More than 700 bird and mammal species are being negatively affected by climate change, according to a massive international study that synthesized 130 reports.
Climate change is such a diffuse and delayed phenomenon that it has been hard in the past to disentangle it from other factors threatening wildlife. But the report’s authors believe that accumulated research now speaks for itself — climate change is affecting animals at a far greater rate than anticipated.
The collated figure is much higher than previous predictions, and could be just a fraction of the total threat represented by climate change.
"This under-reporting is also very likely in less studied species groups,” James Watson of University of Queenland's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, told Science Daily. “We need to greatly improve assessments of the impacts of climate change on all species right now.”
"We need to communicate the impacts of climate change to the wider public and we need to ensure key decision makers know significant change needs to happen now to stop species going extinct,” he said. "Climate change is not a future threat anymore."
Out of 873 mammals, nearly half have had negative responses to climate change and 23% of 1,273 studied birds had negative responses.
Meanwhile, just 7% of adversely affected mammals and 4% of adversely affected birds are considered endangered by climate or severe weather events by International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
Climate change affects animals in different ways. For instance, African elephants are highly sensitive to changes in temperatures and habitats and susceptible to new diseases that can be spread by a changing environment. They also needs large amounts of water to survive, something that is threatened by increasing spells of drought and desertification throughout the world.
Polar bears, meanwhile, depend on polar ice that is rapidly melting to access food.
Green sea turtles base their reproduction habits on temperature changes and as waters heat up around the world, this delicate process is threatened.
Marine life more generally is experiencing profound changes to the composition of water quality as ocean acidification — the process of water absorbing carbon dioxide — intensifies. Coral reefs, in particular, are basically dissolving like antacid.
Many birds depend on environmental cues to guide their migration patterns and these cues — often temperature or environmental changes — are being disrupted.
Climate change is a cumulative threat that intensifies as it gradually unfurls. The emissions that are released today affect the environment decades from now. Since emissions have been accelerating over the past several decades, the worst effects of climate change are likely yet to come.
Animals, meanwhile, adapt at a much slower rate. Unlike humans, animals can’t just pack up and start over somewhere else. They’re intimately connected to their habitats, and as these habitats disappear or become irrevocably compromised, the future of far too many animals will be at risk.