Earth's New Temperatures Make Everything Harder For Conservationists and Farmers

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

Endangered species management is difficult. Even the rare scenarios where a species has a cut and dry answer for its conservation can be sullied by local politics. If you don’t believe me, walk into a bar in Gloucester, Mass., and ask people what they think about fishing quotas or gill net restrictions. For those in the world concerned with disappearing biodiversity, climate change only makes this headache worse. 

A recent paper published in Ecology Letters highlights that the rate of climate change exceeds past climate niche evolution, addressing the penultimate problem for conservation and agriculture in the 21st century: A good home for an organism now won't be in the future.

Changing temperatures mean fundamental changes to ecosystems worldwide. As each species in an ecosystem is tied to a specific niche (the role it evolved to play within an ecosystem), changing an underlying foundational variable such as temperature creates substantial changes.

Such changes impact conservation practices, particularly in cases of conservation by proxy. For the uninitiated, conservation by proxy is when land is set aside to protect an endangered organism that is found to be charismatic (popular with the public). For example, it is relatively easy to build support for elephants or rhinos in much of the Western world. The advantage of conservation by proxy is that many of the animals which are relatively popular also tend to have large home ranges. By protecting the home range of a charismatic species, you are also protecting everything within that range.  

But what are you supposed to do when that range is likely to change? Conservationists now face this question, as use of this tactic will need to be revisited.   

While humans have the luxury of being able to turn on an air conditioner, the rest of the world's biodiversity does not. Changes in temperatures are changing the locations of (or removing all together) niches that species worldwide had evolved to fill. Hence why the polar bear (a strong conservation-by-proxy candidate) has become the poster animal for climate change.

We can no longer create conservation plans based only on present dangers. We must now create conservation plans that take into account changes to an organisms ecosystem. In cases where a species may simply change its range to reflect changes in temperature gradients, land set aside now many no longer serve its operational purposein the years to come. Worse, species that are locked into place (such as on small islands or at different elevations) won’t have anywhere to escape. In those unfortunate cases, physically moving the species may be required. Such plans would themselves have to take changing temperature gradients into consideration.

Changing temperatures have a scary impact on two linked anthropogenic issues as well. The impacts on water resources and the potential crisis ahead is already well documented, and problems surrounding water scarcity exacerbate issues surrounding agriculture as well. Even the Pentagon is concerned.  

It is easy to forget that the food we grow alsooccupies a niche. We’re lucky in that we have access to resources to increase the rate of adaptation in dire circumstances. (Genetic modification of crops, while deservedly controversial, does deserve some lip service here.) Changing temperature gradients will impact where one can effectively grow food, the yield of that food, and what can be grown where in the first place.  

When planning for both agricultural development and protecting biodiversity, the government and the nonprofits involved must be forward thinking in their planning. There is no room for ignoring the problem of climate adaptation, or for denying it all together. What is a good home for an organism now will not be later. To ignore the dynamic changes in the fundamental variables of our global ecosystem will cause a failure for us to reach our agricultural and conservation goals.  

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Christopher Round

Native to Massachusetts, Christopher Round is a graduate student at the School for Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University pursuing a Masters in Environmental Science and a Masters in Public Affairs. After graduating with his bachelors degree in biology from Merrimack College, he attended Harvard University as a special student, studying environmental science and policy. As a member of Divest Harvard he has written for the Harvard Crimson and was heavily involved in efforts to divest the Harvard endowment from fossil fuels. Originally an ecologist by training, his interests and expertise include climate change, bioethics, science and public policy, public affairs, and conservation issues. He holds a strong belief that nuance is an undervalued commodity. Chris prefers to spend his spare time on the grappling mat, talking about himself in 3rd person, and learning Japanese. He has a mild addiction to orange soda and a husky named Kodi.

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