Ecosystem Services: Saviour and Victim of Changing Climate

Author: Anuska Joshi (UNU-IAS)

 

It has been decades since climate change started threatening the health of the planet, and it still continues to do so. It has been decades since the discussion on the plausibility of anthropogenic climate change and its threat started taking center stage and while the discussion still continues, we have yet to know if the threat will ever really cease. Ecosystem services are the basis for our existence, and climate change is now creating a vicious circle with it, whereby the changing climate impacts the ecosystem and the impacted ecosystem further drives the consequences of changing climate.

For instance, the climate resilience of any ecosystem depends much on species richness, diversity and landscape (Locatelli et al., 2008), but these are also the very elements that climate change is threatening to disrupt. All types of services provided by our ecosystem is now under threat. A case example could be that of Sahel and the semi-arid drylands of East Africa which are now facing challenges of “crop and livestock losses, food insecurity, displacement, cultural losses including traditional livelihood systems, and conflict” (Geest, et. al., 2018). Impacts such as these differ according to the area but nonetheless are now occurring across the globe.

The planet we inhabit, and call our home is the only place that sustains life. The ecosystem of the planet sustains our life with the services it provides. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report in 2005 defined ecosystem services as “benefits people get from ecosystem” and has categorized these services into supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services. Climate change threatens these very services that we need to sustain our life, and are now constantly threatened with collapse of forests; pollutants in the atmosphere taking us faster to our tipping point and many of the species we share our planet with under the risk of extinction.

The provisioning service of ecosystems does help us to combat the impacts of climate change, taking for example that nitrogen-fixing helps to make crops more resilient to drought by improving soil nutrients and water infiltration, thereby increasing the impacts by folds if these nitrogen-fixing trees were to be impacted in the first place. The shade trees have also shown to improve resilience of coffee and cacao in Mexico by controlling temperature and humidity and protecting from storms (Lin, 2010). Along with impacts to the species and agro-biodiversity, the changing climate is also increasing the intensity and frequency of disasters, and as pointed out by research, when these impacts are coupled with ecosystem degradation, they can have a much more hazardous result (Palomo, 2017). And sometimes, the certainties of ecosystem service are much clearer than the uncertainties of climate
change impacts. As the author points out in his report, it might not be clear how climate change impacts the frequency or intensity of avalanche, but it is clear that forest expansion could enhance avalanche protection at some sites (Grêt-Regamey et al 2008).

The ecosystem is the basis for life on earth and it is also the basis for the sentiment of the people. The local communities worldwide revere the ecosystem they live in; the African tribes near Mount Kilimanjaro, Chinese communities close to Mount Khawa Karpo, communities near Mount Yulong, Sherpa in Nepal, Quechua tribe in Peru, each hold their livelihood and cultural significance to the glaciers that they live near (Geest, et. al., 2018). When the changing climate impact these ecosystems, it causes not just physical threat to the communities but also harm to their sentiments, and often time their traditional knowledge hangs on a cliff due to the changes. Now we are in the situation where ecosystems that could serve as a weapon against the changing climate are the first ones being impacted.

Mangroves have been proven to reduce the impacts of climate change by acting as a natural barrier but are now being impacted by sea level rise. The forests and the biodiversity regulate the atmosphere and precipitation thereby maintaining a suitable local climate but are the ones getting impacted now due to drought, disaster events or increasing forest fires. The ocean itself is a big heat absorbing area, maintaining the average temperature of the earth but now is facing its degradation due to the excess heat it is having to absorb. In this fight with the changing climate, the first victim might be our savior.