Wild animals and plants across the world are under threat from rising temperatures due to climate change, research from international nature non-profit WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) has revealed.
The WWF report, titled “Feeling the Heat: The fate of nature beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming”, identifies 12 species whose habitats are already badly affected by global heating and will be in immediate danger with further warming.
In addition to hippopotamus and snow leopards, they include some iconic species found on the British Isles such as puffins, mountain hares in the Scottish Highlands, bumblebees, and even bluebells.
The charity is calling on the UK government to show leadership and do everything possible to make sure that temperatures rise no higher than 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. If action is not taken, the impact of global warming on ecosystems will be catastrophic, and will see species go extinct.
The UK's position as host of the United Nations’ annual climate change conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow this November gives the country a “unique opportunity to lead the way,” writes WWF chief executive Tanya Steele in the introduction to their report.
The report underlines the clear difference between an increase of 1.5 and 2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. “Half a degree might sound insignificant, but the projected harm to unique and threatened systems increases enormously between a 1.5 degrees limit and higher temperature rises,” the report says.
“Risks from droughts and heavy precipitation events are projected to increase... A half-degree increase would also permanently damage a variety of ecosystems and lead to the extinction of even more species across the globe,” it notes.
As for the UK’s native species, the report spells out how puffins, for example, will find that their breeding patterns are soon out of sync with the food they eat. The fish they eat, sandeels, will start arriving too early in the spring to match up with puffins’ summer nesting season, making it harder for them to breed and survive.
Meanwhile, the report explains that since mountain hares grow white fur specifically to camouflage with snow in the winter, they rely on the mountains being snowy to blend in and help them avoid predators. However, the number of days that snow covers the land during each winter in the Scottish Highlands has declined by approximately 37 days between 1960 and 2016.
But the mountain hares haven’t caught up. Now, they find themselves with white coats that are not camouflaged with their backgrounds, meaning they are increasingly vulnerable to predators.
Bluebells too are struggling with the warmer temperatures occurring too early in the year — as studies show they are now typically flowering earlier as warmer temperatures overall impede germination and regrowth, the report says.
Other species at risk from too much heat that the research details include Emperor penguins, leatherback turtles, snow leopards, hippopotamus, and coral reefs.
Coral reefs have been especially hard hit, first by pollution in the ocean, and now by sea temperatures. “Projections show that even if we limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, coral reefs will suffer significant losses of area and local extinctions – with a further decline of 70-90% by 2050. At two degrees, more than 99% of corals will be lost,” the report says.
Mike Barrett, the executive director of science and conservation at WWF said in a press statement: “Nature is our life support system, and its continued destruction is not only devastating local wildlife and communities, but creating a hotter, less stable planet, putting our very survival at risk.”
“The report outlines why it is essential for the UK government, as hosts of the critical UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, to ensure the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is kept on the table,” Barrett continued.
"Current pledges and targets are projected to lead to a temperature rise of two degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, which will be catastrophic for people and nature.”