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Lydia's Birding Blog

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Birders Don't Need to Be Told That Catastrophic Climate Change Approaches

A new report warns that we're approaching the point of no return—a fact that close observers of nature have known for years.

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new report that reminded readers the world over of the hot, dire straits we’re now swimming in. Like most reports from the international organization, founded in 1988 by the World Meterological Organization and United Nations Environment Programme, it’s a massive summary of scientific research hitting on all the impacts of global warming that affect people and wildlife alike.

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C does something new, though. It's a forceful course correction, arguing that the widely accepted target for global warming—limiting it to only 2.0°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels—is too high to avoid the worst impacts. “I think that the two-degree target was chosen more for political reasons than for true scientific reasons,” Scott Barrett of Columbia University told PBS NewsHour. "The idea was to—if countries could agree on a collective target, that that would mobilize the action needed to get the whole world to act together.”

The new report insists that 2.0°C is not a sufficient limit, and that we need to instead limit warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. That’s because half a degree means a lot. It’s the difference between some coral reefs surviving (at 1.5°C) and losing them all (at 2.0°C). Raising temperatures that extra half-degree translates to four extra inches of global sea-level rise, which doesn’t sound like a lot but would in fact put an extra 10 million people at risk. It would mean more hot days and hotter hot days, worse droughts in places with drought, and bigger storms and monsoons in places that experience heavy rainfall. It’s the difference between one ice-free Arctic summer per century and one per decade. And so on.

Finally, the report concludes that limiting warming to 1.5°C will require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions worldwide—namely, transitioning from a fossil fuel-based economy to one driven by renewables—to reduce global carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030. In other words, over the next 12 years, we need to completely transform our civilization, a task we have barely begun. And in the long term, preventing temperature rise over 1.5°C will also require technology that does not yet exist to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

The report has been received as a signal flare, warning the world that drastic action is needed immediately to prevent catastrophic climate change that would upend our civilization, to say nothing of the impacts on wildlife. For birders, though, this news shouldn't be a surprise. By spending time closely observing the outdoors and keeping tabs on avian and environmental news, we’ve long felt and perceived the impacts of climate change—often far before the rest of the world.

In Alaska and the Arctic, we’ve watched seabird populations dwindle as shifts in the marine food web cause adults to starve to death and fail to breed, and seen birds that rely on Arctic sea ice struggle to survive. With each passing fall migration, we’ve watched shorebird flocks shrink due to year after year of breeding failures on their Arctic tundra nesting grounds. In some years, we’ve watched Atlantic Puffin chicks on the PuffinCam grow slowly due to lack of food in a warming Gulf of Maine—and then fail to fledge, another breeding season lost.