November 1, 2021
Ted Weber and Aimee Delach

As world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 climate negotiations, the stakes have never been higher. At least 85% of people in the world have already experienced a drought, flood or crop failure made worse by the effects of climate change, according to one recent report.¹ And, from the Arctic to Africa—wildlife is being hit hard by the effects of a rapidly warming planet.

Climate change is profoundly impacting wildlife and ecosystems—from higher temperatures, increasing droughts and fire, and more intense storms and floods, to more favorable conditions for diseases and pests. Species with low or declining populations—like those on the endangered species list—or adapted to cold temperatures—like polar bears and salmon—are especially vulnerable. Climate change worsens the effects of habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution and invasive species. Some ecosystems, like coral reefs, could disappear entirely.

We Must Reduce Greenhouse Gases

At the annual climate summit organized by the United Nations (Oct. 31 to Nov. 12), countries will update their plans for reducing emissions. In 2015, every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2°C, aiming for 1.5°C, the threshold that scientists agree would limit the likelihood of the worst climate change impacts. To do this, countries committed to developing national plans to reduce their emissions (Nationally Determined Contributions, or ‘NDCs’), and update these plans every five years.  

The commitments laid out in 2015 at COP21 in Paris fall far short of what’s needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. And given that the world has already warmed by about 1°C, the challenge we face is urgent. The biggest emitters must also help the most vulnerable countries cope with devastating climate impacts. To avoid changes too catastrophic to cope with, the world must cut emissions by at least 45% by 2030 to reach net zero by 2050.

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Greenhouse gas emission scenarios 2021

We already have the ability to reduce climate change. All we need is the will. Solar panels, wind turbines and storage batteries are becoming exponentially cheaper and more efficient. Defenders has found plenty of places to site new wind and solar farms without harming wildlife, habitat or human communities.

To reach the 1.5°C goal, we must also pull carbon dioxide from the air. Plants do this naturally via photosynthesis, storing some of the carbon in biomass and soils. Yet we continue to raze our forests for agriculture and development. Deforestation accounts for 10% to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Forests, wetlands and other carbon-storing ecosystems need protection. Healthy forests not only sequester carbon dioxide, they provide wildlife habitat, aquifer recharge, flood and erosion control, cleaner air and water, recreational opportunities and cultural and spiritual connections.

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Solar panels in Antelope Valley, California
Tom Egan

We Must Adapt to Change  

COP26 will also focus on climate adaptation, which is the adjustment of natural or human systems to reduce negative impacts. By addressing ongoing climate impacts to species, ecosystems and human communities, we can increase the resilience to such impacts and lessen their effects. For example, inland flooding can be reduced by restoring forests and wetlands, capturing stormwater runoff before it reaches streams and rivers. Similarly, mangrove forests, tidal marshes and reefs can protect coastal communities from destructive storm waves.  

To help species and ecosystems survive the changing climate, we can protect current and future habitat from development, overharvesting and stressors like fire, disease and invasive species. We can also protect climate refugia, which are areas likely to remain cooler or wetter than the surrounding landscape. And we can protect and restore corridors to help species respond by shifting their ranges.   

Biodiversity and Climate Inextricably Linked

In a recent peer-reviewed report, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the biodiversity and climate crises are closely intertwined, and addressing them together offers numerous synergies and benefits to society.² The adaptive capacity of most ecosystems will be exceeded if climate warming is not kept well below 2°C. Other pressures such as land conversion, overexploitation and pollution must also be kept in check.

Conversely, healthy ecosystems can play an important role in climate mitigation by sequestering carbon. Biodiversity plays an essential role, in that each species contains unique adaptations yet interacts with other species in a web of dependencies.

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View of Pisgah National Forest through the trees
Gary Peeples/USFWS

When species disappear from an ecosystem, those that depend on them for food, pollination or other needs also begin to disappear. This can decrease overall productivity and resilience. At a certain point, it becomes a “Jenga effect”– pull out too many pieces, and eventually the structure collapses. Examples include forest turning to grassland and coral reefs becoming expanses of sand. Such ecosystem collapses accelerate climate change and worsen its effects.   

What Can You Do?

COP26 could set the course of history. We can rise to overcome climate and biodiversity challenges, providing a stable, prosperous world for future generations, or we can sit back and destroy ourselves. You can watch many of the conference proceedings online. Visit the official website for the latest information. In addition, you can get updates via social media (hashtag #COP26). Look for a summary here when the conference concludes. 

Congress and the White House are currently negotiating a historic spending package to invest in America’s future and infrastructure, and as with the COP26 negotiations, the stakes have never been higher. The Build Back Better Act is our best chance to set the nation on a course for real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to advance nature-based solutions. In order to solve the joint climate and biodiversity crises, we urge decision-makers to benefit both wildlife and people by protecting old carbon-rich forests, restoring degraded habitat, investing in climate adaptation, and increasing the resilience of public and private lands.  

Contact your Senators and Representative and let them know strong climate action and nature protection and restoration must be included as Congress considers the Build Back Better Act and other climate legislation.


¹ Callaghan, M. et al. 2021. Machine-learning-based evidence and attribution mapping of 100,000 climate impact studies. Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01168-6.

² Pörtner, H.O., et al. 2021. IPBES-IPCC co-sponsored workshop report on biodiversity and climate change. IPBES and IPCC. doi:10.5281/zenodo.4782538.

Author(s)

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Ted Weber headshot

Ted Weber

Policy Analyst, Climate Adaptation
As the Policy Analyst for Climate Adaptation, Ted brings experience as an ecologist and natural resource planner to Defenders of Wildlife.
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Aimee Delach

Aimee Delach

Senior Policy Analyst, Climate Adaptation
Aimee Delach develops and analyzes policies to help land managers protect wildlife and habitat threatened by the impacts of climate change.
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