Climate change destroys insects like Daenerys in King's Landing

Climate change destroys insects like Daenerys in King's Landing
© HBO/Facebook

The penultimate episode in the Game of Thrones series was one of the deadliest on record, In just one battle, dragon fire took down soldiers, women, children and animals. Burned bodies lay in the streets of King’s Landing, multigenerational families were wiped out instantly and the poorest of the people bore the brunt of the viciousness inflicted by Daenerys atop her dragon.

It’s a familiar story that we know, a real one playing out in the world, with consequences just as dire: Climate change will burn us all. Last week the UN released an ominous report: nature is disappearing at unprecedented and rapid rates. The report —complied by145 experts from over 50 countries — agreed that of the 8 million described species, 1 million are at risk of extinction. 

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Roughly the population of Austin, Texas. Or San Jose, California — or King's Landing. Imagine every one of those disheveled and doe-eyed innocent inhabitants you saw running from dragon fire as a species on earth. Long-standing iconic animals like a polar bear could get wiped out just as readily as an undiscovered animal. Everything from pandas to parrots to pufferfish will disappear.

However, the group that will face the most devastating impacts is the one with the most members: arthropods.

On Earth, arthropods (animals with exoskeletons and jointed appendages) are everywhere. They are underneath rocks, crawling on trees, feasting on other arthropods. They are buried in the fur of mammals, siphoning off juices from roots underground and floating through air. They are hiding in garage corners, living on windowsills, imitating flowers and creating massive colonies below our feet, or buzzing in and out of hives.

They are eating nectar, pollen, leaves, meat, blood, sweat, feces, fruits, vegetables, soil, each other, sap, skin, cellulose, eggs, and more. And, arthropods are part of a protein-rich diet for an enormous array of animals like hummingbirds, snakes and lizards, marine animals, freshwater fish, other arthropods, plenty of birds, and of course, mammals. 

The majority of animals on earth are insects and of the 1 million species at risk of extinction, they’ll be extremely susceptible to climate change.

Climate change isn’t the only threat these animals face: pollution, pesticides use, and habitat loss all contribute to a dire outlook for these multi-legged creatures. While the UN Report was a gut punch and an effective wake-up call, it also hinted at hopefulness: “It’s not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global”, said Sir Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Insects are at-risk but insects are also easy to help on an individual level. It’s easier to transform a backyard, or plant for pollinators, let’s say than it is for an individual to protect and feed an elephant. A few small steps can have exponential impacts and help bolster arthropod populations world-wide.

First, if you can, plant a butterfly garden. Get rid of a manicured and monocultured lawn. Replace it with native plants that help feed hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. (A major bonus is not having to mow ever again and reducing your water bill!).

Remember it’s not just the adult butterfly you want to provide for with a nectar-rich plant, but its caterpillars as well. Milkweed, pipevine and passionvine are great additions to an insect-friendly yard, as are citrus trees for swallowtail butterflies. Not sure where to begin? Get advice from a nature center, museum or zoo near you that likely has a model pollinator garden installed that includes plants appropriate for your area.

Another easy way to help is by halting your use of pesticides and poisons. Yes, insects can get into the house and do so on occasion. However, it doesn’t help your house, or the global decline of animals, to put out toxins and exacerbate the problem. Instead of insecticides, your best defense inside the home is a three-part plan:

  • Make sure all windows and doors have tight seals on them that a creature couldn’t crawl under.
  • Have a glass jar with piece of paper handy for capturing wandering animals.
  • If there’s a trail (say, from ants to your pantry), clean it with soapy water to erase their scent.

Doing those three things will keep the animals, and the poisons, out of your house (and out of the airways of your pets and children). 

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When Arya miraculously arose from the rubble she was met with a white horse. A survival plan greeted her and the tiniest, fiercest Stark lived to fight another day.

Will our insects be as lucky? It’s up to you, and every other white horse, to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

What do we say when death comes for the insects? “Not today.”

Catherine Bartlett is an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a nonprofit focused on conservation, science and inspiring others to live in harmony with the natural world. She is a 2018-2019 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.