Birds indicate environmental health — many are headed for extinction

Birds indicate environmental health — many are headed for extinction
© Getty

For anyone who has known the joy of watching a Rufous Hummingbird zip through their backyard, supping at nectar-filled flowers, or hearing the distinctive call of a brood of Trumpeter Swans at dusk, the urgency of climate change cannot be ignored. Yet, despite the many warnings over the past decades, we continue to release billions of pounds of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. As a result, our climate is changing faster than we — or the many diverse species — around us can adapt. But we have hope, because we have the tools and technology right now to build the clean energy economy we deserve. All we need is the political will to make it happen.

The findings of a first-of-its-kind study of birds and climate change published by Audubon scientists in 2014 were heartbreaking. We found that nearly half of the bird species in the United States will be seriously threatened this century, and many could disappear forever. As global temperatures rise, weather patterns shift, and vital bird habitats dwindle and disappear, familiar and beloved species will leave for more suitable locales or die out completely.

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According to our data, the Common Loon will likely abandon Minnesota in summer. The Bobolink, a grassland bird, will find itself marooned in the boreal forest zone of Canada. Some birds are projected to lose all of the places where the climate is suitable for breeding habitat — and likely go extinct — a fate shared by the Baird’s Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Eastern Whip-poor-will and Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Even our country’s national symbol, the Bald Eagle, is projected to lose 73 percent of its current breeding range in the next 60 years.

Birds are sensitive indicators of environmental health, as well as poignant reminders of all that we stand to lose. In the face of increasingly severe weather events, like Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, we are already seeing the impact climate change is having on our way of life, not to mention what else it has in store, from severe droughts, heat waves, and massive forest fires, to worsening air pollution and declining water quality.

In a report out this month by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s top scientists urged a dramatic reduction in the release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants over the next 12 years — otherwise, humanity risks a dangerous tipping point.

To protect both birds and people, we need to reduce carbon pollution and embrace the clean energy future. That’s why we support passage of the Clean Air and Clean Energy Initiative carbon pricing solution on the ballot in Washington state, which would put a $15/ton fee on carbon emissions and invest the proceeds — around $1 billion a year — in clean energy infrastructure, support for communities hardest hit by pollution, and much-needed efforts to improve the resilience of the state’s waterways and forests. This includes restoring and protecting estuaries, fisheries and marine shoreline habitats, as well as reducing the vulnerability of forests to insect and disease infestation, wildfires, and drought.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, nearly half of all Americans are “extremely” or “very sure” that global warming is happening. Furthermore, those who remain hopeful that progress can be made are more likely to take action by contacting a government official, donating and volunteering to conservation organizations, and joining a campaign to convince elected officials to take action.

At a time when meaningful climate policies are needed more than ever, it’s encouraging to see optimism and practical solutions being put forward. Without a doubt, putting a price on carbon would be an important first step, and we believe passage of this initiative in Washington will inspire climate action in other states.

With the midterm elections just a few days away, we have a chance to vote for a stable climate for the birds, for ourselves and for future generations. We must act now on climate change. We have already waited too long.

Gail Gatton is the executive director of Audubon Washington. 

Gary Langham, Ph.D., is chief scientist of the National Audubon Society.