Preparing for climate change — also known as climate change adaptation — is about reducing the risk of climate change impacts to people, places and resources. We know that climate change is already occurring, and that additional warming is unavoidable. If we hope to limit the negative impacts of climate change, we must prepare by identifying vulnerabilities and by planning accordingly.
Climate change affects every aspect of the natural environment. What’s more, each of these impacts often cause changes that affect other aspects of the environment, essentially producing a chain-reaction of changes within the ecosystem. For example, climate change causes temperatures to increase in many parts of the world. This results in milder winters in many regions. These milder winters sometimes allow insect pests to survive in greater numbers, and emerge earlier in the spring. This results in additional pressure on trees and other plants, and may actually lead to die-offs in some areas. This scenario isn’t simply hypothetical. Some scientists believe that warmer winters are already allowing more mountain pine beetles to overwinter in the Rockies, which may be contributing to the dramatic die-off of lodgepole pines in Colorado and elsewhere.
The science of climate change is clear. The climate is already changing, and additional changes are unavoidable. This is because greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide and methane, for example — persist for a long time in the atmosphere, which allows the gases to accumulate over time. This also means we will experience a lag between when we reduce emissions and when we actually feel the benefits of that emissions reduction. Even if we halted all climate changing emissions tomorrow, the world would continue to experience accelerating climate change for years to come.
Since we cannot stop climate change, we must embrace climate change adaptation as a new and permanent element of conservation and land trust management plans. This means that some land trusts may even need to revisit their mission statement, conservation goals and selection criteria in order to maximize their positive impact in a climate changing world.
Balancing climate change with other threats to conservation priorities will prove challenging. However, many of the conservation strategies that land trusts have used over the past several decades to support the health of natural, agricultural and cultural resources are still relevant and useful when planning for climate change. In fact, since we cannot stop all the impacts of climate change, sometimes the best action may be to reduce other stressors in the ecosystem. For example, we cannot prevent sea level rise from flooding coastal marshes, but we may be able to increase the resilience of those marshes by reducing water pollution or protecting nearby natural areas from development.
Land trusts are working in various ways to adapt to climate change. Learn more.