Climate change presents the gravest threat to life on Earth in all of human history. The planet is warming to a degree beyond what many species can handle, altering or eliminating habitat, reducing food sources, causing drought and other species-harming severe weather events, and even directly killing species that simply can’t stand the heat. In fact, scientists predict that if we keep going along our current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory, climate change will cause more than a third of the Earth’s animal and plant species to face extinction by 2050 — and up to 70 percent by the end of the century. Such a catastrophic loss would irreversibly diminish biodiversity, severely disrupt ecosystems, and cause immense hardship for human societies worldwide.

Since the Center was established, our mission has been to help protect species facing extinction, and as the threat of climate change has spread, our focus on the issue has intensified. The list of species we’ve petitioned and litigated to protect specifically from warming’s effects is constantly growing, and since today truly all species are threatened by climate change in one way or another, we’ve made fighting climate change central to our mission.


The first creatures to be dramatically and visibly affected by climate change have been those in the Arctic, where the impacts of rising temperatures have been felt earlier and more intensely than anywhere else. As warmer air melts the vast expanses of sea ice that help define the Far North, all the animals depending on that ice for hunting, resting, reproducing, and other key life activities lose the platform on which their existence depends.

The iconic polar bear, fast losing the sea-ice habitat beneath its feet, has become a broadly recognized symbol of the harm climate change is causing in the fragile Arctic — mainly because of the Center’s multi-year, ongoing campaign to earn meaningful federal protection for the species. We’re also fighting to keep numerous other Arctic species — including the Pacific walrus; bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals; Cook Inlet beluga whale; and yellow-billed loon — from being snuffed out by climate change.

At the other end of the Earth, around the South Pole, the emperor penguin is also facing enormous threats from climate change, which causes profound changes in the Antarctic ecosystem and hurts penguins in diverse ways, from reducing prey species to causing ice shelves to collapse. Thanks to a petition and lawsuit by the Center, the emperor and nine other penguin species hailing from around the southern hemisphere are on their way to federal protection.


The polar regions are by no means the only areas of the planet already affected by climate change. As temperatures rise worldwide, many species are forced to flee the warming by moving up in elevation — like the American pika — or by moving northward or southward, away from warmer equatorial areas. Snow-dependent species like the American wolverine are finding less and less of the snow they need, while forest-dwelling species like the West Virginia northern flying squirrel are threatened right along with their arboreal habitat. Amphibians and fish are threatened by the drought that accompanies climate change, while reptiles like the loggerhead sea turtle have been found altering their centuries-old nesting habits because of warmer ocean temperatures. Even insects are affected: The beautiful Bay checkerspot butterfly, for example, is threatened as climate change reduces food availability for its larvae. The Center works for all these species and more.


As greenhouse gases pile up in our air, our oceans are far from immune to the problem. First of all, with climate change comes ocean acidification, an increasingly serious threat to marine species. Much of the human-generated CO 2 spewed into the atmosphere eventually ends up in our oceans, changing seawater chemistry to make it more acidic and depleting seawater of the compounds that organisms like corals, crabs, seastars, sea urchins, and zooplankton require to build the protective shells and skeletons they need to survive. Because plankton are at the base of the delicate ocean food chain, ocean acidification could disrupt the entire marine ecosystem.

Marine species are affected by climate change in numerous other ways. Warmer water temperatures have been shown to slow the growth of phytoplankton — the microscopic plant counterpart to zooplankton — imperiling not only the species that eat these tiny plants, but all species in the ocean food chain. Climate change also causes coral bleaching, in which the stress caused by too-warm seawater induces coral to expel the symbiotic algae that give them their spectacular color. Most noticeably to us, as climate change melts Arctic ice it causes sea levels to rise, threatening species like the Hawaiian monk seal, whose pupping beaches are increasingly engulfed by rising waters. The Center is currently working to help the monk seal by litigating for additional critical habitat.

Ever since the threats became clear, the Center has been calling attention to climate change’s effects on our oceans and pressing for federal protection of species at risk. Those include the first species to be granted Endangered Species Act protection because of climate change and ocean acidification, elkhorn and staghorn corals, as well as a long list of species of all taxa, from the Atlantic salmon to the sea otter to the Xantus’s murrelet.


The Center’s Global Warming and Endangered Species Initiative is an example of our coordinated response to the many threats posed by global warming. Launched in February 2007 through a legal petition filed by the Center and allies, the action asked the Bush administration to adopt new regulations and take all possible legally authorized action to counteract global warming and other factors driving species extinct. Our petition sought federal action to improve habitat protections, address climate change, and safeguard scientific decisions from political interference.

Polar bear photo via Pixabay.