Global Warming is nudging us all closer to extinction. Some species are more vulnerable than others. Life in Australia, it seems, is most susceptible of all. Rees Steel discovers the silent victims of climate change.
There’s a moth in the grasslands just outside of Canberra that’s about to get wiped off the face of the planet.
The Golden Sun Moth is only about 3.4 centimeters across, with mottled black and brown upper wings, specked with white, and hind wings which flash a dazzling orange. As endangered species go, it is not particularly spectacular, but it is beautiful enough that you’d notice it perched on a drab blade of native grass.
If, as has been predicted, the global average temperature rises by even a degree, it’s likely to face permanent and irreversible extinction. And while the departure of an obscure insect might seem completely inconsequential, it is a fate which confronts every species on earth today. Including us.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that 25 per cent of the world’s mammals and 12 per cent of birds are under threat of extinction from climate change.
And although hardly a bragging claim, Australia leads the world in extinction rates. Since European settlement, there have already been an estimated 21 species of mammals, 23 birds and 52 plant species cast into extinction. This continent alone has been responsible for half of all recorded global mammalian extinctions in the last 200 years.
Professor Lesley Hughes is head of Climate Risk Concentration of Research Excellence at Macquarie University. She was a lead contributing author on the Report of the IPCC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She is in little doubt that the consequences of climate change will be devastating on Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity.
“The hypothetical best case scenario is that we avoid further extinctions, but I think that’s pretty much impossible. I think it’s too late for lots of species already and I don’t think that climate change mitigation actions globally will happen fast enough or soon enough to avoid some fairly severe impacts,” she says. “I think there will be a wave of extinctions that will be ongoing for the foreseeable future.”
She’s not alone. High-profile environmentalist Professor Tim Flannery recently wrote in The Monthly magazine that; “extinctions are about to resume, and there is no doubt that without urgent action they will build into the biggest extinction wave of all.”
So far, the Australian Government’s response to the looming biodiversity crisis has been the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2020, which is still in its planning stages. Michael Roache, Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Threatened Species Network, says that the WWF made submissions to the report, because they believed it simply doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s a relatively weak document. It doesn’t set targets, it doesn’t achieve the outcome’s we’d like to see for our biodiversity. So we’re disappointed in general with that framework and we hope for greater leadership from the Australian Government,” he says.
“They’re a little bogged down in the politics. When the Labour government came to power they had a very progressive message about dealing with climate change. Ultimately their response has been to sign the Kyoto protocol, and then to try and push a very complex Emissions Trading Scheme through the senate, and that seems to be the ‘be all and end all’ of our response to climate change. There are a whole lot of other issues that we have to try to raise.”
Globally, we are in the midst of what is known as the ‘Holocene Extinction Event.’ The current wave of mass extinctions is the sixth in the history of life on earth, only this time it is at the hands of humans. Scientists believe that the fossil record over the last 500,000 years shows that Australia’s biodiversity has been particularly resilient to the oscillating climate changes which invariably occur across the millennia.
The problem today is that when climate change is combined with other man-made threats, such as habitat destruction and feral predators, our wildlife is unable to adapt, and faces extinction as a result.
“At the moment, land clearing and introduced species are still a more important threat than climate change,” admits Professor Hughes. “But I think the relative impact of climate change will increase as time goes on. We see climate change as an additional stress on top of already stressed systems.”
“Particularly with problems like habitat fragmentation, because habitat fragmentation means that a lot of species that might have otherwise been able to shift their distributions to cope with climate change won’t be able to do so,” she says.
WWF Threatened Species Network Director, Roache, says that we won’t have to wait long before we see many of the most dramatic consequences.
“There are some species for which very minor changes in climate patterns will have very severe impacts,” he says. “Marine Turtles, for example, rely on a particular regime of temperature in the sands and that affects the ratio of their offspring. So if you get warm sand, you end up with female turtles, and fewer males, so other threats are compounded.”
Professor Hughes agrees that we’re already seeing change. “Any species that is mobile is shifting its distribution. They’re going pole-wards or upwards in elevation as the climate warms,” she says.
“We also know that a number of insect species are having their life cycles affected, so that things which normally happen in spring, like flowering and fruiting or insect emergence from pupae, are tending to happen earlier. Changes are occurring in life cycle, distribution and also changes in population sizes both positive and negative.”
But here’s the tricky bit.
Is it really the end of the world if we let a few, small, fury things die out; to say nothing of the odd moth or two? In an age where we get most of our food from only 8 species of plants and animals, where we wear synthetic fibres and live in steel cities, would a diminished biodiversity really have a significant impact on human quality of life?
Michael Roache admits it’s something ecologists are still coming to grips with.
“It’s not something that we quantify well,” he says. “We can argue that we’re already seeing changes. It’s such a complex world that you can’t necessarily ascribe one result to one particular cause… We just don’t have modeling that sophisticated.”
Professor Hughes, however, draws on her study of insects and plant ecology to illustrate a simple cause and effect. “[Climate change] affects the plants that insects eat, but it also affects species where insects are the prey. So if you think about a food chain, herbivorous insects will be the first order consumer. Then there’ll be flow on effects to the secondary and third orders who rely on insects as a food source.”
