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6.4: Beneficiaries of Climate Change

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  • To be clear, not all species will suffer equally from climate change. In fact, there are some species that will be resilient, and others that will even benefit from a warming world. Primary among the beneficiaries are plants in the northern areas of Europe, Asia, and North America (Zabel et al., 2014), and to a lesser extent in southern South America and New Zealand. In these areas, plants will benefit from longer growing seasons (earlier springs and shorter winters) and increased CO2 concentrations (which will increase photosynthesis rates).

    Generalist species with high genetic diversity and that reproduce quickly are likely to benefit from climate change. Many species that exhibit these traits carry diseases and are agricultural pests.

    Closer to home, a variety of African species are also expected to benefit from climate change. These include generalist species currently limited by interactions with localised specialists that are—at least at present—better competitors for limiting resources. Some tropical species may thrive as their habitats become hotter and wetter. Species with high genetic diversity that reproduce quickly (allowing for rapid adaption to environmental changes) are also likely to benefit. Unfortunately, many species that exhibit these traits carry diseases (Box 6.3) and are agricultural pests (Serdeczny et al., 2017). For example, populations of the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei)—Africa’s most notorious coffee pest—are expected to greatly increase in a warmer world (Jaramillo et al., 2011). This growing threat is particularly worrying given that higher temperatures have already reduced coffee harvests in countries such as Tanzania by as much as 50% (Craparo et al., 2015).

    Box 6.3 Habitat Alteration, Climate Change, and Mosquito-Borne Diseases

    Kevin Njabo

    Center for Tropical Research,

    UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability,

    Los Angeles, CA, USA.

    With unprecedented climate change looming, mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, will impact humans and wildlife in novel and unpredictable ways. While climate change is global in nature, changes due to habitat alteration are occurring more rapidly on a local scale, and are having significant effects on mosquito-borne diseases (Figure 6.C). For example, destruction of Peruvian rainforests unleashed more than 120,000 cases of malaria in the late 1990s, compared to fewer than 150 nine years earlier (Vitor et al., 2006).


    Figure 6.C (Top) Trucks transporting recently logged trees in Gabon. Photograph by David Stanley,, CC BY 2.0. (Bottom) Anopheles funestus, one of the most important vectors of malaria in Africa. Photograph by USCDCP, CC0.

    The rainforests of the Congo Basin harbour roughly 20% of all known plant and animal species on Earth. Yet, habitat alteration continues at an alarming rate (Harris et al., 2012). Exacerbating these threats is the fact that Africa (Boko et al., 2007), and Central Africa in particular (McClean et al., 2006), are predicted to be some of the most severely affected by climate change. Predicted temperature increases would lead to longer seasons of malaria transmission and a 5–7% extension of the disease into higher latitudes (Craig et al., 1999, Boko et al., 2007). Coupled with projected population growth, climate change would nearly double the number of people at risk of infection from dengue fever by 2080. This is concerning because Africa is particularly vulnerable to environmental changes due to its limited adaptive capacity, widespread poverty, and low levels of development.

    How then, will habitat alteration and climate change affect mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria? The relationship between disease transmission, habitat alteration, and climate change is complex. Though deforestation increases the risk of disease transmission (Vitor et al., 2006), different malaria-carrying mosquitoes (Anopheles spp.) are adapted to different microclimates. Ironically, our multi-faceted ecosystems both play the role of maintaining transmission cycles with cross-infections to humans and regulating those cycles while controlling spill-over into human populations. The balance between these factors is influenced by the availability of suitable habitat for mosquitoes and of reservoir hosts of infection. In an ideal world, transmission cycles are regulated by density-dependent processes such as acquired immunity to infectious diseases, and by limits on the carrying capacity of the environment to support insects and hosts.

    Altered natural habitats and possible increases in disease transmission from animals to people also increase potential risks of new pathogens adapting to human hosts. Only about 2,000 of an estimated 1 million unique viruses carried by wild vertebrate species with potential zoonotic threats have been described. For example, when a lentivirus of chimpanzees first jumped into humans in the 1930s, not many people died. But the disease carved a foothold in the rapidly growing African city of Kinshasa in DRC and evolved into a form that efficiently preyed upon humans. More than 78 million people were infected between 1981 and 2015. To date, the disease it causes, AIDS, has killed more than 39 million people, while another estimated 37 million people are living with HIV.

    Today, habitat alteration, such as deforestation, is not only driving species extinct and emitting lots of climate-changing carbon dioxide, it is also increasing opportunities for mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, to infect more humans in new places. Technological advances, including mathematical and computer modelling, genomics, and satellite tracking, will hopefully allow us to predict future disease outbreaks better. But we can also reduce outbreak opportunities by taking better care of our environment.

    One group of species currently threatened with extinction that may benefit from a warmer world is marine turtles. Researchers working on Cabo Verde speculate that the island nation’s loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta VU) populations will benefit from an increasing female-biased sex ratio (as expected under warmer conditions) given that a single male can breed with several females (Laloë et al., 2014). However, the researchers note that this population requires continued monitoring as insurance against demographic stochasticity (Section 8.7.2) that may become a larger threat under climate change.

    Climate change has the potential to greatly restructure the world’s ecosystems, ecosystem services, and national economies.

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