Archive | December, 2011

Book Review: Finding Higher Ground, by Amy Seidl, 2011

Amy Seidl hit a home run with her recent book, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming.  She not only talks about climate change and adaptation, but also draws helpful parallels with the natural world and how it adapted to various changes current and past.  Without ever losing sight of the science, Seidl manages to bring a down-to-earth message that resonates with the reader on a personal level.

She starts by explaining what she means by the age of warming.  In a succinct and straightforward manner – without jargon or gloom-and-doom – she lays down the facts about a “carbonated atmosphere” and what it can mean in terms of future climate.  She then goes on to describe examples of how plants and animals in nature have changed themselves in response to changes in their environment – how they adapted and eventually developed the traits they needed to survive.  Examples of phenology changes and phenotypic plasticity in plants, of natural selection in action of responses to warmer weather in squirrels, and of co-evolution of insect species and their food plants, all add up to a solid groundwork that leads to her human-oriented musings and stories.

Slowly, she introduces changes – in the environment, the food supply, crop yield limits – that are relevant to humans and are related to climate, and before you know it, she is talking about adaptation and energy savings and how individuals and communities can influence the outcome of global warming – if nothing else by adapting themselves.

In a trip that takes us through permaculture, solar panels, rain barrels, community farming, and wind mills – and let’s not forget the “laundraire”, a laundry airer that her family uses in lieu of a clothes dryer – she eloquently describes the various ways in which each of those strategies can influence or at least help one cope with global warming.  More importantly, she uses them to show that self-reliance can be key to adaptation, even if it is at a small level.  Homesteading, growing one’s own food, CSAs, all lead to an overall feeling of being part of nature and doing one’s share.  She is not naïve though – she does realize that the task at hand is immense and will require sizable changes.  However, people can get started with small steps, small savings and experiments, and should keep going to see how far that will take them.

She concludes with the thought that the use of fossil fuels is morally wrong, and we must seek new sources of energy.  Our industrial -consumer society is behind climate change and global warming; it can also be tapped to solve it.  If culture took us to where we are now, can it also be a selective agent, which could be used to help us adapt to new environmental conditions?  If so, how?  Humans are persistent and can endure through great losses and adapt.  Higher ground means finding ways to adapt, physically or figuratively.  The world we knew will no longer exist, and “solastalgia”, the feeling that your home place does not feel like your own anymore, like when Inuit cannot predict the ice, or farmers cannot count on rain seasons, will be haunting us.  Adaptation will be the basis of human persistence.  We must be allies with the natural world, and global warming may be showing us that – we just need to see it.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Durban Recap: Adapting to What We Won’t Avoid

The United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties concluded last week in Durban, confirming what most of us already knew: that the only greenhouse gas mitigation measure that the nearly 200 nations involved could all agree to was punting the real action down the road a few more years. The final product of the conference, agreed to 36 hours after the negotiations were scheduled to conclude, is called the “Durban Platform for Action” and sets nations on a path to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol by 2015, which would take effect by 2020.

Others have written at length about the details of the Durban Platform, as well as why it puts to death the oft-cited goal of limiting warming to 2oC, and commits the world to a future of 4oC warming or more. This hard fact makes even more important one of the less-discussed outcomes of Durban – its steps toward helping human and natural communities adapt to, or cope with, the warming to which we have committed ourselves by the fact that we keep kicking the mitigation can further down the road.

That outcome was the Durban Adaptation Charter for Local Governments, signed by the mayors of over 100 cities from around the world. This charter recognizes that while treaty negotiations happen at the level of national governments, many of the real impacts of climate change, and the means to address them, take place on a much more local scale. Local mayor Cllr. James Nxumalo led the signing, saying, “This charter will take local government forward in a partnership to deal with the many ecological, social and economic impacts that face cities around the world as a result of climate change.” The charter calls on local and regional governments to commit to ten steps:

  1. Mainstreaming adaptation as a key informant of all local government development planning
  2. Determining climate risks through conducting impact and vulnerability assessments
  3. Preparing and implementing integrated, inclusive and long-term local adaptation strategies designed to reduce vulnerability
  4. Ensuring that adaptation strategies are aligned with mitigation strategies
  5. Promoting adaptation that recognizes the needs of vulnerable communities and ensures sustainable local economic development
  6. Prioritizing the role of functioning ecosystems as core municipal green infrastructure
  7. Seeking the creation of direct access to funding opportunities
  8. Developing a robust, transparent, measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV) register
  9. Promoting multi-level and integrated governance and advocating for partnerships with sub-national and national governments on local climate actions
  10. Promoting partnerships at all levels and city-city cooperation and knowledge exchange

While cities and municipalities are rightly concerned with the many public health, safety and infrastructure aspects of climate change adaptation, this charter could also play a real role in moving natural resources adaptation forward. The Charter’s supporting text for the statement on vulnerability assessments (#2) explicitly includes both human and natural systems. Similarly, statement #4 directs governments to ensure that their adaptation activities in one sphere do not increase vulnerabilities elsewhere, and #6 prioritizes ecosystem-based adaptation as a means of reducing vulnerabilities in other sectors.

