Future of climate

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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I’m afraid I find it hard to have a positive outlook for the biosphere in the next 40 years.

A lack of political leadership and will means we have almost certainly missed the boat for preventing significant climate change. In 40 years time, the biological impacts of our accelerating greenhouse gas emission will have moved from the subtle signals ecologists currently report to the blindingly obvious.

Unfortunately, climate change is only one of the drivers of global (and local) biodiversity change.

An expanding human population will continue to lead to wholesale habitat destruction and fragmentation as we seek new land to feed two billion more mouths. The expanded scope of international trade will have led to ever more invasive species with implications for disease, agriculture and biodiversity. Continued overfishing will likely have left us with empty oceans, having fished our way down the food chain so that only inedible species, like jellyfish, remain.

The impact of all of these changes on global biodiversity will be visible forever in the fossil record as a mass extinction event. For example, it is widely accepted that 30-50 per cent of frog species will be extinct by 2052. Invasive insects like the emerald ash borer will have decimated our forest diversity and many birds that require unfragmented landscapes for breeding will also be gone.

This loss of biodiversity will not mean a desolate wasteland. As species diversity declines, weedy species, like European starlings or the garlic mustard that already dominates the understory of campus forests, will thrive.

We will have lost much of our biological richness, and exchanged it for a drab sameness the world over.

Sometimes I find grim solace in humanity’s inability to control its resource use – the world’s oceans may be saved by rising fuel prices which make fishing less and less economically viable. Increasingly, however, I do not see hope, unless there is a very big change in the way we collectively prioritize our energy and money.

Much biodiversity loss, in Canada and elsewhere, could still be arrested for a fraction of the cost of bailing out a medium-sized bank, but the political zeitgeist toward short-term economic gain means, at the current rate, by the time we get around to investing in nature, it will be too hard and too expensive.

It is still possible to change that, but I fear in 2052 we will be looking out on a warm, weedy, worse world, spending huge amounts of money conserving species we currently think of as common and trying to pinpoint where it all went wrong.

Brent Sinclair is professor of Biology in the Faculty of Science.