“Securing a brighter future for our children and future generations requires countries to take urgent action at home and abroad to turn the tide on climate change,” said Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom when referring to the importance of the COP26 conference starting this week in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Prime Minister might have also added that “urgent action” at home and abroad was also needed to secure a brighter future for the other species we share the planet with. Species that are already feeling the negative impacts of climate change.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP26
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference. It is scheduled to be held between October 31 and November 12, 2021.
According to the UK COP26 website, ‘The COP26 summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.’
“What Do We Need to Achieve at COP26?”
The organizers say there are four specific goals they are trying to achieve at COP26:
1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach by:
- accelerating the phase-out of coal
- curtailing deforestation
- speeding up the switch to electric vehicles
- encouraging investments in renewables
2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats by:
- protecting and restoring ecosystems
- building defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.
3. Mobilise finance by:
- ensuring developed countries make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020 (are we there yet?).
4. Work together to deliver by:
- finalizing the Paris Rulebook (the detailed rules that make the Paris Agreement operational).
- accelerating action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society (a fancy phrase for the public).
COP26 Goals and Endangered Species
These four goals set by the organizers of COP26 could all have an impact on endangered (and other) species. However, goals 1 and 2 are directly related to climate change activities that are having the most direct impact on the conservation status of species.
Goal 1 specifically states the need to curtail deforestation. Goal 2 states the need to protect and restore eco-systems. It is clear both deforestation and the destruction of eco-systems is having, and will continue to have, an adverse impact on the survival of many species.
Climate Change and Endangered Species
Climate change is already having a significant impact on species.
According to an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2019 report titled Species and Climate Change, “Species are already being impacted by anthropogenic climate change, and its rapid onset is limiting the ability of many species to adapt to their environments. Climate change currently affects at least 10,967 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, increasing the likelihood of their extinction.”
In 2019 when the report was issued, the IUCN had assessed 112,432 species for their conservation status which means almost 10% of the species assessed by the IUCN in 2019 were being affected by climate change.
Also, according to the same IUCN report, the Bramble Cay melomys had the unfortunate distinction to be the first mammal reported to have gone extinct as a direct result of climate change. Its habitat was destroyed by rising sea levels.
The Bramble Cay melomys won’t be the only species driven to extinction by the impacts of climate change.
10 Species Being Impacted by Climate Change
According to information from the IUCN Red List, and in the IUCN 2019 report, here are ten species being negatively impacted by climate change and why:
1. Hawaiian bluegrass – drought / habitat shifting / temperature extremes
2. Polar Bears – habitat shifting and alteration
3. Chinook Salmons – rising temperatures and migration disruption
4. Green Sea Turtles – warmer temperatures causing imbalance in sex ratios
5. Common Toads – genetic changes attributed to climate change
6. Coral Reefs – mass coral bleaching events and infectious disease
7. Whales – ocean acidification reducing krill populations
8. Purplefruit Stenogyne – drought / habitat shifting / temperature extremes
9. Fisher’s Egg – droughts
10. Mountain Pygmy Possum – habitat shifting and alteration
What Impacts a Species and Who is Accountable?
Unlike other issues that affect the conservation status of a species, climate change is unique in how it impacts species. Not only is it unique in the ways it can impact different species such as altering a species habitat by warming oceans or by creating droughts, but it is also unique when determining who should be held accountable for the impact climate change is having on species.
If a species such as an elephant is being impacted by poaching, it’s clear the poacher is directly responsible for the impact. If a species like the Baiji River dolphin is being impacted by pollution, then it’s clear it is those individuals who are polluting the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) are accountable for the impact.
With Climate Change it is Different
With climate change it’s different. With climate change, the warming waters that are causing a disruption of the krill food supply for whales is a not a result of one individual. Nor is it the result or a group of individuals in a specific location that is causing the water to warm. Rather the warming of ocean water is a result of actions being taken by individuals living in the United States, Europe, Japan, India, and China (and most everywhere else on the planet for that matter).
Krill growth mainly depends on ocean temperature because of water temperatures relationship to krill’s main food source which is phytoplankton. According to some research, warming waters are often accompanied by a decrease in phytoplankton. And therefore a decrease in phytoplankton means a decrease in krill. And a decrease in krill means a disrupted food supply for whales.
And how does the water which impacts the krill get warmer? According to the IUCN, “The ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions, leading to rising ocean temperatures.”
So, who is Responsible for Climate Change’s Impact on Endangered (and other) Species?
So, who is responsible for climate change’s impact on endangered (and other) species? It is the people that are creating greenhouse gasses that are responsible for the warming waters that is impacting the food supply for the whale. Spoiler alert: these are also the same people who are responsible for all the other impacts climate change is having on endangered (and other) species.
Every country in the world contributes to the greenhouse emissions polluting the atmosphere. And the largest contributors are (in order) China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Russia.
But it is not an abstract notion of countries that is creating the problem. It is the individuals in these countries that are responsible for the impacts climate change is having on whales, and penguins and polar bears and every other species being impacted by climate change.
These individuals are just as responsible for the impact climate change has on a whale as the impact a poacher has when killing an elephant. They are just as responsible for the impacts climate change has on polar bears as those individuals who are polluting the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) in China and forcing the Baiji River dolphin towards extinction (if it is not already extinct).
The climate change relationship between actions and impacts may not seem direct. But they are.
Almost every individual on the planet is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate change (give or take a few lost tribes or those very concerned individuals who have offset their energy footprint). However, some individuals are more responsible than others.
Second in Overall Contribution. First in “Per Capita” Contribution
Even though the United States is the second largest greenhouse gas contributor in the world, it is number one when it comes to “per capita” greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the US per capita greenhouse gas emissions are almost twice that of individuals in China. They are more than twice that of individuals in the European Union. And they are nine times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as a person in India.
The United States is the world’s leader when it comes to per capita greenhouse gas emissions. The question is whether the United States will become the world’s leader in reducing them.
The COP26 conference will go a long way in revealing what role the US and other nations will play in combating climate change. The commitments the United States and other countries make at the COP26 conference will provide a very real response to Prime Minister Johnson’s hope for “a brighter future for our children and future generations”
That in turn will reveal if there is going to be “a brighter future for the other species we share the planet with.”
We will soon have glimpse of that future.
More on climate change and endangered species in future posts.