Andreas Späth

Climate change - it's not for the birds

2013-07-01 15:30

Andreas Späth

Evidence that human-caused climate change is having detrimental effects is mounting. And it's not just people who are suffering - our co-inhabitants on this planet are starting to feel the brunt, too.

Take birds, for example. A recent report from BirdLife International provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of global bird populations and things are not looking good.

Since the year 1 500 more than 150 bird species have become extinct - a rate of extinction that far exceeds the natural background pace. Today, as many as one in eight species are threatened with extinction as even formerly widespread and numerous groups are in sharp decline.

The report identifies numerous threats to birds, including habitat destruction through the expansion of agricultural crop areas and deforestation, pollution and the spread of invasive species. It also acknowledges that climate change is already affecting birds and may turn out to "pose the greatest challenge" to bird diversity.

This is nothing new, of course. In 2004, scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that by 2050, 15 to 37% of bird, amphibian and warm-water reef-building corals will be "committed to extinction" because of climate change. In 2008 the organisation found that 7000 of the 17 000 species of the same groups of animals assessed could become threatened with extinction as a result of rising global temperatures.

"But we're talking about birds here," you might say. "Can't they just pack up their things and fly to a place where the climate is more to their liking?"

The situation isn't that simple. In evaluating each species' climate change vulnerability, the scientists did take cognisance of their ability to relocate to more suitable areas. They also considered the possibility that a species might evolve rapidly enough to adapt to changing weather condition, something that requires a rich genetic diversity and a fast reproduction rate.

The IUCN's latest report on the situation, which was released last month, confirms earlier concerns and concludes that 24 to 50% of the planet's bird species are highly vulnerable to climate change.

If you're wondering exactly how climate change is threatening the survival of birds, an interesting study published in May provides an illustrative example.

Every year, millions of coastal birds migrate from Alaska and Russia to the coasts of Australasia and South East Asia following something called the East Asian - Australasian Flyway. Along the way, they rest in extensive intertidal wetlands to refuel their food reserves and recharge their energy levels.

The authors of the study found that many of these important feeding grounds stand to be flooded as a result of sea level rise caused by global warming, disrupting long-distance migratory networks and preventing increasing numbers of birds from reaching their annual breeding grounds.

They predict devastating population losses of up to 72% and possible extinction threats to a number of these migratory shorebird species.

I sometimes hear people argue, "Oh well, we might be in the process of exterminating ourselves, but ultimately life on earth will survive, with or without humans." While that may be true, it callously ignores the fact that in bringing down our own species we're dragging countless innocent others towards extinction with us.

The fact that we probably won't manage to exterminate life altogether doesn't exonerate us from our culpability for destroying so much of it.

Others say that extinctions are natural phenomena that have happened on numerous occasions throughout the earth's history. So why shouldn't we look at what's happening now in the same way - as a case of natural history repeating itself?

The difference is that the current mass extinction isn't being caused by a comet colliding with the planet or a devastatingly massive series of volcanic eruptions. It's not the result of an amoral physical process.

It's being caused by us. We are to blame for it. And it's time we started to take collective responsibility for our actions.

The solution is really quite simple, as the IUCN scientists explain: "...reducing greenhouse emissions will reduce climate change driven extinctions".

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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