A new report has shown that scientists have vastly underestimated the impact of climate change on threatened and endangered wildlife species. The authors of the report have called for immediate action by policymakers to address these concerns.
Their analysis found that 47 percent of all mammal species and roughly a quarter of all bird species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species are impacted or further threatened by climate change. These figures totaled 700 species. Earlier analyses had estimated 7 percent of mammals and 4 percent of birds on the list.
According to Dr. James Watson of the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society, “Many experts have got these climate assessments wrong – in some cases, massively so.”
Watson coauthored the paper, which was published in the Nature Climate Change journal, alongside colleagues from the UK, Italy, and the US. The report analyzed 130 studies from between 1990 and 2015 to show the impact of climate change on these species. Prior research tended to focus on a single species or ecosystem, and projected the effects of climate change in 50 to 100 years, instead of acknowledging the current impacts of climate change.
“I think that’s a real problem with how the scientific community has communicated the issue, because people are always labelling it as a future threat. When you combine the evidence, the impact on species is already really dramatic,” said Watson.
Some species were threatened more urgently than others. In the case of primates and elephants, slow rates of reproduction make it especially hard to adapt to new conditions. Rodents, that can burrow to avoid extreme changes in their environments had better chances of surviving changes. Mammals with very specialized diets were also high on the list of most threatened, having been “already far more affected” than other species. Species in tropical and subtropical environments faced additional threats from habitat degradation.
Watson said many analyses assumed hunting and deforestation represented more urgent threats than climate change, adding:
“Many risk assessments are simply blind to the fact that climate change is happening now. If you read a scientific paper on climate change and species, it’s always that things will get worse in the future, not that it’s happening now.”
The report said the problem was likely even worse than the report indicated, since mammals and birds had been the focus of so many other studies.
According to Watson:
“These are the species that you’d hope we’d be most accurate on. Amphibians, reptiles, fish, plants – we are almost certainly out by a massive order of magnitude in our current assessments of vulnerability to climate change. We’ve got this wrong for birds and mammals, which are our most studied groups – what are we getting wrong for species we don’t know much about, like corals, bats, frogs, fungi?”