GWPrime

The Long Crisis That’s Too Easy to Ignore

As access to vaccines becomes global and we resume a more familiar lifestyle, we will still face the challenge of Climate Change, and the profound impact it will have on humanity. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for the massive changes and disruptions ahead. We will need to work together to develop behavioral, economical, technological, and natural ways to reduce our carbon footprints; and respond to the human and natural tragedies facing us.

For the first time in decades, people across the entire planet have a shared experience that is immediate and urgent. This shared adversity has overwhelmed us, led to unprecedented tragedies, including millions of people being infected with a deadly disease, and people in every country mourning the loss of loved ones.  Of course, I am referring to the global pandemic. However, we face a broader range of longer-lasting and deadly impacts from another human-caused challenge — Climate Change.

We have already witnessed the widespread negative impacts on drinking water availability, the size and frequency of wildfires, and rising sea levels around the world, among many others. With changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures, we will begin to see ‘climate refugees’, as people must move to more temperate areas. The impact on biodiversity, on which the health of the planet’s human population depends, could be dramatic and change the natural world as we know it.

From a conservation perspective, the pandemic has led to greater awareness and understanding of the link between biodiversity loss and the risk of zoonotic diseases in general. Yet, we ignore Climate Change at our own peril, as the impacts on humanity and nature have the potential to be even larger and with no quick cure or treatment. This may seem to be a challenge too big to address and sometimes feels far in the future — though catastrophic effects of Climate Change are already being felt by humans and nature. 

In fact, many countries, and developing countries especially, are still trying to understand and implement SDI concepts as defined 20 years ago, because they lack geospatial data to meet their needs

A year of environmental tragedies

It is hard to remember amid the continued challenges of the pandemic, but we came into 2020 in the wake of historic fires across South America, only to be greeted with unprecedented wildfires in Australia. At that point, most of us thought those were going to be the worst environmental tragedies of the year. Since then, we have experienced massive wildfires in the western United States, alarming ice-melt at the poles (and late-forming sea ice), record numbers of hurricanes in the Atlantic, and still more fires in South America.

All of this followed in the wake of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment on extinction showing that one million species are in danger of extinction in the next two decades due to human activities including habitat fragmentation, pollution, invasive species, and Climate Change. Those of us in the conservation community had hoped the IPBES report would galvanize public opinion and inspire action to conserve biodiversity and address Climate Change in 2020. In fact, this year was supposed to be the Biodiversity Super Year —  a time when the world would come together in various forums to make progress towards  protecting the diversity of species on Earth and address how humanity could be better stewards of the natural world.

Seeing the links between climate and biodiversity

At NatureServe, we believe that biodiversity loss is intimately linked to Climate Change. Our scientists study where imperiled species live and which ecosystems are in greatest need of protection. They do this by identifying where species are found on the globe and by assessing the habitat species need to survive — measuring things like temperature, rainfall, soils, and dozens of other spatially explicit and biologically significant variables. Many of these variables are affected by Climate Change, each in a different way at any given location. These changes will create a patchwork of novel assemblages of environmental variables that will lead to new distribution patterns of species. In some cases, these changes will create entirely new ecosystems never before seen in human history.

This forces us to ask, as species respond to Climate Change and “move” to new geographies, at what point do they become invasive species that negatively affect native wildlife? This question gets more complicated if the native wildlife is no longer living in an environment that matches our understanding of its requirements. Is our responsibility, as the cause of the change in habitat, to the native species in place now or to those species that might be able to live in a location in 10, 50, or 100 years?

This challenge is partly illustrated through an analysis of the resilience of ecosystems to Climate Change in the featured maps. It is clear that the impacts are not evenly distributed. Analyses like this, viewed at multiple scales, can help us develop action plans at regional and national levels; or even, precise and specific to individual watersheds (second map).

Bioclimatic Ecosystem Resilience Indicator

The Bioclimatic Ecosystem Resilience Indicator, developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia, assesses the capacity of ecosystems to retain biodiversity in the face of Climate Change. It does this by measuring how well a given area (e.g., nation, watershed) is comprised of well-connected areas of natural habitat, which are generally more resilient to change.

This indicator allows us to determine which areas of the planet are increasing or decreasing in their ability to retain biodiversity under a changing climate. Areas with shades of red depict declining ability to retain biodiversity (i.e., declining resilience) under a warming climate and areas with shades of blue depict increasing resilience

A heat-map using NatureServe’s Biodiversity Dashboards

The above indicator, along with many others related to biodiversity, is visualized, using NatureServe’s Biodiversity Dashboards. The heat-map format allows users to quickly explore and identify patterns of change whether at the global or local scale.

Finding the cure

Twelve months ago, no one believed that multiple safe and effective vaccines would be available for COVID-19 this soon, proving that through a collective and focused effort, we can achieve great things. As access to vaccines becomes global and we resume a more familiar lifestyle, we will still face the challenge of Climate Change, and the profound impact it will have on humanity. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for the massive changes and disruptions ahead. We will need to work together again to win the hearts and minds of Climate Change deniers; develop behavioral, economical, technological, and natural ways to reduce our carbon footprints; and respond to the human and natural tragedies facing us.

Author Bio

Dr. Sean T. O'Brien, President & CEO, NatureServe
As President and CEO, Sean has focused on building connections within the NatureServe Network, modernizing core methodology, and updating systems to meet the needs of a successful post-pandemic nonprofit. Under his leadership, NatureServe has expanded its brand awareness to build on its 50-year conservation legacy. Prior to joining NatureServe, he served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at James Madison’s Montpelier where he directed the organization’s operations with a focus on fundraising, budget management, and strategic planning. Sean also led the nonpartisan Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, where he helped aspiring political leaders develop their skills and knowledge to be better servant leaders for Virginia. He is a graduate from the University of Virginia with a bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and holds a Ph.D. from the same institution in Environmental Sciences with a focus on tropical forest ecology. He was awarded Post-Doctoral Fellowships in Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Center for Energy and Environmental Studies.

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