Save great tits. Save ourselves.

A viral story about the songbird's potential extinction is also the story of everything else.

A pair of great tits. Source: Shirley Clarke/Fordingbridge Camera Club/Wikimedia commons.

Every so often, once a year give or take, a climate change story emerges that is so dire, so alarming, so fundamentally threatening to life and culture as we know it, that it has the ability to break through any news cycle—even one centered on the potential collapse of American democracy.

This is that story for the year 2020.

Great tits are, of course, a species of bird, known by the scientific name Parus major. And while their common name is pretty funny, their projected decline is no laughing matter—and speaks to much more than the fate of one flock.

But the world’s flock of great tits is indeed in danger. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Oxford say that, under a worst-case scenario where warming continues unabated, “whole populations of great tits will simply disappear by the year 2100 because they aren't able to procure enough food for their young,” Science Daily reports. That’s because climate change is causing earlier springs, which causes larvae that feed on plants to hatch earlier.

To keep up with these changes, great tits would have to start reproducing earlier in the spring. It’s not certain they’ll be able to adapt in time, researchers say. “Once predator phenology lagged behind prey by more than 24 days, rapid extinction was inevitable, despite previously stable population dynamics,” the scientists wrote. “Our projections suggest that current population stability could be masking a route to population collapse, if high greenhouse gas emissions continue.”

The loss of great tits would be a loss for the world. Unfortunately, Americans probably wouldn’t notice. There are approximately 300 million to 1.1 billion great tits in the world today, but practically none exist in the United States—proving once again that those who contribute most to climate change feel the least of its devastating consequences.

Great tits are native to Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In these places, the loss of great tits would be not just seen, but heard. While female great tits are mostly silent, males are known to be quite loud. Here is a video of the male great tits’ song.

While Americans may not see or hear the loss of the great tit directly, they would certainly suffer under the conditions that led to their extinction. Only a high-emission scenario would kill off the species, researchers say; great tits will likely survive low-to-medium warming trends.

But right now, the world is on a high-warming trend track, driven in large part by the United States’ long history of high emissions and low action to slash and capture them.

If that warming trend continues, far more than great tits will be under siege. More than 1 million animal and plant species across the world would face extinction; nearly all the world's coral reefs would likely die; and the sea level would raise by as much as 3 feet. Under a high-emissions scenario, this would happen in our children’s lifetimes: by the year 2100.

That high-emission scenario doesn’t have to happen, though. There’s still time to achieve the medium- and low-emission scenarios. Fortunately, the United States has just elected a president with a plan that climate scientists say could give the world “a fighting chance” to achieve the low-emission scenario, which avoids the deadliest, costliest, most irreversible consequences.

Unfortunately, even that scenario contains deadly and costly consequences. We’re seeing that reality play out right now, amid a devastating 2020 Atlantic hurricane season that has broken all records, and wildfire seasons unlike any other in California and Colorado. These consequences will continue to play out for at least several more decades even if we stop all fossil fuel emissions now.

But if we do stop fossil fuel emissions now—specifically, if we cut them in half by 2030, and then completely by 2050—we can save great tits.

And by saving great tits, we save ourselves, too.


In other bad bird (but mostly human) news

There’s alarmingly fowl play going on at the Audubon Society, the giant bird conservation organization, Zack Colman at Politico reports this morning.

In a damning and in-depth investigation, Colman reports that Audubon “maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.” One current employee said: "We have a real culture of retribution and punishment and fear."

This isn’t the first time a large environment- and climate-focused organization has been accused of mistreating its staff, particularly its non-white, non-male staff. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, has been under fire from current and former staff who have alleged a culture of systemic racism. Last year, the CEO of the Nature Conservancy stepped down in the wake of a sexual harassment and workplace misconduct investigation.

These allegations highlight an increasingly visible problem within large, old-guard environmental organizations: that they appear to prioritize trees and polar bears over human beings. This is why environmentalism has been siloed as a “niche” political issue for so long, and it’s why new, grassroots, youth-led groups like Sunrise Movement have so quickly become so influential. The new guard realizes that humans are part of nature, and that treating humans well is what environmentalism is all about. Any other interpretation is for the birds.


Recommended weekend reading:

  • Climate activists are preparing to pressure the Biden administration to implement the ambitious climate plan he ran and won on. Read about their efforts in Buzzfeed and InsideClimate. And read about environmental justice-specific efforts in Grist.

  • But oil and gas companies are preparing their efforts, too. Executives of fossil fuel companies tell CNBC they’re “not worried” about a Biden administration, and prepping to get his staff “on board” with their more “realistic” proposals. (Shockingly, none of their quotes mention whether it’s “realistic” to accept mass death and economic destruction from climate change).

  • Big Oil’s efforts to influence Biden will be disguised by sophisticated PR campaigns, probably run by FTI Consulting. It’s important every political reporter and activist working on climate politics know about the oil and gas industry’s massive corporate influence PR campaign, run and designed by FTI Consulting. Fortunately, the New York Times just published a great story about at how it works. These campaigns “often obscure the industry’s role [in causing climate change], portraying pro-petroleum groups as grass-roots movements,” and are “likely to grow in prominence, given President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s pledge to pursue bolder climate regulations,” the Times reports.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED! To support independent climate journalism that holds the powerful accountable—and to receive HEATED’s reporting and analysis in your inbox four days a week—become a subscriber today.

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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great weekend