While much of the world plays political games and squabbles over economics, a much bigger threat is wrapping its hands around the neck of our species. Climate change. Yes, the Earth’s climate has “changed” before, but as a recently published study shows, it’s never happened like this. A special report by Stanford climate scientists finds that “the likely rate of change over the next century will be at least 10 times quicker than any climate shift in the past 65 million years.” If this trend continues (and the only way to slow it would be a drastic change in the way humans produce and consume energy) it will place significant stress on terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and many species, including us, will have to quickly adapt.
These troubling predictions, published in the current issue of Science, are the result of a review of climate research by Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Chris Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.
The duo were particularly focused on aspects of climate change with the potential to affect entire ecosystems, and investigated how recent observations and projections for the next century compare to past events in Earth’s history.
“We know from past changes that ecosystems have responded to a few degrees of global temperature change over thousands of years,” said Diffenbaugh in a press release. “But the unprecedented trajectory that we’re on now is forcing that change to occur over decades. That’s orders of magnitude faster, and we’re already seeing that some species are challenged by that rate of change.”
Climate change skeptics like to point to these past periods of warming and cooling as evidence that human pollution has nothing to do with the extreme heatwaves, drought, ocean acidification, and superstorms that have become commonplace over the past few years. But the researchers say the evidence supports just the opposite.
“There are two key differences for ecosystems in the coming decades compared with the geologic past,” Diffenbaugh said. “One is the rapid pace of modern climate change. The other is that today there are multiple human stressors that were not present 55 million years ago, such as urbanization and air and water pollution.”
Even when faced with this dire reality, the researchers still believe that a drastic shift in human behavior could help us avoid some of these predictions. “The more dramatic changes that could occur by the end of the century, however, are not written in stone. There are many human variables at play that could slow the pace and magnitude of change – or accelerate it.”
The choice, it appears, is ours alone. The question is, will we act in time?