Ecocentric

Why a Hotter World Will Mean More Extinctions

Extinctions are already on the rise as a growing human population displaces animals and plants. But if global warming continues unchecked, our planet could get a whole lot lonelier

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Paul Souders / WorldFoto / Getty Images

The end of last week saw the carbon concentrations in the atmosphere finally pass the 400-part-per-million threshold. That means carbon levels are higher now than they’ve been for at least 800,000 years, and most likely far longer. There’s nothing special per se about 400 parts per million — other than giving all of us a change to note it in article like this one — but it’s a reminder that we are headed very fast into a very uncertain future.

Parts per million and global temperature change, though, are just numbers. What matters is the effect they will have on life — ours, of course, but also everything else that lives on the planet earth. I’ve written before that while I certainly worry and fear the impact that unchecked climate change will have on humanity, I also feel relatively — relatively — confident that we will, in some ways, muddle through. Human beings have already proved that they are extremely adaptable, living — with various degrees of success — from the hottest desert to the coldest corner of the Arctic. I don’t think a future where temperatures are 4˚F or 5˚F or 6˚F warmer on average will be an optimal one for humanity, to say the least. But I don’t think it will be the end of our species either. (I’ve always favored asteroids for that.)

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But the plants and animals that share this planet with us are a different story. Even before climate change has really kicked in, human expansion had led to the destruction of habitat on land and in the sea, as we crowd out other species. By some estimates we’re already in the midst of the sixth great extinction wave, one that’s largely human caused, with extinction rates that are 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the background rate of species loss.

So what will happen to those plants and animals if and when the climate really starts warming? According to a new study in Nature Climate Change, the answer is pretty simple: they will run out of habitable space, and many of them will die.

(MORE: Mega-Eruption: Scientists Connect a Mass Extinction to a Major Lava Flow)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that 20% to 30% of species would be at increasingly high risk of extinction if global temperatures rise more than 2˚C to 3˚C above preindustrial levels. Given that temperatures have already gone up by nearly 1˚C, and carbon continues to pile up in the atmosphere, that amount of warming is almost a certainty.

But Rachel Warren and her colleagues at the University of East Anglia (UEA), in England, wanted to know more precisely how that extinction risk intensifies with warming — and whether we might be able to save some species by mitigating climate change. In the Nature Climate Change paper, they found that almost two-thirds of common plants and half of animals could lose more than half their climatic range by 2080 if global warming continues unchecked, with temperatures increasing 4˚C above preindustrial levels by the end of the century. Unsurprisingly, the biggest effects will be felt near the equator, in areas like Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazon and Australia, but biodiversity will suffer across the board.

In statement, Warren said:

Our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides.

We looked at the effect of rising global temperatures, but other symptoms of climate change such as extreme weather events, pests, and diseases mean that our estimates are probably conservative. Animals in particular may decline more as our predictions will be compounded by a loss of food from plants.

(MORE: Report: 1 in 5 Reptiles at Risk of Extinction)

The good news is that a much hotter future isn’t a certainty. If global greenhouse-gas emissions peak within the next few years and begin to decline afterward, the UEA researchers suggest that we can preserve many species that would otherwise be lost. Even if the peak is delayed until 2030, fewer species will go extinct. Mitigation will also buy us time to figure out adaptation strategies for some species that are being displaced by climate change.

Of course, there’s virtually no chance that global emissions will peak within the next few years — and odds aren’t much better even if we give ourselves another 15 years. Even if we can curb warming, an expanding and (hopefully) richer human population is going to put more and more pressure on what we once quaintly called the natural world. The future is going to be difficult for a lot of nonhumans — and tough for a lot of humans too. But a crowded world is a better bet than a hot and crowded one.

MORE: 5 of the Most Endangered Species on the Planet

112 comments
Joshua Wayne
Joshua Wayne

Given what humanity is, I can only hope we're one of those extinctions.

Lim Keng Boon
Lim Keng Boon

The whole world knows this planet is dying but does anyone cares. NO !!

Tim Mandese
Tim Mandese

But it's not happening! A few billion? You are delusional! The US alone has spent over $72 billion! All for a .7 deg increase in 100 years? WOW! And you call me a tin foil hat wearer? LOL

Catherine Skinner
Catherine Skinner

global warming is part of nature, its the planet, there's no scientific evidence to support the fact that its caused by people,

Sonia Neri
Sonia Neri

Yeap! .... is getting lonely already .

Drew Waller
Drew Waller

You don't understand, to goal is to prevent climate change. If a few billion dollars averts a detrimental climate shift and several thousand genocides then its money well spent.

