The truth of it – combating climate change is critical to stop wildlife extinctions

Forget walking into a climate emergency. We’re already in one – and so is our wildlife. The UN says * a million species around the world could be on the path towards extinction in part because of the catastrophic impact of our warming planet. In the UK we’re seeing first-hand how some wildlife is already struggling to adapt to rising temperatures, the changing of the seasons and extreme weather. Yet this week, the UK Government went backwards on its green commitments to cut carbon emissions.

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A lightening fork at night against a purple cloudy sky.
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The changes outside your window

Climate change caused by the release of carbon from burning fossil fuels is already affecting our wildlife. We know spring is arriving earlier, meaning wildlife is having to rapidly adapt to keep up. Blue Tits for example are having to change habits formed over millions of years of evolution to make sure they time their breeding with the emergence of caterpillars, which arrive when the trees come into leaf. If they get their timings wrong, it means there are fewer caterpillars to go around. Less food then means that fewer chicks are likely to survive. Many species that are highly adapted to their ecological niche are not able to make changes to adapt, with disastrous consequences.

* Read what the UN has to say here.

Nowhere to go

As temperatures rise, some species are being pushed further north to find the conditions they need. One study says without vigorous and immediate action to reduce climate change, the potential future range of the average European bird species will shift by nearly 550 km north-east by the end of this century, and will reduce in size by a fifth. 
In the UK this could be bad news for birds like Ring Ouzel, Golden Plover and Dotterel which like the cool, damp, wind-swept conditions of the UK’s mountains and uplands. Predictions are that the range of climatic conditions - the ‘climate envelope’ - in which these birds can breed successfully will shift uphill, and greatly reduce in area by the end of the century.  

A lone male Ring Ouzel stood on a the ground looking up at the sky.

Warming seas means starving seabirds

Our seas are warming at an unprecedented rate. This summer we’ve seen sea temperatures off the UK coast rise 4-5C above average for the time of year. The warming of our seas has a huge impact on life beneath the waves, including for species like sandeel which thrive in colder waters. These small eel-like fish are a vital source of food for seabirds like Kittiwakes and Puffins which rely on them to feed their young. So much so that the British Trust for Ornithology said Puffins could largely disappear from the UK’s coast in the coming years because of climate change.

Extreme weather

Climate change is increasing the chances of extreme weather in the UK. Species such as Little Terns which nest on beaches are increasingly at risk of rising sea levels and summer storm surges. Elsewhere, breeding wading birds such as Lapwing are falling victim to summer floods when nests can be washed away. But equally they’re vulnerable to drought. This reduces the amount of worms and insects for them to eat and makes it harder for them to find what remain in the hard ground. Climate change has also caused wildfires to become more common in summer, destroying habitat at a critical time of year as species breed. 

Burnt trees fill an ashy dirt floor.

Tip of the iceberg

These are just some of the wildlife which is threatened by climate change if we don’t act. The truth is many of the species we love will be affected in some way. We can already see its impact on migrating birds in different ways, such as the Willow Warbler which is declining in southern Britain as temperatures rise. There will be winners and losers – some species will become more common in the UK as conditions change, such as stunningly beautiful European Bee-eaters, which have bred again this year in Norfolk. But many others will struggle, or in some cases, disappear entirely.  

A lone Bee-Eater perched on a tree branch surrounded by green leaves.

We need to drive home green commitments, not put them in reverse

This week the UK Government announced plans to delay green policies such as delaying the ban of new petrol and diesel cars and delaying plans for greener, warmer homes. For the planet, for us and for our wildlife this is a backwards step. The Government has legally binding commitments to meet interim emissions reduction targets in the decades ahead. The Climate Change Committee has already raised concerns about the UK’s ability to meet these interim targets in light of the policy change.   

If we’re serious about hitting the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050 we need to ramp up our efforts to reduce carbon emissions, not put them into reverse. 

Nature is part of the solution

The irony is, nature can help us fight climate change, if we invest in it. It’s literally a win-win situation. Many of the places where wildlife thrives, such as peatlands, woodlands and seagrass meadows, when in a good condition, can soak up the carbon dioxide that causes climate warming and lock up the carbon in plants and soil. Take the UK’s peatlands – they only cover 12% of the UK but they store more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. These nature-based solutions are vital if we’re going to turn around the climate and nature crises.   

A Blue Tit perched on a branch slightly covered in snow, in the winter.

What you can do

Your voice is powerful. When we speak up for nature together we can make a real difference to the natural world. Join us an RSPB Campaigner.  
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