The new Fifth National Climate Assessment, an interagency report on U.S. climate change impacts, risks, and responses, paints a severe picture of the climate crisis. The news of current and future climate impacts, however, is not all dire as there are encouraging trends in mitigation and adaptation responses.
We’ve gone through the report page by page, and here are the top takeaways for wildlife.
1. Climate Change Is Driving Rapid Ecosystem Transformations
Climate change is profoundly impacting wildlife habitat — from higher temperatures, increasing droughts and fire, more intense storms and floods and more favorable conditions for diseases and pests.
Many ecosystems are at risk of reaching tipping points where ecosystem transformations can occur. Some are already happening, such as sagebrush shrublands being replaced by invasive annual grasses, dry forests turning to grassland and coastal forests being replaced by marshland.
Other ecosystems, like coral reefs, could disappear entirely. If that happens, we’ll lose the crucial services they provide like flood protection, habitat for fish and other marine wildlife and so much more.
It is critical that we avoid reaching tipping points, as restoring an ecosystem may be difficult or even impossible if a critical threshold is crossed and a different system emerges.
2. Species Impacts and Biodiversity Loss Are Accelerating
Climate change acts in tandem with the other five drivers of the biodiversity crisis — habitat loss, pollution, invasive species and overexploitation — and is having deadly impacts on our nation’s wildlife. It is especially harmful to species like plants that are unable to relocate, cold-adapted species like polar bears and salmon, and high-elevation species whose habitats shrink as they are driven upslope, like the wolverine and pika.
Climate change is also severely altering the timing of seasonal events such as leaf-out, flowering, migration, spawning, egg hatching and coloration changes by causing warmer winter and spring temperatures, as well as shifted snowmelt and rainfall. If an animal arrives (e.g., migratory birds) or hatches (e.g., caterpillars) at a site when its preferred food is unavailable, the mismatch in timing can have very negative effects.
Ecosystems are changing dramatically as species undertake elevational and latitudinal range shifts driven by warming temperatures and changing precipitation. Climate change also promotes range expansions of disease carriers like mosquitoes and ticks and invasive species like cheatgrass and kudzu. What’s more, it can also make wildlife more susceptible to getting sick from or outcompeted by these invasive species because of stress.
3. There Are Opportunities to Reduce the Damage
The more the planet warms, the greater the risk of catastrophic consequences. This is why it is so important the world avoids each degree of warming that it can by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing their removal from the atmosphere.
Currently, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are falling, which is movement in the right direction. But unfortunately, the current rate of decline is insufficient to meet climate mitigation goals. To reach net-zero emissions, we must increase energy efficiency, expand solar and wind energy production, switch to electric vehicles and pursue other low-emission strategies.
Reducing fossil fuel emissions could also improve human health and redress legacies of inequity, since many underserved and marginalized communities face both the most pollution effects and are on the front lines for climate change impacts.
The report highlights that keeping our nation’s forests, grasslands, wetlands and other natural ecosystems that store vast amounts of carbon intact is one of the most cost-effective ways to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. Restoring damaged and degraded areas can enhance this carbon removal potential.
And, of course, you cannot combat the climate crisis without also combatting the biodiversity crisis. Healthy wildlife populations play a key role in keeping ecosystems functioning and resilient, so that they can continue to sequester carbon and provide other services to people.
As people, ecosystems and wildlife face more severe climate impacts, adaptation projects must increase significantly. Nature-based solutions include actions like:
Restoring coastal wetlands or oyster reefs to reduce storm surge and shoreline erosion,
Restoring floodplain wetlands and degraded streams to reduce downstream flooding,
Installing green stormwater infrastructure able to capture heavier rainfall,
Applying innovative agricultural practices to manage increasing drought,
Managing vegetation to reduce wildfire risk,
Planting trees in urban areas, especially in areas lacking them, to reduce summer heat and improve air quality,
Identifying and protecting climate refugia — areas buffered from changes in regional environmental conditions — for plants and wildlife,
Identifying and protecting a network of natural areas and corridors to connect refugia for species whose habitat has become unsuitable,
Researching assisted migration tools for at-risk species that may need help escaping changing temperatures, and
Addressing non-climate stressors — like pollution, disease, and invasive species —in U.S. protected areas — to increase resiliency.
What can you do?
Tackling the climate crisis is not something that can be solved by a single person. We can all play a part and there are numerous opportunities to take action and support both ecosystems and wildlife, such as signing pledges, contacting Members of Congress, engaging on social media and so much more. Check out our Defenders Activist Hub and get involved!
- Combating climate change
- Pacific salmon
- Polar bears
- Rocky Mountains and Great Plains