Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2015

Vol. 43, No. 1

About Books: The Elephant in the Room

Mark Lynch

Birds And Climate Change: Impacts And Conservation Responses.
James W. Pearce-Higgins and Rhys E. Green. 2014. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

It will be our attitude to climate change, and the choices we make regarding its mitigation, which will decide the status of the avifauna that we pass on to future generations. (p. 382, Birds and Climate Change)

We’re on the road to nowhere.” (Talking Heads)

On a recent episode of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom (Season 3 Episode 3), head newscaster Will McAvoy conducts an on-air interview with the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA, Richard Westbrook, about an embargoed report concerning carbon dioxide levels measured in Mauna Loa. This report has been leaked by Will’s guest and the expectation is for another typical “breaking” news story. When asked about the implications of the findings, the EPA wonk replies matter-of- factly, “A person has already been born who will die because of a catastrophic failure of the planet.” The newsroom staff, who were going about their jobs, look up in shock. “Did he just say that?” McAvoy keeps looking for some positive spin on the story, but everything Westbrook says keeps sounding grimmer and apocalyptic. Exasperated because of where the new story is going, McAvoy finally asks, “You sound like you’re saying it’s hopeless?” Westbrook answers calmly, “Yes.” The entire newsroom is momentarily frozen by what they have heard, but then everyone moves on to the next story and the rest of their lives.

Most of us say we are concerned about climate change, but we don’t really act on that concern. It is a problem so large, so complex, so frightening that we find that we can’t dwell on it for long and so we don’t really do anything of substance about it. It feels surreal to contemplate global climate change. It evokes big budget disaster films or dystopian science fiction novels. Solving this largest of all problems means radically changing the way we live, and nobody really wants that. Other global problems like terrorism, Ebola infection, political dysfunction, and the economy are in our faces every news hour. But climate change happens gradually, away at the edges of our perception like some planetwide cancer. So we move on and hope it will all go away. In the introduction to This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, Naomi Klein lists all our strategies for “looking away” from climate change, finding rationales for not dealing with this looming crises. For example,

Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving, but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crises inevitable because that’s too much “bad energy,” and it will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of those lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut. (p. 4, This Changes Everything)

Many birders use birding as a way to forget climate change and other problems. Birding helps to keep us in the bubble of blissful ignorance. As long as we are still seeing warblers and shorebirds, we feel the situation isn’t hopeless. Of course that isn’t true. Birds and Climate Change: Impacts and Conservation Responses is a scholarly work that calmly and systematically reviews the evidence of how birds have already been affected by climate change, how they will be affected in the near future, and what measures we can implement now to try and mitigate some of those disastrous effects.

James W. Pearce-Higgins is the Principal Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, where he is in charge of climate change research. Rhys E. Green is the Principal Research Biologist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Honorary Professor of Conservation at the University of Cambridge. It is hard to imagine a more qualified pair to write a book on birds and climate change. Their goals are simple:

Our purpose in writing this book is to summarize and synthesize the wealth of material which exists, alongside some new analyses which will hopefully increase scientific knowledge by at least a little. We hope that by doing so, we have made it easier for others both to understand the extent of the likely impacts of climate change on birds and to identify appropriate conservation responses which will help ensure that the birds with which we share this planet have the best chance of surviving the climate change we may inflict on them. (p. 21)

The tone throughout the text is calm and scientific, though never too technical or dry. Some birders who are not used to reading scientific texts with numerous graphs and charts may find it initially tough going. To make sure all readers can understand the authors’ points, at the end of every chapter there is an excellent Conclusions section followed by a Summary, which is presented as a list of bullet points.

