What does the Paris agreement mean for the world’s other 8 million species?

Summary

In December, the world’s nations agreed on an aggressive plan to combat climate change. But what, if anything, will the landmark Paris agreement do for thousands of species already under threat from global warming?

15Jan.
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The word “biodiversity” is employed once in the Paris agreement’s 32 pages. “Forests” appears a few times, but “oceans”, like biodiversity, scores just a single appearance. There is no mention of extinction. Wildlife, coral reefs, birds, frogs, orchids, polar bears and pikas never show up anywhere in the document.

This is hardly surprising: the landmark agreement in Paris – the boldest yet to tackle climate change (which is saying something, but not nearly enough) – was contrived by one species for the benefit of one species. It was never meant to directly address the undeniable impacts of global warming on the world’s eight million or so other species – most of them still unnamed. But many experts say this doesn’t mean biodiversity won’t benefit from the agreement – especially if the 196 participants actually follow through on their plegdes and up their ambition quickly.

“[The agreement] is critical for people and it is critical for biodiversity,” said Edward Perry, who dubbed the passage of the Paris agreement in December “monumental.”

“[The agreement] is critical for people and it is critical for biodiversity,” said Edward Perry, Birdlife’s climate change policy coordinator, who dubbed the passage of the Paris agreement in December “monumental.”

Most biodiversity experts concurred that the Paris agreement was an important step forward, but none thought it would be enough to counter the vast risks posed to biodiversity by global warming. Indeed a recent study in Science found that more than 5% of the world’s species will likely go extinct even if we manage to keep temperatures from rising more than 2C, the uppermost target outlined in Paris.

“[The Paris agreement] doesn’t go far enough, but that really misses the point,” said Nancy Knowlton, a coral reef expert with the Smithsonian Institution. “It moves us in the right direction, finally, and future efforts can be even more ambitious. To paraphrase Voltaire, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Biodiversity in the oven

Scientists have identified thousands of species that have already been hit by global warming or will likely be in the near-future. For example, Edward Perry pointed to a recent scientific review by his organisation that found a quarter of the world’s most-researched birds have already been negatively impacted by climate impacts.

“According to climate projections, there will be more than twice as many losers than winners under climate change [for birds],” said Perry, who noted that, to date, scientist have pointed to 2,300 birds with traits that makes them “highly vulnerable” to global warming.

Climate change has disrupted some bird’s food sources, messed with the timing of fledgling and migrations, and shrunk the range of cold-loving species.

Already, climate change has disrupted some bird’s food sources, messed with the timing of fledgling and migrations, and shrunk the range of cold-loving species.

Birds are a good example of how climate change is already impacting wildlife because they are the best studied group on the planet. Yet, they aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. Climate change is also likely playing a role in the current amphibian crisis, which has seen around 200 amphibians vanish for good in recent decades.

Robin Moore, co-founder of the Amphibian Survival Alliance and author of In Search of Lost Frogs, said there is good evidence that climate change may have exacerbated the spread of the frog-killing disease, chytridiomycosis, with research has showing that warmer temperatures probably helped the disease spread across both Costa Rica and Australia. Moreover, the disease is likely able to adapt quicker to climatic changes than its victims.

“Pathogens are always smaller than their hosts, with faster metabolisms, and should therefore be able to acclimate more quickly to temperature shifts,” explained Moore. “This is a phenomenon that will not just affect amphibians!”

Currently, habitat destruction remains the biggest threat to amphibians, making species more vulnerable to even slight climatic changes, according to Moore.

Currently, habitat destruction remains the biggest threat to amphibians, making species more vulnerable to even slight climatic changes, according to Moore.

“Amphibians have survived four mass extinctions associated with major climate disturbances. What is pushing them over the edge now, I believe, is a perfect storm of lethal conditions that we have created.”

Still, no one knows for certain how climate change will impact the majority of the world’s individual species, just as we don’t even know how many species share our planet (pegged at anywhere from 3 to 100 million, though a study in 2011 came up with an estimate of 8.7 million). But we can broaden our view. Just as there are some human communities living on the front lines of climate change – such as low-lying island states or drought-prone countries – there are also particular environments that scientists view as super vulnerable to climate change.

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Read on the article on the Guardian

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