Climate Change and British Wildlife: an interview with Trevor Beebee

Climate Change and British Wildlife is the sixth installment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this timely text, Trevor Beebee takes advantage of our long history of wildlife monitoring to examine the effects that climate change has played so far on British species and their ecosystems. He also considers what the future may hold for them in a constantly warming environment.

Trevor Beebee is Emeritus Professor of Evolution, Behaviour and Environment at the University of Sussex, Trustee of the Herpetological Conservation and Amphibian Conservation Research Trusts and President of the British Herpetological Society. He is also author of the Amphibians and Reptiles Naturalists’ Handbook and co-author of the Amphibian Habitat Management Handbook.

Last week, Trevor visited NHBS to sign copies of Climate Change and British Wildlife (signed copies are exclusively available from NHBS). We also took the opportunity to chat him about the background behind the book, his thoughts on conservation and his hopes for the future of British wildlife. Read the full conversation below.

Where did the impetus and inspiration for this book come from? Is it a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

It started in the garden some 40 years ago. For me, first arrivals of newts in the ponds were a welcome indicator that spring was on the way and I logged the dates year on year. It gradually dawned on me that the differences were not random but that arrivals were becoming increasingly early. Climate change seemed the obvious cause, and as evidence accumulated from so many diverse studies, it seemed like a good subject to write about.

The research required to cover so many taxonomic groups so comprehensively must have been immense. How long did you work on this book, including research, writing and editing?

The book took about a year to write. Electronic access to scientific journals made the research much easier and quicker than it would have been 20 years ago. Editing also took quite a while, greatly assisted by the perceptive advice of Katy Roper (my Bloomsbury editor).

The book covers plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, fungi, lichens and microbes as well as communities and individual ecosystems. Are there any of these that you feel are particularly at risk? Or conversely, are there any that you feel are more robust and are likely to better weather the effects of continued climate change?

It became evident as I researched that cold-adapted species including Arctic-alpine plants and fish such as the Vendace are in trouble, and that worrying trend is likely to generate declines or even extinctions in the coming decades. The ecology of the North Sea is also undergoing dramatic changes, some of which have precipitated seabird declines, especially of species such as Kittiwakes that rely heavily on sand eels. At the other extreme, mature woodland seems relatively resilient to climate change.

We have a rich history of wildlife monitoring and recording in the UK, much of which is undertaken by volunteers. Why do you think this is?

I believe that the media can take much of the credit for stimulating these activities. The end of the second world war was followed by the publication of a plethora of natural history books, from the I-Spy series (I still have a copy of ‘Ponds and Streams’), through the Observer series to the flagship New Naturalists. Then came television, with pioneers such as Peter Scott and David Attenborough in the 1950s. We’ve never looked back, with Springwatch today regularly attracting two million or more viewers. Brilliant!

Do you think that a thorough understanding of long-term monitoring and datasets can and should inform our decisions about where to focus conservation efforts?

Yes indeed, and fortunately such datasets are steadily increasing. The recent State of Nature reports have relied heavily on them, and they provide solid evidence that decision-makers can hardly ignore. One proviso though. For some species, especially rare ones, it is still difficult to obtain the necessary information. It would be a great mistake to ignore the plight of plants or animals clearly in difficulty simply because we don’t have robust monitoring data.

How did you feel after writing this book? Are you optimistic or despondent about the future for British wildlife?

Relieved! Sadly, though, not at all optimistic. There are some well-publicised success stories, such as the resurgence of several raptors, but more than fifty percent of Britain’s wildlife species are in continuous decline and there’s no sign of an end to that. Climate change is a problem for some, but it’s not the main one. Postwar agricultural intensification is the major villain, and it carries on regardless.

What single policy change would you like to see to alter the future of conservation in the UK?

A serious commitment to change farming practices into ones that sustain our rich wildlife heritage. Research shows that this is possible without dramatic impacts on food production, despite the claims of the agrochemical industry. With a human population the size of that in the UK it will never be possible to provide enough food without imports and it’s about time that was accepted by farmers and politicians alike.

Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline?

