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Conservation challenge: a changing climate

Written by: Dr Abigail Entwistle
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The climate is changing. The scientific consensus is that climate change is a direct result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and that we are already committed to some degree of climate change. Current scenarios suggest we may face a rise of between 2 and 5°C in global mean temperatures.

Biodiversity suffers

Climate change poses an unprecedented threat to biodiversity: even a 1.5°C temperature increase could result in extinction of nearly one in three of the world’s endangered species.

Natural habitats and species will be affected by temperature shifts, changing weather patterns, extreme weather events and the consequences – droughts, flooding and storm damage.

However biodiversity will also face the secondary impacts of mankind’s reaction to a changing climate – be it displaced communities or greater requirements for biofuels.

Planning for an uncertain future

One of the few certainties of climate change science is the uncertainties that surround it. However most climate scientists agree that weather patterns may become less predictable and even “chaotic” as normal climate patterns are disrupted.

Given these uncertainties, understanding the likely impacts on individual species and sites is difficult.

Some species may relocate to find appropriate climate conditions; many species will be unable to relocate naturally, and will not be able to adapt in-situ as climate changes more rapidly than their capacity to evolve.

Other species may find that they are out of sync with food plants or pollinators on which they rely. Thus key ecological partnerships and cycles are at risk.

Thinking – and planning – ahead is important, not just for natural habitats and species, but also for the human populations that rely on them.

Natural buffers to climate change

Natural habitats may have a key role in helping to buffer the impacts of a changing climate on both wildlife, and human, populations. Evidence suggests that improving the current condition of habitats may be central to enabling them to withstand a changing climate.

Maintaining natural habitats provides a physical barrier to some of the threats associated with climate change – be it mangroves protecting from storm surges, forests acting as wind breaks or marshlands regulating flood water.

In addition, maintaining ecosystems which are rich in biodiversity will help ensure that they can best adapt to changing conditions – with the capacity for different ecological relationships and functions to develop. This relies on many different species being present with overlapping roles – something impossible in impoverished ecosystems.

Prevention is better than cure

Before we concentrate too much on our reactions to climate change, we should always consider what can be done to prevent it. Core to this is reducing greenhouse gas emissions wherever possible. Like many organisations FFI has strict internal policies on controlling emissions from our operations and has signed up to the 10:10 commitment.

In addition, protection of natural habitats provides an important avenue to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Investing in natural carbon stores

Between 18 and 25 per cent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions come from the destruction of natural habitats – particularly tropical forests and peatlands. Thus by effectively protecting carbon-rich natural habitats from destruction it is possible to deliver quantifiable emissions reductions.

Discussions at Copenhagen in 2009 provided for the inclusion of such “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD) schemes in future regulated emissions trading schemes.

Written by
Dr Abigail Entwistle

Abi joined FFI in 1996 after studying Zoology at Oxford University and completing a PhD in bat ecology at Aberdeen University. Since then she has held a number of roles in the organisation, and is currently Director of Conservation Science.

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Natural habitats and species will be affected by temperature shifts, changing weather patterns, extreme weather events and the consequences – droughts, flooding and storm damage.

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