How climate change affects life on earth

Posted on June, 07 2023

How we address the climate crisis impacts our future. A new visualization shows us versions of what could come.
A recent report by an international body of scientists exposes the sheer gravity of the climate crisis and the increasingly severe climate impacts facing people and nature. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report included a stunning data visualization that uses warming stripes - a series of coloured lines in chronological order that portray long-term temperature trends - to show how the climate people live with today differs from the climate that their parents experienced and the one that their children could experience. 

To drive home the impacts on nature, WWF created a new version which incorporates plants and animals to highlight how climate change affects generations across all species on the planet.

Climate change is already affecting species in terrestrial, freshwater and ocean ecosystems around the world, according to the IPCC. Future warming will make impacts worse. More frequent and more severe extreme events like droughts, floods, and fires, along with habitat degradation, changes in water cycles, and heat stress challenge most animal populations. Those impacts also affect humans, and lead to more competition among all life for resources. 

Take a look at the impact on a few of the species pictured:

Warm water corals

Warm water corals like red coral can live for hundreds of years. These organisms are highly sensitive to warming. In a very low warming future - one that limits temperature rise to 1.5ºC - the IPCC projects a loss of 70% of warm water corals. Beyond a 2ºC increase, virtually all warm water corals disappear.

Oak trees

There are about 500 species of oak trees, many of which can live over 250 years. So far, oaks have adapted to climate change by shifting their range and evolving genetically. But climate change harms these species as the frequency and ferocity of wildfires increases, pests gain more opportunities to thrive, and drought intensifies in some landscapes.


Whales are long-lived species, and bowhead whales can live more than 200 years in the wild. Climate change is affecting bowhead habitat use, distribution, and migration timing.

Nature is part of the solution

But while nature is impacted by climate change, it’s also part of the solution. Nature has slowed global warming by absorbing 54% of human-related CO2 emissions over the past decade. And if we reduce deforestation, restore ecosystems, manage forests, help soil store more carbon, and improve farming techniques, nature can absorb even more.

Nature offers protection as well. Healthy ecosystems can increase resilience and keep people safer from climate impacts. Coral reefs offer protection from storm surges, along with wetlands and mangroves. Forests also soak up excess rainwater, preventing run-offs, landslides, and damage from flooding.

We must act urgently to address the climate crisis. The changes we are already experiencing are causing dangerous and widespread disruptions in nature. Even though some species have managed to adapt to a warmer climate and will continue to do so, other natural systems are being pushed beyond their limits. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is important for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, but every fraction of a degree matters because effects worsen with every increment of warming.  

We know the steps that governments, businesses, and all of us must take to stop climate change at or before 1.5ºC. We must cut global emissions by half by 2030, as well as enhance and restore healthy ecosystems.

Original figure: IPCC Synthesis Report SPM 2023 (led by Alex Ruane and Background Stories)
Warming stripes: Ed Hawkins