The other cost of climate change

Climate change is a complicated, urgent environmental issue with the scope to devastate our planet’s health. In the last few decades, we have already begun to witness an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts, flooding and storms as human-induced carbon emissions continue to grow at an alarming rate. This is likely to cause irreversible impact to the worlds remaining wildlife.

No longer a distant vision of a troubled future, climate change sits very much on our collective doorstep, in need of our immediate attention. On a recent trip to the small Pacific nation Kiribati, ex-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated: “Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet.”

In order to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time, we must first accept that our current model of economic development and its reliance on fossil fuel consumption is unsustainable. If we are serious about conserving the world’s wildlife, we must address, tackle and engage in conversations to openly discuss how it impacts on our sector. In a consumer driven world, this change will likely come at a high cost to the way we currently, and rather blindly, live our lives.

The reality is that right now, as we write this, melting ice caps and thermal expansion are causing sea levels to rise, devastating low-lying areas and the wildlife who call it home. How we respond to climate change in the next decade will likely determine the future of the world’s wildlife for generations to come.

As changing climates alter landscapes, habitats are becoming inhospitable for many species, and those unable to adapt or migrate are likely to die. Earlier this year, the Australian government officially announced the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomy, a small island rodent, which represents the first mammal extinction accredited solely to climate change. Although largely unknown, the melomy now acts as a tragic ambassador of what is to come if we don’t make fundamental changes to our way of living.

The wildlife lucky enough to adapt to or migrate from the impacts of climate change will still face their own struggles; they will have to compete for limited resources in already stretched and shrinking environments. These dramatic migrations are also likely to increase human-wildlife conflict by animals turning to crop and livestock raiding for survival, resulting in retaliatory killings from the farmers who seek to provide for their families and make a living.

Wildlife continues to be forced into closer and closer proximity with humans as a result of human population growth, which has doubled in less than 40 years. Within the short parameters of this article, it is hard to shed light on the sheer size and scale of the threat that climate change poses to our natural world. If our way of living remains unchanged, our current efforts to protect wildlife may be in vain.

Since the industrial revolution, economic growth has been a founding pillar of so-called ‘educated development’, driven by the unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels. The level of carbon dioxide emissions into Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from greenhouse gas emissions but also from land use changes like deforestation.

The drive for economic expansion lies at the heart of this insatiable consumption and is essentially linked to human welfare and the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – as in, the more money you make, the more cars you have, the bigger the house, the happier you’ll be.

So, while human welfare and happiness remain linked to economic growth, and economic growth is, in return, linked to unsustainable consumption, it is not in anyone’s immediate interest to curb greenhouse gas emissions and change our consumer habits. National governments face a major challenge in reducing their emissions in line with growing their economies – historically, one has never been achieved without the other.

This topic has been at the forefront of academic discussion over the past few years and has led to emerging concepts and models such as sustainable development, green growth and low carbon development. What is clear is that our current economic paradigm is not consistent with the level of emission reductions needed to protect our wildlife and the ensure future stability of the planet.

Climate change therefore is a particularly ‘wicked problem’ with many variables to consider. For instance, despite the damaging link so clearly evidenced between economic growth and climate change, we must surely acknowledge that it is socially and ethically unacceptable to deny the developing world the ability to advance their way out of poverty as has been achieved in the developed world, despite the massive pressures on natural resources.

Mitigation of the impacts of climate change must then lie in the hands of those responsible for historic emissions, and those that have already developed the technologies and models that are capable to prevent future damage.

Global climate change no longer remains the drum beat of the conservation and environmental activists; it will affect all people, governments, businesses, environments and landscapes. No matter who you are, where you live, what you believe, it will have a devastating effect on your world. If left unchecked, climate change could result in the mass extinction of thousands of species. Perhaps it is time to reconsider our quest for endless economic growth and prioritise the conservation of the natural world instead of depleting it.

DSWF will be featuring further pieces on the impacts of climate change on conservation and posing questions, solutions, ideas and information on the issue so look at our news section online at davidshepherd.org/news