My first day at the CoP. What a dizzying experience! And, of course, the topic: climate change and its effects. But why have this conference? Why is climate change a threat? It is because of the vast environmental impacts that are occurring in its wake, not just to biodiversity, but to almost every aspect of life on earth.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report:
“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”*
The report goes on to discuss the more specific scientific findings by the IPCC. For example, the earth’s surface has been warmer in the last three decades than since before 1850 and it is “virtually certain” that the upper ocean has warmed over the past 40 years.* Additionally, the IPCC is highly confident that Greenland and the Arctic ice sheets have been melting and not regenerating ice, that glaciers continue to shrink, and that snow cover in the Arctic is decreasing.* The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report believes that climate change and global warming will continue to have these effects.* Such changes in climate and temperature have an effect on biodiversity.
Biodiversity is everywhere. In our forests and in our oceans. The oceans are particularly of interest; ocean acidification is known as the “other CO2 problem.” Rising CO2 levels, as s result of greenhouses gases released by human activities, are increasing the acidity of the oceans. This is know as ocean acidification. Our oceans absorb 1/4 of all of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, but recently there has been a 26% increase in the acidity of the oceans.* The increasing acidity of the oceans, or lowering of the ph level, has a negative affect on the ocean’s biodiversity, species, and the marine ecosystem.
Ocean Scientists for Informed Policy have a nice video explaining how ocean acidification affects species.
Groups of organisms that are negatively affected by the rise in ocean acidity are: mollusks (clams, mussels, oysters), sea urchins, sea cucumbers, starfish, crustaceans (crabs, lobsters), finfish (tuna, flounders), and corals. These changes can have physiological consequences, such as behavior, abundance, reproduction, and photosynthesis. Additionally, organisms that have calcium skeletons, such as corals and mollusks, are experiencing corrosion of their shells, making them soft enough to squeeze with a human hand. Most species will be negatively or neutrally affected, few will benefit, but just because changes may benefit a few species does not mean this change is good; acidification is affecting whole ecosystem, which, overall, is harmful. Such harmful affects include reducing food sources for humans and other marine life, eliminating central species in the food web and ecosystems.
CO2 vents deep under the ocean provide a window into what will happen if we let our oceans keep on absorbing CO2 at the rate they are – it is a dismal picture for species and biodiversity.
Forests, too, are host to some of the worlds most exotic and diverse species. But forests are being cut down at an alarming rate. According to the Global Canopy Programme’s (GCP) newly released “The Little Book of Big Deforestation Drivers,” 50% of the world’s tropical forests have been cleared. The book goes on to discuss the major causes of deforestation and forest degradation (urban expansion, infrastructure, mining, agriculture, timber) and the supply chains and trade. It posits that changing the supply chain and its catalysts could help reduce the massive rate of deforestation occurring around the world. Taking away such forests removes critical (and sometimes the only) habitats for some species. Deforestation, especially in tropical areas, has caused many animals to become endangered.
Indonesia, one of the biggest places where deforestation is occurring, has been taking a “u-turn,” according to Heru Prasetyo, Member of REDD+ Task Force Indonesia. He stated, much to my delight, that the forest holds many secrets and these secrets are invisible to us, much like Bilbo is when he wears the One Ring. “The forest is the forest; the land is the land.” It is important to differentiate between land use and forests so that deforestation for agricultural purposes does not continue to occur.
It is up to us – humans – to stop this acidification of our oceans. It is up to us to stop deforestation and forest degradation. These habitats provide homes for vast amounts of species and biodiversity. They must be saved; not only for their sake, but for ours as well. And don’t forget to ask yourself: how much forest have you eaten today?
* Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, 3 (Sept. 27, 2013) [hereinafter IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Summary]. See also Organization, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.shtml#.Unfn_Y1JXws (last visited Nov. 4, 2013) (the IPCC was established by the U.N. Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 “to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.” It issues periodic reports, such as its newly released Fifth Assessment, to detail the scientific authority and status of the earth’s changing climate and the likelihood of risks climate change is causing).