Birds and Climate Change begins with an overview of what we now know about climate change and then gives a lengthy summary and discussion of whether we can already see the effects of climate change on bird populations. One of the key concepts in these studies is phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena like migration and egg laying, particularly in relation to climate. “Limited data suggest that departure dates from wintering grounds have been advanced by recent climate change.” (p. 39)

For some time now, ornithologists have been concerned about “mismatch.” As the climate changes and warms, birds have started to arrive earlier on nesting grounds, and these changes in arrival and departure dates no longer closely coincide with other natural events that the breeding species depend on, such as growth of plants, blooms of insect prey, and climate on the breeding grounds. This is the phenological “mismatch.” The findings so far have been scattered, species specific, and sometimes inconclusive, but some studies are finding definite evidence of mismatch already occurring. For example,

To summarize, recent warming has resulted in great tits in the Hoge Veluwe in the Netherlands breeding too late relative to the peak of food availability. This has reduced the productivity of first clutches, which rely on the seasonal peak in caterpillars. (p. 74)

Because of their dependence on seasonal food sources whose movements are complex and often affected by temperature, seabirds in particular appear to be the group most likely vulnerable to this mismatch effect.

Climate change is not just about warming. Climate change also produces changes in the amounts and types of precipitation, and this in turn affects avian populations:

In addition, Adélie penguins require dry, snow-free areas to nest, and it appears that an increase in frequency of spring blizzard events associated with the switch to a maritime climate, has significantly increased rates of breeding failure through flooding and chilling of eggs and chicks. Combined, these two factors have driven a 65% decline in the population at the Palmer research station from 1975 to 2003, a decline which has continued since. It is no wonder that David Ainley termed this species the “bellwether of climate change.” (p. 159)

It is no surprise that climate change will also affect the distributions of communities of birds and therefore ultimately affect regional biodiversity. Poleward range contractions have been expected. So far, we are seeing more latitudinal shifts than altitudinal ones. Again, to date, the studies have been scattered, and some are inconclusive, but what we are already seeing is sobering if not startling. “Thus in Finland, species with northern distributions have declined in abundance by an average of 21% over a 10–20 year period. While populations of species with southern distributions have increased by an average of 29%” (pp. 194–195)

Distributions of species such as Willow Warbler and possibly Rusty Blackbird also appear to be changing because of climate change, but this needs further study in both cases. Species that have small ranges determined by narrow climate particulars are at a greater risk of extinction as climate changes. The range of the globally threatened Ethiopian Bush-crow (Zavattariornis stresemanni) is closely correlated to a narrow temperature range and is considered at risk of extinction in the near future due to climate change.

The second part of Birds and Climate Change is titled “Conservation Responses.” The authors review methods of predicting what species appear to be at the greatest immediate risk due to climate change and then what conservation can do to help save those populations. The problem is so huge that we cannot possibly save every species. The prediction of what areas or species will be impacted first by increasing climate change is made using various modeling techniques especially “climate envelope models.”

Climate envelope models are statistical models of the geographical distribution of species. At its most simple, a climate envelope model requires mapped locations at which species have been recorded as well as measurements of meteorological variables at those places. (p. 202)

It is critical for conservationists to be able to estimate the likely magnitude of future climate changes regionally and then estimate their impacts on bird populations to guide future conservation actions. We need to plan ahead and to begin this measure now. But these models are hampered by the ever increasing and destructive changes in human land use as the climate changes concomitant with a disastrous increase in human population demanding ever more resources.

In the past few millennia rapid climate change is unusual as a widespread phenomenon, but global losses of biodiversity for other reasons began many decades or centuries ago. Hence, it is clear that species are not threatened only by climate change, but also by a wide range of other drivers of long- standing and growing importance, mostly originating from the intensity of resource exploitation by increasing and increasingly resource-hungry human populations. (p. 299 and p. 301)

Many conservationists believe that population growth is the problem facing the planet and that global climate change is only a symptom of this unbridled growth. In the collection of papers titled Life On the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation the authors decry the fact that though population growth was a key concern of the early environmental movement, no one wants to talk about it now.

Yet the message from the scientific community could not be clearer, as stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, restated in the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report in 2007, and reiterated in several recent reports on the state of world biodiversity, including the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Outlook published in 2010: simply put, population growth is a major driver of ecological degradation. We cannot create sustainable societies without ending population growth; indeed, as this book argues, without significantly reducing the human population. To ignore population matters is to acquiesce in advance to continued ecological decline. (Cafaro and Crist, Life On the Brink, p. 8)

If you think that most people aren’t ready to face the lifestyle restrictions needed to abate climate change, think about suggesting that the best thing for the planet would be not to have any kids for a number of years while the population drops. You likely would be stoned to death in many parts of the world. The topic has become frustratingly wrapped up in politics and religion. Pearce-Higgins and Green do not even discuss the possibility of population reduction in Birds and Climate Change and just assume for the foreseeable future that the planet will face ever-increasing stress from our unlimited growth.

