Saturday, August 27, 2011

Adaptation as a costly endeavor

Just found this blog post by Joe Romm, and it seems very interesting.  I hope to write on this idea sometime in the near future as related to adaptation for nature/wildlife.  In the meantime, I suggest checking it out:
Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery

Climate change adaptation: interdisciplinarity on steroids

I am at the Steve Schneider memorial symposium and am tweeting about a number of very interesting talks. In putting my own talk together, “Integrative climate science for this century: in training and practice,” I've been thinking about interdisciplinarity and thought that I'd blog about that today. 
For the last decade or so, academics have been told--and some resisted--that multiple disciplines need to work together to do the next generation of cutting edge research and craft thoughtful and realistic solutions to the world's ills. Steve Schneider was a leader in advocating this idea, explaining to Deans and funding agencies that interdisciplinarity is the wave of the future. For the most part, academics have been listening to this call and many interdisciplinary opportunities can be found today with rewards that make for a successful academic life. (For example, see
But what fields really *require* interdisciplinarity? Answer: climate change adaptation. "Adaptation" means living with climate change and taking steps to reduce the negative effects of climate change where we can. Adaptation is the complement of mitigation, tackling the problem of climate change itself. Adapting to smaller amounts of climate change will be more effective, achievable, and economical than adapting to large climate change so we need to get moving on creating a cleaner economy. Adaptation is not a substitute for mitigation.
But, we are committed to warming already--our planet's climate is changing and greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Therefore, adaptation is going to be essential. Adaptation includes the construction of sea walls to prevent flooding, installing air conditioning to reduce mortality during heat waves, and building new irrigation infrastructure to maintain crop yields during drought. In my area, climate change adaptation will involve planting new things in new areas, designing new and improved parks and greenspaces, and working together to combat new pests and invasive species.
Can any of these adaptation strategies be addressed by science alone? By engineering? By economics? By sociology? No; it will take them all. But who among us will be able to garner all of these fields? Again, Steve Schneider did a darn good job at promoting and living interdisciplinarity, but many more need to follow his lead. Colleagues and I think that collaboration using innovative social networking tools can help, and we need that collaboration to happen fast because climate change is a problem for now, not just future decades. 
The folks responsible for implementing adaptation have no problem with interdisciplinarity--they will use whatever tools and thinking will help. But academics need to find ways to become still *more* interdisciplinary. They need to find creative ways to publish interdisciplinary work and deliver ideas to the folks that need it. In my opinion, academia, and the NGOs that function like academia, have tremendous potential to drive innovation in adaptation, pushing for new solutions that will work, will be accepted, and are cost effective. So I hope that universities can fly the flag of interdisciplinarity even higher. And I'm grateful that Steve Schneider showed us the way.
Watch the talks at the Schneider seminar at:, and see Tweets on the hash tag, #Schneider2011.
Schneider links:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why "Managed relocation" and not "Assisted migration" or "colonization"

There is a growing scientific literature about the role that humans might play in helping species move to new locations under climate change.  Colleagues and I first wrote about the idea in 2007 in an article in Conservation Biology called, "A framework for debate of assisted migration in an era of climate change." The idea is that humans could help species that are limited in their ability to move or shift geographically under climate change. These limitations could arise from human land uses that are incompatible with species movement (think: agriculture for a forest-dwelling species) or natural restrictions on species dispersal (think: small, walking beetle populations moving hundreds of miles).

And moving is thought to be the primary way that species respond to climate changes--some individuals disperse (fly, walk, or disperse their seeds) to locations that are newly suitable and other populations die-out where conditions become unsuitable. That's what happened to many species (but not all) when the climate has changed (naturally) in the past. But this time is different because the climate is changing very rapidly (and it's hard for many species to move quickly) and lots of human activities stand in the way (such as urban development).  So maybe people could step in and help put species that are strongly affected by climate change where they need to go. Now, this has lots of potential problems associated it with it, but that's not the topic of my blog today.

