Banking on Noah’s Ark?

May 26, 2009

We all know climate change is going to be the greatest long-term threat to wildlife. But we still seem to think that we could preserve our current biodiversity,ecosystems and ecosystem services with the same short-sighted conservation planning, hoping that plants and animals will somehow adjust or adapt. This is wishful thinking considering that governments are spending billions to help their human citizens adapt to current and future climate change by building sea walls, flood defence systems, early warning mechanisms and relocating millions from disaster prone areas. Dr. Barnosky, a palaeoecologist and author of ‘Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming’ says that in the worst case scenario, it will be hotter in the year 2100 than it has been in at least 3 million years, which is longer than basically any species you can name has been on Earth. He also cautions that animals and plants are wired to evolve to adapt to change, but not at such a rapid pace.

So what options do we really have? Well, according to scientists, it seems like we can’t have our cake and eat it too.There will arise a conflict of interest between preserving exisiting biodiversity and our need for authentic wilderness areas.

If we want to preserve a species or an assemblage of species that would otherwise become extinct due to climate change, we will need to create ‘artificial’ biodiversity reserves. These reserves would be heavily managed to compensate for the negative effects of climate change and allow us to hold on to our precious biodiversity resource. Practices like ‘assisted migration’ where we intervene to assist poorly adapted species to relocate to more suitable areas, will become more common. Ecosystems such as grasslands could only be maintained in their current form by introducing better climate-adapted species to occupy the ecological niche left by poorly adapted species. For example, the prairies in North America would have to be stocked with elephants, wilderbeest and cheetahs to replace bison, pronghorn antelope and wolves which cannot take the heat. We will have to reconcile that these heavily managed biodiversity reserves will eventially assume the status of giant living museums or gene banks.

Simultaneously we need to create reserves free from human interference to sustain true ‘wilderness’. These wilderness reserves will see changing species and even extinctions within them as a natural consequence of unnatural, human-accelerated climate change. They may in all likelihood be dominated by species and ecosystems that we don’t particularly have a strong emotional affinity for. But they would be still be more authentic representations of wilderness than the heavily managed biodiversity reserves.

There are many such innovative ideas floating around to address conservation in a changing climate but the notion has not yet been incorporated into mainstream conservation planning. We expect governments and the private sector to respond quickly to the new climate realities but seem to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to assuming responsibility in the conservation sector. Rest assured, there will be no Noah’s Ark waiting when the floods come.

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