The book I would like to write is one on the impact of overpopulation on British wildlife. It’s a sensitive subject but one clearly recognised by naturalists of the calibre of David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Chris Packham, among others. The most serious issues, including intensive farming practices, relate directly to the number of people dependent on them.

Climate Change and British Wildlife is published by British Wildlife Publishing and is available from NHBS. 

Signed copies of the book are available, while stocks last.

Anthropogenic Climate Change: Arguments for and against

This post is the second of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.


There is a broad scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and its causes. Readers starting off on this topic have plenty to choose from to get them started, for example Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Romm, 2015), Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (Maslin, 2014), or the rather whimsical Ladybird Expert book Climate Change (Juniper & Shuckburgh, 2017). Al Gore thrust the topic into the limelight with An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It (2006). For those who want the full picture, there is Climate Change 2014 (IPCC, 2015), the fifth series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC operates under the auspices of the United Nations, and was set up at the request of member The Discovery of Global Warminggovernments in 1988. Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Archer, 2011) is an excellent starting point to help readers understand the science behind the assessment reports. Another valuable contribution is The Discovery of Global Warming (2008), written by science historian Spencer R. Weart, one of the few books charting the historical development of climate science.

But the science is only one facet of climate change; this spills over into politics and policy. Despite decades of research by scientists and an expanding body of evidence, the world at large, both its leaders and everyday individuals, seem unable to make much headway in addressing the issue, and unable to agree what the best way forward is. A good starting point analysing this from many sides is The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Dryzek et al. 2011). William Nordhaus is one of several economists to have written about policies implemented so far (and their ineffectiveness) in The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013). Other books have been written offering explanations as to why we seem unable to act, tapping into psychological and sociological aspects, for example Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Norgaard, 2011), Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Hamilton, 2010), and Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Hulme, 2009). And plenty of authors have issued calls to action, ranging in tone from polemic (This Why We Disagree About Climate ChangeChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Klein, 2014)), to ominous (Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Hansen, 2009)) to seemingly fatalistic (Too Late: How We Lost the Battle with Climate Change (Maslen, 2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Hamilton, 2017), or Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future (Jamieson, 2014)).

Part of the reason there is still no clear progress is that there is still plenty of scepticism. Broadly speaking, the sceptics belong to one of two groups.

On the one hand there are the ‘reasonable’ sceptics who bring valuable contributions to the debate. These authors do not deny that climate change is happening, but are critical of model predictions (though see A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Edward, 2010) for a good rebuttal of that argument), and the efficacy of proposed policies to address the issue. Good starting points are An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Lawson, 2008), or The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (Pielke, 2010). The latter has also published a short book that is sceptical of the oft-heard claim that climate change will increase natural disasters. His analysis, presented in The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (Pielke, 2014), concludes that these claims are not borne out by the evidence. The Lomborg DeceptionIn short, there are simply more people and more property in harm’s way, giving the impression that natural disasters have become worse. Even Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) does not deny the reality of climate change (but see The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming (Friel, 2010), for a wide-ranging rebuttal of his environmental claims).

In the second group there is a vocal minority of climate sceptics and denialists who claim climate change is being exaggerated (Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything (Michaels & Knappenberger, 2016)), is not borne out by the evidence (Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science (Plimer, 2009), Global Warming – Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: Unstoppable Global WarmingA Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change (Robinson & Robinson, 2012)), or can be attributed to other natural causes such as long-term natural cycles (Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (Singer, 2006)) or solar activity (The Neglected Sun: Why the Sun Precludes Climate Catastrophe (Vahrenholt & Lüning, 2015)). Climate Change: The Facts (Moran, 2015) bundles essays touching on these and other objections.

In their 2013 paper, Dunlap & Jacques noted that many climate change denial books (including the ones above) are published by conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Marshall Institute. Many of these think tanks receive funding from fossil fuel or other corporations, making their neutrality questionable. Though denialist books are now increasingly self-published via so-called vanity presses, Dunlap & Jacques highlight that such books are rarely peer reviewed, allowing authors to make scientifically inaccurate and discredited claims that they can keep recycling, no matter how often climate scientists have already patiently refuted these, or shown them to be logically untenable.