Today I'm talking about terminology.  Soon after we wrote our Conservation Biology paper, my colleagues and I were criticized for using "assisted migration."  For one, it sounds like something that birds do in the winter, at least that's what some journalists thought. (In fact, "migration" is a term that paleoecologists use to describe changes in tree species' distributions during the past ice age, but that doesn't appear very high in the list of definitions at Webster's.) Second, "assisted" implies something positive, something helpful, and though the intentions of the activity might be good, it's not the business of science to judge an action without studying it first.  So these are good points.

Next, we convened a meeting of experts in fields closely related to climate change, conservation, and invasion biology, and we asked them what this idea should be called. There were some excellent people at that meeting: ecologists, leaders of natural resource agencies, economists, ethicists, and even the late Steve Schneider (see The group came up with the term "managed relocation." This term avoids the problems of assisted migration and has the added--and very important--benefit of including all of the steps that one might take in helping a species move and establish in a new location. These steps include withdrawing individuals from source populations, placing those individuals in the target (new) location, fostering young populations to help them flourish, monitoring those populations over time to see how their doing, and, even, jumping in to try to manage or undo an introduction that has gone awry (such as being too successful and too harmful to other species in the introduced region). We MUST do these later things if we are going to think about this idea in a responsible way.

There's still another term out there--"assisted colonization."  This word was first used in articles by Hunter (2007, Cons Bio 21: 1356) and Hoegh-Guldberg et al. (2008, Science 321: 345) to avoid the confusion of "migration" and focus on the process of population establishment. But this term runs the risk of being pretty normative (see above about positive connotation), and it does not include all of the stuff after colonization that should be part of a responsible introduction attempt.

So what about this vocab mess?  My preference is for managed relocation (though it doesn't really roll off your tongue, does it?).  I think that we can use assisted migration and assisted colonization to refer to managed relocation as well, but we need to be extremely careful not to judge this idea before it's been well tested, and we MUST think of this strategy as composed of multiple steps with careful assessment and execution at each step along the way, including steps after colonization.

I must say, however, that it is extremely exciting to see this literature growing, whatever terms emerging authors choose to use.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The value of dystopia

I've been spending some time recently with colleagues in English and Sociology (John Sitter and Andy
Weigert). We are creating a minor in sustainability--an entirely new entity for my university--and a new introductory course for students in this field. We're going to teach the course with multiple faculty, with multiple perspectives, because no one can embody alone the lofty idea of sustainability and all its challenges and opportunities. So, among other things, I've been learning from my humanist colleagues about literature and how people use stories to envision sustainability. And here is where I've learned about the importance of science fiction in environmental policy and decision-making. Think 1984. Think Fahrenheit 451. Narratives about the future--good futures and bad ones--are critical to helping us decide what world we want and what one we want to avoid.

We are going to ask our sustainability students to read T.C. Boyle's novel, A Friend of the Earth. So I just read it myself. For an ecologist and climate change researcher, this is a really distressing book. It describes a world of extreme weather and widespread species extinction and habitat loss. The novel's main character, Ty Tierwater, struggles with this degraded world at the end of a life of radical environmentalism. A life that clearly did not achieve its aims. Because humans failed to preserve the natural world, Ty himself fails in a personal and debilitating way. Through his personal struggle, Ty invites us to ask--is this the world that we want? If we don't want this world, we will have to take corrective action now. The kind of corrective action that Ty himself couldn't convince us to do.

My colleague, Andy, tells me that Boyle's kind of futuristic storytelling is a useful, emotional tool that can guide our decisions and values in the present. Consider the idea of Peace: How do you know how to get it if you can't visualize it? You might never truly get there, but we can aspire to Peace if we can visualize it. The same goes for futuristic dystopia. How do we know what world we do *not* want if we can't visualize that too? I'm now realizing that the narrative description of profound climate change could be much more compelling than "2-6 degrees Celsius by 2100." (What's that? And that doesn't sound so bad...)

My final thought is that good dystopian literature should also tell us what to do to avoid getting the undesirable. But Boyle doesn't really do this. Without a call to action and a sense that dystopia is inevitable, I just end up depressed.  Looking forward to asking students if they find any hope in Boyle's portrayal of the future.