How does climate change impact nature?

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Nature is affected by climate change by gradually increasing temperatures and by extreme events - including droughts, extreme heat or cold, and storms. Although so far most impacts have been relatively modest, much greater change is expected in the future.

In response to warming, species are moving further north and upwards to cooler altitudes. This causes declines and local extinctions of species that were once common, as well as the arrival of novel species. Warming is also changing the timing of seasonal events (phenology), including by accelerating bud-burst and flowering. Often, species move or alter their phenology* at different speeds. This complicates the way that they interact, and can result in mismatch – for example; in warmer springs bees can hatch before the species they usually pollinate have begun to flower (potentially affecting food production). In contrast, extreme events typically have rapid impacts on population size, for example by causing death in a particular tree species during drought.

  Crossing each of these 9 'planetary boundaries' risks abrupt, irreversible change. We have already crossed two boundaries and are approaching the climate change boundary (top, orange shading).  Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Crossing each of these 9 'planetary boundaries' risks abrupt, irreversible change. We have already crossed two boundaries and are approaching the climate change boundary (top, orange shading). Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre.

In the oceans climate change brings the additional threat of acidification - as CO2 has built up in the atmosphere, more of it has dissolved in sea water, increasing acidity by 30% since the industrial revolution. This is a serious problem for species that build their own shells or exoskeletons, including corals. The threat to corals (which support half a billion people globally) is compounded by increased storminess and water temperature, resulting in the loss of half of all coral reefs in the last 30 years.

Climate change also affects ecological processes, for example by reducing soil fertility and the ability of natural habitat to sequester and store carbon. This ability of ecosystems to take up CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it into vegetation and soils is a critical process that currently removes around half of all human emissions from the atmosphere, significantly slowing climate change. Enhancing this process by restoring and conserving ecosystems could play a major role in helping us meet our climate targets.

*Phenology: the timing of biological phenomena (eg flowering, breeding and migration) in relation to climatic conditions.

Extinction

A changing climate means that animals and plants are struggling to adapt to new conditions. The species most in danger, are the ones who are highly specialized in what they eat and where they live (Nat Geo). In a scientific analysisin 2015, it was reported that one in six species could disappear as the climate warms over the next century.

In June 2018, it was reportedthat 1 in 5 mammals in Britain are at risk of extinction. The hedgehog and water vole have seen their populations decline by almost 70% over the past 20 years and the red squirrel, the wildcat and the grey long-eared bat are all facing threat to survival.

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Nature matters to businesses

All business depends on and affects nature in some way (WWF), highlighting that harming nature has wide impacts because our natural capital stocks are being depleted. * This provides risk to business because with depleted natural resources, comes increased cost.

*Natural Capital: the world’s stock of natural resources such as water, soil, air and all living services. Some natural capital assets provide us with what we call ecosystem services, which are free goods and services. This could include using water in power stations.

The Link between nature and health

The WHO (2016) summarises the health benefits of increase access to green space to include decreased mortality and obesity, improved mental health, and decreased risk of diabetes. The ways in which these benefits come about include:

●      Increasing physical activity

●      Stress reduction (there is evidence of contact with nature reducing stress)

●      Increasing social cohesion

●      Reduced air pollutant exposure

●      Reduced exposure to noise and excess heat.

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Date of Publication: 19.07.2018