How does climate change play into biodiversity decline?

“Climate and biodiversity are essentially two sides of the same coin,” said Pamela McElwee, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University. 

Climate change directly and indirectly leads to declines in biodiversity, she said. Increased heat waves, extreme weather or wildfires can alter ecosystems, and can amplify other threats to biodiversity, like habitat loss. Biodiversity, meanwhile, helps moderate climate change. Oceans, forests, grasslands, wetlands and other ecosystems rich with life act like greenhouse gas sponges, absorbing about half of the carbon dioxide we emit, McElwee said. 

Because climate change and biodiversity are so intertwined, McElwee said, policies to address the two global issues must go hand-in-hand and cannot be treated separately.

McElwee recommends four big solutions to the climate and biodiversity problem, beginning with proper management of existing natural ecosystems, ensuring that those greenhouse gas sponges are thriving and absorbing carbon. Second, we should restore ecosystems that have been degraded from deforestation, agriculture, extraction and other human activities. Third, we should invest in nature-based solutions to climate change, like restoring wetlands and mangrove forests along coastlines instead of concrete seawalls and barriers to defend against sea level rise. Finally, McElwee said, we need to stop burning fossil fuels, which are driving climate change. 

“No matter what we do with ecosystems, it’s not going to make for all that excess in terms of greenhouse gases,” McElwee said. 

—Katelyn Weisbrod

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