Climate Change and Biodiversity

Every now and then, it seems like events take on an odd synchronicity.

To wit: Recently I watched a show with a segment talking about the impact that climate change was having on gardening zones in the United States. This might sound a bit boring, but it was actually really fascinating, albeit terrifying. The short version of the story is that, as all gardeners know, the United States is getting warmer, and growing seasons are extending. Some gardeners are stoked about this because it means that they get to play with plants they couldn’t grow before, but it’s actually really bad news.

Because as zones warm, native plants are displaced. And native plants cannot just hop up to the next gardening zone. It’s a unique set of circumstances which creates an environment for plants; it’s not just about temperatures but about terrain, soil composition, weather, interconnected species. As a result, a lot of state trees and flowers are actually going to be not just gone from their home states, but extinct, as a result of the warming trend. Some very special ecosystems are vanishing as the gardening zones creep north, and this is not a good thing at all.

This made me sad. And then, the next day, I was reading The Food of a Younger Land, and Kurlansky brought up the plight of the sugar maple. Sugar maples don’t just produce endless supplies of sap which can be turned into delectable maple syrup for my consumption. They actually require very precise climate conditions. The areas in which those conditions can be found are narrowing. As a result, there’s less sap available; trees can grow outside these limited areas, but they can’t be used to produce maple syrup and maple sugar.

Gee whiz, I thought. First it’s state trees, now it’s maple syrup. I should totally write a post about this for my series on environmental issues.

And then, I came across “Extinction Countdown: Romanticism undone: Invasive species, global warming taking big toll on plants at Thoreau’s Walden Pond.” Clearly, this entry was meant to be.

So, let’s talk about climate change and biodiversity, because, my friends, it is a serious problem. The thing about nature is that it doesn’t exist as a discrete series of things. It’s an interconnected system and that system is vast, but also very fragile. Imbalances in one seemingly tiny aspect of the system can cause the whole thing to fall apart. One of the things which is rapidly falling victim to climate change is biodiversity; there are fewer plants and animals around than there used to be.

This is intrinsically sad because it’s sad when we lose species. But it’s also a dangerous warning sign. These fragile plants and animals are bellwethers, because once the environment stops being able to support native plants and they disappear, we’re going to encounter changes in our agriculture as well. At first it might be seen as a benefit. Longer growing seasons mean more crops. But those longer growing seasons also come with other costs because the environment is changing in unpredictable and sometimes problematic ways, and we may be on the verge of learning how very fragile the state of global agriculture is.

Some crops we may not be able to produce at all. Lack of diversity in the diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies, in addition to bored eaters. Other crops may become very costly to produce, limiting their purchase to the upper ranks of society. And, of course, many areas hard hit by flooding and desertification, two consequences of climate change, include subsistence communities which now can’t farm to support themselves. This means that people are starving. Right now. Not in the future, not in some theoretical model, but right now, as a direct consequence of climate change.

Yes, some governments are stepping in to help, at least in some cases, but it doesn’t eliminate the larger problem, which is that people used to be able to eat, and now they can’t, and the reason is that their homelands are no longer able to sustain farming. This is a problem which is going to spread. Right now we may have food surpluses which we grudgingly give out, but that’s not always going to be the case.

As the population expands and we put more pressure on the environment which is already undergoing shifts as a result of climate change and more farmland fails, we’re going to be facing rising food insecurity. Food insecurity is already a big problem for a lot of the world, so it seems like a bad idea to allow it to get any worse, especially when it’s paired with decreasing supplies of water which is safe to drink. Food and water are pretty key to human survival, people. We can do without maple syrup, although life would be bleak indeed, but we can’t live without protein.

The loss of biodiversity has very real consequences. It’s not just too bad that there will be less flowers in the world. It’s dangerous that we are losing some key species, and some species we don’t even realize are keys which we will be able to identify as integral to their ecosystems only after it’s too late. And it’s a very serious political and socialĀ  issue when you get around to talking about the impact which climate change is having on farming; the loss of biodiversity even plays directly into farming because farms are connected with nature, yes, even the big industrial farms.

We need to be thinking now, not later, about how we are going to address this situation. We need to be thinking about crops which will be able to transition, and we need to think about how to deliver nutrition to the world. Starving people anywhere in the world is a problem, starving people right now are a problem, and it’s time to face facts and figure out what to do about it.