This leads to books on climate scepticism campaigns, as documented in the light-hearted The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Mann, 2016), Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics (Nuccitelli, 2015), The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Mann, 2012), The Inquisition of Climate Science (Powell, 2011), Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Washington & Cook, 2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009).

Within the welter of claims and counter-claims, Michael Mann has, and continues to be, a key protagonist, starting with his famous paper in Geophysical Research Letters that contained a figure showing global temperature change over the past 1,000 years, the “hockey stick graph”. The graph rapidly became an icon in the efforts to undermine the credibility of climate science and the researchers involved (see for example “A Disgrace to the Profession” (Steyn, 2015), or The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Montford, 2010)). When in November 2009 thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were released during a server hack – an episode that became known as “Climategate” – Mann once again found himself the centre of attention. Snippets from these emails, some of which included correspondence with Mann, were rapidly taken up by popular media, with sceptics arguing they showed global warming was a scientific conspiracy and scientists were manipulating climate data. No fewer than eight committees, both in the US and the UK, investigated these allegations and found no evidence of fraud or misconduct. Mann covers this in his books, but also see The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming (Pearce, 2006).

One final point worth mentioning on this topic, as often pointed out by climate scientists, is that even if things do not pan out as bad as we feared, given the potentially devastating impact, we should heed the precautionary principle, as laid out in Philosophy and the Precautionary Principle: Science, Evidence, and Environmental Policy (Steel, 2014).

Click here for Part 3, which looks at the discussion surrounding evolutionary biology.

State of the Planet assessments

End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth

Ever since George Perkins Marsh’s seminal 1864 work, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, books assessing the state of the planet have become a staple part of the environmental literature. Marsh’s magnificent work spawned some valuable retrospectives, including Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (1956) and The Earth as Transformed by Human Action (1993).

But, since 2000, most of the really good stuff on biosphere and ecosystems science has been beyond the reach of many, behind the paywall of scientific journals (e.g. John Estes’ superb Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth, Dirzo’s Defaunation in the Anthropocene, and Diffenbaugh’s Changes in Ecologically Critical Terrestrial Climate Conditions).

Following his 2012 paper in Nature, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, Anthony Barnosky might well have followed the same route – but thankfully this brilliant and passionate scientist is also a believer in reaching out to a broader public: see his latest book, End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth.

Another leading light of planetary ecological assessment is the Swedish scientist, Johan Rockstrom, inventor of the ‘planetary boundaries’ concept, and author of perhaps the most influential peer-reviewed paper of the last decade (A safe operating space for humanity). He also has a new book just out, Big World, Small Planet.

Other notable recent publications on this theme include: The God Species (Lynas), The Sixth Extinction, an Unnatural History (Kolbert), the magisterial Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Eaarth (McKibben), The Living Planet report 2014, (WWF), Here on Earth (Flannery), and Global Environmental Outlook 5.

The Week in Review – 12th December

Dragonfly
Dragonfly use neurological calculations which allow them to actually predict the movements of their prey. Photo by John Flannery.

News from outside the nest

This week…we learned why pufferfish build sandcastles and how it has taken us such a long time to observe this particular behaviour.

A study published this week in Nature showed us how dragonflies go beyond mere reflexive responses and actually predict the movements of their prey as they are hunting.

This short guide helped us to address the most common questions posed by “climate change challengers”.

We discovered the OceanAdapt website which lets members of the public search and download geographic data of more than 650 species of fish and invertebrates and track how these have changed over time…a hugely valuable resource for fishermen and scientists.

Camouflage in the natural world is incredibly common and well understood. However, a paper published this week by the Royal Society revealed a new kind of camouflage exhibited by the beautiful harlequin filefish: smell camouflage.

And finally…we were amazed by this extraordinary bird that disguises itself as a caterpillar.

New arrivals at the warehouse

Useful and fun: these cute animal head torches are a great stocking filler for young outdoor enthusiasts.

 

 

The Week in Review – 5th December

Trawler
The Global Fishing Watch Project has made satellite data from fishing vessels freely available online to raise citizen awareness of overfishing. Image by Winky.

