Cancun talks ignore intrusive aspect of climate change

December 8, 2010
pine beetle

One pesky aspect of climate change is that rising temperatures  and stronger storms may increase  invasions of non-native species to places that have no natural defenses against them.

The issue is mostly being ignored at the annual U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, California’s Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura said.

Just a few miles away from the talks an island called Isla Mujeres has been fighting an infestation of cactus moth swept there during a hurricane, storms that are expected to get stronger as a result of climate change.  The moth destroys prickly pears, and if it makes it to mainland –ferries full of tourists go to and fro Cancun to the island all day long — it would could harm more than the price of prickly pear fruit for your margarita.

Mexico is afraid it could reach the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts and hurt the 76 types of pricklies there and the 38 found only in Mexico. Many insects eat only the cacti and in turn many desert birds and mammals depend on those insects.

Pricklies are also an important food source in Mexico — you might have had them in a nopales soup or salad.

Another example is biting midges swept up in dust storms from North Africa that infect European sheep and cattle with blue tongue disease, a big headache for countries trying to sell livestock to other countries.

Another is the pine beetle creeping farther North in North America and killing vast swaths of tree stands as average winters are too mild to kill it off.

Stas Burgiel of the U.S. National Invasive Species Council says mankind has been dealing with invasive species for 10,000 years as migrants introduced species by accident or on purpose to new areas.  Invaders cost the world $1.4 trillion a year in damage to crops, lost real estate value, and tourism earnings.

Nobody can say a single invasion is the result of climate change alone. A fungus killing bats around the world may have more to do with more people taking up spelunking and bringing home spores only found deep down in caves on their backpacks.

But climate change can make the problems — and the price tag of the damage — worse and more widespread. The biological fires we are seeing today may be a sign of the future, the scientists said.

Take the invasion of giant Asian carp that threaten to eat up almost everything in the Great Lakes. Every flood — again another expected impact of climate change —  in the Midwest threatens to carry the invader to to the lakes.

An electric gate in the Illinois River is one of the few lines of defense.  If only we all had electric gates to stop disease-carrying mosquitoes and other pests from flying to new places as the world warms.

Kawamura, Burgiel and their colleagues hope invasive species will feature more prominently in next year’s climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

Photo of pine beetle: REUTERS/Handout

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