Of course, follow many food chains to the very top, and you find humans. It’s something that hasn’t changed in thousands of years, although in an increasingly urbanized world, it’s easy to underestimate our reliance on the environment around us.
The most obvious dependence we have, perhaps, is that biodiversity provides us with food, clean water, clean air and clean soil, by ensuring that complex ecosystems remain in balance.
We also rely on nature to keep us alive in other ways. More than half of the most frequently prescribed pharmaceuticals in the United States come either directly or indirectly from natural sources. Roughly 80 per cent of the world relies on naturally-derived medicines, including traditional medicine, for health treatment. The potential for yet unstudied species to yield cures and treatments for disease and suffering is huge.
But putting science aside, there’s also the intangible significance of biodiversity. Even in an increasingly urbanized and modernized world, the environment around us and the other species which we share the planet with are an essential part of our identity. In Australia we value our flora and fauna as distinct symbols of Australia’s uniqueness. People took notice when a 2008 research paper from James Cook University suggested that kangaroos may face extinction by 2050. It confronted us with the frightening prospect that climate change might render our coat of arms an oddity in the space of forty years.
Similarly, when the IPCC reported that the Great Barrier Reef may be “functionally extinct” by 2050 due to climate change, many realized that not only would we lose a priceless ecosystem, but also the $5 billion annual income that the reef generates from tourism and fishing. The economic consequences, like the psychological ones, are difficult to put a value on, but are powerful indicators. Estimates on the value of global biodiversity are hotly debated, but they range from $3-33 trillion.
However, like anything to do with climate change, there are a vociferous minority who cry foul to this apparently looming cataclysm. Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, projected that only 0.7 per cent of species on earth would become extinct in the next 50 years, as opposed to figures as high as 50 per cent which have been proposed. Furthermore, he suggested that these extinctions would have very little palpable effect on human prosperity, and therefore any threat was overstated.
“It is not clear how much political backing the rainforest lobby could have attracted if the biologists had emphasizes that what would be lost would primarily be insects, bacteria and viruses,” he writes.
“Lomborg certainly isn’t in a position to make that statement. He’s not an ecologist,” argues Lesley Hughes.
“There is so much unknown, that there will be lots of flow on impacts that we cannot predict. We don’t know what the critical thresholds for species populations and interactions are for most species. A lot of the responses to climate are not linear; they may accelerate as time goes on. We don’t know a lot of the species out there and how they interact with others.”
And that is precisely the problem that faces ecologists and environmentalists studying this mass extinction. There are still huge gaps in our knowledge, and it is near impossible to monitor extinctions, let alone protect species we don’t even know exist.
“We don’t know how many undocumented species we could potentially lose. That’s even more so with invertebrates, which is where most biodiversity rests; and that’s the least known component,” says Professor Hughes.
Only 25 per cent of Australia’s roughly 700,000 different species of plants and animals have been documented. And while we know a lot about kangaroos, we have only documented 25- 50 per cent of our ant species, and only about 10 per cent of our funguses. Although unglamorous, both play essential roles within fragile ecosystems.
“It’s pretty difficult, because people simply don’t, on average, care about things they don’t see or things that aren’t cute,” says Hughes. “So we stress the functionality of species and ecosystems as well…you might lose a species you don’t care about, but it might affect another that you do care about.”
Hughes notes that the public tend to only react to threats once the damage is done. “People still need a lot of education about biodiversity and how existence functions,” she says.
“Unfortunately, it takes a continual series of disasters to make people care about things. So, for example, the drought in Eastern Australia has had a big impact on people’s perception of climate change. I think disasters like the Victorian Bushfires or Hurricane Katrina, even when people rightly or wrongly attribute that to a climate change impact, when it does happen, it does bring people’s minds back to the potential future.”
Helen Pitman, Communications Manager for the Threatened Species Network at WWF, has the formidable task of trying to communicate these issues to an already ‘green-fatigued’ public. The WWF has recently launched ‘Climate Mascots’, which aim to highlight climate threats to some particularly ‘charismatic’ species, including the eastern rock wallaby and the black cockatoo.
“We’re just trying to get a link, I guess, between biodiversity and the fact that your action can actually impact on climate change. I don’t think people really put the three together,” she says.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s about choosing animals that people are going to have an affinity with. When people start talking about whales and dolphins, most people have an instant emotional reaction when they hear something bad about those sorts of animals, whereas they might not necessarily feel that way if you talk about the Golden Sun Moth. It’s about reinforcing the message in a way people are going to take on board.”
If capturing the hearts and minds of the public is a struggle, then the chances of government acting decisively on climate change extinction are very slim indeed. Michael Roach believes that pleading the case for conservation is difficult, especially with other priorities vying for world leaders’ attention.
“I’d say biodiversity and extinction are going to be very low on the agenda at Copenhagen [Climate Conference]. Biodiversity in this time of climate change and global financial crisis tends to fall to the bottom of the list. The WWF sees an opportunity there to use the impact on biodiversity to begin to get people thinking about it in a different way.”
So while the issue of climate change may be gaining traction, it seems that the lesser beasts of the earth will have to play second fiddle to our frantic struggle to save ourselves. But we ignore them at our own peril.
Meanwhile, in grasslands somewhere outside of Canberra, a Golden Sun Moth beats its wings. On the other side of the world, there’s a hurricane in South America.