If we don't work quickly to curb the effects of climate change we may lose the bird-eating fanged frog. Most of us may not miss that one, but there is an enormous list of species and places we may never see again unless we reverse this crazy climate change ride we've put the earth on. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported that, "The first comprehensive assessment of the extinction risk from global warming found that more than 1 million species could be obliterated by 2050 if the current trajectory continues."
The numbers are virtually impossible to comprehend, especially when you consider that not just individual species, but entire habitats, cities, and cultures may be lost. How to put it all in perspective? Below are eight major features of our planet and our lives whose potential disappearance may inspire action.
1. World's Best Wines
So far the polar bear has become the poster child for climate change, but we may have more luck galvanizing people into action if they know the future of some of world's best wine is at stake. A report from Greenpeace showed that the climatically sensitive process of wine production in France is being disrupted by changing temperatures. "The average annual temperature has significantly increased, leading to major shifts in the wine production calendar," the group reports. "The harvesting season is occurring much earlier than normal and higher temperatures are proving detrimental to the vines. Wines end up having higher sugar levels and alcohol content while retaining less acids -- which means they are unbalanced with an overripe flavor and heavier texture."
Great wines are the result of a combination of climate and terroir, and both are at risk. Apparently this news is spurring food and wine groups in France to demand action in Copenhagen. Greenpeace reported that a coalition of renowned chefs and sommeliers have said that if French wines are to survive, they need "an ambitious deal by developed nations to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020."
And it's not just French wine. The National Academy of Sciences predicted that climate change could mean the end for California's tasty vinos, too. Hey, if the threat of millions of climate refugees and mass extinction doesn't get people going, maybe alcohol will.
2. 50,000 Rainforest Species a Year
Scientists estimate that we lose 50,000 species a year to deforestation in the world's rainforests. And to make matters worse, the already horrendous environmental effects of deforestation are being amplified by climate change. This is playing out most notably in the Amazon.
"The fear is that there will be a kind of a feedback where trees are cut down, and it gets warmer and drier" in the forest and harder for the trees and other vegetation to grow back, Bob Henson, author of The Rough Guide to Climate Change, told CNN.
Without the Amazon, we lose what scientists call the "lungs" of our planet -- the area where 20 percent of the world's oxygen is produced. Not to mention the thousands of fruits, plants, herbs, medicines and other edibles that come from the region.
Now scientists are saying that one third of the Amazon's trees could be wiped out by modest temperatures rises. "The research, by some of Britain's leading experts on climate change, shows that even severe cuts in deforestation and carbon emissions will fail to save the emblematic South American jungle, the destruction of which has become a powerful symbol of human impact on the planet," the Guardian reported. "Up to 85% of the forest could be lost if spiraling greenhouse gas emissions are not brought under control, the experts said. But even under the most optimistic climate change scenarios, the destruction of large parts of the forest is 'irreversible.'"
3. New Orleans
There's a long list of cities in danger of being swamped by rising sea levels, including major population centers like London, New York, Calcutta and Shanghai. But New Orleans, which already sits below sea level, is especially vulnerable. And we all know how good our nation's record is of helping New Orleans deal with catastrophe and its aftermath.
"Scientists say New Orleans and the barrier islands to the south will be severely affected by climate change by the end of this century, with sea level rise and growing intensity of hurricanes. Much of the land mass of the barrier island chain sheltering New Orleans was lost in the 2005 storm," the Guardian reported. "But the extent of the land that will be lost is far greater than earlier forecasts suggest," said Dr. Michael Blum and Professor Harry Roberts.
The two performed a study which found that huge amounts of soil need to be dumped into the Mississippi River Delta, otherwise 5,212 square miles of land in the area could be lost to the ocean and tidal marsh by 2100. "All that remains of New Orleans would probably be the French Quarter and the airport," the Christian Science Monitor reported about the study. "Lake Pontchartrain would lie beneath a vast bay. Along its southernmost reaches, the Mississippi River would remain a river only by virtue of the levees raised to contain it."
4. Pacific Salmon
Salmon on the Pacific coast have had a rough time, thanks to dams, pollution, introduction of nonnative species and other bad decisions by us humans. Now, climate change is causing rising temperatures, which are affecting this cold-water loving species, and decreased precipitation is causing reduced river flows, further threatening salmon. Throw in some ocean acidification and it's a recipe for disaster for salmon populations and those who depend on them. And there are lots who do.
Salmon are a crucial part of the food chain for 150 species, including humans. The fish is a staple in many Native American communities and an economic mainstay for tens of thousand of fishermen in coastal towns.
"Global warming is expected to hit the already warm and dry western U.S. very hard," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, most of whose members depend on salmon harvests for a large part of their livelihoods. "The science shows that these changes have already begun, and are already affecting our region's valuable salmon runs. Averting this looming disaster should be one of our nation's highest priorities."
5. The Maldives and Tuvalu
While rising seas may threaten one of the United States' most beautiful and culturally rich cities, it's also getting dangerously close to wiping out entire countries, including the island nations of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu in the Pacific. The Maldives are composed of over 1,000 coral islands and support a huge diversity of marine life, including commercial tuna fisheries. The gorgeous Polynesian country of Tuvalu is one of the smallest in the world and is already looking for other nations to take in its citizens as climate refugees.