 

News from outside the nest

This week…we read a great article about the “Send us your Skeletons” project and learned about the power of citizen science in gathering valuable data.

We also learned about the importance of citizen awareness in the Global Fishing Watch project. This amazing new scheme uses satellite data to make global issues of overfishing much more transparent, as well as making huge quantities of fisheries science data available to researchers.

These beautiful images hosted by Rough Guide showed us some incredible views of forests around the world.

With temperatures in 2014 now reported to be the hottest on record, we took a look at how different places around the world have experienced these heatwaves.

We learned about the feeding behaviour of the aptly named killer whale – and discovered why they are suddenly preying on humpbacks.

And finally…Martin Litton, one of the great pioneers of the environmental movement, sadly died on Sunday. In this article from the National Geographic we read about his life and legacy.

New arrivals at the warehouse

The 5th edition of the Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland contains stunning illustrations and photographs. It also features descriptions, distribution maps and site guides alongside a whole host of other great information.

The Barnacle Goose, the new Poyser Monograph, contains more than 25 years worth of research on these fascinating and sociable birds.

These Haglof Increment Borers are made from high quality Swedish steel – just the job for all your tree core sampling needs.

 

The week in review – 14th November

This week we studied the formation of snowflakes
The complex and beautiful shapes formed by snowflakes are caused by the specific conditions experienced during their formation. Photo by bkaree1.

News from outside the nest

The Convention on Migratory Species in Ecuador, which closed on Sunday, approved greater protection measures for 31 species. These included the much loved polar bear, currently at risk from a warming arctic climate.

The world’s first solar bike lane, connecting the Amsterdam suburbs of Krommenie and Wormerveer, opened in the Netherlands.

In this documentary by William Douglas McMaster, we learned all about the man that single-handedly created a forest.

A study released this week showed that European bird species are declining at an alarming rate. This is a loss both for our world and in our hearts.

We took a look at the new trend for urban farming projects in Los Angeles.

A new antibiotic found in a mushroom living on horse dung may help to provide valuable information on antibiotic resistance.

And finally…with winter rapidly approaching (for us folk in the northern hemisphere) we discovered the fascinating world of snowflakes.

New arrivals at the warehouse

The Book of Beetles offers glorious lifesize photographs of six hundred beetle species along with distribution maps and other important information for each.

This new Bradt Guide to the Wildlife of Madagascar celebrates the unique fauna of a marvellous island.

These Sapphire ED Binoculars from Hawke Optics are winners of the Best Birding Binoculars 2013 Award.

The EasyLog Mini USB Temperature Logger is pocket-sized and affordable and will log temperatures for up to a month with one battery.

 

The Skeptical Environmentalist is back with Smart Solutions to Climate Change

Bjørn Lomborg shot to fame with The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, a book which generated a great deal of interest from scientists and the media alike. The debate which followed focused on Lomborg’s general assertion that much of what environmentalists claimed was not nearly as bad as they reported. FromThe Skeptical Environmentalist jacket image pollution to public health, and the extinction of biodiversity to climate change, Lomborg offered analysis to show a better than feared picture. Several books since (e.g. The Lomborg Deception) have taken Lomborg to task over his methods and choice of data, and much has been made, particularly by the climate deniers, of his dismissive coverage of global warming.

Well… following on from The Skeptical Environmentalist, and his later book Cool It, he’s back to answer his critics with a new edited book on our response to climate change. Smart Solutions to Climate Change takes catastrophic climate change as a starting point. “I am saying what I have always said” says Lomborg, “that the climate is a real and important, man-made problem, but that we are Smart Solutions to Climate Change jacket imagehandling it badly”. A panel of authors (economists – including three Nobel laureates) examine a range of policy and technology responses to climate change and suggest we change emphasis – shifting away from a Kyoto/Copenhagen focus on reducing emissions, and instead invest $100 billion in new technology funded by a carbon tax.

This is an in-depth and fairly technical read, but thought provoking and accessible. No matter what your views on Lomborg, he is now addressing what many see as a looming reality – that we are not making anywhere near enough progress in responding to climate change, and that even building on what’s already been started will not fix the problem.