Climate Change and Biodiversity

updated May 2017

Increasingly frantic endeavours to adapt to climate change have provided a timely boost to our appreciation of biodiversity. Almost every country in the world is scouring its indigenous gene pool for varieties of staple crops that might be tolerant to higher temperatures, drought, floods or salinity.

The broader role of biodiversity as a defence mechanism against environmental change is increasingly appreciated. Horrifying tsunamis in Southeast Asia have highlighted the value of mangrove and coral reef ecosystems in mollifying the impact of tidal surges. In addition to its store of biodiversity, the tropical forest is acknowledged for its stabilising influence over the water cycle, given the threat of erratic rainfall patterns.

Alas, this prospective role as a guardian angel of climate adaptation may prove to be wishful thinking as biodiversity itself is threatened by climate change. A 2017 study published in Science journal warns that “climate change is impelling a universal redistribution of life on Earth.” The lead author states that “land-based species are moving polewards by an average of 17km per decade, and marine species by 72km per decade.”

Warming oceans have already caused serious damage to coral reefs through bleaching. Tropical forests too are sensitive to higher temperatures and drought. Ocean acidification, brought about by interaction with greater atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, threatens to disrupt the marine food chain.

Whilst the science of species migration remains uncertain, plants in particular may not be able to respond to temperature change quickly enough to relocate. Adaptation of both plants and animals will be obstructed by the physical obstacles of modern times – cities, roads and people.

Birdlife too is known to be oversensitive to changing temperature of habitats. Indeed, rising temperatures may create the perverse situation in which animals and plants need to move out of national parks and other protected areas for their own survival.

A 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences estimates that climate change alone could be responsible for the extinction of 10%-14% of all species by 2100. The presumption within international climate change agreements that two degrees of global warming represents a tolerable threshold is therefore not strongly supported by the science of biodiversity. The 2015 Paris climate agreement makes almost no reference to the significance of stabilising biodiversity loss.

A damaging feedback loop is therefore at play in which the poorer countries are powerless to prevent a spiralling loss of biodiversity. The richer countries are the primary agents of both the extraction of resources (a direct cause of biodiversity loss) and their consumption (a direct cause of climate change).


Climate change and biodiversity discussed by Terry Sunderland, Senior Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research

more Biodiversity briefings
The Anthropocene
Importance of Biodiversity
Biodiversity Loss and Planetary Boundaries
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Conservation of Biodiversity
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Finance and Economics
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
Source Material and Useful Links

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