The Maldives' first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, spoke at COP15 earlier this week, calling for immediate action to restrain CO2 levels and return them to 350 parts per million, as scientists have recommended:
We are here to save our planet from the silent, patient and invisible enemy that is climate change ... There are those who tell us that solving climate change is impossible. There are those who tell us taking radical action is too difficult. There are those who tell us to give up hope.
Well, I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope. We refuse to be quiet. We refuse to believe that a better world isn't possible.
I have three words to say to the doubters and deniers. Three words with which to win this battle. Just three words are all I need. You may already have heard them. Three - Five - Oh. Three - Five - Oh.
Glacier National Park is going to have the same draw without the glaciers. When the park was created in 1910 it had 150 glaciers. Today it has only 30, and they're getting smaller.
And it's not the only iconic spot on the verge of losing its icy coat -- both Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro are threatened, too. "It is clear that global warming is emerging as one, if not the, biggest threat to mountain areas," says Roger Payne of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation.
As for Kilimanjaro, National Geographic reports, "The ice fields Ernest Hemingway once described as 'wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun' have lost 82 percent of their ice since 1912--the year their full extent was first measured. If current climatic conditions persist, the legendary glaciers, icing the peaks of Africa's highest summit for nearly 12,000 years, could be gone entirely by 2020."
This is bad news for animals that have adapted to live in these ecosystems and for the businesses that are supported by tourism and climbers. But melting glaciers also mean immediate flooding, following by drought. This is bad news for billions.
Agence France Presse reported this week that melting glaciers in the Himalayas will affect 1.3 billion Asians living downstream in Pakistan, India, China, Nepal and Bhutan. "Temperatures in the region have increased by between 0.15 and 0.6 degrees Celsius (0.27 and 1.08 degrees Fahrenheit) each decade for the last 30 years, dramatically accelerating the rate at which glaciers are shrinking," the news outlet reported. "'Scientists predict that most glaciers will be gone in 40 years as a result of climate change,' said Prashant Singh, leader of environmental group WWF's Climate for Life campaign."
7. Coral Reefs
Carbon dioxide emissions are causing the world's oceans to become more acidic, which is a threat to creatures that have "chalky" skeletons (including corals). In order to form their skeletons, they need the water to be saturated with calcium carbonate, but as acidification goes up, saturation goes down. According to Science Daily this poses a risk to one-third of ocean life and the basis of the ocean food chain.
If temperatures rise by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, we are likely to lose 97 percent of our coral reefs. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) recently filed a petition to have 83 species of coral listed under the Endangered Species Act.
SolveClimate reports that, "Since acidification happens at a rate parallel to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide -- oceans absorb about one-third of CO2 -- it's picking up pace. According to CBD oceans director Miyoko Sakashita, coral reefs are likely to be the first major ecosystems widely damaged by the effects of more acidic oceans."
Some of the world's most famous coral reefs include Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which is the world's largest; the Belize Barrier Reef; the New Caledonia Barrier Reef in the South Pacific; the Red Sea Coral Reef; and the Andros, Bahamas Barrier Reef. The reefs are home to an incredible array of biological diversity, next only to rainforests, and also provide vast economic boosts. "Globally, the welfare of 500 million people is closely linked to the goods and services provided by coral reef biodiversity," Science Daily reports.
They are also home to some of the most beautiful sights on Earth.
8. Really Big Bears
Most environmentalists know that "charismatic megafauna" are the ones that capture the hearts of the public and the media. This has catapulted the polar bear to the forefront of our attention, making it the first mammal to be listed as threatened because of climate change. The loss of summer ice in the Arctic has meant shrinking hunting grounds for the bear. They've had to travel farther to find food, decreasing their fat storage, increasing their stress, and causing some to drown as they swim to reach distant ice floes. By 2050, two-thirds of polar bear sub-populations will be gone.
But polar bears aren't the only bears at risk. Changing temperatures are now causing grizzlies to den later in the fall. As a result they're overlapping with hunting season, which is bad news for the bear. But that's not all. Climate change is also affecting their food sources. "Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) seeds are a food resource for grizzly bears in some areas, including Yellowstone. Global warming has led to an increase in whitebark pine blister rust as well as an increase in competing species such as Douglas fir in higher elevations," the Endangered Species Coalition reports. "As whitebark pine and other natural grizzly food resources decline due to global warming, grizzlies may shift from remote high elevation areas to lower elevation human-populated areas, looking for alternative foods. Here, they often encounter humans and our garbage, food and livestock. This causes bears to become conditioned to humans; these human-conditioned bears are often removed or killed by wildlife managers due to safety concerns."
And the List Goes On
There are thousands of other species teetering on the brink of collapse and as many incredible places that will lost, if we don't take action to curb our greenhouse gas emissions and begin mitigation strategies. Later today, we will be able to see what the world's political leaders have agreed to and if it will be enough. As we try to untangle the outcome of the COP15 climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, let's try to keep this list in mind, even though it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's at stake. When we're talking about preserving ecological diversity, amazing creatures, human lives, and some of the most beautiful places on Earth we need solutions that transcend politics and economics as usual.