Biodiversity: Climate Change

Authored by: Lisa Freudenberger , Jan Hanning Sommer

Terrestrial Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Print publication date:  June  2020
Online publication date:  May  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138333918
eBook ISBN: 9780429445651
Adobe ISBN:




Climate and biodiversity are interacting in multiple and complex ways. Climate parameters such as temperature and precipitation influence the distribution of species and ecosystems, while in turn, biodiversity can affect climate. Therefore, climate change is expected to have a dramatic effect on biodiversity at all levels including species and their habitats, species interactions, ecosystems, and genetic diversity. As biodiversity is the basis for many ecosystem services humanity depends on, climate change may also affect the constant provision of these services. Different concepts and methods have been developed to explain the relationship between climate change and biodiversity and to predict future biodiversity changes under climate change scenarios. This task represents a major challenge as it is associated with a high degree of complexity and uncertainty, but provides valuable output for science and policy. The most prominent strategies to tackle climate change are either to mitigate its incidence or to adapt to its implications. Climate change mitigation refers to the avoidance of climate-relevant emissions, while climate change adaptation describes adjustment measures of the natural or social system to cope with new climatic conditions. Both climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies can be based on pure technological solutions or the natural functions of biodiversity making use of ecosystem-based or ecosystem engineering strategies. In the past, biodiversity conservation and climate change policy have often operated in isolation, while joint actions would have been indicated. Recently, a closer collaboration was started and international initiatives were established to facilitate the utilization of synergies and cross-cutting issues.

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Biodiversity: Climate Change


Biodiversity, the diversity of life on Earth and its evolution, is closely linked to climate conditions, dynamics, and climate history.[1–3] From the poles to the tropics, very strong climate gradients exist that in turn influence the distribution of species and the patterns of biodiversity.[4,5] Temperature and precipitation are the main factors in this regard. There is strong empirical evidence that broad-scale gradients of species richness can be best predicted by global climatic conditions in combination with topographical parameters such as altitude and topographical diversity.[6–8] The habitat of each species is delimited, amongst others, by its physiological level of tolerance to deal with climatic extremes, such as drought or frost. Moreover, climate affects the characteristics of soils such as the availability of nutrients and the water cycle. Finally, not only are temperature and precipitation important but also the length and intensity of solar radiation. The sun represents the global source of energy and hence facilitates primary productivity, the production of plant biomass by photosynthesis, and influences metabolism rates in general. The cycling of energy within an ecosystem is positively correlated with its complexity and functionality and thus with its species richness, genetic diversity, and biomass productivity. This is leading to higher energy dissipation causing a positive feedback loop.[9,10]

Climate change means a mid- to long-term change in one or more climate parameters, such as an increase of temperature, or changes in the magnitude and frequency of extreme events such as droughts and heavy rainfall events. It is to a large extent driven by a rise of the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide.[11] Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, also has a fertilizing effect as it supports plant growth and biomass production.[12]

Climate and biodiversity are interdependent, as biodiversity also influences the climate on the micro- to mesoscale. Biodiversity facilitates the provisioning of ecosystem services including climatically relevant functions such as temperature regulation and water cycling. It has been shown, for example, that higher amounts of biomass have a cooling effect (e.g., the climate in cities can be improved by parks) and dead wood in forests is leading to the stabilization of microclimatic conditions.[13] As a result, climatic conditions are not only affecting the distribution and evolution of biodiversity but also vice versa.[14,15]

The Impact of Climate Change on Biodiversity

Climate change is affecting biodiversity at all its levels and at different spatial and temporal scales. It has a potential impact not only on the individual and species level but also on the ecosystem level affecting ecosystem functionality and services. For a systematic classification, see Geyer et al.[16]

Impact on Individuals, Populations, and Habitats

Probably the most studied impacts of climate change can be found on the individual and population levels of animals and plants. These include changes in their behavior and physiology comprising their metabolism, growth rates, life cycling, immune functions, and also their population dynamics such as changes in gene pools, dispersal abilities, population growth rates, or sex ratios.[17] Climate change is also often having an impact on species distributions through changes in habitat quality. This may result in the spatial shift of species distributions if new suitable areas are available and if the species is able to reach them. However, in many cases it is more likely that species will not be able to adapt, and populations or even whole species may become extinct as conditions turn unsuitable.[18] For example, corals are suffering from increasing water temperatures (see Table 3.1).

