Warming puts species at one in ten extinction risk by 2100

While Ilya Maclean and Robert Wilson found that measurements backed up predictions of climate change's impact on plants and animals, there were few studies in the tropics. Those that were investigated Mexican trees, like those shown here. Credit: Arturo Avila/Flickr

While Ilya Maclean and Robert Wilson found that measurements backed up predictions of climate change's impact on plants and animals, there were few studies in the tropics. Those that were investigated Mexican trees, like those shown here. Credit: Arturo Avila/Flickr

Climate change’s recent impact on Earth’s life has backed up previous assessments calling it “one of the major threats to global biodiversity”. Ilya Maclean and Robert Wilson at the University of Exeter, UK, compared predictions of warming’s effects on species since 2005 and actual measurements made in that time. Both predictions and observations gave an average extinction risk across all species by 2100 close to one in ten. “I was dismayed by the magnitude of potential extinctions that could occur, but was also relieved that we were able to show that scientific predictions were, on the whole, accurate,” Maclean told Simple Climate.

Individual studies on climate’s effects on species inevitably give a limited picture as they typically only focus on a few plants or animals at one time. Similarly, scientists’ predictions of the likely impacts of climate change are often met with scepticism. Maclean and Wilson therefore sought to bring prediction and measurements across different species together to address both issues. They gathered together data from 74 studies published since 2005, comparing their findings against well-established methods of judging extinction threats. 42 of these were predicting extinctions, movements of and changes in species’ populations, while 32 had recorded details of the actual responses to recent changes. Read the rest of this entry »

Pinning detailed climate impacts on people could cost conservation

The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly experiences pressures in Southern California from climate change, but also urban development, invasive species and pollution. Credit: Lawrence Gilbert and Michael C. Singer

The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly experiences pressures in Southern California from climate change, but also urban development, invasive species and pollution. Credit: Lawrence Gilbert and Michael C. Singer

Efforts to understand the biological impacts of climate change on a detailed local scale are “misguided”, and conservation research should be favoured instead, a small but influential group of scientists have suggested this week. “This focus diverts energies and research funds away from developing crucial adaptation and conservation measures,” wrote biologists Camille Parmesan and Michael Singer from University of Texas, Austin, and their colleagues. Parmesan was a lead author for the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for  which it won a Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Al Gore in 2007.

With a strong body of evidence showing that climate change is happening, the IPCC is now recommending scientists try and link its effects on plants and animals to human actions. “Biologists are now expected to shift away from detection towards attribution – that is assessing the extent to which observed biological changes are being driven by greenhouse-gas-induced climate change versus natural climate variability,” the team wrote.

Singer told Simple Climate that the consequences of human activity can be puzzled out on a global scale, though this is easier for climate effects than for biological impacts. However, the IPCC is encouraging ever more detailed attribution studies, something he feels is understandable but ill-judged. “From a basic research standpoint, once you’ve shown something at a large or rough scale, people then work at finer and finer detail,” he explained. “So, it seems the obvious ‘next step’ for the new IPCC assessment would be this kind of trajectory. Folk who work with modelling seem particularly attracted to this question. Folk who work with natural biological systems are more leery of it, because of feasibility, not interest.”

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When climate becomes a problem too far

University of New South Wales associate psychology professor Ben Newell. Credit: University of New South Wales

University of New South Wales associate psychology professor Ben Newell. Credit: University of New South Wales

If you can face the sheer volume of evidence for global warming and not become too numbed and overwhelmed to act, you are probably quite an unusual person. That’s one warning offered by University of New South Wales psychologist Ben Newell, who published research back in August discussing how we think about climate change. “We can only worry about a limited set of issues, Newell emphasised in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. That means that when people like me try and communicate the evidence, we must be careful how we do it.

Research at the Centre for Environmental Decision Making at Columbia University has shown that “people remember more and report more willingness to take action when shown vivid imagery, like receding glaciers, than when just given facts and figures,” Newell told Simple Climate. “I think this emphasises the need to engage people with images that they can relate to and easily understand. However, we should avoid inducing ‘despair’ by showing “Day After Tomorrow” type catastrophes. A good method might be to show images of real impacts on local regions that have changed over a specified time period rather than artists’ impressions of what could be.” Interestingly, these findings are also shared by University of California, Berkeley, researchers in the journal Psychological Science set to be published in January.

This is just one small element of the wide range of insights that Newell’s work provides, another aspect of which has already been covered on this blog, and which are summarised overall in the following video:

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“Cherry picking” is a rotten accusation

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology's George Wang

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology's George Wang

Do you trust the measurements your bathroom scales provide? If not, you share a classic dilemma faced by scientists, which is whether or not their data gives an accurate picture of what they are trying to study. This is an especially sore point in the debate between climate scientists and their critics who differ, for example, over whether it’s OK to exclude temperature measurements from certain weather stations. One accusation is that scientists are just choosing the figures that support their arguments, a practice referred to as “cherry picking”.

Such disputes made me especially interested to see that Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology scientist George Wang and his colleagues had specifically chosen a set of temperature measurements for their research. Together with Michael Dillon at the University of Wyoming and Raymond Huey at the University of Washington, Wang looked at how temperatures since 1960 would have affected metabolism of ectotherms – better known as “cold-blooded creatures”. They surprisingly found that, despite temperatures changing more slowly where they live, tropical species would be worse affected than those living in cold areas. Could choice of weather stations have influenced this research improperly? Not according to Wang.

