New Report on Climate Change and Wildlife


A new report that brings together recent research on how climate change is affecting plants, animals, and habitats in the United States confirms what we already suspected: the changes are happening faster than previously thought, with more compelling evidence of impacts piling up.

The new report Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services was produced as a technical input into the 2013 National Climate Assessment (NCA).  My NWF colleague Bruce Stein and I served on the steering committee and helped author several chapters of the report.

More Evidence of How Climate Change Is Affecting Nature

The report focuses on new research contributions from the last 5 or so years, and there have been many. Among the major findings of the report:

  • Climate change is causing many species to shift their ranges and distributions faster than previously thought.  Terrestrial species are moving up in elevation 2 to 3 times faster than initial estimates;
  • There is increased evidence of species population declines and localized extinctions that can be directly attributed to climate change.  Species living at high altitudes and latitudes are especially vulnerable to climate change;
  • Changes in precipitation and extreme weather events can increase transport of nutrients and pollutants downstream.  Drinking water quality is very likely to be strained as higher rainfall and river discharge lead to more nitrogen in waters and greater risk of waterborne disease outbreak;
  • Ecosystem services provided by coastal habitats are especially vulnerable to sea level rise and more severe storms. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts are the most vulnerable to the loss of coastal protection services provided by wetlands and coral reefs.  Coastal communities on the Pacific coast are also vulnerable;
  • Changes in winter can have big and surprising effects on ecosystems and their services, including impacting agricultural and forest production.

Climate Change Adaptation Gaining More Prominence

This report devotes a chapter to climate change adaptation, an area where there has also been significant progress made in the last five years. NWF’s contributions to advancing the conceptual framework and practice of adaptation are particularly featured.

With ecosystems facing the effects of climate change more rapidly than previously anticipated, the key findings of the adaptation chapter stress that our expectations of what can be accomplished with adaptation efforts and current conservation strategies will also need to be revisited:

  • Adaptation can range from efforts to retain status quo conditions to actively managing system transitions; however, even the most aggressive adaptation strategies may be unable to prevent irreversible losses of biodiversity or serious degradation of ecosystems and their services.
  • Static protected areas will not be sufficient to conserve biodiversity in a changing climate, requiring an emphasis on landscape-scale conservation, connectivity among protected habitats, and sustaining ecological functioning of working lands and waters.

Thus, the ongoing efforts of federal and state agencies to plan for and integrate climate change research into resource management and actions—many of which are cataloged in the report—are essential for safeguarding the future of wildlife. But, we will also need aggressive action to curb carbon pollution to avoid reaching the limits of what adaptation strategies can accomplish.

Next Stop: Public Review of Draft NCA Report

This technical input is already being considered by the authors of the next National Climate Assessment report, which will include a chapter on ecosystems, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. In addition, the chapters focused on individual regions of the nation will address the impacts on their ecosystems.

We will get our first look at the draft report this coming December when it will be released for a 3-month public comment period. The draft will undergo expert peer review, and the NCA is also seeking broad stakeholder review. They define stakeholders as “individuals and organizations whose activities, decisions, and policies are sensitive to or affected by climate.” In other words, everybody is a stakeholder.   So, mark your calendars to set aside some time to provide your comments to the NCA when the draft is available this winter.