Conservation and Climate Change

The conservation of keystone species throughout the world’s ecosystems could be a valuable, overlooked mechanism to engage communities on the ground action to both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. To conserve a given species is to restore the diverse ecosystem that supports it. Many modern ecosystems are so fragmented due to land-use decisions they no longer provide the habitat necessary to maintain biodiversity. Compounding that issue, the warming of our planet further impacts plants and animals because it reduces their habitat. The rate at which warming that is occurring is proving faster than some plants and animals can adapt through the natural process of evolution; migration is essentially their only option. Some species, such as those living in coral reefs or low-lying areas, simply have no where to go. In the case of trees and shrubs the long timescale of their life cycle and the limited dispersal range of their seeds does not allow them to migrate to suitable areas without human interference. As species die off, biodiversity decreases, and entire ecosystems could be eliminated. The biodiversity of our ecosystems is the key to resilience in the face of extreme weather events because of climate change. Immediate action is necessary if we are to prevent potentially irreversible consequences to biodiversity through anthropogenic climate change.

Attempts at a top-down broad approach to write a global policy which inspires nations to act locally have failed. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise despite thousands of pieces of international environmental law. The bottom-up approach of allowing nations to set their own emissions reduction targets that meet top-down objectives has resulted in empty commitments and inaction. A new perspective is needed. Conservation could be the key. Conservation could provide a realistic goal for political leaders unsure about which mitigation steps to take. Because the protection of species requires preserving and restoring the ecosystems in which they exist, conservation frequently comes with compulsory policies required to mitigate climate change. Regional ecosystems and bioregions frequently cross political boundaries and provide opportunity for partnerships between nations that are necessary to solve the global problem of climate change. The formation and expansion of parks and protected areas has prevented and reversed land-use changes that contribute to climate change.

There is however one remaining issue, many legal frameworks that ensure the restoration of damaged and vulnerable ecosystems were written prior to our current understanding of the impacts of climate change on regional ecosystems. Countless restoration projects have failed due to a lack of understanding of the complex relationships between plants and animals within an ecosystem. In some cases, ecosystems will not be able to be restored to their previous condition because it is no longer suitable for the plants and animals that once lived there. Other restoration efforts have resulted in the planting of large-scale monocultures of fast-growing trees which do little to provide resilience to the diverse threats of climate change such as pests, floods, and fires. It is diversity that delivers resilience. Biodiversity within ecosystems affords more opportunities for the plants and animals within that system to adapt, it offers protection and makes the landscape more resilient to change. Modern agriculture and science knows very little about how to recreate the biodiversity that naturally occurs in an ecosystem, as our awareness grows so will our ability to use conservation as a strategy to combat climate change.

Climate Change and Biodiversity

The evidence of climate change is clearest in its impacts to our natural systems (IPCC, 2014). Terrestrial ecosystem impacts attributed to climate change have been documented on every continent as well as in marine ecosystems around the globe (IPCC, 2014). Scientists have documented a shift in the geographic range and migration patterns of numerous terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species in response to ongoing climate change (IPCC, 2014). The Center for Biological Diversity reports an alarming number of the world’s flora and fauna are under threat of extinction: 33% of amphibians, 12% of birds, 21% of fish, 30% of known invertebrates, 20% of mammals, 68% of plants and 21% of reptiles (2021). Biodiversity loss and climate change are closely related with nearly half of extinctions occurring in the twentieth century attached to climate change (Hou, 2020; Verschuuren, 2020; Lemiux & Scott, 2005;). Plant and animal species with the least ability to migrate, as temperatures increase, are the most vulnerable. Species that cannot migrate northward to colder climates such as polar bears, arctic fox, ringed seal, and beluga whales are under significant threat while the most immediate risk is to ocean and coral reef ecosystems that have no where to go (IUCN, 2009; IPCC, 2014). Species and ecosystems in low lying coastal areas such as those in Australia and Antarctica are also under threat should sea levels rise over the course of the next century as they are predicted to do (IUCN, 2009; IPCC, 2014). Widespread wildfires in Australia and North America threaten not only the survival of the plants and animals that live there but the future of the forest sector (IPCC, 2014; Lemmen et al, 2014). Conservation efforts are required if we are to save many of these species from extinction.

