Could there be a greater risk to wildlife than climate change? For the past few weeks, I’ve been jogging around my hometown. With less people commuting to work, the streets are generally quieter in my beloved buzzing NYC-NJ suburb. Still, never in my life have I noticed more roadkill. I see mostly squirrels and deer.
Here’s my non-scientific theory based on the oh-so-unreliable anecdotal evidence:
These cute deciduous creatures are preparing for the Winter. They stock up on food, and in the process of gathering, they cross more roads than usual to conduct their instinctual leaf-falling business.
With concrete yellow lines standing where trees stood just a geological millisecond ago, animals willingly put themselves in regular danger.
The result? Me wincing on my run once a day with a renewed frustration for the human race. We need to build higher fences around forests that intersect major highways or SOMETHING.
Busy? Try the speed read.
Big picture: A 2016 study of over 8,000 threatened or near-threatened species found that over-exploitation and agricultural activity posed a much greater threat to biodiversity than climate change.
Why it matters: Climate change is abstract. It also gets all of the news coverage. In reality, ecological issues like deforestation and hunting play a significant role in the environment. These are tangible issues that we can fix before investing billions into an more abstract threat like climate change. Most of that money pours into clean energy while critical wildlife face extinction from other causes.
Sustainable suggestion: We need to approach the climate conversation in a way that works cooperatively with intersecting threats like wildfire risk mitigation or ecological restoration, not against them.
A forestry organization may want to clean-up deadwood to prevent harsher wildfires, but a conservation group will sue them for cutting down a sacred forest. A conservation group may want to support hunting an invasive species , but an animal rights group will publicly condemn them. Let’s stop doing that.
Bottom line: Climate change is important, and intersects with basically every ecological issue. But that behemoth threat will be much easier to manage if we can start knocking off the little guys that we can see, touch and feel. That would call for better farming, less hunting/finishing, more land protection in sensitive areas, and less logging.
Dig deeper → 3 min
Going beyond climate change
So, why am I talking about about my two-mile trying-to-stay-sane exercise? Climate change didn’t kill those squirrels and deer, the cause is something simpler and more tangible. And the solution is right in our face.
According to this 2016 study of over 8,000 threatened or near-threatened species, I was surprised to find out what monster-in-the-closet posed the greatest risk to Earth’s biodiversity. The first thing that came to mind, like it always does, was the Big Bertha. The world’s Goliath. Climate Change.
Climate change didn’t kill those squirrels and deer, the cause is something simpler and more tangible. And the solution is right in our face.
Based on an analysis of IUCN Red List data by Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland, the impact of climate change on the world’s biodiversity doesn’t even come close to the impact of over-exploitation and agricultural activity.
The researchers noted that “the basic message emerging from these data is that whatever the threat category or species group, over-exploitation and agriculture have the greatest current impact on biodiversity (see ‘Big killers’). Of the species listed as threatened or near-threatened, 72% (6,241) are being over-exploited for commerce, recreation or subsistence.”
Placing immediate priorities first
This finding does not suddenly nullify global efforts aimed at mitigating anthropogenic climate change, nor does it deny the real impact of rising temperatures and frequent droughts on wildlife.
Rather, the research suggests there are more immediate threats testing the survival of the world’s flora and fauna.
To be clear, anthropogenic climate change is impacting 19% of the species used in this study.
However, we need to address tangible issues first when we talk about cutting carbon emissions at round tables in fancy suits.
Fixing fishing and farming
Which activities hurt biodiversity most?
Over-exploitation and agriculture accounts for hunting and fishing, logging, pesticide-use, livestock farming and aquaculture.
It is important to note that many activities pertaining to over-exploitation and agriculture also increase carbon emissions, ultimately contributing to the overarching impact of climate change. So like most subjects of study, it’s complicated to point to one cause or factor.
Regardless, this study sheds light on the required immediacy of action for attainable goals like more sustainable agricultural standards, or more robust environmental protection laws for forestry services.
Combining climate change with conservation
Too often, I see contradictory efforts in the environmental space.
A forestry organization may want to clean-up deadwood to prevent harsher wildfires, but a conservation group will sue them for cutting down a sacred forest. A conservation group may want to support hunting an invasive species , but an animal rights group will publicly condemn them.
We need to approach the climate conversation in a way that works cooperatively with intersecting threats like wildfire risk mitigation or ecological restoration, not against them.
There is a lot of work to be done, we all know that. But if we can start tackling things that we can see, touch and feel, it will make a fickle future a lot easier to manage. There is a greater risk to wildlife than climate change.