Climate change and conservation

12th April, 1961 – Yuri Gagarin becomes the first person to enter outer space, completing one orbit before returning safely to Earth, 1 hour 48 minutes after launch.

15th December, 2015 – the Soyuz Rocket is, at the time of writing, the latest space flight to launch from Earth, transporting astronauts to the International Space Station for a six month mission.

Today – More than 200 miles above Earth’s surface, the International Space Station is in orbit. You are aboard. Travelling at 17,500 miles an hour, you complete an orbit of the Earth every hour. Watching out of the window, your view is down to Earth. You see oceans, continents. But there is more, the image is not static or one dimensional. There is movement and texture.

In the atmosphere, nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide are the most common gases, alongside less common ones like krypton, xenon and ozone. Weather systems race, eddy and swirl, like milk in a cup of coffee. The greater part of the planet’s surface is covered with water, a blur of blue, turquoise, violet, purple and black. On land, vegetation flashes green and yellow, while snow and ice gleam white at the planets poles. Even in the short history of human space exploration, this view has changed. The images you now see will not correspond exactly to those seen by Gagarin just 54 years ago. Weather systems now follow different courses. Seasons come earlier. There is less white at the poles.

Meanwhile down on the Earth’s surface, in Paris, there has been another planetary shift, this time in the world of environmental politics. Three days earlier on the 12th of December, two weeks of climate talks ended with the first truly global agreement on climate change. 195 countries committed to take action in response to recent climatic changes. During the last 100 years, the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.5°C. The warming has not been equal across all areas however. Temperatures in the polar regions have increased by 2–3°C in just the last 50 years and its consequences are already being felt. The aim of the Paris talks was to produce a declaration, signed by all nations present, containing legally binding targets to limit further temperature increases. In an unprecedented feat of global diplomacy, and defying the predictions of many, representatives from almost all the countries on Earth ended negotiations by signing this document, pledging to “(hold) the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.


Although less obvious than large scale climatic change, no less dramatic are the changes for wildlife. Changes in distribution, timing and synchronicity (more on this in a moment), and consequently changes in interactions between species. Broadly, ecologists are seeing two trends. First, species are physically changing their geographical ranges, shifting both towards the poles, and to higher altitudes. Imagine the rising temperatures as a flood (an analogy all too prescient for many areas) with heat flowing out from the equator, effecting low altitudes first. As the temperatures reach new areas, some species shift northwards, or to higher ground. Some species actually follow the tide line, taking advantage of the advancing warm to colonise new areas as they become climatically clement. For these species, warming will mean a range expansion. For species whose range is restricted however, either by a physical barrier, or because they already inhabit the most northerly latitudes or highest altitudes, there is nowhere to go. So polar species and those found on mountain tops are in serious trouble and show the highest rates of extinction due to recent climate change.

The other major change is temporal. As temperatures increase, some species are beginning their yearly cycles earlier. In a meta-analysis of 203 species in the northern hemisphere, amphibians were found to be bringing their breeding seasons forward more than twice as quickly as butterflies, birds and trees. Meanwhile, butterflies are advancing significantly faster than the first flowering herbs. These asynchronies may have serious consequences. For example, just because one species can adapt, this does not mean that other species in its ecological web can do likewise. Butterflies rely on particular plant species, on which to feed and lay their eggs. If these plants have not yet emerged, the butterflies will have no food. Similar issues are affecting many bird species.

In Europe, blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) coordinate the hatching of their eggs with peak caterpillar abundance. Mistiming of laying, due to rapid changes in life cycles of their prey species, is already affecting the reproductive success of these birds. Migratory species may find it even more difficult to adjust their cycles. If the weather is warmer than usual in Africa, will this also be true in Northern Europe? If snows persist in the Himalayas, will it still be winter in the high Arctic? One study found that, of 1598 species, 59% had changed their phenologies and/or distributions over the past 20 to 140 years.


So what relevance do the recent climate talks have for dealing with these ecological changes? Based on available evidence, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified 5 ‘reasons for concern’, (RFCs, described in the appendix below), or the primary ways in which the planet will be affected by climate change. Of particular importance to ecology and biodiversity are RFCs 1 and 3. RFC 1 highlights the ‘Risk to Unique and Threatened Systems.’, which includes threats to ecosystems, endangered species and biodiversity as a whole. RFC 3 addresses the ‘Distribution of Impacts’. This RFC is concerned with the unequal regional impacts of climate change, acknowledging the fact that some will experience greater harm than others, while some may even benefit. In the graph below, predictions for the worsening impacts of each RFC are shown as global temperatures increase. The temperature ranges from just below, to increasingly far above pre-industrial levels, with colour indicating the severity of the effect. As the graph shows, ecosystems and regional variations are two of the greatest risks from future climate change, which will experience high levels of impact with relatively minor further increases in temperature.

