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Europe and Central Asia
19 Nov 2015

The Messengers: Preview our upcoming climate change report

Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa) Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock
By Sanya Khetani-Shah

Human-induced climate change is happening. It is happening so fast that many species will struggle to adapt and survive in the near future, unless we act now. 

Already, we can see the impact that rising temperatures are having on nature and people and the benefits that nature provides to people. Birds, being the best-studied group of organisms, are powerful sentinels for the natural world: They tell us how biodiversity is responding to changing climate. All this has been documented in a new joint report The Messengers by BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society, which comes out before the climate change summit in Paris (read the foreword by the heads of both organisations here).

The report – a synthesis of hundreds of peer-reviewed studies – explains with real-world examples how climate change has and will continue to affect birds and people. The outlook is bleak: from forced migration due to loss of habitat to greater threat from diseases, more competition for food and more frequent extreme weather events. (Read BirdLife International's official position on climate change here.)

Most scarily, people will experience similar threats, and their responses – such as clearing forests to create new farming and living areas, or creating storm-surge barriers against rising sea levels – could have a substantially negative impact on nature, including loss of habitats and species extinctions. 

Distribution changes

Birds have in the last decades moved poleward in latitude and/or upward in altitude to escape warmer temperatures and increasingly inhospitable habitats. Migration and breeding cycles are being disrupted, causing population declines. Island species are vulnerable to rising sea levels. In Hawaii, a sea level rise of 2 m would flood 39-91% of Black-footed Albatross nests and 44-100% of Bonin Petrel nests.

The bird species of conservation concern for which Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and protected areas have been identified may not remain in these sites as climate changes, and a small number of species such as the Red-collared Mountain-babbler in the Albertine Rift Valley in East Africa are projected to lose all habitat by 2085. Poor connectivity between suitable habitats will hamper shifts in the distribution of species, which could leave many vulnerable to extinction.

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Diseases

Higher temperatures are likely to result in range expansions for disease carriers like mosquitoes. Malaria, dengue and haemorrhagic fever thrive in warm, humid climates. Despite improvements in public health, by 2050, it is estimated that 200 million more people will be exposed to malaria as a result of climate change.

Climate change is also likely to reduce the area of malaria-free habitat for the endemic birds of Hawaii, as the projected lifting of the cloud base shifts the malaria risk zone to higher altitudes.

Starvation

As species shift their distributions to new habitats, the composition of bird and non-bird communities will change and the relationships between predators and prey will be disrupted. New competition for food resources may pose a significant threat to some species’ survival.

Shifts in the timing of migration and breeding may also cause problems for some species.

For example, increasing temperatures in the high Arctic are causing earlier breeding times for some shorebirds such as Baird’s Sandpiper , but this is not always in line with shifts in the availability of the insects that sandpiper chicks feed on, leading to reduced chick growth rates.

By 2050, it is predicted that yields of most important crops will decline in developing countries, exposing an additional 25 million children to malnutrition.

Extreme weather

Extreme weather events such as forest fires, typhoons and heat waves are projected to increase in intensity and frequency. By 2100, it is estimated that an additional 52 million people in 84 developing countries will be affected by coastal storm-surges.

Many threatened species are likely to become more imperilled, while most of the species projected to be impacted (according to recent studies) were not previously recognised as under threat. Globally, only a quarter of ‘highly climatically vulnerable’ bird species are currently listed as threatened by BirdLife International on the IUCN Red List.

The impacts of climate change are likely to increase as temperatures rise further, and while some species (ones that thrive in warmer climates) may see range expansion, there are likely to be more than twice as many species that lose out because of the speed of climate change.

A message of hope: Nature-based solutions

Our report is also intended to send a message of hope: we can reduce the severity of climate change and help nature and people adapt. Happily, while birds are excellent sentinels to the effects of global warming on nature, they are also pointing us to the solutions needed. BirdLife Partners are at the forefront of efforts to implement nature-based solutions. (Read BirdLife International's official position on climate change here.)

Simply put: Healthy ecosystems remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in biomass. If this biomass is degraded or destroyed, the carbon is released into the atmosphere, causing global warming. So protection and restoration of natural ecosystems is an effective climate change mitigation strategy.

The report also shows how BirdLife Partners across the globe are conserving and revitalising ecosystems to help people, birds and other wildlife adapt to climate change and build their resilience to its effects. Healthy ecosystems not only support people’s livelihoods, but are also useful as a buffer against climate calamities. Working in a unique partnership of conservationists and engineers, RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) created 670 hectares of coastal wetland, which is providing a defence against storm surge and sea level rise, and habitat for waterbirds that is suitable under a range of future climatic conditions.

The strategic role of IBAs

Increasing evidence indicates that despite substantial changes in the composition of bird communities at IBAs, the network of these sites will retain suitable climatic conditions for nearly all species of conservation concern. However, many need better protection and effective management and new sites will need to be added to help species adapt to climate change. 

Mitigation and renewables

Of course, adapting to climate change isn’t enough, and the report advocates for policy-makers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency and sustainable renewable energy to enable the transition to a low carbon economy.

But when implemented without proper planning, renewable energy infrastructure can make things worse: palm oil plantations displacing tropical forests and wind farms on flyways causing massive bird casualties are clear examples. Proper planning and implementation of renewable energy is paramount, and BirdLife Partners have the tools to ensure these solutions do not pose greater threats to nature.

For example, as part of the Renewables Grid Initiative, BirdLife International is helping prevent bird electrocutions on power lines, working with the industry to replace or insulate dangerous poles, strategically locate infrastructure, and develop and implement better practices to reduce bird collisions.

Perhaps most importantly to ensure the climate change mitigation movement keeps its momentum, the report advocates for multi-stakeholder collaboration – working with communities, civil society organisations, the private sector and the government – to come up with effective long-term solutions.

For example, the Association Burundaise for the protection of Nature (ABN, BirdLife in Burundi) is working with the Serukubeze community to better manage their ecosystems in the face of climate change. The community has been empowered to engage with their local government and integrate ecosystem-based adaptation strategies into municipal development plans.

Everyone contributes to climate change and everyone is impacted by it, so raising awareness of the consequences of climate change and potential solutions can help mobilise society to take action and ensure political decisions benefit both people and nature.

Because if climate change is a fact, climate chaos is a choice. One we can, and must, avoid.

The production of this report was made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.