Conservation Now: Blogging from IUCN 2016
From Despair to Hope: Adapting to a Changing Climate
By Molly Cross
September 7, 2016
[NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of blogs by WCS staff at the IUCN World Conservation Congress taking place September 1–10 in Honolulu, Hawaii]
While attending the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, I have spent much of my time listening to conservation colleagues from around the world discuss the challenges they are already facing from a changing climate, such as rising sea levels and more intense coastal storm surges, devastating droughts driven by unusually hot temperatures, and expansions and shifts in agricultural and other human land use practices.
And I have become increasingly worried. Worried about what the future might bring as greenhouse gas pollution further alters the Earth’s climate, but also troubled by the way that information about climate change causes many in the conservation community — and the general public — to feel despondent about the problem.
In 2013, a Yale Project on Climate Change Communications survey found that at least 4 in 10 Americans say they feel “helpless” or “sad” about climate change.
This concerns me because feeling down and depressed is not a place from which we draw creative energy and ideas for solving difficult problems. And we are going to need as many creative ideas as we can find to address the root cause of climate change by reducing the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (also called “climate change mitigation”) and to prepare for its effects (“climate change adaptation”).
While climate change does pose a lot of bad news for plants, animals and ecosystems that society values and depends on, the good news is that there are actions we can take to help nature and people prepare for and respond to its effects.
One of the most important actions we can take is to protect large and intact ecosystems. While this is already an important strategy for biodiversity conservation, it becomes an even greater imperative in the face of climate change.
Large and intact ecosystems offer essential opportunities for plants and animals to adapt to changing climate by giving them space to move. These intact areas also support evolutionary adaptations and help species track suitable climate and habitat conditions. Additionally, intact ecosystems contribute to climate change mitigation by capturing and storing carbon dioxide and keeping it out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
We also need to look closely at our less intact landscapes and determine the most effective ways to adapt conservation approaches to be as successful as possible given the changing climate.
The first tool to proactively plan for climate change: “know thy enemy.” We can do this through observational studies, computer modeling, and taking advantage of local knowledge about climate change effects, all of which help us to assess key vulnerabilities — and potential opportunities — facing human and natural systems.
At the same time, step-wise climate change adaptation planning approaches offer blueprints for tailoring our conservation goals and actions to be as effective as possible under plausible scenarios of climate and environment change.
Another piece of good news is that there are a growing number of examples of conservation practitioners taking actions to help wildlife and ecosystems adapt to the effects of climate change. WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) is working with diverse partners around the globe to implement adaptation actions, and in the United States we have awarded more than $9 million in grants through the WCS Climate Adaptation Fund to support on-the-ground actions for climate change adaptation.
These projects provide inspiration and ideas to others. For example, WCS is helping communities within the Vatu-i-Ra seascape of Fiji identify and prioritize coral reefs that are naturally better able to cope with climate change impacts, and protect those resilient reefs through the designation of marine protected areas and more stringent management of fishing grounds.
In Minnesota, USA, The Nature Conservancy is using WCS Climate Adaptation Fund grant support to proactively maintain forest habitat for birds and mammals, and timber resources for the local economy, by facilitating the transition of a cold-loving boreal forest to one dominated by trees from the region that are better-adapted to warmer conditions.
Conserving intact ecosystems, proactively planning for future changes, and on-the-ground adaptation projects may not make all of our climate change concerns disappear. But they offer important opportunities for us to move beyond a sense of despondency. At this critical moment, we must channel our energy and creativity towards a more problem-solving mentality about how we help wildlife, ecosystems, and human communities thrive even as climate changes.
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Molly Cross is the Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for the Americas Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).