Many people harbor the misconception that global warming means that our atmosphere is getting hotter. This is not entirely true. The effect that global warming has on the climate is that it creates more extreme weather. So areas that generally enjoy a moderately warm summer may start to see rising temperatures or even a longer summer season. And those that generally have mild winters will notice that the thermometer seems to be dipping lower than usual and that the spring is a little bit late in arriving. In addition, stormy seasons may last longer and produce more severe weather. Rains could be torrential and hurricanes or tornadoes may begin to cover a greater distance. When people talk about global warming and climate change, this is what they mean. And the effect of these extreme weather patterns on wildlife is alarming, to say the least.
There are a couple of things that happen to affect animal habitats during a climate shift. One is that there are extended periods of drought. Another is that water levels (of the oceans, at least) rise. These two major changes in habitat can have an extremely detrimental effect on wildlife populations in a number of ways. The first is that the environment that animals are used to living in may no longer support them, so that they have to migrate to other areas in search of food, water, and a place to raise their young. Many species that have been in a particular locale for centuries could find themselves virtually homeless.
But where will they go? On a planet teeming with human habitation (and lands devoted to wildlife already shrinking) they may find themselves forced to move into populated areas in search of the necessary elements of survival. And humans are not likely to suffer wild animals rooting through their trash, eating their vegetable gardens, or using their domesticated animals as an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The other option is that they continue trying to live in their original habitat, which often results in disaster. Just look at the polar bears. With their hunting and breeding grounds shrinking thanks to melting polar ice caps and salmon populations dwindling due to a lack of cold water needed for reproduction, polar bears are having to travel farther and farther in search of food, many aren’t breeding (how can they support offspring when they can’t even feed themselves?), and in some cases, they are simply dying off.
And they’re not alone. Instances like this are being seen all over the globe with wildlife leaving natural habitats in search of food, water, shelter, and breeding grounds. And yet, humans just keep on spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and adding to the problem. If there was any kind of environmental justice, we’d poison ourselves first and give the rest of the planet a fighting chance. But at the moment it seems like wild animal populations are suffering the most. However, humans are still part of the food chain. And if we don’t start making changes soon, it won’t be long before the plants and animals are gone and we’re left with the ill-effects of our poor decisions.
Evan Fischer is a conservation writer who works with NRDC and other environmental justice organizations to protect our health and environment.