The 101 on climate change - and how protected areas can help address it

During a speech in 2007, Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: “The science is clear, climate change is happening, the impact is real, the time to act is now.” We have all heard about it – perhaps concerning the fuel economy of our cars, or the effect on polar bears in the Arctic – but what is the real impact of climate change on our planet’s most vulnerable areas? What causes it? And, most importantly, what can we do about it?


Hoper Glacier, Central Karakoram National Park , Pakistan

Is it already happening?

There is now overwhelming evidence that the alteration to the Earth’s climate system is the result of human activity, particularly the production of greenhouses gases from burning fossil fuels. From rising sea levels to extensive drought, climate change is a global problem, and one which threatens to affect every ecosystem from the Amazon to the Antarctic. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that “changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans” (IPPC 2014), yet there is little sign that its effects are slowing or reversing. From 1951 to 2012, the mean surface temperature of the earth increased by 0.12ºC per decade (IPPC 2013), and experts predict that with no global intervention this temperature could increase by over 4 ºC in less than a century.

Ecosystems and Habitats

A rise in temperature of this magnitude would result in extensive modifications to the planet’s surface, but some detrimental changes are already apparent. Thawing glaciers and decreased snow cover in Greenland and the Antarctic undoubtedly contributes to rising sea levels. Oceans are becoming warmer – this aspect accounts for more than 90% of the increased energy in the climate system accumulated between 1971 and 2010, which will have an impact on ocean circulation and species migration. Flowers are blooming earlier, birds are not migrating as far south for winter and many species could become extinct due to a dramatic reduction in habitat.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5°C average rise may put 20–30% of species at risk, and if the earth warms by more than 3°C then most ecosystems will struggle. The wider consequences of climate change are grave, but it is the impact that these changes will have on already specified ‘protected areas’ which may be the most severe.

Protected Areas

The negative effects of climate change on protected areas are already apparent, but these sites may also contribute to the protection of other areas, as Lord Nicholas Stern notes that “many natural and managed ecosystems can help reduce climate change impacts” (2012, 1). Indeed, protected areas “store 15 per cent of terrestrial carbon and supply ecosystem services for disaster risk reduction, water supply, food and public health” and that due to their legal status, can contribute to the effective managing of wider geographical areas (Stern 2012, 1).

For example, in Trinidad and Tobago the importance of protected areas utilised in the fight against climate change is evidenced through the conservation of the Navari wetlands, which are considered a natural buffering system against coastal storms. Similarly, in Switzerland 17 per cent of forests are consciously managed to stop avalanches, and the protection and restoration of the Saloum Delta Biosphere Reserve in Senegal has resulted in the area acting as a barrier against costal erosion and flood risks, contributing to the existence of a favourable microclimate, which in turn helps to protect against temperature fluctuations.

Is it too late to do anything about it?

While some effects of climate change are already manifest, there are still steps which can be taken to lessen the damage of a rapidly changing climate. On a global scale, we can cut the amount of carbon dioxide ploughed into the atmosphere by finding clean alternatives to fossil fuels – such as solar or wind power. On a more personal scale, even small changes to everyday habits can make a difference. Organisations like IUCN are working with communities and authorities to put initiatives in place to help protect environments against the adverse effects of climate change, and the recent IUCN World Parks Congress (2014) had a specific stream dedicated to ‘Responding to Climate Change’.

However, despite government policies and initiatives across the globe, greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise in 2014, which demonstrates the severity of the situation and the need for a stronger enforcement of global political action.

The lasting impact

Fast-forward to 2014 and Ban Ki Moon states that although climate change is generally moving up the political agenda, he is alarmed how “governments and businesses have still failed to act at the pace and scale needed”. He directed attention to the United Nations Climate Change Conference which will be held in Paris later in 2015. Responses from this conference will hopefully initiate a universal treaty on the world’s climate, a necessity given that climate change is a global problem extending beyond artificial borders, races or religions – it is a crisis which the world faces as a whole.

Work area: 
Climate Change
Disaster Risk Reduction
Protected Areas
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