Table 3.1   Coral Bleaching

Coral reefs are described as the rainforests of the sea as they represent the most diverse marine habitat. They are, however, very vulnerable to climate change since water temperature increase is causing large-scale diebacks of coral reefs through a process called coral bleaching. Corals live in symbiosis with algae (zooxanthellae) that grow in corals, give them their specific color, and provide them with nutrients. When the temperature increases, zooxanthellae start to produce toxins leading to the release of the algae from the coral and the loss of the corals’ color. Corals are able to survive a limited time without nutrients from the symbiotic algae but a general increase of water temperature and temperature fluctuations during the last years coupled with other stressing factors such as overfishing, water pollution, acidification, and mechanical destruction has already caused the loss of large proportions of coral reefs. About 19% of the original coral reefs have already been lost and about 35% are threatened. Predictions estimate that about 50% of the world’s human population will live along coasts by 2015.[23] Altogether, these stressors are likely to lead to ever increasing pressures on coral reefs and the loss of essential ecosystem services they provide.

Species in some ecosystem types are more vulnerable than others as, e.g., at mountain tops where no cooler refuges are available when temperature rise drives species uphill.[19] But also other types of physical boundaries such as roads, dams, or fragmented habitats in general may restrict species to escape unsuitable conditions.[20]Therefore, habitat connectivity and landscape permeability are critical to mitigate those negative effects. Fragmentation may also cause the loss of genetic diversity, as species populations are becoming increasingly isolated and genetic exchange is delimited. This leads to a decrease in genetic or intraspecific diversity.[21] Reduced levels of intraspecific diversity are also relevant for the adaptive capacity of species under changing environmental conditions since higher genetic diversity increases the probability that some individuals are able to survive and reproduce under the changing conditions.[22] Lower genetic diversity on the other hand is likely to negatively affect the persistence of species under changing conditions.

Impacts on the Interactions between Species and the Community

Climate change impacts species interactions and community structure in many different ways. Often, this is a consequence of temporal or spatial decoupling between the interacting species, resulting in changes or loss of tropical relationships and other interactions.[24] A popular example is the temporal decoupling between the earlier flowering times of plants well before the awakening from hibernation of bees as their pollinators.[25] At the same time, new interactions may become apparent under climate change, e.g., through the spread of invasive species.[26] “Winners” of climate change may extend their distribution ranges into areas where there are fewer competitors or predators and can reach high densities. All these changes may lead to general alterations in species composition and community structure having an impact in turn on other biotic and abiotic factors of whole ecosystems.

Impact on Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services

Climate change has a direct impact on abiotic conditions such as humidity, evaporation, wind patterns, microclimatic conditions, snow loads, water bodies, and the condition of soils. Impacts on ecosystem structure, processes, and dynamics include changes in photosynthetic activities, and the frequency and intensity of disturbances, e.g., from floods or fire events, nutrient cycling, and succession[27] Finally, not only species are likely to shift their distribution under altered climatic conditions but also ecosystem types.[28,29] The melting of the permafrost soil leading to a spatial increase of the Taiga vegetation or the drying of the Mediterranean region are just two examples of climate change impacts on ecosystem-type distributions.

Changes in ecosystem functions, processes, and distributions will also affect ecosystem services.[30] In some areas of the world, extreme events such as droughts and floods will have tremendous effects on the availability of food, fiber, timber, and water. Climate change will also influence several supporting services, such as water cycling, primary production, and nutrient cycling as well as different regulating services like pest regulation, seed dispersal, and water purification. Finally, climate change is having a general impact on the appearance of ecosystems and therefore on their spiritual, religious, or aesthetical value. Altogether, these impacts on ecosystems may directly or indirectly influence human society and feed conflicts about scarce resources, food, and clean water.

