Saturday 23rd July 2016                 Change text size:

The 12 days of climate change myths: #10, can animals and plants adapt to climate change?

The 12 days of climate change myths: #10, can animals and plants adapt to climate change?

With thanks to Skeptical Science, over the Christmas holidays, Blue & Green Tomorrow is tackling climate change myths to find out the truth behind them.

Today we are looking at the idea that animals and plants can adapt to climate change.

The sceptic argument…

“Corals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate.”

(Hudson Institute).

What the science says…

This was a guest post written for Skeptical Science by Professor Barry Brook, an international research leader in global ecology and conservation biology.

A large number of ancient mass extinction events have been strongly linked to global climate change. Because current climate change is so rapid, the way the species typically adapt (migration) is, in most cases, simply not possible. Global change is simply too pervasive and occurring too rapidly.

Humans are transforming the global environment. Great swathes of temperate forest in Europe, Asia and North America have been cleared over the past few centuries for agriculture, timber and urban development. Tropical forests are now on the front line. Human-assisted species invasions of pests, competitors and predators are rising exponentially, and over-exploitation of fisheries, and forest animals for bush meat, to the point of collapse, continues to be the rule rather than the exception.

Driving this has been a six-fold expansion of the human population since 1800 and a 50-fold increase in the size of the global economy. The great modern human enterprise was built on exploitation of the natural environment. Today, up to 83% of the Earth’s land area is under direct human influence and we entirely dominate 36% of the bio productive surface. Up to half the world’s freshwater runoff is now captured for human use. More nitrogen is now converted into reactive forms by industry than all by all the planet’s natural processes and our industrial and agricultural processes are causing a continual build-up of long-lived greenhouse gases to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years and possibly much longer.

Clearly, this planet-wide domination by human society will have implications for biological diversity. For instance, a study conducted in 2003 showed that up to 42% of species in the Southeast Asian region could be consigned to extinction by the year 2100 due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation alone. Given these existing pressures and upheavals, it is a reasonable question to ask whether global warming will make any further meaningful contribution to this mess. Some, such as the sceptics S. Fred Singer and Dennis Avery, see no danger at all, maintaining that a warmer planet will be beneficial for mankind and other species on the planet and that “corals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate”. Also, although climate change is a concern for conservation biologists, it is not the focus for most researchers (at present), largely I think because of the severity and immediacy of the damage caused by other threats.

Global warming to date has certainly affected species’ geographical distributional ranges and the timing of breeding, migration, flowering, and so on. But extrapolating these observed impacts to predictions of future extinction risk is challenging. The most well known study to date, by a team from the UK, estimated that 18 and 35% of plant and animal species will be committed to extinction by 2050 due to climate change. This study, which used a simple approach of estimating changes in species geographical ranges after fitting to current bioclimatic conditions, caused a flurry of debate.

A large number of ancient mass extinction events have indeed been strongly linked to global climate change, including the most sweeping die-off that ended the Palaeozoic Era, 250 million years ago and the somewhat less cataclysmic, but still damaging, Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55 million years ago. Yet in the more recent past, during the Quaternary glacial cycles spanning the last million years, there were apparently little climate-related extinction. This curious paradox of few ice age extinctions even has a name – it is called ‘the Quarternary Conundrum’.

Over that time, the globally averaged temperature difference between the depth of an ice age and a warm interglacial period was 4 to 6°C – comparable to that predicted for the coming century due to anthropogenic global warming under the fossil-fuel-intensive, business-as-usual scenario. Most species appear to have persisted across these multiple glacial–interglacial cycles. This can be inferred from the fossil record, and from genetic evidence in modern species. In Europe and North America, populations shifted ranges southwards as the great northern hemisphere ice sheets advanced, and reinvaded northern realms when the glaciers retreated. Some species may have also persisted in locally favourable regions that were otherwise isolated within the tundra and ice-strewn landscapes. In Australia, a recently discovered cave site has shown that large-bodied mammals were able to persist in the arid landscape of the Nullarbor in conditions similar to now.

However, although the geological record is essential for understanding how species respond to natural climate change, there are a number of reasons why future impacts on biodiversity will be particularly severe:

A) Human-induced warming is already rapid and is expected to further accelerate. The IPCC storyline scenarios imply a rate of warming of 0.2 to 0.6°C per decade. By comparison, the average change from 15 to 7 thousand years ago was ~0.005°C per decade, although this was occasionally punctuated by short-lived (and possibly regional-scale) abrupt climatic jolts.

B) A low-range optimistic estimate of 2°C of 21st century warming will shift the Earth’s global mean surface temperature into conditions which have not existed since the middle Pliocene, 3 million years ago. More than 4°C of atmospheric heating will take the planet’s climate back, within a century, to the largely ice-free world that existed about 35 million years ago. The average ‘species’ lifetime’ is only 1 to 3 million years. So it is quite possible that in the comparative geological instant of a century, planetary conditions will be transformed to a state unlike anything that most of the world’s modern species have encountered.

C) As noted above, it is critical to understand that ecosystems in the 21st century start from an already massively ‘shifted baseline’ and so have lost resilience. Most habitats are already degraded and their populations depleted, to a lesser or greater extent, by past human activities. For millennia our impacts have been localised although often severe, but during the last few centuries we have unleashed physical and biological transformations on a global scale.

D) Past adaptation to climate change by species was mainly through shifting their geographic range to higher or lower latitudes (depending on whether the climate was warming or cooling), or up and down mountain slopes. There were also evolutionary responses – individuals that were most tolerant to new conditions survived and so made future generations more intrinsically resilient. Now, because of points A to C described above, this type of adaptation will, in most cases, simply not be possible or will be inadequate to cope. Global change is simply too pervasive and occurring too rapidly. Time’s up and there is nowhere for species to run or hide.

Many thanks to Skeptical Science for allowing us to republish their work. To view the original article, click here.

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