Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: Impacts on ecosystems and human well-being

+ See all authors and affiliations

Science  31 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6332, eaai9214
DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9214

You are currently viewing the abstract.

View Full Text

Consequences of shifting species distributions

Climate change is causing geographical redistribution of plant and animal species globally. These distributional shifts are leading to new ecosystems and ecological communities, changes that will affect human society. Pecl et al. review these current and future impacts and assess their implications for sustainable development goals.

Science, this issue p. eaai9214

Structured Abstract


The success of human societies depends intimately on the living components of natural and managed systems. Although the geographical range limits of species are dynamic and fluctuate over time, climate change is impelling a universal redistribution of life on Earth. For marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species alike, the first response to changing climate is often a shift in location, to stay within preferred environmental conditions. At the cooler extremes of their distributions, species are moving poleward, whereas range limits are contracting at the warmer range edge, where temperatures are no longer tolerable. On land, species are also moving to cooler, higher elevations; in the ocean, they are moving to colder water at greater depths. Because different species respond at different rates and to varying degrees, key interactions among species are often disrupted, and new interactions develop. These idiosyncrasies can result in novel biotic communities and rapid changes in ecosystem functioning, with pervasive and sometimes unexpected consequences that propagate through and affect both biological and human communities.


At a time when the world is anticipating unprecedented increases in human population growth and demands, the ability of natural ecosystems to deliver ecosystem services is being challenged by the largest climate-driven global redistribution of species since the Last Glacial Maximum. We demonstrate the serious consequences of this species redistribution for economic development, livelihoods, food security, human health, and culture, and we document feedbacks on climate itself. As with other impacts of climate change, species range shifts will leave “winners” and “losers” in their wake, radically reshaping the pattern of human well-being between regions and different sectors and potentially leading to substantial conflict. The pervasive impacts of changes in species distribution transcend single systems or dimensions, with feedbacks and linkages between multiple interacting scales and through whole ecosystems, inclusive of humans. We argue that the negative effects of climate change cannot be adequately anticipated or prepared for unless species responses are explicitly included in decision-making and global strategic frameworks.


Despite mounting evidence for the pervasive and substantial impacts of a climate-driven redistribution of Earth’s species, current global goals, policies, and international agreements fail to account for these effects. With the predicted intensification of species movements and their diverse societal and environmental impacts, awareness of species “on the move” should be incorporated into local, regional, and global assessments as standard practice. This will raise hope that future targets—whether they be global sustainability goals, plans for regional biodiversity maintenance, or local fishing or forestry harvest strategies—can be achievable and that society is prepared for a world of universal ecological change. Human society has yet to appreciate the implications of unprecedented species redistribution for life on Earth, including for human lives. Even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, the responses required in human systems to adapt to the most serious effects of climate-driven species redistribution would be massive. Meeting these challenges requires governance that can anticipate and adapt to changing conditions, as well as minimize negative consequences.

As the global climate changes, human well-being, ecosystem function, and even climate itself are increasingly affected by the shifting geography of life.

Climate-driven changes in species distributions, or range shifts, affect human well-being both directly (for example, through emerging diseases and changes in food supply) and indirectly (by degrading ecosystem health). Some range shifts even create feedbacks (positive or negative) on the climate system, altering the pace of climate change.


Distributions of Earth’s species are changing at accelerating rates, increasingly driven by human-mediated climate change. Such changes are already altering the composition of ecological communities, but beyond conservation of natural systems, how and why does this matter? We review evidence that climate-driven species redistribution at regional to global scales affects ecosystem functioning, human well-being, and the dynamics of climate change itself. Production of natural resources required for food security, patterns of disease transmission, and processes of carbon sequestration are all altered by changes in species distribution. Consideration of these effects of biodiversity redistribution is critical yet lacking in most mitigation and adaptation strategies, including the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

  • All authors after the first author are listed alphabetically

View Full Text

Related Content