System Resilience to Climate Change

Climate change impacts are not uniformly distributed and different biodiversity elements will suffer from climate change to varying degrees. The vulnerability of biodiversity, e.g., an ecosystem or a certain species, is a function of its exposure and sensitivity toward climate change as well as its ability to adapt to these changes.[11,31] This means that an element of biodiversity that has a high exposure towards climate change can still be less vulnerable than another element with low exposure as long as it is either less sensitive or has the ability to adapt to these changes, e.g., through the spatial shift of a species distribution. This is connected to the related concept of resilience. Traditionally, resilience has been described as the ability of a system or a species to return to its original state after disturbance. However, recent trends in ecological studies have highlighted the dynamic behavior of ecosystems, therefore giving rise to a different definition where resilience means merely the ability of a system to return to a stable state that could be different from its original one.[32] According to this concept, systems can have different stable states and it is possible that an ecosystem can transform to another without losing its functionality. The potential nonlinear impact of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity has also been described with the concept of tipping points (see Figure 3.1 and Table 3.2). These are “points of no return” beyond which it is impossible to stop or even reverse the negative impacts from climate change.[33] Different definitions for all of these concepts can be found in literature and a discussion on the relation between them and their differentiation is still ongoing.

Map of global tipping elements.

Figure 3.1   Map of global tipping elements.

Source: Adapted from Schellnhuber & Held,[55] Lenton et al.,[33] by permission of Oxford University Press.

Table 3.2   Tipping Points

Tipping points describe points in time when a system does not develop any more in a way that can be predicted by previous linear relationships but reaches a point of no return beyond which a trend has either significantly changed its pace or its direction. Tipping elements in the climate system describe global subsystems that are likely to shift to a completely different state if climate change continues and tipping points are the corresponding points in time (see Figure 3.1).[33] These elements have been self-stabilizing over a long period of time, and may most likely not recover once they are destroyed. Climate change impacts become much more difficult to predict after tipping points have been reached or complex feedback mechanisms are getting more important.

Methodological and Conceptual Approaches to Assess the Impacts of Climate Change

The impacts of climate change on biodiversity are often difficult to assess since predictions of the future are difficult to verify with recent or historical data, especially if the expected future conditions have never existed in the past. Gaining evidence by conducting field experiments is very time consuming and may provide results only at a very late temporal stage, and lab experiments are not able to tackle the response of biodiversity and ecosystems in their full complexity. Additionally, climate change–induced impacts are often overshadowed and camouflaged by other stressors such as landscape fragmentation, land degradation, landuse intensification, pollution, deforestation, or over-exploitation in general. Nevertheless, different methodologies have been developed to assess the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.[34–36]

Experimental Approaches

Classical empirical research is designed as a systematic experiment that can take place either in the field or within the laboratory. Species are exposed to different environmental conditions, e.g., higher temperature or lower precipitation rates, alone or in combination to test how climate change may affect species and ecosystems. While lab experiments have the advantage of enabling the control of external factors, field experiments capture a higher level of complexity. Different studies have been conducted monitoring, e.g., growth rates of plants under increased temperature and higher carbon dioxide levels.[37] Empirical evidence is of high importance to understand the underlying processes of climate change and biodiversity interactions. However, their practical value often remains limited as they are usually focused on a relatively narrow research question, a specific location, a particular ecosystem type, and a specific set of species. Nevertheless, empirical research is providing the real world data necessary to extrapolate and estimate the future impact of climate change.

