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Strains on Wildlife: Changes Must Come to Policies and Solutions Addressing Climate Change

Seungwoo Yoon

   The World Health Organization describes climate change as “the single biggest health threat facing humanity.” Climate change is no longer a threat facing future generations alone; it is a very pressing problem that, if left unchecked, will spiral out of control. It is important to realize that climate change refers not only to global warming but also to its side effects that include (but are not limited to) rising sea levels, changing weather patterns in the form of droughts and floods, and the worsening of natural hazards such as storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and heat waves. This is significant as Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity finds that global warming alone is projected to commit “over one-third of the Earth’s animal and plant species to extinction by 2050” if current greenhouse gas emissions trajectories continue. This forecast is further corroborated by a recent report published by Lindsey and Dahlman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in which they found that in the worst possible scenario, global temperatures would be as much as “10.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer [than the 1901-1960 average]” by the end of the century. A few degrees may not seem all that significant; however, it is more than enough to wreak havoc on millions of lives and the world’s ecosystems.

   Even without these projected global temperatures, many ecosystems have already begun to experience the adverse effects of climate change. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds that the wildfire season in Alaska is “about a month longer than in the past,” interfering with spruce forests and allowing for more beetle infestations. 

   In the South, the Key deer and loggerhead sea turtle populations are shrinking due to rising sea levels. These effects are also seen along the East Coast and in the Midwest, where moose populations are migrating to the north in search of cooler weather. It is especially important that nature be preserved because it is an intricately connected web of life. The disruption of any species could devastate the survival of other organisms, including humans. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that alleviating the strains of climate change through the implementation of policies that encourage environmentally healthy decisions would allow the world to maintain its healthy ecosystems. These policies, in addition to the recent emergence of ancient indigenous technologies as potential solutions to the climate crisis,  would allow the world to sidestep a devastating cataclysm. This begs the question: How can humanity utilize government proposals along with ancient technologies to adapt to the growing climate crisis?

   In order to fully understand climate change, it is necessary to examine its origins. The United Nations defines climate change as “long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.” Prior to the 1800s, these changes were almost entirely driven by nature in the form of solar cycles and other natural phenomena. Over the last two centuries, however, industrial activities have increased tremendously, and humans have begun to shoulder the blame for climate change. The burning of fossil fuels, most notably oil, coal, and natural gas, contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, “trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures” (United Nations).  According to Herring of the NOAA, carbon dioxide is the “greatest concern” to scientists. Indeed, carbon emissions have increased to over “34 billion tonnes each year” (Ritchie and Roser). To put this into perspective, annual carbon emissions were around “6 billion tonnes” in the year 1950 - nearly six times lower than the current average (Ritchie and Roser).

 Increased greenhouse gas emissions translate to warmer temperatures every year. In fact, Lindsey and Dahlman of the NOAA find that the average rate of increase in global temperatures since 1981 has been more than twice as fast - approximately “0.18 degrees Celsius per decade.” If this trend continues, it is estimated that over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming (United Nations). In other words, the temperature measured at any given time will be 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. This is significant as data from the Sixth Assessment Report gathered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that staying below temperatures 1.5 degrees Celsius above the global average would help in avoiding “the worst climate impacts” and “maintain a liveable climate” (United Nations). 

   Unfortunately, rising temperatures are not the only consequences associated with the climate crisis. They introduce an entirely new set of problems that further jeopardize the planet’s ecosystems. The National Wildlife Federation finds that increased temperatures are directly related to rising sea levels, the decline of sea ice, changing precipitation patterns, and the acidification of oceans, all of which pose serious threats to wildlife. 

 These threats are far reaching, as the International Union for Conservation of Nature finds that there are at least “10,967 species” affected by climate change, increasing the likelihood of their extinction. The increase in invasive species is one example that demonstrates the impact of the aforementioned events on the conditions of an environment. For instance, changing precipitation patterns and increased minimum temperatures will allow the mountain pine beetle to “take advantage of drought-weakened plants” and “spread to new areas” in the north (The National Wildlife Federation).These beetles lay their eggs within trees, and once the eggs hatch, the offspring “feed on the living tree from the inside,” killing them in the process (Morgan). These dead, often dry trees exacerbate environmental hazards such as wildfires, which release enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming while also threatening the safety of hikers, motorists, and tourists. Another example can be found in coral reefs. The International Union for Conservation of Nature finds that corals are among “the most rapidly declining species groups,” primarily due to “disease [and] ocean acidification.” The Reef-World Foundation finds that “more than 90% of all coral reefs are expected to die by 2050.” This would devastate marine organisms, as “one-quarter of all marine life depends on coral reefs for food and shelter” (EPA). Another factor contributing to the devastation of marine life is the threat to organisms responsible for purifying waters. According to Eric Bender of the Knowable Magazine, the water flea is “busy evolving in cities in response to heat [and] pollution.” These crustaceans prevent algal blooms, thereby mitigating the effects of toxic cyanobacteria (Bender). The loss of these species would exacerbate the devastation brought upon marine ecosystems by climate change, a plausible  outcome due to the constant environmental pressures such as the aforementioned “heat and pollution” threatening the survivability of these populations.