Jason Conaway
Jason Conaway

Dale yes, he is nice enough to give us free will, and didnt make us robots.

Tim Mandese
Tim Mandese

March 23rd, you were complaining about the SNOW! "So this is what Spring looks like?...." Sound familiar? Hypocrite!

Tim Mandese
Tim Mandese

No tin foil here but I see you like Koolaid! ;) When you are 50 and nothing has changed, you wont be able to get a refund!

Drew Waller
Drew Waller

Fine, keep the tin foil hat, it suits you.

Tim Mandese
Tim Mandese

2 decades? That's what I thought. You aren't very old. I have seen more years of weather and there's nothing weird going on. I was here when it snowed in FL in 77. That was part of the ice age BS they warned us about then. You true believers are getting conned. First it was global warming and now it's climate change. This way, no matter what happens, they can blame people and TAX a way to fix it. Sucker! LOL

William Steiner
William Steiner

Dale. You are wrong. 5200 years ago the earth experienced a period of rapid climate change and humans did not cause it.

Christina Dale Plantz Conner
Christina Dale Plantz Conner

There you go :-) the any thing would help you if you would actually read lol ha ha now you can chant only if I had a brain

Drew Waller
Drew Waller

There is an opportunity to save the biodiversity of this world, and you would encourage people to pray rather than consider our destructive path?

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

Jesus, God, Lord, Jehovah, Jesus Christ (just to mention the names you used). If I had that many aliases, people would get suspicious.

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

Would that work for you if you chanted "I'll only pay attention to REAL science." I'm sure those Polar Bears are glad to hear the habitat they are losing is just a hoax.

Tim Mandese
Tim Mandese

LOL Pay your CO2 taxes like a good little drone. I remember when we were told with just as much confidence, that we were headed for another ice age. I also remember all the dire predictions of 20 years ago that said we would be under water by now! By the way, where are all the increased hurricanes they predicted after Katrina? Oh right, there wasn't an increase.

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

I think you need to go a little deeper, Tim.

Drew Waller
Drew Waller

not to mention millions of years ago and each time associated with mass extinctions.

Drew Waller
Drew Waller

you'll get every answer you can think of on facebook, I tend to trust wikipedia myself.

Alise Howard
Alise Howard

Wow, what some lost souls. Yep, need a little Bible and some Jesus. God Bless the ones who replied to my Post. May You Show Them My Lord Jehovah. In Jesus Christ Name I Pray. Amen. =)

Christina Dale Plantz Conner
Christina Dale Plantz Conner

I can't believe that you guys actually believe this global warming crap. It was a hoax and the scientist that you are referring to are upset they can't figure out why it is cooling ans sorry you feel ashamed of yourself I am proud of my name so go to a mirror and start chanting I believe in myself until you quit feeling ashamed

Roger Layton
Roger Layton

It's not warming anymore. In fact it's cooling.

Tim Mandese
Tim Mandese

But no warming since 1998 IS an trend. Thanks for paying attention! LMAO

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

I'm ashamed that you share my name.

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

One event is hardly a trend. Actually, climate change causes many extreme weather events (like your cold morning). Think of all the recent tornados, droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc. Do your own research instead of listening to people with their own agendas.

Abbey Elizabeth
Abbey Elizabeth

Yeah, I'm sure the majority of climate scientists are just mistaken. Thanks Christina for debunking them all!

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

Past climate cycles have moved at an extremely slower pace. This speed of change is because of human contributions to the causes.

Zamiyad Dar
Zamiyad Dar

Tsunami is gonna extinction of ppl :D

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

Sighting one event just reveals your ignorance.

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

If the planet was getting cooler, the ice caps would grow & the sea levels would go down. If not for global warming, how is it that the opposite is happening?

Fabian Bubanj
Fabian Bubanj

Those who adapt will survive. Not the one that prays.

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

Yes...he cares so much, he will stand by while we destroy ourselves & allow all sorts of evil & ugliness. But, yes...free will...he's testing our loyalty (just like Areil Castro tested his captives). Such a nice guy!

Jay Michaels
Jay Michaels

I agree with Kristine. I thought this article was about science...not religion.

Arsyad Fadlillah
Arsyad Fadlillah

some opinions, claimed that global warming just a hoax, actually our planet it getting cooled for every momment.. is that right?

areader789
areader789

@Drew Waller But it's not going to be a few billion, it's going to be hundreds of billions. And that's just a few nations alone; Chine produces more CO2 than the US and India combined and they already said they will do nothing about this.