For millions of years global climate change resulted in ecosystem shifts and species extinction. However, there is one key difference, natural global climate change has occurred at rates much slower than what we are experiencing with current anthropogenic climate change (Soja, 2014, IPCC, 2014). Anthropogenic climate change compounds other human caused species stressors such as habitat loss, fragmentation, exploitation, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species; those that cannot adapt quickly enough will experience significant declines or disappear entirely (IPCC, 2014; Verschuuren, 2020; Atreya, Kumar, Lamsal, & Pant, 2017; Ding & Nunes, 2014). Additionally, climate-related weather extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires further impact vulnerable ecosystems as well as human infrastructure (IPCC, 2014; Ding & Nunes, 2014; Atreya, Kumar, Lamsal, & Pant, 2017; Verschuuren, 2020). Some experts believe anthropogenic climate change is pushing the world to its “sixth major extinction event” (Hou, 2020; Chen, 2018; Soja, 2014). A major extinction is of global concern not only for plants and animals but for human well-being (Allen, Buttke & Higgins, 2014; Ding & Nunes, 2014). Ecologist George Woodwell considers biodiversity the most important of all to human well-being as it is the foundation of what makes Earth suitable habitat for life (Worster, 1990). Parks, forests, and green spaces help mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases and benefit nearby communities by cleaning the air and water. In 2019 biologist Thomas Crowther and his team went viral after publishing his research on potential land-use; They found up to 0.9 billion hectares of potential forest if we were plant 1 trillion new trees, resulting in a mitigation of an additional 30% of the world’s excess carbon (Bastien et al, 2019). Criticisms of this strategy were quick to point out the importance of the biodiversity of those planted forests to protect against forest fires, pests, droughts, and floods so they remain resilient into the future (Ding & Nunes, 2013; Baro et al, 2013; Atreya et al, 2017). Anthropologists have discovered that diverse ecosystems whether they are human created or natural increase resiliency when faced with stressors such as drought, floods, pests, and diseases (Worster, 1990). Many scientists believe ecosystem management actions to maintain biodiversity will increase the inherent capacity of ecosystems and their species to adapt in the face of climate change and reduce the impacts thereby reducing their vulnerability (IPCC, 2014; Hou, 2020). Fortunately, for as long as humans have been recording our impact on the natural world, they have been inventing ways to protect and preserve it.

Policy that Protects Biodiversity

There is a long history of international environmental law drafted with the intention of guiding how countries manage their landscapes and ecosystems (Chen, 2018; Lyman, 2015). One of the first was written into law over 100 years ago after the extinction of one of North America’s most abundant birds, the passenger pigeon in 1914; in 1916, Missouri vs. Holland became one of the first legal cases drawing attention to the impact of human activity on biodiversity and made attempts to limit the capture and sale of migratory birds (Chen, 2018). It would be fifty-six years before the United States would draft another legal document arguably one of the most well-known and powerful, in 1973 The Endangered Species Act stands to safeguard against the extinction of listed species, those under threat and protect the ecosystems they live in (Chen, 2018; Soja, 2014; Logan, 2009). Since 1972, a collection of over 3000 pieces of International Environmental Law have been put into place, with varying effectiveness (Lyman, 2015). This massive anthology of legal documents, agreements, principles, and declarations have created costly administrative bloat for all countries who sign onto them; tasked with forming committees of experts, attending meetings in other countries, and writing reports the expense of administration alone is significant (Lyman 2015). The broad terms of these often complex top-down legal frameworks and policies have rarely resulted in the scale of action they were intended to create (Meltz, 2014; Lyman, 2015; Verschurren, 2020).  Instead, the top-down administrative burden of differing technical reporting requirements has frequently resulted in inaction at a community or even a national level as the very experts who would be most valuable implementing solutions are buried in mountains of paperwork and busy attending meetings (Lyman, 2015). However, this large body of international environmental law does form a valuable framework for the interrelated issue of protection of flora and fauna and climate change, and it is through these linkages that a more achievable bottom-up approach might be formed.

