I have just landed in Scotland to join the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. This 26th gathering of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change –better known as COP26 – comes at a time of historic activism on behalf of the planet, and at a critical moment for our shared survival. The theme of this year’s conference is natural climate solutions, which just happens to be a key factor in both lowering emissions and protecting birds and their habitats.
I’m going to COP26 to share with the global climate movement what birds are telling us about climate change. Birds are much more than cherished creatures that bring beauty and joy to our lives, though they do indeed do that. The fate of birds is inextricably tied to the fate of us all.
We know that birds are telling us that we must change our ways and slow the rate of global temperature rise. If we can hold that level to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we can keep the majority of the species we love from becoming vulnerable to extinction. While the nations of the world increasingly come to embrace the scientific reality of climate change and make pledges to cut emissions, as of this moment those pledges might not be enough to save those species. This conference will provide an opportunity for leaders to truly rise to the challenge before us.
The effects of climate change on the birds of the world are undeniable. Take, for example, the Atlantic Puffin. The beloved seabird that delights coastal residents and visitors in both North America and on the Scottish shores has had a particularly devastating year, especially for the fluffy young pufflings. Our Seabird Institute colleagues report that warming waters have driven away most of the fish that they like to eat, leaving them to feed their pufflings butterfish, a species too big for young chicks to swallow. And tropical storms that occurred earlier than normal kept them cold and wet as they were hatching. As a consequence, the number of pufflings that fledged dropped to half of normal levels.
What’s happening to the puffins is not just of concern to bird lovers. If their habitat can’t adapt to a quickly changing climate, then ours can’t either. The warming waters that chase away their favored foods also disrupt fishing industries and food supplies for people on the mainland. And the warmer water leads to a heavier and wetter atmosphere, which means stronger and more frequent storms that our current infrastructure isn’t prepared to handle.
But there is hope. While birds are telling us that they – and we – are in trouble, they are also telling us that there is still time to act.
By investing in the maintenance and restoration of landscapes that serve as natural climate solutions, we can protect against the worst effects of climate change. These wetlands, beaches, and barrier islands provide critical services to our communities by serving as safe recreational spaces, enhancing our resilience to climate threats like increasing flooding and drought, and improving habitats for birds and other wildlife.
Additionally, many of these landscapes not only provide optimal habitat for birds, they also sequester and store carbon naturally, using plants and water to filter carbon dioxide from the air where it feeds into the natural carbon cycle rather than staying in the atmosphere as pollution that warms our planet and harms our air quality to an unnatural degree. In fact, our scientists found that by conserving and restoring places that both help store carbon and provide habitat for birds, we can meet up to a quarter of the United States’ commitment to draw down emissions in the Paris Agreement.
We also find ourselves at the dawn of a new era of cleaner, more renewable energy. Solar, wind, and geothermal power can make a dramatic difference in the amount of emissions in the air. And when sited properly to avoid, minimize and mitigate harm to wildlife, the environment, and surrounding communities, it can save exponentially more birds than would otherwise be lost to climate change. All we need is the will to embrace this cleaner future.
There is a lot of work ahead, but I am confident that we are on the verge of a breakthrough moment for the global community. The joy and beauty of birds can bring us together, and listening to the messages that birds tell us about our future can save us all.