How does climate change affect animals?

1 Mar 2024
4 min read

A lack of food and water, disrupted habitats and increased disease are just some of the consequences of climate change for wildlife.

If the climate crisis goes unchecked, millions of animals will die and many species will become extinct entirely

Climate change affects every living species on the planet. As global temperatures increase we can expect rising sea levels, widespread drought, agricultural disruption and increasingly extreme weather events – and while humankind at least has a chance of tackling the impact these consequences will have on us with science and innovation, animals will have no choice but to endure the worst effects. If the climate crisis goes unchecked, millions of animals will die and many species will become extinct entirely.

The impact of rising sea levels on wildlife

Rising sea levels are one of the most commonly-cited consequences of climate change, and while humans can expect massive disruption through flooding and land loss, the picture is especially dire for animals. Creatures such as polar bears and walruses live on the Arctic’s sea ice – without it they will be forced into freezing seas, an environment they are not able to exist in exclusively.

Meanwhile, a sea level rise of just 50cm could cause sea turtles to lose their nesting beaches, while whales, seals and dolphins need shallow, gentle waters to raise their young – rising sea levels will destroy these areas.

The impact of extreme weather on wildlife

As well as contributing to a warming planet, carbon pollution has a more direct impact on animals

The flooding and drought that will result from climate change will have a devastating impact on wildlife across the planet. Flooding will see nests and habitats destroyed, while drought will mean many animals die of hunger and thirst without access to water or healthy food sources. Some will simply die of overheating – Asian elephants are particularly at risk. Long periods of extremely hot and dry weather will also lead to more bush fires, which are responsible for the death of many types of animals. The wildfires in Australia in 2020 left 3 billion animals dead or displaced in just a few months – devastating levels of destruction to the natural world in addition to the tragic loss of life that occurred.

The impact of carbon pollution on wildlife

Carbon pollution – that is, the dangerous greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by vehicles, airplanes and manufacturing – is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. As well as contributing to a warming planet, carbon pollution has a more direct impact on animals. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, elevated levels of CO2 in the air results in lower protein and nitrogen content in plant species. This could lead to food shortages, starvation or sickness among animals, due to a lack of nutrients.

The impact of climate-driven deforestation on wildlife

Deforestation is a well-documented problem, not least because humanity’s tree-culling activities set in motion a vicious cycle that’s very hard to control. Trees are cut down for manufacturing, or to create land for livestock, which not only destroys natural habitats but means there are fewer opportunities for natural carbon capture (which trees are vital for), so the planet continues to warm up. As a result of this rising temperature, more trees end up dying as they’re unable to survive in their own changing habitats, and this will have disastrous repercussions on the wildlife that normally live in these leafy areas. Giant panda bears, for example, exclusively eat bamboo and rely on the tree for shelter from the elements, but climate change is reducing the amount of bamboo that grows in their natural habitats, leaving them hungry and exposed.

The indirect consequences of climate change on animals

Inhospitable habitats and food shortages resulting from climate change can also lead to other, less obvious consequences for wildlife. For example, warmer temperatures mean that some birds are laying their eggs earlier than usual, so when they hatch the usual food sources aren’t yet available. Other migratory species are moving to cooler areas to survive, resulting in their consumption of new types of plant life and prey, which has a knock-on effect on already delicate ecosystems. The changing climate also means a shift in the way animals respond to sickness and disease, while some research indicates that climate change is even influencing animals’ capacity to reproduce.

In short, animals’ ability to survive and thrive depends on a careful balance of a great many factors – factors which climate change is altering drastically.

The bottom line

It can be easy to downplay the consequences of climate change, especially because, as humans, we have an understanding of what’s happening and an element of control in how we deal with it. Wildlife, however, is entirely at the mercy of our actions. The impact of climate change on animals will be – and already is – devastating: only by taking action to reduce carbon emissions now can we hope to give creatures both great and small a chance for the future.


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