The World Heritage Convention and Ramsar Conventions are examples of international “hard law” that consider ecosystem conservation of international importance and their number has grown exponentially since 1992 as a growing number of special interest organizations attempt to harmonize and create coherence between national policies creating even further legal bloat (Lyman, 2015).  Both conventions focus on the defining internationally ecologically important areas and conserving them as a matter of international importance. These conventions, and others like them, have provided legal mechanisms by which developing nations who take on the ground action to designate protected areas can seek international funding and provide the roots of a bottom-up approach to meeting climate change targets. Erica Lyman of the Fordham Institute suggests the use of a computer programming concept to approach the overwhelm of adhering to so many environmental laws; it is called “functional cohesion” (2015). Functional cohesion in software “occurs when elements of a module are grouped together because they are united for a single, well-defined purpose” (Ingeno). Lyman suggests that international environmental law forms a functional cohesion landscape that can empower nations to use local conservation projects to achieve national climate change targets.  Local actions can have global impact. Current international environmental law provides the linkages required to use species conservation as a method to mitigate and adapt to climate change from a bottom-up approach (Lyman, 2015; Falk, 2016). Thus, the protection of keystone species may offer regional methodology that can integrate and scale up into meeting climate change targets set by wide-reaching policies such as the Paris Agreement and IPCC recommendations.

The problem now is that local conservation policies were drafted pre-climate change and do not account for the complexities and fragmentation of eco-systems under threat because of wide-spread disruption due to climate change (Falk, 2016; Lemiux & Scott, 2009; Ding & Nunes, 2013; Chen, 2018). The guidance offered by restoration policy is no longer relevant; the very definition of conservation as we once knew it must be amended if we are to maintain diverse eco-systems that protect keystone species and remain resilient in the face of climate change (Falk, 2016; Chen, 2018). Conservation can no longer be perceived a status-quo ecosystem, devoid of invasive species and existing in its own bioregion when species must relocate to adapt effectively. Ecosystems can simply no longer be restored to their former state as was once the goal of restoration and conservation policies. Policy makers are aware of this limitation and have multiple attempts to amend legislation and definitions to address the changing needs of ecosystems such as the National Forest Management Act, Endangered Species Act and Canada’s protected areas network but our entire way of thinking about ecosystems is flawed and must be adapted if we are to preserve biodiversity (Falk, 2016; Logan 2009; Lemiux & Scott, 2009). Changes to these national hard law documents reflect additional interlinkages between the international environmental law, such as the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species and represent how climate sincere local, regional, and national political leadership helps preserve biodiversity through strong, current environmental policy (Lyman, 2015; Jaccard, 2020).

