The awful floods we’ve had have re-awakened the some of the old climate change arguments. Were they, or weren’t they, caused by climate change? Are our greenhouse emissions really at the root of climate change? And what should we best do to address climate change?
The leading science institutions in the UK and the US have come together with a timely report that answers such commonly asked questions. Having our Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences teaming up with a joint report puts a great deal of weight behind what they say. The scientific process is at the heart of these bodies - meticulous methods and evidence based analysis leading to conclusions based on what we know, and not on what might believe.
So what does the report say? Well, actually, quite a lot that’s already familiar. It says that the evidence is clear, that it is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes.
It’s also honest that, due to the nature of science, not every single detail is totally settled or completely certain. Nor has every pertinent question yet been answered. Scientific evidence continues to be gathered around the world, and assumptions and findings about climate change are continually analysed and tested. There are some areas of active debate - this is all good science, probing and questioning findings, seeking the most clear-cut answers. These areas include the link between ocean heat content and the rate of warming, estimates of how much warming to expect in the future, and the connections between climate change and extreme weather events.
Presented in the form of 20 key questions, the report is a good read, and good to dip into for information. Some of the questions are straightforward: is the climate warming? How much sea level rise? Are current levels of atmospheric CO2 unprecedented? Other delve a bit more deeply: why is climate change a concern now? Why is sea ice decreasing in the Arctic but not in Antarctica? Why does ocean acidification matter?
It’s not quite a pub guide to climate change, but certainly a great resource for thinking rationally about climate change, and to give context for all the related things we read in the media. And it’s good for arming yourself for discussion, whether at work, at home, for study and perhaps even at the pub. Climate change is one of the big issues of today, so why not – and it may make a change from talking about the weather...
Ivan Scrase Senior Climate Change Policy Officer, The RSPB.
National governments agree that greenhouse gas emissions must go down, but disagree on the policy details. In particular they disagree on the role of renewables and energy efficiency, and whether any new targets should be binding on national governments. What comes after the clear targets and policies for climate and energy up to 2020 in Europe, is stil unclear and some key decisions will be taken in the next few weeks, with huge implications for nature conservation.
BirdLife Europe and the RSPB support a switch to sustainable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. We recognise that will require a lot of grid development, and want to make sure both the renewables and the new power lines are delivered without harming nature. That’s why we are members of the Renewables Grid Initiative, a unique coalition of NGOs and progressive electricity transmission system operators (TSOs).
Today the RGI issued a statement supporting a 2030 climate and energy policy framework with clear, ambitious objectives for the development of renewables. The RGI calls on the European Council to agree on an ambitious and coherent set of binding targets for 2030 for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, energy efficiency and renewable energy. “Industry and civil society have come to a common understanding of what is urgently needed now”, said Antonella Battaglini, Executive Director of RGI.
I'd agree: it's great to see grid operators and green NGOs on the same page on renewables, energy efficiency and climate. It's essential that European leaders take notice and back an ambitious and binding framework for the coming decade, for the sake of nature and future generations.
"Climate change will drive mass extinctions if we don't switch to sustainable renewable energy”, said Angelo Caserta, Regional Director BirdLife Europe. “But nature is already in crisis, and the transition itself needs to take nature protection seriously too. With this statement the RGI and its partners have, once again, shown leadership in making sure renewables investment, grid development and nature protection are mutually beneficial."
So, it's up to the EU to make the right decisions for our energy future - it matters for wildlife. We'll be presssing them all the way.
Guest blogger Matthew Carroll, a member of the RSPB’s conservation science team, tells us about a project he's working on investigating the impacts of climate change on the breeding success of threatened seabird species including kittiwakes.
We know much about how climate change is impacting wildlife and ecosystems. Many of the best-studied examples come from terrestrial systems, but some of the earliest and most dramatic impacts are happening in our oceans. Sea temperatures, salinity, water density and acidity are all changing. Species are moving towards the poles, plankton is blooming earlier, coral reefs are bleaching and dissolving, and fish communities are changing. And of course, the charismatic and important seabirds and sea mammals at the top of the food chain could also be affected.
Kittiwakes are one of our best-loved seabird species, but research has suggested that climate change is making it harder for them to raise chicks. The outcome of this has been big population declines in some areas of the UK. But rather than climate change directly affecting the birds, it’s believed that it might actually be affecting their food supply.
In many areas, kittiwakes rely heavily on small fish called sandeels for food during the breeding season. Higher temperatures seem to cause sandeel numbers to fall, so as things get warmer, there is less food to feed chicks with. So, big population declines might ultimately be caused by rising temperatures. If this is the case, further climate change could be catastrophic for kittiwakes, and perhaps even for other seabirds and sea mammals.
Image copyright: Genevieve Leaper (rspb-images.com)
Although this seems like a clear-cut case of the damaging effects of climate change, some important questions still need to be answered. Is temperature the only driver of declines, or are other changes to the ocean environment also important? Are different colonies throughout the country affected in the same way? And previously, researchers haven’t known exactly where birds are going out at sea; if conditions around food supplies are important, we need to know where the birds have been foraging! My role at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science is to address some of these issues.
We’re very lucky to have access to data from the incredible FAME and STAR seabird tracking projects. Using these massive datasets, we can look at where kittiwakes have been foraging during the breeding season. Importantly, this means we can look at several colonies spread throughout the UK, and we know exactly which bits of sea to look at for each colony. The next step is to link changes in these foraging areas to population changes observed back at the colonies.
In doing this, I’ve been able to move on from just thinking about sea surface temperature, so that we can consider new aspects of the physical environment. To do this, I’ve had to dive into the world of 3-dimensional oceanography – as a climate change ecologist by training, this is not something I thought I’d ever have to do! But by considering this extra complexity, we hope to really get to the bottom of the mechanisms driving declines, and start to understand differences between different regions of the UK. After this, the next step is to use climate change projections to see what the future might hold for the UK’s kittiwakes.
The research is ongoing, so I can’t give any definitive answers yet, but early results are fairly exciting. When I can say more, I’ll be sure to report results here! When it comes to climate change impacts on wildlife, things can seem a bit bleak. But, if we can understand the mechanisms behind impacts, and where populations are most or least at risk, we may just be able to do something to ensure that our important wildlife populations are robust and resilient to the continuing effects of climate change.
Have you been lucky enough to see Kittiwakes? They'll shortly be arriving back at the colonies if they're not already so maybe a trip to add to your wishlist this year. Here are some RSPB reserves where you might chose to see them.