Climate change could destroy half of Earth's animal and plant species in the next 50 years, disturbing study says

A disturbing new study suggests that climate change could wipe out half of the planet’s animal and plant species by 2070.

The research notes that if temperatures rise 0.5 degrees Celsius around the globe, approximately half of the world's species would become locally extinct. If temperatures were to rise 2.9 degrees Celsius, 95 percent of the species would become locally extinct.

"In a way, it's a 'choose your own adventure,'" one of the study's authors, John Wiens, said in a statement. "If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results."

The common giant tree frog from Madagascar is one of many species impacted by recent climate change. (Credit: John J. Wiens)

The common giant tree frog from Madagascar is one of many species impacted by recent climate change. (Credit: John J. Wiens)

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The decade that just ended was by far the hottest ever measured on Earth, capped off by the second-warmest year on record, 2019, according to data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The decade had eight of the 10 hottest years on record. The only other years in the top 10 were 2005 and 1998.

Wiens and the other researchers looked at data from 538 species in 581 different parts of the globe. The focus was on "plant and animal species that were surveyed at the same sites over time, at least 10 years apart," the statement said, adding that 44 percent of the 538 species had already gone extinct at one or more of the sites.

"Surprisingly, extinctions occurred at sites with smaller changes in mean annual temperatures but larger increases in hottest yearly temperatures," the study's authors wrote.

"By analyzing the change in 19 climatic variables at each site, we could determine which variables drive local extinctions and how much change a population can tolerate without going extinct," study co-author Cristian Román-Palacios added.

"We also estimated how quickly populations can move to try and escape rising temperatures," Román-Palacios continued. "When we put all of these pieces of information together for each species, we can come up with detailed estimates of global extinction rates for hundreds of plant and animal species."

Other studies have previously focused on the species migrating to cooler habitats to avoid the negative impact from a warming climate. However, Wiens and Román-Palacios said that most of these species will not be able to move fast enough to avoid extinction.

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They added that species that lived in tropical regions were two to four times more likely to go extinct than those in temperate parts of the world.

"This is a big problem because the majority of plant and animal species occur in the tropics," Román-Palacios said.

The research was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In early November, the Trump administration began its formal withdrawal from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, which was agreed to in 2015 under the Obama administration. As part of the agreement, nearly 200 nations, including China, would provide their own goals to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases that lead to climate change.

Skeptics have largely dismissed fears over man’s impact on global warming, saying climate change has been going on since the beginning of time. They also claim the dangers of a warming planet are being wildly exaggerated and question the impact that fossil fuels have had on climate change.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.