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Coming to terms with "Climagedon"

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“The amount of change we are locked into is growing each and every day, and just as we need to take serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to make adaptation part of our lives and our life’s work,” says leading climatologist Lara Hansen. Here she delves into hope for helping wildlife and ecosystems survive and adapt to changing climate.

Ice crystals on Hall Mountain in northeast Washington. Photo by Aaron Theisen

Lara Hansen of Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange helps nonprofits and governments find a new way forward, redesigning conservation strategies to incorporate responses to climate change. By doing so, she hopes we can buy time for people and wildlife, building resilience into natural systems.

Read "Climate change and conservation" by biologist Reed Noss

For decades, field environmental biologists had observed and measured the Earth’s ecosystems as the effects of climate change began to manifest themselves. Now, conservation cannot avoid climate change. For the last 650,000 years amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have varied up and down but never gone above 350 parts per million. We are currently at 388 ppm, and current estimates range from 550 ppm to over 1,000 ppm by 2100.

When talking climate change, mitigation means one thing, adaptation another. Mitigation actions reduce the causes of global warming by lessening the sources of greenhouse gases. Burning less fossil fuel, stopping deforestation, curtailing the paving over of land, and planting trees are all forms of mitigation. Adaptation, however, involves acting to minimize the effects of climate change. Adaptation is where Conservation Northwest fits in, protecting natural systems and providing safe harbor for wildlife by connecting wildlands.

“The amount of change we are locked into is growing each and every day, and just as we need to take serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to make adaptation part of our lives and our life’s work,” says Hansen.

Yet these standard conservation tools, according to Hansen, are all vulnerable to climate change and we have to make sure we are assessing this vulnerability and making changes to reduce it—or risk big trouble.

“We want to keep the tools of conservation—protected areas, restoration, policy—but we need to change the way we do what we do in the face of ‘Climagedon.’ Business as usual is no better for conservation in the face of climate change than it is for greenhouse gas emissions.”

She also asserts, “The thing to keep in mind in this new paradigm is ‘Don’t panic!’”

Adaptation made easy

  1. The underlying principle is to make systems more robust, but keep your core conservation goal clearly in mind. 

  2. Assemble the climate change information you have and figure out how it affects your goal. 

  3. Brainstorm how you can meet your goal given what you know about climate change and your goals’ vulnerabilities. Don’t wait. You just lose opportunities and end up in a conservation cul de sac.

  4. Start taking action, monitoring effectiveness, and talking to other people. Time is of the essence.

A climate of conservation

  1. Protect adequate and appropriate areas in a changing world. As “bet hedges,” include a variety of protected places as refugia for plants and animals and make watersheds functional.
  2. Reduce non-climate stresses, e.g., pollution of waterways, exacerbated by or exacerbating the effects of climate change. Make sure the solutions aren’t vulnerable.
  3. Manage for uncertainty, thinking not of linear change but increasing vulnerability. Use big scale thinking; be flexible.
  4. Reduce the rate and extent of local and regional climate change, such as protecting streamside vegetation
  5. Reduce the rate and extent of global climate change.
Wolf tracks at Katmai. Photo by Chris Morgan

As we plan for adaptation, Hansen refers us to Amory Lovins’ classic quote, ‘There is no box.’ She says, “We need new and creative thinking. Figure out first the dominant climate change effects, then brainstorm the options, applying local knowledge and layers,” she says.

“An example is the recent watershed effort by Sierra Club and American Rivers, who assessed NOAA and University of Washington Climate Impacts Group data for the North Cascades and Olympic Peninsula to identify regional vulnerabilities. We know that some areas in this region will transition from snow to rain by as early as 2020. To deal with this, these groups came up with a strategy that includes ideas like building snow fences to store snow and prolong water flow into summer, reintroducing beavers for flood control, and managing rivers for temperature, flow, and fish access.”

To determine which areas might be better bets to protect, we can look to climate refugia, places where plants and animals have weathered changes in the past, and the historic record of ecosystems. “Look for places where trees stayed during interglacial events. Look for places that don’t change much. Protect them.”

Don’t panic, get to work!

But since everything eventually has some sort of breaking point, says Hansen, it’s also important to look at where things will move when they must. Focus can therefore also be on protecting lands that include a range of elevation and habitat, and connections between wildlands or protected areas can also be beneficial, for example, Conservation Northwest’s work to protect wilderness in the Columbia Highlands to connect Cascades to BC Rockies.

When focusing on protected areas, “I like to pick places that have fewer climate and non-climate stressors and more ecosystem diversity. It’s called ‘bet hedging’. I like bet hedging because I can predict that many of our predictions will be wrong. Timing, location, and severity will vary.”

Hansen also finds the world of active management brimming with sound ideas. “Humans have already altered some of these systems,” she says, “so it’s good to focus on what we can do that might make them more robust to the changes that we see afoot.” An example of active management is Conservation Northwest’s collaborative work in the Okanogan and Colville National Forests, including thinning to encourage diversity and give breathing room to crowded managed forests and the reintroduction of fire into dry forests.

Some options, however, need to be weighed carefully like ‘assisted migration.’ “At first it seems like a great idea to move things to where we believe they will do better,” says Hansen. “But in the long run, such approaches may shut down options. You really don’t want things that require a great deal of human management because someday the money or interest may run out. It may be a better investment to get systems back to a self-managed resilient state.”

Lara Hansen has worked on climate change for decades. When she says, “Don’t panic. Get to work!” that’s good news for us. “I have hope for reducing our carbon emissions. I believe people will do the right thing, but we are already committed to long-term change. Right now, we’ve more political will for protecting people in the face of climate change, than the natural world. We need to develop the long-term plan for how we protect the natural world as these changes evolve and continue. And for effective conservation, we need all of our choices and actions to be good and robust.”

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