So, you get it. CO2 levels are increasing, global temperatures are rising, and weather patterns are changing. But, these aren’t the only reasons climate change is such a big deal. Climate change is affecting every aspect of our lives from the food we eat and the air we breathe to the health of our beloved wild spaces. Below is a shortlist of how climate change affects us, our food, our water, and plants and animals. It is far from exhaustive because climate science is for realz complex. So if you take anything away from this article, make sure you know that climate change is affecting everything on earth.
We recognize that this needs an entire article, and we’re working on it! Here’s our summary in the meantime: Climate change is and will continue to have overall negative impacts on human health. As weather patterns change and pollution continues to increase, water and land availability are affected, both of which are essential to growing food, breathing clean air and drinking clean water. Since food, water, and clean air are vital to human health, climate change has the strongest health impacts on those that are poor, elderly, young, and chronically sick. In the U.S., communities of color are disproportionately impacted because they are more likely to live near environmentally unsafe living conditions, whereas communities that have more privilege can avoid those areas. Globally, climate change will most severely impact communities that are dependent on fishing and hunting, or located in already food-insecure areas, water-scarce regions, and small island states.
Plants are a crucial part of our ecosystem because we eat them and breathe in what they “breathe” out. With climate change, plants everywhere are greening up and blooming earlier and earlier each year. This can affect their relationships with pollinators (potentially causing them to interact less often if their life cycles are out of sync), but also can serve as a very helpful indicator to scientists of the areas that climate change is most affecting. Not all plants are responding in the same way, with some experiencing population decline and some (often invasive species) responding positively.
The biggest problem animals face when it comes to climate change is the loss of inhabitable land. As temperatures warm, species have to move to higher elevations to reach environments similar to their original homes. As of 2011, half of all species (including plants) have moved over 10 miles per decade (source here and here) to more suitable land. But, there is only so much land available at these elevations, which causes crowding and creates competition for food, water, and territory. There are winners and losers in this search for a new home and when a species is outcompeted, they are more likely to go extinct.
Soil is the source of all life on land. Nutrients in soils are absorbed by plants, incorporated into leaves, fruit, bark, and roots, and then eaten by animals (including humans). These nutrients such as, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, potassium, and calcium are ultimately incorporated into DNA, muscle, bones, and other tissues vital to life. But, humans have significantly altered the nutrients available in soils by draining the soil of nutrients through over-farming and through causing excess nutrients to accumulate through over-fertilizing. This either depletes the soil of nutrients or acidifies it, respectively, both of which limit plant growth and ultimately limit food sources for animals.
The ocean is really taking a hit when it comes to climate change because it soaks up excess heat and CO2. This limits the effects of climate change for us on land, but only for a limited amount of time and at huge costs. The ocean is becoming warmer and more acidic, which is leading to sea-level rise (warm water expands, and land ice is melting which is projected to cause 1-4 feet of sea level rise by 2100) and extremely negative impacts on ocean life which then reduces fish stocks, food security and income from tourism.
The term biodiversity describes the variety of life on earth, which is important because plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi are all interconnected *cue the Circle of Life*. No organism can all alone, and (generally speaking) the more diverse an ecosystem is, the more resources there are. Climate change causes a decline in biodiversity in many ways, but the biggest threat to biodiversity is the loss of habitat. Rises in temperature, extreme weather, and urban sprawl destroy the homes of organisms and force them to move to another similar environment. It’d be all fine and dandy if there was unlimited space for organisms to move to, but there isn’t. The limited environments for certain species to live happily ever after means that some species don’t make it, which creates a snowball effect for all other organisms on earth.
Excess atmospheric CO2 can be taken up by plants and in theory, this is a great tool we can use to help mitigate climate change, except for when it comes to our food. When plant growth increases due to higher levels of CO2, they incorporate less nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, and other minerals into their leaves, fruit, and roots, all of which are essential to bone, muscle, and brain function (source here, here and here). This means the crops we grow are less nutritious and we will need to eat more in order to get the nutrients we need, which causes another issue: there is a limited amount of viable land to use for agriculture.
When water gets warmer there is typically less oxygen in it, which leads to negative effects on aquatic life, and can lead to the excessive growth of algae that degrade water quality. More precipitation is expected to occur in the form of rain rather than snow (in areas that typically get snow). More rain means that more pollutants get picked up from areas surrounding bodies of water, and then carried into the water we consume.