Modeling Approaches and Scenario Development

The impacts of climate change on biodiversity have often been assessed through modeling approaches. Modeling approaches can be categorized as either statistical or mechanistic, although hybrid forms of both also exist. Statistical models use empirical data to find correlations between, e.g., the number of species and recent climatic conditions that may be used to assess the impact of future climate conditions on species richness. For example, biodiversity parameters for an area of interest can be compared to those of other areas in the world that today already have climate conditions similar to the expected future ones of the area of interest (space for time substitution approach).[38,39] Mechanistic or process-based models incorporate generally known relationships with the aim to reproduce the processes relevant for the ecosystem or species studied. Common examples for the application of mechanistic models are vulnerability assessments of ecosystems under climate change scenarios.[28] Models provide valuable information for research, nature conservation, and decision making but are often associated with a high degree of uncertainty. Climate change scenarios are also often combined with different specifications to assess, e.g., the impact of different policy options.[40,41] As climate change is modeled based on different emission scenarios, modeling outputs can be highly dependent on the socio-economic assumptions being made under the specific scenario. Furthermore, there are different uncertainties that are resulting from complex climate–biodiversity–society interactions.[42,43] When interpreting the results of model outputs, it is therefore important to take all model restrictions into consideration and to understand the results as one out of many potential futures.

Vulnerability Indices and Relative Assessments

While modeling approaches usually rely to some extent on quantitative empirical data from the past, there are other approaches that are utilizing heuristics to assess potential future impacts of climate change. These assessments are often only relative measurements or indices and can only be interpreted when comparing different species, ecosystems, or areas. A common concept to assess the impacts of climate change on biodiversity is, e.g., the vulnerability framework.[31] Different indicators or expert knowledge are used to assess the sensitivity, adaptive capacity, and exposure to climate change and are combined in a vulnerability index. These relative assessments have the advantage of combining various different proxies often with different units of measurement while being easy to interpret.[44] However, they do not provide true quantitative data that can be directly validated by field measurements or interpreted on its own without comparing the index value to different areas or times.

Complexities of Climate Change Impacts on Biodiversity and Non-Knowledge Management

Scenario development and modeling are very important tools to deal with the uncertainties and knowledge gaps of climate change and its impacts. However, it should be noted that dealing with ecosystems and climate change means dealing with uncertainties and non-knowledge.[45] The precautionary concept that is promoted by the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), which was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, becomes particularly relevant in terms of biodiversity conservation under climate change.[46] It endorses a proactive policy approach, where future risks are minimized and actions are not necessarily prevented by knowledge gaps. The impacts of climate change on biodiversity are characterized by a high level of complexity, feedback mechanisms, and non-linear dependencies. It is difficult to capture this complexity through simple statistical relationships and to assess future impacts of climate change on biodiversity. Different concepts to describe these complex relationships have been introduced, all of which deal with the high level of uncertainty. Although we can develop many different models and scenarios for future climate change, each of them corresponds only to one of many possible futures and it is very unlikely that the real future will exactly match a model that is being developed today. Nevertheless, we can use these models or even non-quantitative scenarios and heuristics to identify trends and paint pictures of how the future might look.

Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Conservation biology used to be a relatively isolated political field motivated mainly by ethical or even religious obligations to protect nature. In the past 10 years, a more anthropocentric perspective has advanced where biodiversity is not only appreciated for its inherent value but also for the services that are provided to human society. From this perspective, biodiversity conservation is indispensable for the provision of ecosystem services that humanity is depending on, such as the production of food or the filtration of water.[47] Another development has been the consideration of the interconnections between climate change and biodiversity. It has been realized by both, the biodiversity conservation as well as the climate change community, that synergies as well as conflicts between both policy fields exist that need to be dealt with.[48–51] There are two categories, mitigation and adaptation, that conceptualize how nature conservation can contribute to the management of climate change impacts. While mitigation corresponds to actions undertaken to alleviate future climate change, adaptation measures are aiming at enabling biodiversity to persist under climate change. Mitigation approaches mainly refer to strategies targeting the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through either the minimization of emissions, e.g., the protection of carbon sources, or the maximization of greenhouse gas uptake, e.g., the protection or restoration of carbon sinks. On the other hand, adaptation measurements assume that at least some intensity of climate change will take place and that biodiversity can only be protected effectively if adaptive strategies are employed. Despite the straightforward definition of mitigation and adaptation, both are often not isolated but interconnected. In many cases, adaptation measures are only applicable if climate change is not exceeding critical thresholds and, vice versa, ecosystems are more likely to contribute effectively to climate change mitigation if they are in a healthy condition.