At a recent international conference, another question was raised – what if different individuals of a species respond differently to climate change? My ears perked up at this point because such individual differences are my own area of research, but I had not previously thought about this within the context of climate change. We all know that some people cope better than others when the weather is particularly hot. This individual variation in regional thermal tolerance is also seen in other species, and one would predict that as global temperatures rise, that the individuals that can cope will do better than those that cannot. However, we don’t have the data yet to be able to predict how variation among individuals will affect species responses to climate change. So we can model, predict, estimate, and we can have confidence in the results of these studies, as far as they go. But they will never be able to reflect the full systemic and pervasive impacts of climate change.

The only thing we can be certain of is that there will be significant environmental changes that all forms of life on our planet must overcome. There are a number of truths we must accept, whichever scenario we see:

1) Life as we know it will not continue.

a. Global migration patterns of all species will change. The distribution of human and non-human species will be forced to adapt to changes in temperature and sea-level rise.

b. Many species will go extinct. We cannot hold life on the planet in stasis, even if we wanted to, and some species will not adapt fast enough to the changing environment. But that is the nature of evolution. Since life first began, it has constantly been evolving in response to changing environmental conditions. We must decide however, how drastic are the changes we are willing to accept. This ranges from the relatively minor changes under a 2°C warming scenario, to a mass extinction, including maybe humans, and the reinitiation of evolution from simple, resistant forms of life. Under this second scenario, life will begin again, adapting to whatever planet it finds after we have gone. Given that the current rate of warming is unprecedented in the history of life on Earth, we are currently heading towards the more dramatic end of this range.

2) Continued use of fossil fuels will a) exasperate the climatic changes which we have to respond to, and b) run out anyway. How much the climate changes is down to how much we reduce emissions, and in some cases reverse the effects of greenhouse gases. Any reduction in emissions will lead to lower global warming.

It seems to me that what gives the Paris agreement the greatest chance of achieving its aims is the institution of 5-yearly reviews, to check on the progress being made by each country. The current climate policies of signatory nations are known to be insufficient to hit the 2°C targets, and further pledges must be made and adhered to if it is to be reached. The 5-yearly reviews are designed to ensure our governments are taking the required steps, and where they are not, holding them to account.

One of the greatest potential barriers to success therefore will be if these reviews are not properly enforced. So how can we make sure this happens? That is where you, me, everyone comes in. How do you think we can have the greatest impact? Do you already contribute to a particular organisation/petition? Do you write to your local politician?

We would love to hear from you and hope that we might be able to start a conversation about what the most effective form of action for the general public really is. If you have any ideas, you can send them to us via Facebook ( or on Twitter (@CurrnConsrvtion; #ClimateConservation).

Together, our voices are much, much louder.


IPCC Reasons for concern

1) Risk to Unique and Threatened Systems. This RFC addresses the potential for increased damage to or irreversible loss of unique and threatened systems, such as coral reefs, tropical glaciers, endangered species, unique ecosystems, biodiversity hotspots, small island states, and indigenous communities.

2) Risk of Extreme Weather Events. This RFC tracks increases in extreme events with substantial consequences for societies and natural systems. Examples include increase in the frequency, intensity, or consequences of heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, or tropical cyclones.

3) Distribution of Impacts. This RFC concerns disparities of impacts. Some regions, countries, and populations face greater harm from climate change, whereas other regions, countries, or populations would be much less harmed—and some may benefit; the magnitude of harm can also vary within regions and across sectors and populations.

4) Aggregate Damages. This RFC covers comprehensive measures of impacts. Impacts distributed across the globe can be aggregated into a single metric, such as monetary damages, lives affected, or lives lost. Aggregation techniques vary in their treatment of equity of outcomes, as well as treatment of impacts that are not easily quantified. This RFC is based mainly on monetary aggregation available in the literature.

5) Risks of Large-Scale Discontinuities. This RFC represents the likelihood that certain phenomena (sometimes called singularities or tipping points) would occur, any of which may be accompanied by very large impacts. These phenomena include the deglaciation (partial or complete) of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets and major changes in some components of the Earth’s climate system, such as a substantial reduction or collapse of the North Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

This article is from issue


2015 Dec