National borders threaten wildlife when the climate changes

As global temperature rises, species are driven across national boundaries to find suitable habitat. Physical barriers like the wall between the US and Mexico and fences between Russia and China aren’t the only complications. BirdLife’s chief scientist, Dr. Stuart Butchart, explains how countries with the greatest biodiversity may be worst able to protect nature.

What inspired this study?

We now know that sociopolitical factors such as corruption and governance are important in determining how effective safeguards can be. However, these were not generally taken into account in the context of climate change. We examined this by considering how climate change can cause species to shift their ranges across national borders and by examining the relationship between governance and wealth of countries and their projected species loss under climate change.

What did the research involve?

Working with Durham University, we modeled the climatic niches of more than 12,700 species of land birds and mammals, and projected how climate change would shift by 2070. Then we have the projected changes in biodiversity with factors such as prosperity, carbon emissions, corruption, government effectiveness and political stability.

Black Bear, Copyright Derek Moore, from the Surfbirds Galleries

Where will the biggest problems arise?

In a high emissions scenario, we found that 29% of birds and 35% of mammals would shift more than half of their range to countries where they are not currently found. Key regions include the western Amazon for birds and the US-Mexico border and the China-Russia border for mammals.

We also found that projected species loss under climate change is greatest in countries with weaker governance and lower prosperity. Therefore, the effects of climate change on species in countries with a lower capacity for effective conservation can be disproportionate. These countries also tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions, which raises important questions of international justice: should they deal with environmental problems that are largely caused by other countries?

What can we do to help?

This research strengthens the case for urgent and drastic action to curb climate change in order to minimize the inequalities it creates. We also need greater coordination of international conservation strategies for species whose ranges cross national borders. Cross-border conservation efforts will become increasingly important, for example improving cross-border connectivity of habitats, developing networks of important biodiversity areas, managing cross-border protected areas and coordinating appropriate legislation (e.g. hunting controls for target species). Most importantly, we need to build the conservation skills and resources of the countries that are likely to be hardest hit.

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