Concerns about dangerous climate change and large biodiversity loss are visible throughout the world: unprecedented rates of temperature increases and species extinctions are a reality. In 1999 Dr. Peter Raven, president of the International Botanical Congress, published a paper in which he states that “current extinction rate is now approaching 1,000 times the background rate and may climb to 10,000 times the background rate during the next century, if present trends continue. At this rate, one-third to two-thirds of all species of plants, animals, and other organisms would be lost during the second half of the 21st century, a loss that would easily equal those of past extinctions”. He then outlined seven “Points to Slow the Extinction of Plants”, including financial and capacity building instruments to help developing countries protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity they host. As far as climate change is concerned, the responsibility of developed countries is high in providing the most threatened regions in the world with good instruments to cope with this challenge (or at least examples of them to implement autonomously).
Climate change plays a significant role in this human-induced mass extinction because it is increasing the already large biodiversity losses caused by habitat destruction and fragmentation, water and air pollution, introduction of invasive species. Marine ecosystems will be affected by an increase in sea temperature, but also by ocean acidification, because of the higher concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide (carbonic acid): in fact this reduces the shell formation ability in many organisms. Polar (and mountain) ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change, with effects such as thawing permafrost, decreased snow cover, losses from ice sheets and changes in ocean temperatures. Large impacts on Arctic biodiversity are already evident, pictures of polar bears wandering lost on small icebergs being a scary and sad symbol of the era we live in (even former U.S. President Bush, at the end of his mandate, recalled this image to show his fellow citizens he cared about climate change …)
In this rapidly changing environment it is therefore extremely important that conservation plans include adaption measures for ecosystems accordingly to the predicted regional climate patterns (but models need still to be improved a lot at this scale): dynamic approaches are needed to set good options for future ecosystems and landscapes. It will be necessary to facilitate the movement of species to new geographical locations, as they follow the shifting habitats.
The public concern is growing: in Africa last 28 February young people organized a march from impoverished urban areas to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness on climate change, together with the Kilimanjaro Initiative and the UN’s global UNite to Combat Climate Change campaign. It seems though that the global attention on climate change doesn’t fully consider implications for biodiversity yet: while the negotiations and speeches on climate issues are very popular (and the Nobel Prize was awarded to the entire IPCC together with Al Gore in 2007) the meetings and decisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (http://www.cbd.int/) don’t raise comparable interest. Is it because the anthropocentrism is (still) the prevailing philosophy and animals and plants are mainly seen by people as beautiful “supporting actors” on the planet we live on? Right when we are losing control of the global situation it is probably time to reflect on our role of dominant species and acknowledge the fundamental contribution of other organisms to our livelihoods, despite many of us live in the so called Technosphere.
Policies to protect the climate avoiding irreversible effects on the ecosystems need to be strongly interconnected with conservation strategies: preserving natural areas while helping them adapt to the changing climate means hopefully to leave better, or not as compromised, ecosystems to future generations. Climate and biodiversity, though ever changing and evolving, are common goods and they need common policies: if we reduce the human Ecological Footprint both the atmosphere and the biosphere will be better off (and our children and grandchildren living in them).