  Climate change can also cause changes in species themselves, implicitly threatening their survival. This is because such changes will impose unfamiliar conditions on certain species, subjecting these populations to harsher environments. To demonstrate, the mallorcan midwife toad, a “species [that] does not handle habitat change very well,” was believed to be extinct due to the “introduction of non-native species” and the subsequent shrinking of their habitat until it was rediscovered in the 1970s (Begum). With this information, it can be argued that environmental pressures may lead to the adaptation and subsequent evolution of a certain species, benefiting their survivability. For instance, fish across the East Coast of the United States have “adapted to thrive in polluted urban waters” (Bender).  That being said, while the adaptation of a species can certainly occur, it is highly unlikely that they adapt before the extinction of their species. To illustrate, although the Quino checkerspot butterfly adapted to certain environmental challenges, for quite some time, it was “at risk of extinction because of climate change and habitat loss” (Cho). Risking the extinction of a species for this purpose is an unforgivable mistake, as it can trigger a domino effect that can result in altered food chains and an increase in invasive species. Moreover, the decline of species can actually accelerate climate change, leading to an unrelenting “feedback loop” that exponentially worsens its effects (IUCN). Marie Bout, a global communications strategist at Greenpeace, affirms: “The more diverse these interwoven natural systems [ecosystem diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity] are, the more resilient they are to disturbances.” In other words, the loss of a species means leaving holes in the planet’s safety net. In fact, a carbon sink is one such example of a “safety net” that actively works to maintain the balance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but whose influence is slowly diminishing due to the adverse effects of climate change. Carbon sinks most commonly refer to any formation of plants, bodies of water, or soil that can absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and according to National Geographic, the destruction of these formations is “depleting Earth’s supply of carbon sinks,” which is directly related to the fact that the “amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising.” 

    With these points in mind, preserving wildlife becomes substantially more imperative because they are not only essential in maintaining the balance of ecosystems but also in supporting human health and wellbeing. Due to the uniqueness of each species and their invaluable contributions to the environment, the extermination of an entire population and even minor behavioral changes would devastate other organisms that rely on said species for survival. This leads to yet another domino effect in which the extinction of one particular species accelerates the downfall of others. If enough of these extinctions occur, the environment will face significant consequences, in addition to those already put in place by climate change. Moreover, much like how certain species rely on others for survival, humans rely on the environment to sustain life on Earth. In other words, by allowing climate change to compound, the death of all forms of life on Earth becomes increasingly probable.

    Considering these very present challenges to wildlife, long-term solutions involving the development of entirely new technologies may no longer be considered practical. Instead, utilizing solutions that have worked in the past may be the best course of action. Examples of such technologies were recognized in a TED Talk conducted by Julia Watson. Indigenous technologies, such as those used by the Khasi people and residents of Kolkata, India, all embrace nature to solve problems associated with nature, which are often exacerbated by human influence. The Khasi people continue to adhere to its 1,500-year-old tradition of growing root bridges, which can last for many centuries. These bridges connect lands during monsoon season, where much of the geography becomes flooded. Moreover, the outskirts of Kolkata, India is home to around 300 fish ponds that actively cleans polluted wastewater. This natural process is made possible by the symbiosis between algae and bacteria (Watson). Creative solutions like these, that make use of the environment without harming its ecosystems, should be encouraged to a greater degree, through government policies and public education. This will prevent any further iterations of the aforementioned “feedback loop.”  However, the solutions to climate change are not limited solely to technology. In fact, much of what can be done takes place at home. According to the United Nations, the annual global average greenhouse gas emissions per person was around “6.3 tons [of carbon dioxide]” in 2020, a number that should be reduced to around “2 to 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide by 2030” in order to maintain a sustainable climate. Much of the heat and electricity used in homes are powered by fossil fuels. As such, limiting the amount of energy used within a household, through lowering air conditioning and electricity consumption, will reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions significantly. In fact, replacing an oil or gas furnace for an energy efficient electric heat pump can “reduce [an individual’s] carbon footprint by up to 900 kilograms [1 ton] of carbon dioxide per year” (United Nations).The implementation of “soft boundaries” on energy consumption per household would be a step in the right direction to decreasing global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, conservation efforts must be reinforced in order to protect the planet’s natural defense system. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) strongly advocates for the sustenance of forests, in particular. They affirm that forests are “home to many of the world’s most endangered wildlife” while also acting as major carbon sinks.  In light of this, governments should assume a greater role in tackling the global climate crisis by passing legislation that would succor wildlife preservation. Non-governmental organizations such as the WWF, although significant in their endeavors to mitigate the effects of climate change, are simply not enough to enforce policies worldwide that properly address the climate issue. Instead, the best they can do is encourage governments at international negotiations to play a “constructive role in developing global climate agreements” (WWF). The focus of current solutions addressing climate change should not revolve around revolutionary ideas but rather actions that can be taken in the present. It is only once the brunt of climate change has passed, through solutions such as the one proposed, that more long-term solutions can be brainstormed and implemented. For now, it is crucial that the aforementioned policies be pushed further by governments and other organizations so that climate-healthy habits are developed within society as a start to preserving wildlife and tackling the climate crisis. 

"The focus of current solutions addressing climate change should not revolve around revolutionary ideas but rather actions that can be taken in the present."

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