Monday, August 11, 2008

Climate impacts are gathering momentum

Armando Carbonel and James Levitt in the Hartford Courant: It’s an open secret that the Warner-Lieberman bill, which was designed to launch a comprehensive national response to global warming, never really had a chance this political season. Detractors said the time was not right for a cap-and-trade regime, despite steeply rising energy costs and $4 gasoline. Even some supporters said it would make more sense to wait until after the November presidential election.

Those advocating the adoption of an aggressive U.S. policy on climate warn that delay means more difficulty. The task of mitigation — reducing and stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions — only gets harder as time passes. The carbon being dumped into the atmosphere from coal-burning power plants, heating and cooling buildings, and truck and automobile use is projected to increase steeply in the next few years.

But there's another reason for a coherent federal climate change policy sooner rather than later. The impacts of global warming are already upon us, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and working landscapes. For example:

In the Rocky Mountain region on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, the mountain pine beetle — flourishing at increasingly northern latitudes and for longer life cycles because of warmer temperatures — has devastated millions of acres of pine forests. The dead trees have a ripple effect on the ecosystem. Grizzlies can no longer count on squirrels to collect pine-nut caches, an important food source in the fall, and so the bears expand their search for food, increasing the chance of interactions with humans.

Even more disturbing, the huge swaths of dead pine forests, which appear as vast, rust-colored patches from the air, are creating a tinderbox for forest fires. One participant at a recent conference anticipated that forest firefighters have not yet encountered the kind of infernos these areas can produce, and that techniques and resources will have to focus on speedy evacuation, with the possible loss of whole towns.

…. Those of us engaged in land conservation have had a front-row view of these disruptions. Climate change is very likely to dramatically change the approach we take to managing conservation lands. The good news is that we have a sense of how to approach this very difficult and complex problem.

We know we need to monitor and collect better data. We know we need to be flexible and adapt conservation management practices to keep up with these changes.

We will need to think of conserving natural areas in novel ways — linking them together over broader geographic areas, say from Yellowstone to the Yukon. We will need to think of forests and natural areas as places that have value because of their ability to soak up carbon. We will have to innovate and encourage market responses to conservation challenges.

The impacts of global climate change are upon us. There is little time to mitigate our growing emissions of greenhouse gases. There is even less to adapt to the staggering disruptions already permeating our natural world....

Kootenay Valley in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada; red forest destroyed by the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). Shot by "Qyd," Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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