At the request of the United States Congress, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences recently released 3 major climate change reports written by top scientists. The reports — collectively titled “America’s Climate Choices” — make 3 key assertions:
- The science of climate change is strong;
- The magnitude of future climate change must be limited; and
- A coordinated climate adaptation response is needed.
The reports conclude that the United States should act now to reduce emissions and begin adapting to climate change.
In my opinion, conservation can play a key role in achieving these two goals.
The Science of Climate Change Is Strong
A major finding of the first report, which looked at the science of climate change, found “a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”
More research is needed to better understand how climate will impact specific places around the world. However, the report did point out a few major impacts of which scientists are fairly sure:
- Water availability will decrease in many areas that are already drought-prone and in areas where rivers are fed by glaciers or snowpack.
- A higher fraction of rainfall will fall in the form of heavy precipitation, increasing flood risk and (in some regions) the spread of water-borne illness.
- People and ecosystems in coastal zones will be exposed to higher storm surges, intrusion of salt water into freshwater aquifers, and other risks as sea levels rise.
- Coral reefs will experience widespread bleaching as a result of increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and ocean acidification.
It is clear that these will have a major impact on ecosystems and people. Conservation can play a big role in both helping to slow greenhouse gas emissions and to make people more resilient to the changes to come.
Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change
The second report found that limiting future climate change “will require a major departure from business as usual in how the world uses and produces energy.”
To accomplish this, the report recommends that a U.S. policy goal be stated in terms of a budget for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions over the period 2012-2050. Action must be taken now to:
- Take advantage of key near-term opportunities to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to create new and better emission reduction opportunities for the longer term;
- Create a national policy framework within which actors at all levels can work toward a common goal; and
- Develop durable and flexible policy mechanisms that persist for decades while adapting to new information and understanding.
This report concludes that the most important step for providing needed incentives to reduce emissions is developing a carbon pricing system (either cap-and-trade, taxes or a combination of the two).
Rapid progress in green and energy efficient technologies is also needed. When Robert Fri, chair of the report, was asked if current technologies would be sufficient to reach the emissions reductions recommended by the report, he responded with a resounding “no” — new green technologies are needed.
But, we do have many strategies available to us right now that are not being used to their fullest.
For example, deforestation and forest degradation today contribute about 17 percent of the total CO2 emissions. Conservation organizations are working hard on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) — a strategy that can be greatly expanded to help slow climate change.
A Coordinated Climate Adaptation Response Is Needed
The third in this series of reports — focusing on adaptation to climate change — found that even if greenhouse gases emissions were substantially reduced right now, climate would still change for some time to come, with significant potential consequences for humans and ecosystems. Although we don’t know exactly what the future will bring, we know it will be different.
This calls for a new paradigm, where we don’t wait until uncertainties have been reduced to consider adaptation actions. Rather, we need to act now to develop climate adaptation strategies and actions that can be viewed as an insurance policy against an uncertain future.
To do this, a coordinated adaptation response among various public, private and non-profit organizations for developing adaptation strategies are needed.
Conservation can play a key role in this coordinated response to climate change through developing ecosystem-based adaptation strategies that use nature conservation to help make people more resilient to climate change.
All in all, through a combination of REDD projects to help slow climate change and ecosystem-based adaptation to help make our world more resilient to climate change, conservation has a major role to play in limiting the impact of climate change.
(Image: A young Leopard frog confronts a drying stream bed during a drought in the lower central plains of Missouri. Image credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)