Even if an international agreement in Copenhagen succeeds in putting the world on a pathway toward significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, people and nature are going to be dealing with the impacts of rising seas, melting permafrost and changing climate patterns for years to come.
What are the cures? How can we help people and nature survive under a changed climate? How can we maintain productive farmlands, protect water supplies, and sustain the natural resources that we depend on? What does conservation need to do differently?
Fortunately, we are not starting from square one. We can draw on experience and proven conservation approaches to start designing effective adaptation strategies. Many of the impacts of climate change will manifest in ways that are similar to other threats to biodiversity – e.g., loss and degradation of habitat, changes in essential ecosystem processes like water flows and fire regimes. We know how to deal with such problems using proven land and water management techniques.
But here is what we have to start doing differently to deal with climate change:
- We have to examine vulnerability to understand exactly how climate change will affect species and ecosystems we want to protect. Climate change will not affect everything in the same way. Adaptation strategies must be tailored to vulnerabilities, not just one-size-fits-all prescriptions.
- We have to make sure we are protecting the right places. The best places for conservation today may not be the best places in the future. Conservation priorities may need to be adapted in anticipation of climate change.
- We have to stop thinking about conservation in static terms. For too long, conservationists have clung to a false Garden-of-Eden hope that we can keep everything exactly the way it was. The world is now changing more quickly and dramatically than ever before. Conservation needs to help people and nature be resilient to moderate change and possibly transform to new ecological states where change may be more extreme.
Conservation also needs to pay a lot more attention to people’s needs and interests. The impacts of climate change will be felt as much by people as by nature. Food security will be threatened by droughts. Water supplies will dry up as glaciers melt. Homes and communities will be displaced by floods and rising sea levels.
People will look for solutions, and conservation must help. We can direct conservation to protect the rivers, reefs and forests that provide water, food and fiber. And we can restore the floodplains, wetlands and other ecosystems that help to safeguard people from flooding, storms and other natural hazards.
By working with people, we have an incredible opportunity to mainstream conservation – to demonstrate how preserving nature can safeguard people, and to make conservation something that is done in concert with community development instead of in reaction to it. For example, along the Yucatan Peninsula, improved wastewater management could help secure clean water supplies for local communities while at the same time reducing pollution of coral reefs and making them more resilient to survive in warmer ocean temperatures.
The Nature Conservancy is committed to being part of comprehensive climate adaptation solutions. We recently made a 3-year, $25 million commitment at the Clinton Global Initiative to demonstrate how conservation can be modified and applied to address climate adaptation, and to work with governments and other institutions to deploy these strategies where appropriate and cost-effective.
Climate change is making this a new world for all of us. We want to be ready to both face the challenges that climate change poses for conservation, and use conservation to help confront the challenges for people.
(Image: Luis H. Soto: Field Coordinator for Biological Studies (on left) with field assistant German Emeris of Proyecto Tití, study the highly endangered Cottontop Tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), in the dry forest area of the Conservancy sponsored “Proyecto Tití” program. The research and habitat protection program is being conducted in the region of Santa Catalina; north of Cartagena, in northwest Colombia, one of the last remaining habitats for the Cottontop Tamarin. PHOTO CREDIT: ©Bridget Besaw)