering picture of the natural world — and the blame for the damage lies solely at humanity’s feet. Almost 1 million species face extinction; essential crops are under threat; our oceans are overfished.
What’s making it worse: climate change (and we’re the cause of that, too).
A new book, “Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere,” edited by renowned scientists Lee Hannah of Conservation International and Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow at the UN Foundation, examines the rapid warming, catastrophic storms and record-breaking droughts that will upend life as we know it. In this interview, Hannah discusses the science behind the findings in their book, culled from recent research by dozens of leading scientists over the past 10 years on the intersection between wildlife and the climate — and describes the actions we must take to stop a complete climate breakdown.
Question: Given the research published in this book, the UN report must come as no surprise. What’s your take on it?
Answer: It reinforces what we already know: We need to get conservation in the right places for a changing climate — and we need to do it fast. The window for action is actually very small. Climate change will be moving species all around the planet, and ever-expanding agriculture is destroying their remaining natural habitats, reducing their opportunities to migrate.
Q: How is this book different from the one you and Tom wrote a decade ago?
A: The first book really helped wake people up to the reality of climate change and its impacts for nature. But that came out in 2005 — and a lot has happened since then! Climate change triggered a bark beetle outbreak that has killed hundreds of millions of trees in the western U.S. and Canada — and is still on-going. Most of the world’s coral reefs have bleached, including devastatingly large parts of the Great Barrier Reef. The world has woken up to the one of the most impactful perils of climate change: ocean acidification. And an historic climate agreement was reached in Paris.
The changes over the past decade have been so monumental that it warranted a totally new book, one with that asked a deceptively simple question: “What is the effect of climate change on nature?”
Q: How do you answer such a monumental question?
A: We asked top biologists to identify the biggest implications of climate change for nature, and then structured the book around their advice. We recruited the top experts on each topic to write each of the 32 chapters of the book, which starts with what’s happening now: coral bleaching, species migration and disease and pest outbreaks. It sounds biblical, and it really is — climate change will have re-arranged all of creation before it’s over!
Then from what we’re already seeing, we dive into what’s happened in the past — from the recent ice ages to climate change that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago. What have we learned from these past rapid climate changes? From there, we go into what may happen in the future, and in the final chapters, what we can do about it. The “what we can do” part includes how we manage nature, for instance parks and oceans, to minimize impacts of climate change, what policies are needed to get climate change under control and how we as scientists, conservationists and biologists can communicate better about the perils of climate change.
Q: So, what’s the answer?
A: Climate change is already affecting nature, today — and while there are things we can do to mitigate the effects, what we’re doing right now is not enough.
Let’s break those down: First, this issue isn’t about the future — it’s happening right now. There’s a phenomenal amount of change we are already seeing in the natural world due to climate change, from bark beetles in North America to frogs and reptiles being wiped out all around the world due to diseases that thrive when the climate changes.
Second, there are things we can do to “fix” what’s happening. We know that species move to more suitable habitat as the climate changes, and that migration results in entire ecosystems being torn apart and reassembled. This breakdown of ecosystems is part of the monumental upheaval to nature we are already seeing unfold because of climate change. Protected areas help counterbalance a lot of the damage that climate change may cause as a result of these migrations, but currently protected areas aren’t in the right places for climate change. We need to create new protected areas, such as national parks, and start new conservation efforts, such as community-managed protected areas, in places that will be hardest hit by climate change. That means we have to anticipate where species will be moving and be ready with conservation efforts already in place when they get there.
The third and final takeaway is that no matter how much we do to minimize the damage of climate change — creating protected areas in the right places, for example — unless we do something really dramatic to stop climate change, we are going to see changes that we eventually can’t manage.
Q: Okay, we can minimize the impacts of climate change. But to what degree?
A: A good way to visualize this is with a concept known as the “escalator to extinction,” which refers to species moving upslope — literally into higher altitudes — to find more suitable climate. Species that continue climbing higher and wind up at the top of the escalator (top of the mountain) run out of room and face extinction. As climate change continues, species after species will move up-slope until they become extinct.
So, essentially, we know how to get protected areas in the right spots to conserve species — we just keep shifting them further up-slope as the species migrate because of climate change. But eventually, they reach the top of the slope, and even if that entire area is protected — there is nowhere else for them to go and they will still go extinct.
Even though we know how to protect species, that won’t matter if the planet’s conditions are too harsh for them to survive. So, it’s only by knowing how to protect animals and natural places AND stopping our contributions to climate change that we will be able to protect our planet. We must take dramatic action to stop contributing to climate change and minimize the damage for the natural world.
Q: What kind of dramatic action? Who should be responsible for taking that action?
A: We need to transform the entire energy system of the planet to renewable sources. We’ve already taken some positive steps — many states and cities are on board — but it’s not nearly enough. It’s no small task to do away with fossil fuels entirely, but that’s what needs to happen. Many people think that biofuels are a solution, but too heavy of a reliance on them would actually disrupt world food markets and harm nature. Biofuels are produced using crops, such as corn, which require flat land to grow and harvest. Cutting down forest to grow biofuels actually damages nature more than climate change would itself.
So, we need change on a planetary scale, but we have to be smart about how we do it. Solar, wind and other renewables are key parts of the puzzle, as is stopping deforestation. Protecting nature is a key part of the solution — it alone can provide at least 30 percent of the action we need to take to limit global warming to a safe level.
That’s what we’re trying to help people realize with this book, that protecting nature is vital to our survival.
Lee Hannah is senior scientist of climate change biology at Conservation International. Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.