Sieg heil, Homo sapiens: Eradicating lesser species with biodiversity loss and climate change
Published 11th February 2010 - 3 comments - 3045 views -
2009 was the year of COP15 and climate change. But 2010 is the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity. These two subjects are inextricably linked, however.
And when promoting the biodiversity cause change makers can just build on their nice experiences from COP15 in communicating an abstract subject that calls for societal changes going against current economic dogma, right?
This article looks at the problems and what can be done about them.
Crash course in ecology
Biodiversity is a measure of the variation among living things; the number of different species in an environment. A natural forest will have a higher biodiversity than a parking lot. A high level of biodiversity adds to the resilience – the ability to recover following a disturbance or catastrophe – of a given natural environment, an ecosystem. And that's just the beginning of why biodiversity is valuable beyond being nice and pretty.
Species are moving polewards and upwards in elevation in response to generally rising temperatures. Earlier flowering, breeding time, biomass peaks are decoupling species interactions; i.e. changing the available food sources.
Climate change in and of itself doesn't automatically means loss of biodiversity. Except in 2010 it does. Because much of what's left of nature is surviving only due to the maintenance of isolated, fixed protected areas. Without human civilization having reshaped most of the surface of Earth plants and animals would have just moved along with a changing climate. But to many species today there is nowhere to go. Most of the areas within their reach from their reserves are effectively deserts to them. Plus man would probably kill them before they died of natural causes.
If climate change is addressed by deforestation to make place for biofuel production then this in turn will gravely affect biodiversity . And besides climate change, “normal pollution” and the spread of humans keeps killing off species. Thus, many are already endangered which leaves them even more vulnerable. The European Union had pledged to halt extinctions by 2010 which hasn't happened – next to get wiped off the list are the Iberian lynx and the Mediterranean monk seal [3, 5]. And 2009 some criminal American deliberately killed the last wild jaguar .
What should be done?
Scientists are working on it. Environmental scientists Nichole Heller and Erika Zavaleta reviewed a large number of peer-reviewed studies on the problem in 2009 . From the 112 best articles 524 recommendations were identified, categorized, ranked and discussed. Typical of science, most recommendations were general principles, not advice on actions.
The number one recommendation is to increase connectivity. That means designing corridors and removing barriers between habitats. Could be just preserving a hedgerow, actually. Perhaps locating reserves close to each other. And generally reforest. This will allow species to move by themselves if they feel the need.
Right below that is to integrate climate change in planning and modelling of ecological scenarios such as pest outbreaks, harvest schedules and grazing, mitigating other threats such as invasive species and pollution to not have it add up in vicious synergy, intensively study the specific biological responses to climate change of organisms (physiological, behavorial etc.), intensively manage and even translocate populations. Then there is the rather obvious recommendation to simply increase the number of reserves.
And as they say, “reserves should be accumulated in areas predicted to be hotspots for biodiversity in the future or to provide habitat for species of high conservation value, warranting increased effort to model species distributions in the future.” So, lots of work for modellers and park rangers. There are many challenges. For one thing most climate models are global while habitats and reserves are not.
Besides uncertainties there are disagreements too. For example as to which is better, few large or many small reserves? All agree, though, that there is a need for more protected land. And many call for partial protection of surrounding areas.
Within the reserves old trees should be preserved. Because they both tolerate a wide range of temperatures as well as help regulate local climate. And once felled it takes a long time to grow new. Old trees have virtually no economic value, though.
What can be done?
The remark about “nice experiences from COP15” above was a joke, of course. In case you were wondering. But not only a joke.
Of course, there are few positive experiences to take with us from COP15. But some lessons learned include no apocalyptic forecasts because they only produce apathy and cynicism. And no sloppy reports because errors will eventually be picked up and heralded as proof of the collapse of science by those who wish to disbelieve anything not in support of business as usual. We need scientific predictions to somehow end up in constructive proposals for prosperous activities. 
But there is another obvious link between the subjects of biodiversity preservation and climate change: Most nature reserves are carbon sinks. In a carbon economy maintaining forests should be viable.
“Currently the world's ecosystems, instead of maintaining and enhancing nature's carbon capture and storage capacity, are being depleted at an alarming rate.”
- Achim Steiner, UNEP
In Europe we have brought a halt to deforestation. And there are opportunities to re-plant and combine carbon sequestration with human recreation needs. Already our forests capture 7-12% of our fossil fuel emissions; clearly a value. And each hectare of new forest captures between 150 and 320 tonnes of carbon. Finally, we have the know-how to conduct our agriculture without degrading soil organic carbon and excessive fossil fuel use; we just have to start using this knowledge. 
HELLER, N., & ZAVALETA, E. (2009). Biodiversity management in the face of climate change: A review of 22 years of recommendations Biological Conservation, 142 (1), 14-32 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2008.10.006
The Natural Fix? The Role of Ecosystems in Climate Mitigation. UNEP, 2009.
About the author
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