“Scientists will exclude data for many reasons, but fundamentally we do it because blindly leaving data in an analysis can bias results,” he told Simple Climate. “In general, scientists in every field have to use judgement based on experience to detect and remove outliers. It is something scientists take very seriously, and it is an integral part of analysing data.” Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t care what the weatherman says, when the weatherman puts politics ahead of science

Temperatures have risen in the debate between the different US political parties over climate change in recent years - and now the country's weathercasters appear to be more influenced by that than their professional qualifications in their opinions of global warming. Credit: Weather Central

Temperatures have risen in the debate between the different US political parties over climate change in recent years - and now the country's weathercasters appear to be more influenced by that than their professional qualifications in their opinions of global warming. Credit: Weather Central

Many US TV weathercasters responded to last November’s “Climategate” scandal more on the basis of political beliefs than meteorology, scientists have claimed. That’s important, Edward Maibach of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, notes, because of their comparatively high profile and large audiences. “TV meteorologists are potentially an important source of informal climate change education in that most American adults watch local TV news and consider TV weather reporters a trusted source of global warming information,” Maibach and colleagues write. “At least temporarily, Climategate has likely impeded efforts to encourage some weathercasters to embrace the role of climate change educator.”

“Climategate” refers to the publication of hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia – which is jointly responsible for one of just three global temperature records. Among these were statements that suggested climate researchers may have inappropriately tampered with and illegally avoided sharing data, and tried to suppress other scientists’ work. Since then a series of enquiries found that the conclusions of their research are not in doubt, although they did fail to display the proper degree of openness. Read the rest of this entry »

Coral and chatting climate: Tougher than they seem

University of British Columbia's Professor Simon Donner

University of British Columbia's Professor Simon Donner

Simon Donner says that in 30 to 50 years, if they do not adapt, we will see corals bleaching and starving dangerously frequently as the oceans warm up. “Corals, the stationary animals that build reefs, get most of their food from colourful algae which live in the coral tissue,” the University of British Columbia professor explained. “When the surrounding waters gets too hot, the corals expel the algae and lose pigmentation. If the heat stress persists, the corals can essentially starve to death.”

Donner points out that the levels of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere today will create enough warming for this to happen by themselves – a situation he calls “committed warming”. “Even if we froze the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere today, the climate is going to keep warming for several decades,” he says. However, talking at a conference back in February, he also looked at how corals will adapt to temperature, citing some studies showing that they can increase their temperature tolerances by as much as 1.5°C. Read the rest of this entry »

We know what to do, but what happens if we don’t?

Does this child know what sort of future he's running towards? Credit: Indiana University

Does this child know what sort of future he's running towards? Credit: Indiana University

There’s a wall dead ahead, and you’re running towards it at speed. When do you slow down and change direction? One metre before the wall? 100 metres? Back a couple of miles ago when there was a sign saying you were headed for a dead end? Now what if you’ve been told that the wall is in fact a mirage?

I’ve been writing this blog for a little over six months now, and have heard from sixteen researchers who have been studying climate change and its effects. From what they say, and the other research I’ve covered, it currently seems unlikely that the results of climate change will be as instant as the result of a person running headlong into a brick wall. However they will be serious, and they do demand a shift in direction. Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Hot enough for ya?

Stanford scientists project that from 2030 to 2039, most areas of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico could endure at least seven seasons equally as intense as the hottest season ever recorded between 1951 and 1999. Credit: 'jhadow' via Flickr/Creative Commons

Stanford scientists project that from 2030 to 2039, most areas of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico could endure at least seven seasons equally as intense as the hottest season ever recorded between 1951 and 1999. Credit: 'jhadow' via Flickr/Creative Commons

As New York reached record temperatures this week, Stanford researchers claimed that such events could become increasingly common over the next 30 years. “Using a large suite of climate model experiments, we see a clear emergence of much more intense, hot conditions in the U.S. within the next three decades,” said Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh.

Together with with co-author Moetasim Ashfaq, Diffenbaugh uses these results to suggest that the global warming threshold often seen as dangerous is too simple. That 2°C limit mainly comes from political negotiations, the scientists note in a Geophysical Research Letters paper published online ahead of printing last week. “The intensification of hot extremes reported here suggests that constraining global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial conditions may not be sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change,” they write. Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Dispelling doubt and repairing reefs

Scientists who doubt whether climate change is caused by humans lack expertise, according to an analysis by US and Canadian researchers published online on Monday. Looking at 1,372 climate researchers who had written more than 20 papers on the subject, William Anderegg of Stanford University found that 97–98% of the most active credit humanity’s role. By looking at how many times other researchers refer to each scientist’s top four papers, the team also found that unconvinced researchers are less prominent than this majority. “These are standard academic metrics used when universities are making hiring decisions,” Anderegg says.

While the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper has been pushed by the official Twitter feed of the Whitehouse, home of the US president, it has also already been criticised as not comprehensive enough. However team member Steven Schneider strongly defended the methods used as actually being favourable to those sceptical about the idea of man-made, or anthropogenic, climate change. “We went way beyond neutral, in their direction, bending over backward,” Schneider says. “The doubters of anthropogenic climate change will claim foul anyway. They can say that climate researchers convinced of anthropogenic climate change are just trying to deny publication of the doubters’ opinion, but let them go out and do a study to prove it. It is of course not true.” Read the rest of this entry »