Man is not the only endangered species at COP 28

December 28 2023 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s signing of the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA).

December 28 2023 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s signing of the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA). In these contentious times, it is important to remember that legislative action on the ESA was truly bipartisan; it passed the Senate by a 92-0 vote and the House of Representatives by 390-12. However, climate change can still eradicate large portions of the world’s endangered species and quicker on-the-ground initiatives are needed to avoid such cataclysmic results that would also pose a risk to human welfare.

Earlier this coming December, the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will have gathered in Abu Dhabi – notably for the first climate summit since 169 nations adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). The GBF includes several goals that coincide exactly with longstanding concerns about nature in general and its endangered species: maintaining, enhancing, and restoring “the integrity, resilience, and connectivity of ecosystems” and sustainably using and managing “nature’s contributions to people including ecosystem functions”.

The signatories of the GBF are the very same 169 nations that will be represented at COP28. They are also all signatories of the UNFCCC. This confluence of national action and collective international negotiations–that are all designed to protect the planet –is a perfect time to take stock of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done – a much longer “to-do-list” to be sure.

The ESA protects listed species and their habitats from potentially damaging actions by American government agencies, citizens, and industry “at home and abroad”. Bison, passenger pigeons, and whooping cranes were the “poster children” for action in the 1970s. Polar bears followed later when the Arctic ice sheets started to disappear – the first recognition of the link to the manifestations of human-induced climate change. In 2022, the much-loved monarch butterfly was added to the list.

The 2023 ESA List numbered 1497 records when it was reported during the annual May celebration of Endangered Species Day. Of those species listed, 99% had been seen somewhere on the planet over the previous twelve months with only a small fraction of that number found only in protective captivity. Species on the List that were not detected are not necessarily extinct, but they are certainly extremely rare.

It is important to note that while not all species can adapt their way out of potential extinction, some can. Species are, within limits, frequently more adept at adapting to changing conditions from human activity (development, pollution, warming, and other climate effects) than humans. However, the lasting effects of climate change can ultimately end their existence, and human activity will be responsible.

I’ll include a few examples to illustrate this point. Much to the chagrin of local lobster fishermen in Connecticut, east coast lobster beds have collapsed in the warming waters of Long Island Sound, but they have expanded into the now more hospitable higher latitude waters off of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Mountain squirrels who live across western mountain ranges have been moving up to higher altitudes, but this adaptation is not necessarily sustainable as the planet continues to warm because they are moving up and not north; they may someday run out of mountains. Populations of pine bark beetles are now more effectively overwintering across much of the western forests of the US and Canada. This is good for the beetles, but bad for humans who now face increasing threats from the catastrophic amplification in the frequency, distribution, and intensity of wildfires.

The most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change upon which international negotiations under both Frameworks rely for scientific grounding has reported that “Current projections imply that at a global warming level of 2°C by 2100, up to 18% of all species on land will be at high risk of going extinct. If the world warms up to 4°C, every second plant or animal species that we know of will be threatened.”

Putting this finding into numbers, IPCC authors have found that “climate change is projected to commit about one-third of the planet’s species by 2050 absent action on mitigation and protection (about 1 million species)”. It may be difficult to believe that that number is very precise, but there is very high confidence that its order of magnitude is frighteningly accurate.

Species across the globe are adapting to human-induced climate change, but we must stop the damage of our activity before their adjustments are overwhelmed. 

Take the example of an elephant herd’s 17-month trek of 500 kilometers that ended back where it started. Due to drought in their reserve and other possible factors, the herd traveled throughout China looking for suitable habitat and resources. They were looking to adapt to changing conditions, but they ended up back at square one. While some thought that this behavior was cute, especially because two babies were birthed along the way, the elephants caused $1M in damage and underlined concerns about shrinking habitats and inadequate conservation strategies.

If society wants to keep itself safe from wandering species and ensure humanity continues to live a tolerable life, we must take action immediately. Planners for COP-28 seem to know this.  They have placed “Action on Nature” high on their agenda. Their goal is to guide action in global efforts to “halt a continued damaging of nature” for at least two reasons.

The first is a carry-over from earlier COPs – reduce emissions and promote investments in adaptation to ameliorate risk to human life and treasure and to avoid, as stated succinctly in the UNFCCC, “dangerous interference with the climate system.”

The second seems to be new – protect nature because doing so can support and even expand the efficacy of human mitigation efforts. IPCC estimates that only about 33% of emission reductions that could be realized by protecting and restoring nature have been achieved, and less than 10% of the funding required to take full advantage of the opportunity to exploit nature-based solutions is currently available.

It is only natural for these initiatives to be pushed into overdrive because the need to save animals and improve our mitigation efforts is vital. This is why I urge participants at COP28 in Abu Dhabi to implement funding actions that lie on the cusp of preserving nature and simultaneously reducing climate risks to humanity.

Prof. Gary Yohe
Prof. Gary Yohe
Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was vice-chair of the Third US National Climate Assessment.