The Solid Connection Between Biodiversity and Climate Change
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has long been a leader in recognizing the inherent link between biodiversity loss and climate change, the existential threat both issues pose to life on our planet, and the critical need to address both threats together.
This week, the results of a comprehensive workshop report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (PCC) confirmed that nature and climate are inextricably linked. According to the peer-reviewed report, authored by 50 of the world's leading biodiversity and climate experts, unprecedented changes in climate and biodiversity driven by human activities have merged to increasingly threaten nature, human lives, livelihoods, and overall well-being around the world.
"...legislative policies have largely tackled biodiversity loss and climate change independently ... However, neither lives in isolation, and neither will be successfully resolved unless they are both tackled together."
UN: How nature can protect us from pandemics, April 23, 2020.
Biodiversity Loss & Climate Change Intrinsically Linked
Biodiversity loss and climate change are both driven by human activities and mutually reinforce each other. Though this concept is widely accepted in the scientific community, it is a point often underappreciated among policy decision makers. To date, legislative policies have largely tackled biodiversity loss and climate change independently of one another. However, neither lives in isolation, and neither will be successfully resolved unless they are both tackled together.
"Put simply, as climate shifts, it affects where and how animals and plants live and essentially determines if such species can ultimately thrive."
Addressing the synergies between mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change while considering their social impacts offers an optimal opportunity to maximize benefits, meet global development goals, and take a critical step towards stewardship of our shared planet. As climate change progresses, the distribution, functioning, and interactions of organisms -- and thus broader ecosystems -- are increasingly altered. Put simply, as climate shifts, it affects where and how animals and plants live and essentially determines if such species can ultimately thrive.
"Ecosystems depend on the presence of native flora and fauna to produce basic needs, including clean air, drinkable water, and nutrient-rich soil and seas."
National Geographic Society: The Campaign For Nature - A New Vision for Nature, November 4, 2020.
Plants and Animals Feel the Heat
Just as changing temperatures produce stress in human communities -- through rising sea levels, increased incidence of storms, wildfires, and irregular seasons for instance -- the vagaries of climate change also impose severe stress on animals and plant species.
As species move, migrate, and potentially alter their behaviors with resultant shifts in their local populations, the very fabric of our landscapes and seascapes shifts. Ecosystems depend on the presence of native flora and fauna to produce basic needs, including clean air, drinkable water, and nutrient-rich soil and seas. As we lose that biodiversity, ecosystems degrade, even breaking down entirely. These situations make clear the inherent interdependence of both species and their ecosystems.
"...take animals such as forest elephants, pangolins ... universally considered to be 'ecosystem engineers' with key roles in preserving the health of their ecosystems and facilitating the capture of more carbon."
IFAW: Team Lioness: Women Rangers Protecting Africa's Wildlife, May 6, 2021.
A Feedback Loop
Climate change, however, is not the leading driver of biodiversity loss -- it is overexploitation and habitat destruction. Climate change is still a significant contributor, and one that is likely to "move up the ranks" of significance as it intensifies. And just as climate change contributes to biodiversity loss, so too does the loss of biodiversity contribute to the changing climate. A relentless cycle that escalates as conditions escalate -- an interminable and destructive loop.
On one hand, healthy ecosystems can mitigate the damaging effects of climate change -- wetlands can help to absorb rainfall and prevent excessive flooding, for instance -- but also biodiversity that is both rich and thriving can protect against climate change itself. For example, take animals such as forest elephants, pangolins and whales, universally considered to be "ecosystem engineers" with key roles in preserving the health of their ecosystems and facilitating the capture of more carbon. This form of carbon sequestration helps keep excess carbon out of the atmosphere where it would otherwise absorb and reflect heat.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution in conservation. It is all interwoven -- as diverse as the landscapes and ecosystems we seek to protect."
IFAW: IFAW at 50, May 7, 2019.
Given the global impact of climate change and its influence on the efforts involved in the animal welfare and conservation space, IFAW will continue to ensure that its programmatic efforts fully reflect the fundamental understanding of the link between both climate change and biodiversity protection.
At a project site in Chikolongo, Malawi, we have empowered a community to coexist with megafauna, like elephants, hippos and crocodiles, that help to keep the Lilongwe River ecosystem healthy. This in turn supports a landscape that further supports its inhabitants and increases the community's resilience to natural disasters, which include storms and wildfires that are escalating in the face of climate change.
In the US and internationally, we work to protect and restore wildlife corridors, allowing wild species to roam more freely in response to changing conditions, access food and water, and engage in natural migratory and reproductive behaviors. Sometimes the best road to conservation is actually a corridor.
Dr. Kristen Ruegg, Dr. Rachael Bay, and Dr. Thomas Smith Facebook Live conversation streamed on October 15, 20.
In addition to our on-the-ground conservation work across the globe, we also advocate for laws and policies that support our conservation values. These range from strategies aimed at reducing overexploitation from wildlife trade, conserving and restoring habitats, shrinking carbon emissions, and protecting biodiversity. In the US, where we applaud and support the efforts of the Biden Administration to address climate change through a whole-of-government strategy, we are also advocating a National Biodiversity Strategy to ensure that biodiversity loss receives the holistic attention it requires. There is no one-size-fits-all solution in conservation. It is all interwoven -- as diverse as the landscapes and ecosystems we seek to protect.
We recognize that climate health, as well as the health of animals and ecosystems, is critical to the survival of both people and livelihoods. All countries and cultures need to strive to conserve wildlife and habitats; to combat climate change literally from the "ground up," so that we can all continue to not only survive -- but to thrive -- now and well into the future.
Our hope is that this report is eye-opening to both people and policy makers, and ideally a catalyst for a real paradigm shift in how we address the dual existential threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. We are already seeing the intense and ever-escalating impacts of human activities that threaten our natural world. It is time for us to take swift, collective action for a more sustainable future.