By Tim McClanahan and Darren Long
While world leaders at the Conference of Parties (COP) meetings in Paris negotiate reductions of global carbon emissions, a number of organizations are already working to implement solutions to the problems those emissions create.
Many conservation and development institutions are focused on applied solutions to both the current and future impacts of climate change. Such efforts are helping wildlife and ecosystems adapt to changing climatic conditions.
Most importantly, these solutions are working. And despite the typical doom and gloom scenarios we all read about climate change, the relatively new field of science-based climate adaptation provides conservationists and others much hope for the future.
Delegates to the COP will be reminded by many submitted petitions that climate change is the single greatest threat to natural ecosystems; and of the many losses of species and ecosystem services that further threaten the health and livelihoods of impoverished people across the globe.
They may not hear many tales of hope, but the notion that all is lost is misguided and risks our resignation in confronting this crisis. Such a doomsday perspective ignores the history of the Earth, the resilience of our ecosystems, and our ability to learn and collaborate on dire problems.
Over the past few years scientific organizations around the world have identified species and ecosystems that demonstrate the ability to serve as climate refuges. Such areas may protect species of coral that have proven resilient to both current and projected impacts of climate change.
In the case of coral reefs, this is very good news for both wildlife and people who rely on coastal ecosystems as a major source of sustenance. Healthy reefs are nurseries for fish and other marine species, providing food and shelter for their young.
A number of scientific studies are uncovering a range of possible refuges and adaptation responses that hold out hope. Further, scientists are honing in on better ways to manage coral reef fisheries and determine what actions – both natural and human – can help to save them.
For example, we have a much more precise idea of how many fish can be removed from a given area while maintaining a functioning ecosystem. Such discoveries take time, but the science and implementation are moving forward.
While these resilient locations are still being determined by a variety of scientific methods, the health of those reef systems is quite variable. This is due not only to climate change, but to how people are managing these ecosystems. Some reefs have been bombed by dynamite, others have been dismantled for building material, and many are simply being raked clean of anything edible.
But when it comes to coral reefs, history is on our side. There are many reefs and centers of marine diversity scattered throughout the oceans that have eked by during past climate fluctuations. These include survivors of the many hot and cold glacial cycles of the past three million years.
Refuges like these are likely to be the last casualties of climate change and will hold on, albeit precariously, as the rates and intensity of disturbances continue to accelerate. If we act now, many such coastal and coral reef ecosystems can be saved from the impacts of climate change.
Here is where the COP and the governments that decide on funding and actions need to step it up. Will they support these actions, will they follow recommendations, and will there be consequences for them if they do not? And if carbon emissions begin to dip downward, will communities using coral reefs be educated and supported in their efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries, and will their efforts be evaluated to be certain we are doing the right things?
We may not be able to save all reefs. Coastal nations and coral reef managers face some difficult decisions in the years to come. But inaction is unconscionable in the face of the emerging knowledge achieved through rigorous science now available to help us reduce the risks of ecosystem extinction.
The global energy portfolio of the world is changing too slowly for those of us that love nature. Nevertheless, key decisions and actions to protect coral reefs can come faster and cheaper and be stewarded and enjoyed by our grandchildren.
This COP in Paris, let’s push for actions that we increasingly know will insure the survival of ecosystems we love and that have done so much for our species.
Dr. Tim McClanahan and Darren Long are conservationists with the Global Marine and Climate Change programs respectively at WCS (Wildlife conservation Society)