Will all this help? It’s hard to know for sure, but if the 1200 cities, towns and counties worldwide (nearly 600 in the U.S.) that are members of Local Governments for Sustainability sign this charter and take aggressive action based on it, we might go a long way toward adapting to the climate change we keep refusing to avoid.

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Committees Move Forward with Plans to Pass a Farm Bill in 2012

Committees Move Forward with Plans to Pass a Farm Bill in 2012

Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D – MI) announced last week that the Senate and House agricultural committees would work to pass a new Farm Bill in 2012, with the goal of having draft legislation introduced by spring of next year. This may prove to be an ambitious schedule and time will only tell what the next Farm Bill holds for conservation. Going on the few clues we have, we can expect less money and more consolidation and streamlining of some of the most important programs for conservation.

In this fiscal climate, we want lawmakers to use this opportunity to do more with less – by consolidating and streamlining programs there is potential to get better conservation outcomes even as we have fewer resources to work with. Senator Lugar’s REFRESH Act takes this challenge, reducing the acres allotted to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and directing environmentally sensitive lands into a consolidated easement program. Although the House and Senate Agricultural Committees failed to release their plans to trim $23 billion from the Farm Bill, from what we know of the proposal, the Committees proposed a similar reduction in CRP, though based on the summary of the plan, the consolidated easement program is likely a bit different, focusing on agricultural and wetland easements, rather than the broad suite of conservation purposes under the REFRESH Act’s easement program.

It is difficult to say whether the changes proposed by Senator Lugar’s bill and the Ag committees will make it into the final Farm Bill. Chairwoman Stabenow, as well as other House and Senate Ag Committee members want the changes they proposed to the conservation title to be a part of the next Farm Bill.

There are a few principles that can ensure that consolidation and streamlining efforts do indeed make for more effective conservation. As the Committees build on their existing work and other members of Congress weigh in, any conservation program consolidation should focus on:

  • Greater flexibility for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to engage partners such as land trusts to fulfill program goals
  • Increasing the availability of technical assistance to landowners interested in implementing conservation easements or other practices on their land.
  • Reducing acreage in CRP and targeting highly sensitive land to longer term protection via conservation easements
  • Investing in conservation practices that improve producers’ conservation performance, instead of paying for practices that would have been adopted anyway.
  • Targeting practices, including land protection, towards areas and resource concerns of the highest priority.

We’ll be looking out for these principles as the Farm Bill debate starts up again 2012. Stay tuned.

Posted in Agriculture0 Comments

Greater sage-grouse the focus of a new conservation planning effort

Greater sage-grouse the focus of a new conservation planning effort

Photo: C. Robert Smith/Elk Meadow Images/National Geographic Stock

This week the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have initiated an effort to develop new conservation measures for greater sage-grouse, a sage brush ecosystem dependent species that has faced a dramatic decline, losing more than half its population since the late 1960s as a result of development across the western United States.  The greater sage-grouse is famous for its elaborate mating dances, but their significance goes much further – the decline of sage-grouse indicates a downward trend in the fragile sage brush ecosystems of the west, in which many species depend on the greater sage-grouse.  If the sage-grouse is in trouble, so are many other species.

Threats to the greater sage-grouse identified by the agencies include minerals development (oil and gas, coal, hard rock etc.), energy transmission, renewable energy development, fire, invasive species, grazing and off highway vehicle use.  Impacts from climate change only amplify these stressors.  Cumulatively, these threats have lead to a decline of greater sage-grouse on public lands at the same time that development and land use change has impacted populations that depend on private lands.  Between the BLM and Forest Service, 59% of the greater sage-grouse range occurs on public lands.

Since April 2010 the greater sage-grouse has been considered “warranted but precluded” from Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, meaning the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considers the species potentially in need of listing as endangered, but has higher priority species that need to be dealt with in the near term.  A recent settlement has put the FWS on track to make a final listing decision on the greater sage-grouse in 2015.

