On Climate Change, Attribution & a Shiny New Bow

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 22, 2011 6:41 PM


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If you thought assigning attribution of individual weather disasters to global climate change was tricky business, imagine trying to establish a causal link between specific ecological problems and global warming. In this commentary in NatureClimate Change, ecologist Camille Parmesan and her co-authors suggest not going there. It's not that they think global warming doesn't adversely affect the biological world; it's just that it's too difficult to quantify the measurable impact at an individual species level. The authors assert that there is

a complex interplay among habitat destruction, land-use change, exploitation and pollution, in addition to climate change. The emerging view is that interactions among drivers of change are the norm. For example, after a warming event, corals in overfished areas recovered more poorly from bleaching than those with intact food webs. Effects of habitat fragmentation also interact with those of climate change. Northwards expansion of the speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) in Great Britain progressed rapidly where barriers were minimal, but was hampered in regions where agriculture had rendered woodland habitat patches too scattered for individuals to find.

At a time when ecological problems are increasingly framed and discussed in the context of climate change, Parmesan and her coauthors are going against the grain with this rebuke (my emphasis):

By over-emphasizing the need for rigorous assessment of the specific role of greenhouse-gas forcing in driving observed biological changes, the IPCC effectively yields to the contrarians' inexhaustible demands for more 'proof', rather than advancing the most pressing and practical scientific questions. This focus diverts energies and research funds away from developing crucial adaptation and conservation measures. To improve estimates of future biological impacts we need research focused on how other human stressors exacerbate impacts of climate change. Most importantly from a conservation standpoint, these other stressors are more easily managed on local scales than climate itself, and thus, paradoxically, are crucial to constructing adaptation programmes to cope with anthropogenic climate change.

The argument underlying this commentary was similar to one made two years ago in Slate by Brendan Borrell:

Climate change has the potential to displace the most impoverished human populations and bring about food shortages, flooding, and drought. But from the perspective of saving species, it's a MacGuffin: a plot device that may impel the tired conservation narrative forward but is hardly a pragmatic strategy for preserving biodiversity.

Not to mix apples and oranges, but there is an interesting parallel with the recent injection of climate change into national security debates. Geoff Dabelko, noting the embrace of "climate security" as a new rhetorical term, in which socio/environmental and energy concerns have been packaged into a climate change box, has offered his own cautionary advice.

Don't forget ongoing natural resource and conflict problems. The research and policy docket already is crowded with serious conflicts (as well as opportunities for cooperation) over resources, whether they are minerals, water, timber, fish, or land. While climate change certainly poses a large--and potentially catastrophic--threat in many settings, we must not overlook the ongoing problems of rapid population growth, persistent poverty, lack of clean water and sanitation, and infectious diseases that already threaten lives daily. Climate change will likely multiply these threats, but they will continue to exact a high toll even if the climate stabilizes. Presenting climate change as the number one concern and demoting other deadly threats is insensitive to the pressing problems faced by many people in poor and developing countries.

Similar pushback against the "collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems" was expressed two years ago by Jonathan Foley:

In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

Anyone seeing a common thread in all these cases?

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