What is Biodiversity and How Does Climate Change Affect It?
By Lauren Harper
Every autumn, as winter winds begin to blow and rain colorful leaves from the trees, you may notice the differences in each leaf’s color and shape. This is a form of biodiversity, or the variety of living organisms on earth.
Biodiversity can be seen within species, between species, and within and between ecosystems. Although biodiversity is hard to measure on a global scale, in recent years there has been scientific consensus that the planet’s biodiversity is in decline. That’s not great news, because in general, the more species that live in an area, the healthier that ecosystem is—and the better off we humans are.
Why Biodiversity Matters
Healthy ecosystems require a vast assortment of plant and animal life, from soil microbes to top level predators like bears and wolves. If one or more species is removed from this environment, no longer serving its niche, it can harm the ecosystem. Introducing foreign or invasive species into a habitat can have similar results, as the invasive species can out-compete the native species for food or territory.
Biodiversity affects our food, medicine, and environmental well-being.
Dragonflies, ladybugs and beetles pollinate many of the crops we rely on for food, as well as plants in natural ecosystems. One type of pollinator cannot do it all, hence the importance of biodiversity. Loss of habitat—for example, when humans convert meadows into parking lots or backyards—is reducing pollinator populations. If pollinators were to disappear entirely, we would lose over one-third of all crop production. This would reduce or eliminate the availability of foods like honey, chocolate, berries, nuts and coffee.
Many modern medicines, like aspirin, caffeine and morphine, are modeled after chemical compositions found in plants. If undiscovered or uninvestigated wildlife species disappear, it would disadvantage scientists trying to uncover new sources of inspiration for future vaccines and medications.
Biodiversity also provides ecosystem services or benefits to people. These benefits include: hurricane storm surge protection, carbon sequestration, water filtration, fossil fuel generation, oxygen production and recreational opportunities. Without a myriad of unique ecosystems and their respective diverse plant and animal life, our quality of life may become threatened.
To many, the term “climate change” feels like a buzzword that encompasses a large amount of negative impacts. Climate means the average weather conditions in an area over a long period of time—usually 30 years or longer. A region’s climate includes systems in the air, water, land and living organisms. Climate change is the shift or abnormal change in climate patterns. As the planet warms quickly, mostly due to human activity, climate patterns in regions around the world will fluctuate. Ecosystems and biodiversity will be forced to fluctuate along with the regional climate, and that could harm many species.
These climate change impacts are in part due to how we have altered land use. Turning natural areas into cities or agricultural fields not only diminishes biodiversity, but can make warming worse by chopping down trees and plants that help cool the planet. Changes in climate can also intensify droughts, decrease water supply, threaten food security, erode and inundate coastlines, and weaken natural resilience infrastructure that humans depend on.
Politicians have proposed several solutions, plans and international agreements to tackle the long-standing issues that biodiversity loss and climate change present. In the meantime, we as individuals can take small actions in our daily lives to reduce our environmental impacts on the planet. Unplugging your unused appliances, changing to LED lightbulbs, carpooling, and participating in meatless Monday are all ways we can help to slow climate change. Growing native plants and staying informed about the origins and the ethics behind the products you purchase is another way you can help. These types of behavioral shifts can steer businesses and policy makers toward incorporating sustainable practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt biodiversity loss.
Lauren Harper is an intern in the Earth Institute communications department. She is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.