Over the past 150 years, we’ve changed the balance of our planet by living beyond our means. We’ve burnt huge amounts of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, gas), bred huge amounts of methane- producing livestock and cut down vast swathes of forests, which would naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the air.
Climate change is affecting our brilliant planet in lots of ways!
Climate change and forests
Most people know how vital forests are – they soak up carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, and help regulate the world’s climate. They’re also home to countless plant and animal species. We’re working with communities, local governments and businesses to ensure the world’s forests are protected.
How forests are affected by climate change
Impacts vary in different kinds of forests.
Sub-Arctic boreal forests are likely to be particularly badly affected, with tree lines gradually retreating north as temperatures rise.
In tropical forests such as the Amazon, where there’s abundant biodiversity, even modest levels of climate change can cause high levels of extinction.
Impacts of deforestation
When large areas of forest are destroyed – whether razed for commercial reasons or dried by a warming climate – it’s disastrous for the local species and communities that rely on them. It’s also bad for all life on Earth.
Dying trees emit their stores of carbon dioxide, adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases and setting us on a course for runaway global warming.
Find out more about our work on forests.
Climate change and water
Climate change is having serious impacts on the world’s water systems through more flooding and droughts. Warmer air can hold a higher water content, which makes rainfall patterns more extreme.
Rivers and lakes
Rivers and lakes supply drinking water for people and animals - and are a vital resource for farming and industry.
Freshwater environments around the world are already under excessive pressure from drainage, dredging, damming, pollution, extraction, silting and invasive species.
Climate change - combined with these stresses - makes impacts worse. Extremes of drought and flooding will become more common, causing displacement and conflict.
Learn more about our work on freshwater.
In mountainous regions, melting glaciers are impacting on freshwater ecosystems. Himalayan glaciers feed great Asian rivers such as the Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Mekong and Indus. Over a billion people rely on these glaciers for drinking water, sanitation, agriculture and hydroelectric power.
More about our work on frozen environments.
Oceans and seas
Why are oceans important?
Oceans are vital ‘carbon sinks’ – meaning that they absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, preventing it from reaching the upper atmosphere.
But increased water temperatures and higher carbon dioxide concentrations than normal, which make oceans more acidic, are already having an impact.
Impacts on our coral reefs
Coral reefs are particularly at risk. Sensitive coral and algae that live on it are starved of oxygen, causing dramatic bleaching and possibly the eventual death of the coral.
If global warming remains on its upward path, by 2050 just 5% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef – will remain.
It’s not only a tragedy for wildlife: around half a billion people rely on fish from coral reefs as their main source of protein.
Find out about our work on oceans.
Climate change and polar regions
Climate change is amplified in the polar regions. The Earth’s north and south extremities are crucial for regulating our planet’s climate – and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. The impacts in the polar regions caused by climate change have global consequences.
Climate change in the Arctic
Average air temperatures in the region have increased by about 5°C over the last 100 years.
Recent data supports the view held by many polar scientists that there’ll be almost no summer sea ice cover left in the Arctic in the next few decades.
This has severe implications – not just loss of habitat that polar bears and seals depend on, and knock-on effects on local people, but also dramatic changes to the entire northern hemisphere.
Find out more about our work in the Arctic.
Climate change in Antarctica
The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers almost 14 million sq km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice – accounting for around 90% of all fresh water on the Earth’s surface.
This ice plays a vitally important role in influencing the world’s climate, reflecting back the sun’s energy and helping to regulate global temperatures.
Sea level rise
Parts of the west Antarctic Peninsula are among the fastest-warming places on Earth. Although the Antarctic ice sheets are unlikely to melt entirely, even small-scale melting is likely to have significant effects on global sea level rise.
Find out more about our work in the Antarctic.
Climate change and wildlife
Global warming is likely to be the greatest cause of species extinctions this century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. If the planet warms by more than 3°C, most ecosystems will struggle.
Many of the world’s threatened species live in areas that will be severely affected by climate change. And climate change is happening too quickly for many species to adapt.
Here are just a few examples of how climate change may increase the challenges we’re already facing in our conservation work.
Tiger numbers in the wild have declined to as few as 3,200, largely due to poaching and habitat loss. Climate change is likely to result in increasing sea levels and further risk of fire in the already fragmented habitats where tigers live.
Find out more about tigers.
Warming in the Himalayas has already occurred at three times the global average. This is prime snow leopard habitat and continued warming will cause their range to shrink as the treeline moves higher up the mountains. This will not only fragment and isolate snow leopard populations, but it will severely affect their prey too.
Find out more about snow leopards.
Greater one-horned rhinos live on floodplain grasslands in northern India and Nepal. They rely on the annual monsoon to bring sufficient and timely rain, to replenish the vegetation they feed on. But a changing climate could disrupt this seasonal pattern and bring regular droughts or floods.
Discover more about Asian rhinos.
For orang-utans in Borneo – which are already at risk because of deforestation, forest conversion and illegal hunting – one of the first effects of climate change is likely to be food shortages caused by unusual rainfall patterns. They’re just one of the many species that will be affected.
Find out more about orang-utans.
In Africa, changes in rainfall will either bring too much rain – causing floods – or too little rain – bringing more drought and wildfires. These changes may cause some areas to simply become unsuitable for certain species to live in. African elephants can drink up to 225 litres of water each day, so changing weather patterns may mean they have to travel further in search of water – moving outside protected areas and coming into more contact with people.
Find out more about the African elephant.
The Arctic is warming roughly twice as fast as the global average, causing the ice that polar bears depend on to melt away. The sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year. This makes it more difficult for females to get onto land in late autumn to den, and onto the sea ice in spring to feed. It means bears are fasting for longer – dramatically reducing their body weight and physical condition and making it harder for them to survive the summer season.
Find out more about polar bears.
Adélie penguins are ‘true’ Antarctic penguins, meaning they spend most of their time in Antarctica. But climate change is reducing the amount of sea ice in parts of the continent. One of the Adélies’ main food sources, krill, breeds and feeds under the sea ice. Reduced sea ice means reduced food for the Adélie penguins.
Find out more about Adélie penguins.