IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

19.3.4 Ecosystems and biodiversity

There is high confidence that climate change will result in extinction of many species and reduction in the diversity of ecosystems (see Section 4.4) Vulnerability of ecosystems and species is partly a function of the expected rapid rate of climate change relative to the resilience of many such systems. However, multiple stressors are significant in this system, as vulnerability is also a function of human development, which has already substantially reduced the resilience of ecosystems and makes many ecosystems and species more vulnerable to climate change through blocked migration routes, fragmented habitats, reduced populations, introduction of alien species and stresses related to pollution.

There is very high confidence that regional temperature trends are already affecting species and ecosystems around the world (Chapter 1 Sections 1.3.4 and 1.3.5; Parmesan and Yohe, 2003; Root et al., 2003; Menzel et al., 2006) and it is likely that at least part of the shifts in species observed to be exhibiting changes in the past several decades can be attributed to human-induced warming (see Chapter 1; Root et al., 2005). Thus, additional climate changes are likely to adversely affect many more species and ecosystems as global mean temperatures continue to increase (see Section 4.4). For example, there is high confidence that the extent and diversity of polar and tundra ecosystems is in decline and that pests and diseases have spread to higher latitudes and altitudes (Chapter 1 Sections 1.3.5 and 1.5).

Each additional degree of warming increases disruption of ecosystems and loss of species. Individual ecosystems and species often have different specific thresholds of change in temperature, precipitation or other variables, beyond which they are at risk of disruption or extinction. Looking across the many ecosystems and thousands of species at risk of climate change, a continuum of increasing risk of loss of ecosystems and species emerges in the literature as the magnitude of climate change increases, although individual confidence levels will vary and are difficult to assess. Nevertheless, further warming is likely to cause additional adverse impacts to many ecosystems and contribute to biodiversity losses. Some examples follow.

  • About half a degree of additional warming can cause harm to vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs and Arctic ecosystems * (Table 4.1).
  • A warming of 1°C above 1990 levels would result in all coral reefs being bleached and 10% of global ecosystems being transformed (Chapter 4 Section 4.4.11).
  • A warming of 2°C above 1990 levels will result in mass mortality of coral reefs globally *** (Chapter 4 Section 4.4; Chapter 6 Box 6.1), with one-sixth of the Earth’s ecosystems being transformed (Leemans and Eickhout, 2004) **, and about one-quarter of known species being committed to extinction *. For example, if Arctic sea-ice cover recedes markedly, many ice-dependent Arctic species, such as polar bears and walrus, will be increasingly likely to be at risk of extinction; other estimates suggest that the African Succulent Karoo is likely to lose four-fifths of its area (Chapter 4 Section 4.4.11 and Table 4.1). There is low confidence that the terrestrial biosphere will become a net source of carbon (Chapter 4 Section 4.4.1).
  • An additional degree of warming, to 3°C, is likely to result in global terrestrial vegetation becoming a net source of carbon (Chapter 4 Section 4.4.1), over one-fifth of ecosystems being transformed * (Chapter 4 Section 4.4.11; Leemans and Eickhout, 2003), up to 30% of known species being committed to extinction * (Chapter 4 Section 4.4.11 and Table 4.1; Thomas et al., 2004; Malcolm et al., 2006, estimate that 1 to 43% of species in 25 biodiversity hotspots are at risk from an approximate 3 to 4°C warming) and half of all nature reserves being unable to meet conservation objectives * (Chapter 4 Table 4.1). Disturbances such as fire and pests are very likely to increase substantially (Chapter 4 Section 4.4).
  • There is very high confidence that warming above 3°C will cause further disruption of ecosystems and extinction of species.