Featured News Human societies to change as species begin to shift

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Fri, 31 Mar 2017

Human societies to change as species begin to shift

New research has revealed the unprecedented impact that climate change is having on where the world’s species live – and researchers say people don’t yet realise the huge impact it will have on their lives.

James Cook University’s Professor Stephen Williams was part of a team from 44 institutions whose research has been published in the prestigious journal Science today.

It’s found that that around the world, in every ecosystem, species are changing their distributions because of human-induced climate change.

Professor Williams said land animals are moving towards the poles by an average 17 km per decade, and marine animals by 72 km per decade. Others are moving upslope to escape warming lowlands while some fish species are seeking deeper water as the sea surface warms.

“The species movement will further affect the availability and distribution of goods and services for humans at a time in history when they are already severely limited by human population growth,” he said.

Professor Williams said the costs and benefits would not be shared equally.

“For instance, there will be more skipjack tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, but in Europe about a third of high-quality forest plantations will give way to lower value Mediterranean Oak.”

He said diseases will spread to new areas, with malaria expected to move poleward and to higher regions as new, warmer habitats open up to malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

“In southeast Australia a sea urchin that has spread as a result of climate change has wiped out around 150 species locally, but prize game fish can now be caught in areas where they were rare.”

Professor Williams said regions with the strongest climate drivers and most sensitive species, and where humans have least capacity to respond, will be among the most impacted.

“Developing nations, especially if they are near the equator, will likely experience greater climate-related local extinctions and greater economic constraints.”

“Our ability to feed the 9 billion people we will have by 2050 is doubtful as agriculture will be altered through the direct effects of climate change and the changing distributions and abundances of pollinators, and as pests and plant pathogens become more prevalent or emerge in new places.”

He said human society has yet to appreciate the implications of unprecedented species redistribution for life on earth.

“Even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, the responses required in human systems to adapt to the most serious of impacts of climate-driven species redistribution would be massive.”

Professor Williams said despite mounting evidence of a crisis, the international response to the challenges was sluggish.

“Current agreements do not sufficiently consider species range-shifts. Enhanced awareness, supported by appropriate governance, will provide the best chance of minimising negative consequences while maximising opportunities,” he said.

Professor Williams is the Convenor of the Natural Ecosystems research network within the National Climate Change Research Facility (NCCARF). He is the lead author on Australia’s terrestrial National Adaptation Research Plan (NARP).

He will be in Canberra 3-7th April leading a workshop aiming to identify the knowledge required for Australia to adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change, including species redistribution.

The workshop will identify future priorities for research that will help Australia adapt to climate change.

The paper is available from Professor Williams.