It is in response to this ramped up timeline that the BLM and FS have jumped into action.  The FWS pointed to deficient land use plans as a primary reason that greater sage-grouse do not have adequate regulatory mechanisms to stop the species decline.  The agencies hope that this process will put regulatory mechanisms in place that are strong enough to preclude ESA listing.

The new process will split the sage-grouse range into east and west regions and split even further into smaller regional environmental impact statements.  The planning process will look at 77 planning areas on BLM and Forest Service lands and seek to amend those plans that need enhanced greater sage-grouse conservation measures to protect the species.  It will also envelop planning process currently underway, including Wyoming’s great sage-grouse plan, and should incorporate emerging sources of information, like climate change impacts studied in the BLM’s Rapid Ecoregional Assessments, as they become available.

Scoping comments on the greater sage-grouse planning process are due February 7, 2012.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Climate Change and International Treaties

Co-authored by Alejandra Goyenechea

Whenever we think of climate change at the international level, the one thing that comes to mind is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol.  After all, these are regularly in the news, with the now well-known Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in Copenhagen, Cancun, and the one happening right now in Durban, South Africa.  However, climate change extends beyond the UNFCCC.  Because climate change is so pervasive, influencing all aspects of the environment, ecosystem services, and animal and plant species, nations are trying to come to terms with its importance in various other international treaties.

The U.S. has entered into scores of legally-binding treaties with other nations to curb pollution, protect natural resources, or regulate the international flow of energy and energy resources.  The Montreal Protocol is among the most recognizable, which banned CFCs to protect the ozone layer.  Another international treaty of which the US is a signatory is the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  CITES dates from the 60’s, although the final text was not agreed upon until what has become known as the Washington Convention of 1973.  The Convention entered into force in 1975, with the specific goal of protecting animal and plant species from extinction, particularly due to over harvesting and international trading.  Its initial drafting was to be considered also as a conservation treaty.  CITES uses six science-based decision-making resolutions and provisions that address trade and conservation: species listings in three appendices, non-detriment findings, periodic review of the appendices, review of significant trade, quotas, and trade in alien invasive species.  CITES bans international commercial trade in endangered and critically endangered species listed in Appendix I. It regulates and continuously monitors trade of  species listed in Appendices II and III, which include species whose survival is threatened by trade and species that need monitoring of trade and are protected in at least one country member of the Convention, respectively.  The Convention also aims to stimulate scientific studies of populations of species that are listed and worldwide education regarding the environment (see full text of CITES).

Criteria to list species shall include trade volumes and biological information, which relate to the size and distribution of the species wild population and other criteria affecting populations: if it is a small population OR the species has a restricted distribution AND one of various additional criteria, the species is eligible for listing.  Vulnerability to extrinsic and intrinsic factors is one of those additional criteria, and where climate change is most likely to make an impact in the listing eligibility.

Climate change is increasingly impacting species, and these impacts are magnifying already existing threats to species conservation.  CITES nations are now actively looking to incorporate climate change effects into the treaty’s language and implementation.  For that purpose, a Joint Intersessional Working Group on Climate Change (CCWG) was set up at the last Meeting of the Animals and Plants Committees in July 2011, and was tasked with devising recommendations to incorporate climate change into CITES.  Defenders has been active in CITES for many years, and we worked with various other organizations on recommendations of what aspects of climate change should be addressed under each provision and resolution in CITES.  Those recommendations were then incorporated into a final US recommendation to the Animals and Plants Committees.

The CCWG recommendations can be broadly summarized as follows:

  • Issues related to climate change can currently be addressed under all six of the above mentioned scientific-based decision-making processes.  Those decision-making processes provide sufficient opportunity to address the impacts of climate change relative to species.
  • Climate change can in fact be considered one of the extrinsic factors identified in Appendix listing criteria (as stated above).  That means climate change could be a core component of a listing proposal, and this is a very important point.  Parties must ensure that they are using the best available scientific information and sharing expertise as appropriate, including information pertaining to climate change.
  • There are existing examples of applying climate change impacts within the CITES context, as well as guidance material for taking climate change into consideration for conservation purposes.  Parties would benefit from having access to these examples and to peer-reviewed or well-supported scientific studies.  Black coral would be one example where CITES traditional criteria and climate change could come together to affect the listing status of a species.  Black coral is currently under significant trade review and is a species strongly affected by climate change and ocean acidification.  The effects of climate change and acidification together with trade should be the basis for the evaluation of the species status, and CITES might list the species in Appendix I, where trade is prohibited altogether.