During the last few years, a new concept has become increasingly important, namely, ecosystem-based adaptation and mitigation.[52,53] Ecosystem-based adaptation refers to the utilization and strengthening of natural functions of ecosystems to make societies less vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. One example for ecosystem-based adaptation would be the abandonment of alluvial areas for construction in order to maintain space for flood protection, but other examples also exist where natural solutions can provide more effective and efficient options than technological advances for adaptation to climate change. Ecosystem-based mitigation follows the same approach but with the aim of increasing the capacity of ecosystems to store and capture carbon, e.g., through the conservation of natural carbon sinks and sources. Ecological engineering, on the other hand, focuses on actions coupling both technological and ecological solutions to benefit society.[54] These often relate to the restoration or enhancement of natural ecosystem functions or the use of these functions within technological solutions. One of the reasons that these two concepts, ecosystem-based actions and ecological engineering, have gained in relevance is their potential to explicitly combine aspects of climate change policy with biodiversity conservation. Table 3.3 gives examples for mitigation and adaptation strategies for all three options. While nature conservation and climate change policy have often acted independently from each other, it has been realized that collaborative approaches often provide synergies and beneficial effects for both policy areas. Furthermore, it turned out that pure technological solutions aiming at the mitigation and adaptation to climate change often entail substantial costs and efforts. Ecosystem-based actions and ecological engineering have the potential to provide cost-effective strategies to cope with future climate change.

Table 3.3   Examples for Strategies Aiming at the Mitigation of Climate Change and Adaptation toward Its Impacts


Mitigation of climate change through higher carbon sequestration

Adaptation to increased frequency of floods through climate change

Technological solution

Use of carbon capture and storage technology (CCS)

Building of artificial dams for flood protection

Ecological engineering

Rewetting of peatlands to increase carbon capture

Restoration and control of alluvial areas for flood protection

Ecosystem based

Protection of peatlands to maintain natural carbon capture functionality

Abandoning alluvial areas for natural flood protection

Politics of Climate Change and Biodiversity

Different international initiatives exist to tackle the challenge of climate change and its impact on biodiversity. While both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN-FCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) were founded at the Earth Summit 1992 in Rio de Janeíro, they remained relatively isolated in the following 20 years. It is only recently that a better integration of climate change policy and biodiversity conservation goals is getting higher priority on the political agenda. The UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, which is part of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol[11] and currently probably the most powerful instrument for international climate change mitigation, aims at the reduction of greenhouse gases through the creation of financial incentives paid for the mitigation of deforestation and forest degradation. To avoid potential negative effects on biodiversity and society, it has been developed towards the REDD+ mechanism, with a stronger focus on multiple benefits including biodiversity conservation. Climate change has also been officially included as a main crosscutting issue of the CBD since 2004 after the establishment of an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on climate change and biodiversity in 2001. During the last few years, the Rio Conventions Pavilion has been founded at the 10th Conference of Parties of the CBD in Nagoya (Japan, 2010) as a platform aiming at the identification of synergies between the different conventions that were established in 1992 in Rio. In 2012, as a pendant to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) has been established, an independent intergovernmental body to strengthen the science policy interface in the field of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In consideration of the various interactions between climate change and biodiversity, a collaboration and coordination between both policy areas is likely to become increasingly necessary.


Climate change and biodiversity represent both very complex issues, and many answers to the question of how they are interacting are still elusive. However, there is strong evidence that climate change will have negative impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem service supply, and thereby on human society. The paradigm of natural sciences to base research on empirical data can only be partly fulfilled in the context of climate change research, as research questions include predictions about possible future developments not experienced in the past. Nevertheless, the expected pace and magnitude of climate change suggests that prompt and flexible actions are needed to prevent unbearable and irreversible negative impacts. Both climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies need to be implemented, incorporating concepts of conservationists and climate researchers in order to gain the best possible achievements.


The authors thank the Center for Development Research, University of Bonn, the Nees Institute for the Biodiversity of Plants, University of Bonn, the Centre for Econics and Ecosystem Services, and the University for Sustainable Development Eberswalde for their support in conducting research on climate change and biodiversity and for the development of this entry.


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