With the United Nations Climate Change Conference going on in Bali, it's about time I wrote something about the subject. Until recently, global warming and climate change were abstract enough issues for me that I never felt compelled to change the way I live. Two things happened last year that changed my mind. Two documentaries, Planet Earth, and An Inconvenient Truth, showed beyond any doubt how much we have done to destroy our planet.
In the case of An Inconvenient Truth, it takes a former Vice President with a mission to get the message across. Al Gore makes it very clear that Greenland is showing the same signs that parts of Antarctica showed before it's big glaciers disappeared. Those signs were large holes in the glacier that water flows inwards into. They look like black spots on an aerial map. The point can't be made clearer. But the heroes here are not people like Al Gore though articulate the problem well enough that deserves a lot of merit. The real heroes are the biologist, ecologist in the field gathering data and showing us the method by which climate change affects the world. Once such biologist is Cagan Sekercioglu, who coined the term "the escalator to extinction".
In his soon to be released paper, (see the press release links from Stanford and Bloomberg as well as an article from Nature) Cagan makes the case that a 6.4 degrees Celsius increase in world temperature could wipe out 30% of all bird species by 2100. Every 1% increase causes 100-500 extinctions growing non-linearly. What's worse is that only 21% of these species are threatened today. So we are losing birds we didn't think were in trouble.
So how does this work? Here is the method. Birds (and vegetation) can't adapt to the climate change at its current rate. So the warmer the planet gets, the higher the birds go up a mountain to find the same temperature they need to breed. It's colder up the mountain. Vegetation follows the same trend, as heat goes up entire ecosystems move up the mountain. One of the links above talks about a hobbyist needing to climb 200 meters up a mountain to find the butterflies he used to see 35 years ago. So as the planet warms bird species migrate up the mountain to maintain their same habitat.
There is one obvious problem with that. After a while, you run out of mountains. Unprecedented combinations of species have to live jammed up with each other, competing, hunting, suffering from new disease carriers that are also moving up, finding less and less food, and going slowly but surely up the escalator to extinction. This is of course a much simplified version of a much more rigorous paper. But it explains the method by which climate change affects us all.
If the world is to get educated (and fast) on how climate change is killing the planet, we need more examples like this, plain and clear to see as to how the planet is affected. In general people talk about some abstract effect and a far out vision of how bad things will be if we go on. But if we really need to change people's minds we need to show examples of how the beginning gets to the end, examples such as Cagan's escalator and Al Gore's black spots.
Here is a link to Cagan's photography as well.