The threats to species conservation are multi-faceted; few species are impacted by only one issue. Climate change, in particular, interacts with most other conservation threats. Ensuring that our existing domestic and international conservation laws and programs adequately incorporate climate change into their implementation will greatly enhance our ability to save species as the world continues to warm.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Bringing Better Tools to the Study of Sea Level Rise

A thorny problem for climate change adaptation is figuring out how to sort through projections and uncertainties to make a better determination of what impacts to expect. Two studies – one newly published, the other just underway – show promise for a better understanding, and therefore a more informed response, to the problem of sea level rise and its impacts on coastal ecosystems in California.

One of the more challenging issues related to climate change is the extent and timing of future sea level rise. While there is broad consensus that ocean levels will rise this century, due to a combination of melting of land-based ice, and the thermal expansion of ocean waters, it is very difficult to estimate the rate of this rise: for instance the 2007 IPCC report authors decided that they didn’t have enough information to determine the effects of changes in polar ice sheets, so they left them out of their projections. Since that time, scientists have refined measures to estimate the climate change impacts on the rate of flow of large ice sheets. Thus, while the IPCC’s 2007 sea level rise estimation was eight inches to two feet by the end of the century, by 2009 the US Global Change Research Program projected 3-4 feet of average sea level rise worldwide.

However, the story is not as simple as that. Sea level rise will have different impacts in different areas, depending on whether the land is also undergoing a natural subsidence (as is the case in the Chesapeake Bay region, where the land is still settling after the last Ice Age), and also on the amount of sediment being carried to coastal areas by the region’s river systems (for instance, multiple upstream dams deprive the Mississippi delta of much-needed sediments). Thus, predicting the future of a given marsh, for instance, is a function of both sea level rise and the relative rate of natural sediment accretion or subsidence. In a new study published in PLoS One, researchers at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory combined the best-available knowledge about rates of sediment deposition with scenarios for sea level rise to ascertain possible futures for the San Francisco Bay. They found that under the worst-case scenario, with high sea level rise (5 feet) and low levels of accretion of sediment and organic matter, the San Francisco Bay could lose 93% of its existing marsh within 50 to 100 years (human activities have already reduced tidal marsh in the Bay by about 90% from its historic extent). However, the authors also note that this worst-case outcome can be avoided by “conserving adjacent uplands for marsh migration, redistributing dredged sediment to raise elevations, and concentrating restoration efforts in sediment-rich areas.” They have developed a planning tool to help conservation practitioners where and when these changes would take place, to better inform restoration and land acquisition decisions.

The second study, recently announced by the California and North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, will examine the impacts of sea level rise at five National Wildlife Refuges from Humboldt Bay in northern California, to Tijuana Slough near San Diego. The study, the first of its kind to monitor SLR impacts in such detail over such a long stretch of coastline, will “develop high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs); monitor water levels and tidal cycles to assess local-level inundation patterns; inventory vegetation species composition and relationship to elevation and tides; and quantify sensitive wildlife use at all five refuges.”

Coastal marshes are incredibly productive habitats that supply food and shelter to a array of birds and other wildlife, and serve as nurseries for many ecologically and commercially important species. Already greatly diminished by shoreline development, pollution and activities like dredging and ditching, these systems are also on the front lines of the impacts of climate change. These new tools may hold the key to helping managers and planners enable marshes to adapt to and move with the rising sea.

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Is a Better Forecast in Our Future?

©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin.

A recent new report by the IPCC – the Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)– addresses the issue of extreme weather and climate change, and how likely it is that those two are related.  Among the changes that the report says are very likely to occur worldwide due to a changing climate are a general decrease in the number of cold days and nights, and a general increase in the number of warm days and nights. Significant changes in precipitation and drought patterns are also mentioned, as well as an increase in hurricane wind speed and a great likelihood that rainfall and temperature extremes will play a role in landslides and floods in high altitudes.  However, there is less certainty about natural climate patterns or other climate-driven shifts in weather events.

The World Resources Institute also recently released a report, “Decision making in a changing climate”,which acknowledges that climate change complicates decision making through its complexity and uncertainty.  Uncertainty about how climate systems will respond, how climate change will interact with other drivers of stress and risk, how ecosystems will respond – all affect the uncertainty about climate impacts.  One of the main challenges is uncertainty about how changes will unfold and what impacts will be on critical functions performed by physical, hydrological, and ecological systems – all of which are affected by extreme weather events.  Risks posed by extreme events will require decision makers to make difficult choices.