It is abundantly clear that as warming increases, an increasing number of bird species will face extinction. The authors of Birds and Climate Change emphasize the importance of preserving large tracts of core habitat now, as well as what they call “corridors” and “stepping stones” to enable species to move to new habitats as the climate continues to change. Programs like the international IBA (Important Birds Areas) effort are critical in this regard and systematic monitoring of these sites is essential.

The authors finally discuss how climate change mitigation efforts will affect bird populations. Of course this is assuming we can even get it together as a nation politically to invest in renewable energy technologies. Everyone touts solar, wind, hydroelectricity, tidal and wave power, and biofuel energies as answers, and the truth is that all of those technologies as they now exist can have some effect on birds and habitat.

Of these other renewable energy options, bioenergy crops are likely to be the main source of renewable energy globally because they have the lowest technological requirements, and are the cheapest. Unfortunately, they tend to be inefficient in terms of land area required, and have even increased green- house gas emissions in many areas through the loss of carbon stocks from natural habitats as a result of habitat conversion. (p. 353)

Wind farms in Europe and America have been documented to have negative effects on bird populations. For example, in Spain wind farms are directly responsible for dramatic decreases in local populations of species like Egyptian and Griffon vultures. The effects could be greater, but to date there is no systematic and consistent monitoring of bird mortality at most wind farm sites. Solar seems to be the least egregious choice for an energy alterative but large solar sites have shown to cause bird mortality in certain cases, too. No single solution is the answer.

Birds and Climate Change is an important book if only to put the topic of climate change before many birders who would like to believe it’s not happening or that somehow it will just go away. This is a book every birder should read. It is a sound assessment of what is happening now and a fine guide to planning species management in the near future. The only shortcoming to Birds and Climate Change is that the authors do not ever directly address the birding community and suggest what we should be doing.

So what will it take for all of us to participate in climate change mitigation? This is where talk about climate change makes many people walk away, fingers in their ears, humming loudly because they don’t really want to hear what we have to do. In 1998 some Swiss scientists figured out that we could all live (in 1998) on this planet fairly and sustainably if we became a 2,000-Watt Society. Everyone would be entitled to generate the same amount of emissions and use the same amount of energy. So what would it take to achieve this utopian 2,000 watt lifestyle?

To investigate what a 2.000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target. (Elizabeth Colbert in New York Review of Books. December 4, 2014, p. 16)

Imagine what your birding life would be like without a car or PC or a lot of the other trappings of this lifestyle. Many birders have begun to try to create a smaller carbon footprint by birding locally more often and not chasing as many birds. Some now bird by bicycle, and many birders in cities use public transportation. Climate change has forever altered the way I bird and think about birding. Like many of you, I am trying to come to terms with this elephant in the room and trying to make changes that are likely not enough in the long run but really only assuage my guilt in the short term. There should be more leadership concerning birding, conservation, and climate change from local conservation organizations and national and local birding groups.

In my youth there was a slogan “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” and that seems particularly true for climate change. There is no escaping the chilling feeling that we may be bearing witness to the slow tortuous end of the natural world as we now enjoy it. Every year more species are threatened, more wild habitat is converted to human use, and the climate continues to change. That trend is not going to be reversed anytime soon. Climate change will only exacerbate the habitat destruction already in progress. Doing nothing may feel soothing in the short term, but is not a helpful option. Each of us needs to have some serious conversations about climate change with ourselves, and then with friends and fellow birders.

We have to stop acting like nothing is happening. As Naomi Klein put it, “All we need to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” (p. 4, This Changes Everything).

“Dealing with this is a little bit like saving for retirement,” said Richard Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “All delay is costly, but it helps whenever you start.” (New York Times. Tuesday, December 16, 2014. p. D1.)

Literature Cited

  • Cafaro, Philip and Eileen Crist (editors). 2013. Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
  • Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus The Climate. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism? New York Review of Books, December 4.
  • “3.6 Degrees of Uncertainty.” 2014. New York Times. December 16, D1.
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