Climate Change Threatens Global Biodiversity

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Two new reports by U.S. and international conservation groups detail the extensive threats to wildlife and biodiversity hotspots posed by global warming. Saying the studies provide further evidence that quick action is needed to combat climate change, the groups are calling on U.S. lawmakers to help cut greenhouse gas emissions by enacting higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.

butterfly

The endangered Richmond Birdwing butterfly is among many species that could lose habitat to climate change in southwestern Australia (Photo by Don Sands courtesy CSIRO)
The reports, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation in the U.S. and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) internationally, were released Thursday, just as the European Parliament voted almost unanimously to support European Union ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at curtailing global emissions of greenhouse gases.

Global warming now threatens even the world's most biologically diverse natural areas, the WWF report concludes. The study is the first to look specifically at how, in the coming decades, global warming could impact areas that are currently still rich in species and biological distinctiveness.

Huge parts of the world, from the tropics to the poles, are at risk, warns the report, which examines 113 land based regions. Many species may be unable to move to new areas fast enough to survive the changes that global warming will bring to their historic habitat.

Based on what many climate experts consider to be a conservative estimate of greenhouse gas emission increases - a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations - the WWF report concludes that one-fifth of the world's most vulnerable natural areas may be facing a "catastrophic" loss of species.

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The Komi Forests along the Ural Mountains are the continent's largest unfragmented old growth forests (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
"It is shocking to see that many of our most biologically valuable ecosystems are at special risk from global warming. If we don't do something to reverse this frightening trend, it would mean extinction for thousands of species," said Dr. Jay Malcolm, author of the report and a professor at the University of Toronto.

Worldwide, the areas most vulnerable to devastation from global warming include the Canadian Low Arctic Tundra, the Central Andean Dry Puna of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, the Ural Mountains and the Daurian Steppe of Mongolia and Russia, the Terai-Duar savannah of northeastern India, southwestern Australia and the Fynbos of South Africa.

Among the U.S. ecosystems at risk, areas in California, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Prairie may be hardest hit, WWF says. The changes could devastate the shrub and woodland areas that stretch from Southern California to San Francisco, prairies in the northern heart of the United States, Sierra Nevada mountains, Klamath-Siskiyou forest near the California-Oregon border, and the Sonoran-Baja deserts across the southwestern United States.

Echoing the WWF's findings, research released by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) suggests that global warming will likely mean growing threats to U.S. wildlife, more trouble with invasive species, and significant environmental changes that will jeopardize human quality of life in the near future.

fire ant

Global warming could hasten the spread of fire ants in the United States (Photo courtesy University of Florida)
"Global warming has come down to Earth for the wildlife right in our backyards," said Mark Van Putten, president of NWF. "The effects are already happening and will likely worsen unless we get serious about reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases to help slow global warming."

The group's findings appear in a new book, "Wildlife Responses to Climate Change," featuring eight case studies by top researchers that demonstrate how global warming and associated climate change is affecting North American wildlife. Under the guidance of climate experts Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University and Dr. Terry Root of the University of Michigan, the researchers examined how climate change is affecting a variety of species' behavior and habitat range across the U.S.

"This research confirms our suspicions about the effect global warming is already having on our environment, and gives us a glimpse of what is likely to occur in the future," added Van Putten.

The report notes that invasive species such as tamarisk shrubs in the Southwest may expand their range, reducing water and food available to native wildlife and humans. Red imported fire ants in the Southeast may also expand their range, dominating native ant species and creating an enhanced health risk to humans.

Butterfly species such as the sachem skipper butterfly in the Pacific Northwest and the Bay checkerspot butterfly in California are already responding to climatic and weather changes, signaling potential responses in other species that share their ecosystem, the NWF report notes. Changes in climate may also alter essential habitat for grizzly bears, red squirrels, and other wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem region of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho by contributing to a reduction in whitebark pine trees, an important food source for the animals.

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Grizzly bears could suffer as their forest habitats change in response to global warming (Photo by Doug O'Looney, courtesy USFWS)
To address this global threat, the conservation groups are calling on all nations to meet or beat the emission targets detailed by the Kyoto Protocol. The WWF is campaigning around the globe to promote ratification of the Protocol this year, so that it becomes legally binding.

The Kyoto Protocol will not take effect until it is ratified by 55 percent of the nations responsible for at least 55 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990.

The organizations are particularly insistent that the United States, which has so far refused to ratify the agreement, do its part to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Next week, prior to a scheduled trip to Asia next week, President George W. Bush is expected to unveil new policies regarding global warming gases in an attempt to assuage fears by U.S. allies that the nation will block international attempts to combat climate change. Conservation groups warn that the Bush administration's global warming plan may, in fact, allow an increase in the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

"The solutions to global warming are at hand and the risks are high. Responsible leaders must act now to help protect America's richest natural treasures for future generations," said Jennifer Morgan, director of WWF's Climate Change Campaign. "As this new report clearly shows, to delay action on reducing our carbon dioxide emissions puts the survival of many species - plants, animals and people worldwide - at unnecessary risk."

power plant

Reducing emissions from U.S. power plants could help the nation and the world combat climate change, conservation groups argue (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
Members of the U.S. Congress can put in place a strong domestic plan by passing legislation to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, increase the percentage of the nation's power that comes from clean, renewable energy resources, and increase the fuel economy of motor vehicles to 40 miles per gallon, the groups say.

Resource managers and other wildlife professionals must also begin to take climate change into consideration when they work to conserve species and habitat.

"While global warming is a serious threat, it is not an impossible challenge," added NWF's Van Putten. "We need to act quickly on the solutions within our reach."

The WWF report is available at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/news. The NWF report can be ordered online from: http://www.islandpress.com/books/