Political Value of Biodiversity

Diverse ecosystems provide services to nearby communities in the form of clean water, cleaner air, food, medicine, and resources (Lemieux & Scott, 2005; Ding & Nunes, 2013; Atreya et al, 2017). They are of economic benefit to regions for the resources and sanctuary they provide to human beings and flora and fauna alike (Baro et al, 2014; Allen, 2014). Politicians benefit from using existing regional and national protected area frameworks to apply a bottom-up approach to climate change mitigation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, provides social and emotional well-being, and economic benefit (Lemiux & Scott, 2009; Allen, 2014). Local and regional climate sincere leadership is the only way to create the on the ground action needed to address biodiversity loss due to climate change (Jaccard, 2020). By taking a bottom-up approach to preserve, restore, and protect local ecosystems regional leaders can support national leaders facing increasing legal pressure to adhere to international environmental policy to address climate change (Lyman, 2015; Lemieux & Scott, 2005; Ding & Nunes, 2013). Recent climate change policy has a distinct lack of small achievable goals leaving policy makers and leaders uncertain which steps to take and as a result taking none (Gifford, 2013; Lyman, 2015). The inaction of government has resulted in failure to achieve top-down broad targets results in a sense of weariness and futility (Gifford, 2013; UN 2021). The concept of functional cohesion demonstrates how regional actions can tie into international targets to help make them feel more achievable both to the public and to policy makers. Protecting keystone species results in protecting entire eco-systems needed to support their well-being thus achieving the international goal of preserving biodiversity. Regional conservation efforts can combat the “worse elsewhere” effect by taking action to protect local well-known species that results in real change to protect biodiversity (Gifford, 2013). Species specific local initiatives can scale borders and build partnerships between nations. Regional efforts to protect keystone species can reduce some of the complex social barriers to mitigation and adaptation by providing clear achievable goals that anchor into existing beliefs, values and perspectives about long standing conservation issues (Lyman, 2015; Gifford, 2013).

Species conservation can also help battle resistance to climate change adaptation efforts because it shifts focus off carbon initiatives that many of the public are resistant to because it conflicts with their lifestyle goals and values (Gifford, 2013). Carbon focused adaptation measures that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels can appear costly and economically challenging and have resulted in criticism and fear from the public. Reframing the protection of biodiversity from an environmental and ethical issue to a financial one can by stating the economic value of ecosystems to nearby communities helps alleviate some of the perceived risk issues faced by politicians who need to appease both public and private interests (Gifford, 2013; Ding & Nunes, 2013). There is a legal reason politicians may want to get on board with climate change adaptation; as the threat of climate change continues, policy makers and private industry face the potential of class action climate litigation should they fail to take steps toward addressing the impacts of climate change (Melts, 2014; Hou, 2020). Increasing oversight and enforcement of existing environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act will mean fossil fuel dependent companies who fail to adapt and have not duly informed of the risk of losses to their shareholders may face potential litigation on multiple fronts (Melts, 2014). Perhaps now more than ever before in history politicians in all levels of government are being compelled to act within their respective jurisdictions.

Conservation and Climate Change

In 2014 the IPCC identified a series of areas that were vulnerable to the immediate consequences of climate change; near the top of that list was fragmented ecosystems. Conveniently, the management of those same systems is both a mitigation to reduce greenhouse gases and an adaptation strategy that reduces the vulnerability of those ecosystems and the services they provide to the effects of climate change. Bio-diverse ecosystems are more resilient under stress the plants and animals that live within them are better protected and more likely to be able to adapt. Unlike green energy projects that require large expensive changes to existing infrastructure, maintaining wetlands and protected parks builds on existing infrastructure and policies that have been sources of community well-being for decades even generations. Watershed, wetland, and forest management are areas we know a lot about and can be implemented at a local and regional level thus they are a climate change mitigation strategy all politicians can act on. Community based natural resource management can provide wealth to local economies through sustainable forestry, tourism, clean water, and local food (Allan, 2014). National and federal governments can support local restoration initiatives by purchasing and protecting additional land to expand parks and wetlands; indeed, some governments are already taking action just this week BC Parks announced the acquisition of 650 hectares of land for additional parks (BC Government, 2021). Global data collection projects such as Restor provide the public, philanthropists, governments, and corporations with a growing body of knowledge about how we can improve restoration efforts to increase their success (Crowther, 2020). We can begin to break down the psychological barriers to climate change mitigation and adaptation by taking the focus off fossil fuels, just a little, and put it on a project that is familiar, conservation. Successful conservation and restoration projects will give us a sense of control and empowerment and reassure us that mitigation to reduce greenhouse gases is possible. The act of restoring local landscapes to a biologically diverse ecosystem can inspire us to look toward additional solutions that make the world a cleaner, greener place to live.


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