All But One of the U.S.’s Endangered Species Are Vulnerable to Climate Change, Study Finds

A panther in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

A panther in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS

The climate crisis is poised to deliver a severe blow to the United States’ most threatened animals, with a new study finding that almost every species considered endangered is vulnerable in some way to global heating. Of the 459 animal species listed as endangered by the U.S. government, researchers found that all but one, or 99.8 percent, have characteristics that will make it difficult for them to adapt to rising temperatures.

An array of threats faces these species. The California condor, once close to being completely wiped out, faces increased risk of contamination in hotter conditions. Key deer, found only in the Florida Keys, face losing habitat to the rising seas.

Whole classes of animals including amphibians, mollusks and arthropods are sensitive to the greatest number of climate-related threats, such as changes in water quality, shifting seasons and harmful invasive species that move in as temperatures climb.

Mammals, such as the north Atlantic right whale and Florida panther, also face increased hardships, albeit on fewer fronts than amphibians, mollusks and arthropods.

Despite the overwhelming peril faced by America’s endangered species due to the climate crisis, the report, published in Nature Climate Change, found a patchy response from the U.S. government. Federal agencies consider just 64 percent of endangered species to be threatened by the climate crisis, while just 18 percent of listed species have protection plans in place.

“This study confirms that the climate crisis could make it even harder for nearly all of our country’s endangered species to avoid extinction,” said Astrid Caldas, a study co-author and a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“While agencies have increasingly listed climate change as a growing threat to species whose survival is already precarious, many have not translated this concern into tangible actions, meaning a significant protection gap still exists.”

Aimee Delach, senior policy analyst for climate adaptation at Defenders of Wildlife and Caldas’s co-author, said the Trump administration’s decision to weaken its interpretation of the Endangered Species Act was “disastrous” and likely to further slow down the response to climate threats.

In May, a landmark UN report warned that 1 million species around the world were at risk of extinction, with global heating one of the main pressure points on biodiversity.

This year a small brown rat called the Bramble Cay melomys, which lived on a small island off northern Australia, became the first mammal known to have become extinct due to human-driven climate change. Nearly half of Australian species are threatened by the climate crisis, researchers have found.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the endangered species list, said that while a species may be sensitive to changes in the climate, this sensitivity may not be so severe as to warrant being put on the list.

“Our process for determining this looks at five factors: threats to a species’ habitat, overutilization, disease or predation, existing regulatory mechanisms, and other factors that may affect its continued existence,” he said. “Through this scientifically rigorous process we examine and account for the effects of climate change.”

—Oliver Milman, The Guardian