Add to all that the uncertainty about the amount of emissions that will be spewed in the atmosphere in the upcoming years (and how that will influence weather and climate), and about the outcome of the international climate negotiations happening right now in Durban.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a little less uncertainty in this whole business?

Enter “Yellowstone”, a new supercomputer commissioned by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) which, due to its capabilities, is expected to not only reduce uncertainty in weather predictions, but also quantify that uncertainty in a useful way for decision makers.  IBM recently won the bid to build Yellowstone, which will be located at a new NCAR Wyoming facility, and IBM staffers are enthused about the possibilities.  Lloyd Treinish, research head of Deep Thunder a project at IBM focusing on local weather forecasting tailored to weather-sensitive business operations, has deep knowledge of the new system, and is very optimistic about the new possibilities it can introduce into weather and climate research.  He mentions that the complexity of the models, the management of data, and the analysis and visualization of the results are a growing challenge in weather and climate modeling, and Yellowstone will be able to effectively address classes of problems that could not be well addressed before.

Yellowstone is not only bigger and faster, but it is also “smarter”.  The sheer computational capability of Yellowstone will allow for exploration of new dimensions in modeling.  Dr. Andrew Gettelman, a scientist at NCAR who will be working with Yellowstone, agrees.  He believes that the ability to see and quantify different levels of uncertainty at different scales will be a big improvement in weather modeling and forecasts, one that will allow for better use of the information coming from the models when it comes to decision making, preparedness, and risk and resource management.  He exemplifies his point with the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year: the tornados were predicted, but the level of uncertainty with the timing and location of the expected tornados did not allow enough time for useful preparations “on the ground”.  Dr. Gettelman expects the new system to have substantial societal impact because of better forecasts of extreme events and better measurement of the uncertainty associated with them.

Yellowstone will allow for the setup of new types of simulation to look at events in a climate context, which will help understand climatic patterns and how they are changing.  Climate change will in turn affect future weather, and ultimately also wildlife and their habitats.  Climate adaptation planning relies extensively on not only present conditions but also future predictions, and therefore it is easy to see how better predictions can translate into better adaptation strategies.  Yellowstone is expected to be up and running by next summer, and resources managers will have a valuable source of information at both the weather and climate scales to use in their short-term and long-term climate adaptation planning and decision making.

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Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project Area

Defenders Focal Forests: the national forests of the Sierra Nevada

The Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project Area on the Sierra NF (Photo: Pamela Flick)

California’s Sierra Nevada region is rich in biodiversity and hosts an incredible array of plants and animals, with 572 vertebrate species that spend at least some point of their life cycle in this iconic mountain range, including critically imperiled species like Pacific fisher and California spotted owl.  In particular, the ten national forests of the Sierra provide rich habitat worth protecting and restoring for current and future generations.  From the Sequoia National Forest southeast of Fresno to the Lassen National Forest near Redding, nearly half of the land base in the Sierra Nevada is managed by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the National Forest System.

Defenders of Wildlife is engaged in a number of important processes happening now that will impact wildlife in the Sierra Nevada well into the future.

Over the next few years, most of the Sierra forests will undergo management plan revisions.  This means that new plans will be written, with public input and environmental review, to guide the management of the forests for the next few decades.  The development of ecologically sound plans will be of utmost importance, since the plans will impact all aspects of forest management for decades to come, including how key habitats will be managed to benefit the wide variety of wildlife found on national forest lands in the Sierra.

In addition, on the ground projects are enhancing wildlife habitat.  On the Sierra National Forest just south of Yosemite National Park, a pilot project is demonstrating how the restoration of forest ecosystems can improve habitat while creating jobs and protecting local communities.  The Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project was selected for funding under a new law, which established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP).  Ten CFLRP projects around the country were selected, including the Dinkey Collaborative on the Sierra National Forest, to bring together local stakeholders to get restoration work done.  Over the course of ten years, thousands of acres of restoration treatments will be undertaken by the Forest Service with guidance from the Dinkey Collaborative, based on agreement and understanding among participants, leading to fewer conflicts and an increase in the amount of ecosystem restoration that can be accomplished.

Members of Congress are touting the success of the CFLRP model and are asking that the program continue to be fully funded, highlighting that the first ten CFLRP projects collectively created or sustained more than 1,500 jobs and reduced wildfire risk on 154,000 acres in just one year.

In a series of “Focal Forest” blogs, we will be highlighting the work we’re doing in the Sierra Nevada and the importance of protecting this special region for wildlife and for future generations.

Posted in California, In the Field, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.