reported again and again on the grave effects of climate change. After years of scientific research and debate as well as efforts to mobilise governments across the world, global leaders signed up to the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement outlines how we can avoid the irreversible and detrimental effects of climate change. This will require commitment and tenacity – a lot of regions are already experiencing climate change and if we are to ensure that global temperatures do not rise above 2 degrees Celsius we will need to act quickly and decisively. The problem is that despite the rhetoric, actual government policies will miss the 2-degree target.
And while it is never a happy task to be the bearer of bad news or to be always highlighting that efforts are falling short of meeting targets; someone has to remind us of the bigger picture and what is really at stake. So, let’s go over some of the grave effects of climate change to the environment.
Climate change and our land
Rising temperatures are affecting our climate and as a result, this has an impact on our environment and the functions it delivers. A key such function is nutrient replenishment; this is put at risk which has a knock-on effect on soil fertility. This is not important only in terms of preserving biodiversity and habitats, but it is also critical for agricultural activity and food security. More specifically, as soils become dryer with climate change, this impacts nitrogen and carbon concentrations which are the building blocks for plant growth¹. What is more, climate change is likely to change the landscape for a lot of our environment. Temperature and climate changes can lead to the proliferation of pests which can now inhabit higher latitudes as those regions grow warmer while some pests are reproducing more often as warm seasons last longer.
For example, in the now beetle-infested forests of the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, the pine bark beetle often completes two or three reproduction cycles per year instead of only one ².
Climate change and our air
Climate change is also going to have an impact on air quality. According to a recent study, by the end of the century, more than half of the world’s population will be exposed to increasingly stagnant atmospheric conditions, with the tropics and subtropics bearing the brunt of the poor air quality³. Air stagnation results from three meteorological incidents: light winds, a stable lower atmosphere and a day with little or no precipitation to wash away pollution. If greenhouse gases were to rise significantly in the future, estimates indicate that 55% of the global population will experience more air stagnation by 2099.
Large areas of India, Mexico and the Amazon could see up to 40 more stagnant air days per year compared to the average annual tally from 1986 to 2005 ³.
Climate change and our wildlife
One of the first things to be hit by the effects of climate change is our wildlife. According to international experts, global warming is likely to be the greatest cause of species extinctions this century with estimates indicating that a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction⁴. What is particularly worrying is that it is not just individual species that will be lost but that ecosystems as a whole will suffer. A lot of our ecosystems are already straining to adapt to deforestation and other types of pollution. The impact of adapting to climate change is therefore likely to be the straw to break the camel’s back. If our ecosystems suffer, the valuable services they provide will be compromised – these include clean air and water as well as nutrient replenishment which is key to productive soils.
Some of the species that are threatened include iconic animals which perform key functions in their own habitat. For example, tigers (whose numbers in the wild have already declined to as few as 3,200) will be at risk as climate change is predicted to increase sea levels and the risk of fire which will result in further fragmenting their habitats. Asian rhinos are another species at risk as climate change will disrupt weather patterns in northern India and Nepal. These rhinos depend on the annual monsoon to bring sufficient and timely rain, to replenish the vegetation they feed on. A changing climate would disrupt this pattern and lead to droughts and floods.
Climate change and our water
Climate change is having serious impacts on the world’s water systems through flooding and droughts as well as more extreme rainfall patterns. This creates further pressures on rivers and lakes that supply water for people and animals. What is more, the world’s oceans are also put at risk. Oceans are considered “carbon sinks” because they absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, limiting its potential to contribute to further global warming. However, increased water temperatures and ever-increasing carbon dioxides concentrations mean that oceans are changing and becoming more acidic. This is impact the fish and other organisms living there; coral reefs are particularly at risk. Sensitive coral and algae that live on it are starved of oxygen, causing dramatic bleaching and possibly the eventual death of the coral.
It is a sobering thought that only 5% one of the most biodiverse and unique ecosystems in the world, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, will be still intact in 2050⁴.
In the end, we must keep reminding ourselves what climate change and its impacts mean for our planet and our own lives. Regrettably, climate change is not something we can afford to ignore any longer.