We can do something about climate-caused extinctions. Our animal friends can’t.

by Jill Poskanzer

When my friend’s parents came to visit her in Los Angeles a few months ago, I was invited to tag along with them to the zoo, an opportunity I never turn down, no matter where I am in the world. “I told them you’re very good at spotting animals,” my friend told me, so I had a lot to live up to. It’s true though– park me outside any habitat long enough and if the animal is there to be found, I will find it. This applies to the real world as well as the zoo– I’m always casting my eyes about, looking for cats in windows, raptors on telephone poles, lizards on the ground. In California, where the weather is pretty much good all the time, there are always animals to see, appreciate, and learn about.

But the days are getting hotter. The weather is getting worse. Climate change, the effects of which worsen each passing year, makes our planet less and less habitable. Most of us know the basics of climate change– human reliance on fossil fuels is slowly making global temperatures hotter over time. The effects of climate change on the globe include but are not limited to extreme weather, dirty air, health risks, rising seas, warmer, more acidic oceans, and imperiled ecosystems. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes that as a result of climate change, “one-third of all animal and plant species could face extinction by 2070.”

This is a devastating statistic, one that would irrevocably transform the rich biodiversity of our planet. But how specifically does climate change affect wildlife? Defenders of Wildlife has a succinct explanation for the effects global warming are already having– and will continue to have– on wildlife:

“Habitats around the world are beginning to shift, shrink, melt and even disappear entirely from climate change. Intense storms can destroy nesting trees, drown animals, spread invasive species and damage aquatic ecosystems. Unusual heat and droughts stress plants and animals alike. And increasingly, animals’ life cycles are out of sync with plant growth and seasonal changes.”

And according to the National Parks Service (NPS), “Rising temperatures lower many species survival rates due to changes that lead to less food, less successful reproduction, and interfering with the environment for native wildlife.” The NPS also notes that some species may thrive in warmer temperatures, edging out existing species. In the worst cases, these species may even be invasive. And even if the world’s inhabitants suddenly band together to halt climate change as best we can in its tracks, there is already irreversible damage done to some species and habitats.

I’m a cat person, so my favorite animal to visit at the zoo is the tiger. Most zoos have at least one, as they’re a very popular attraction– tigers are powerful, distinctive, beautiful and terrifying, but also unmistakably very similar to a house cat. Typically the tiger is lounging around when one visits a zoo, but occasionally they will be up and pacing, or, as was the case last time I visited the Los Angeles Zoo, playing with a toy and roaring. In between breathless observation, I always love to read about the animals I’m looking at, which is how I know that while there used to be nine subspecies of tiger, three are already extinct, and one is considered functionally extinct in the wild.

The thought that there are already species of animals that will never be able to recover from the damage already done by climate change is horrific and deeply sad. In fact, one study found that local extinctions caused by climate change are already widespread.

How are wildlife responding to the increasing threats to their lives caused by climate change? In a variety of ways. Columbia Climate School notes that in response to climate change, many animals are already “shifting their range and altering the timing of key life stages.” The same article asks what wildlife can do in response to such threats to their very existence, and the author posits that they can “move, adapt, or die.”

There are obvious pitfalls to moving and adapting – geography may make the former impossible or the speed of change may outpace the latter, leaving death and extinction as the only possible outcomes. However, some species are successfully adapting to the rapid changes. For example, birds are laying their eggs earlier to sync up with when insects are around to feed on. This is an example of phenotypic plasticity, which is “the ability of an organism to change in response to stimuli or inputs from the environment.” The article from Columbia neatly details the pros and cons of phenotypic plasticity in response to climate change. In other words, adaptation is a form of preservation, but it’s not a solution in and of itself. The solution is to immediately begin reversing the effects of climate change.

In 2021 a report was published that detailed the effects of climate change on biodiversity. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the report “makes clear that our best bet of passing on a maximally livable planet to future generations requires a profound shift in how we look at nature and breaking with destructive ideas around economic progress.” In other words, changes need to happen now, immediately, in order to save what remains of our planet and the species that occupy it. The conclusion of the report was that “a stable climate needs and supports thriving ecosystems and thriving ecosystems need and support a stable climate.” In other words, to mitigate the effects of climate change is to support ecosystems and wildlife around the world.

Earlier this year, the UN published a new climate report, the findings of which were chilling. “It’s too late for some plants and animals,” declared the World Wildlife Fund in their article on the findings. But there are steps we can take. One that the WWF posits is that “nature can help us”– “Nature-based solutions—natural systems or processes used to help achieve societal goals—can help protect infrastructure, health, and more.” Looking around at what humans have done to the world, it’s easy to feel hopeless. But there is comfort in thinking that if we look more closely at nature itself– and at the vast and wondrous array of species with which we share this planet – we can find solutions.

We hear a lot about how the polar bears are in danger as our ice caps melt– that’s real, and harrowing. But think also of your favorite animal to visit at the zoo. If we don’t act on climate change now, quickly and decisively, its lifespan could be cut short, too.

Jill Poskanzer is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


Scroll to Top