We can’t ignore the devastation of deadly heat — for nature or ourselves
The deadly heat waves blasting the U.S. and Europe are raising fresh concerns about the risks of rising global temperatures to people. There are also risks of rising temperatures for nature, which is already under siege from multiple directions. Many will remember the shocking wildfires that killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals during Australia’s “Black Summer” two years ago, but the truth is our rapidly warming planet also poses many other, more under-the-radar threats to the natural world that have dire implications for all life on Earth, including us.
The U.S. government has the know-how and the means to address combined climate and nature crisis, if our leaders will only muster the political will to do what is necessary. Specifically, Congress and the Biden administration must take bold and immediate action to accelerate the decoupling of our economy from fossil fuels, incentivize behavioral shifts toward less consumption — including healthier, more sustainable diets and more sustainable, efficient energy use — as well as protect and restore nature. And they need to do it right now.
So far, we’ve experienced an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial temperatures — and the examples of the devastation that the increasing average and extreme temperature events have already wrought are everywhere. As our oceans have heated up, coral reefs that sustain a bewildering diversity of species of fish have experienced mass die-offs. Meanwhile, the melting Arctic ice has forced polar bears to seek new hunting grounds, resulting in a tripling of human-wildlife conflict as polar bears spend more time in coastal villages searching for food. More heartbreaking stories are surfacing, like the one from just a few days ago of a starving and horrifically emaciated polar bear that sought help from humans after getting its tongue stuck in an old tin can. Although this seems like a bizarre example, the number and ways in which species and ecosystems are imperiled by rising temperatures goes on and on. And it’s only going to get worse.
According to a recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), up to14 percent of the tens of thousands of species assessed by the report are likely to face a high risk of extinction at 1.5 degrees of warming, a grim milestone we are now almost guaranteed to reach. And if we allow warming to rise from 1.5 degrees to 3 degrees Celsius, up to 29 percent of species will be at risk. Already, the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles monitored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report have seen an alarming average drop of 68 percent — in less than a single person’s lifetime. And that’s due almost entirely to human activity.
Dramatic changes like these in species extinctions, ranges and populations can lead to irreversible changes in the services nature provides for us such as basic food production, water provision, carbon storage, erosion control, nutrient cycling, fisheries production, forestry and other natural resources. And those irreversible changes in species can drive conflict among and within nations, as happens when fish migrate out of warming waters into cooler waters — creating newly fish-rich and fish-poor areas. By 2030, 23 percent of transboundary fish stocks will have changed their historical range, providing a recipe for chaos and conflict as fishing fleets follow.
As this example illustrates, we’re not just the culprit behind these environmental disruptions, we’re also a victim of them. Increasing temperatures and degradation of soil quality reduces food production. Droughts like the one in the western U.S., wildfires, decreasing air and water quality, the loss of natural barriers to buffer coastal and river flooding, and more all conspire to endanger human lives and livelihoods. Oh, and were you looking forward to beating the heat with a dip in the ocean? Well, our warming oceans are also forcing sharks to roam into cooler, coastal waters, potentially contributing to the recent uptick in shark attacks.
My aim is not to needlessly frighten, but rather to jolt people — most importantly, our elected leaders — out of complacency. It is within our government’s power to restore nature, slow climate change and help Americans — and America’s wildlife species — adapt to the climate impacts that are already here, if we act now.
First, the U.S. government needs to aggressively throw its support behind measures that would help decarbonize our economy. Among other things, that means investments in and incentives for widespread clean energy adoption, which would reduce harmful emissions and create more American jobs in the process. To that end, Congress should pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in climate spending. Critically, this legislation also invests over $60 billion into disadvantaged communities, including many that will feel the effects of the climate crisis first and most deeply. If enacted into law, the programs in this bill could help cut U.S. emissions by 40 percent by 2030 — not enough on its own to get us where we need to be, but it still a historic step in the right direction.
The Inflation Reduction Act also includes $5 billion in grants for measures such as forest conservation and urban tree planting, as well as $2.6 billion for protecting and restoring coastal habitats — all of which draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help people adapt to climate change by providing shade to lower local temperatures by as much as 8 degrees, filtering water and reducing pollution, buffering against storm surges and much more.
For these reasons, the “America the Beautiful” initiative launched last year, which calls for the administration to collaborate with communities, Native nations and businesses to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, is also essential for our future. Critically, it recognizes the sustainable management of working, private lands and waters by America’s hard-working farmers, ranchers, foresters and fishers, who contribute substantially to the long-term economic and environmental prosperity we all seek.
A stable climate and stable wild places across the U.S. and the world are not nice-to-haves, they are must-haves for people. We have brought the climate and nature to this crisis point, and we are the only ones capable of pulling them — and civilization — back from the brink. For our elected leaders, I have but one question: What do you want your legacy to be? The choices you make in the coming weeks, months and years will shape the future for your descendants and the planet they call home. Choose wisely.
Rebecca Shaw, Ph.D., is World Wildlife Fund’s chief scientist.