Climate Change and Nature Blog Series No 6
by James Pearce-Higgins
So far, in this series of blogs, we’ve considered the impacts of climate change, and the need to reduce greenhouse emissions. Even if we were to cease emissions now, lags in the climate system mean that we are still committed to approximately another four decades of climate warming. This is why an increasing number of governments are discussing how to reach Net Zero – the point at which we no longer increase the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Given that we have not yet reached Net Zero, and are therefore committed to experiencing even more climate change, as well as ‘mitigation’ – what the scientists call cutting our greenhouse gas emissions – we also need a plan of how to cope with the impacts of climate change. This is known as climate adaptation.
In the context of nature conservation, adaptation will reduce the impacts and risks that climate poses on natural ecosystems and wild species. In this way, some of the more extreme projected impacts of climate change may be avoided.
Mitigation and adaptation are linked; the more we mitigate climate change and reduce future warming, the easier it will be to adapt to the remaining climate change. As discussed previously [link], how we manage our natural world can impact both greenhouse gas emissions (through nature-based solutions) as well as help species and systems adapt to climate change.
A good example of a win-win solution in a UK context is how we manage our peatlands. The extensive peatlands of northern and western Britain are highly vulnerable to climate change. Hot summer weather can cause them to dry out, lowering water tables and increasing the risk of wildfire. A long history of poor management (artificial drainage, industrial pollution, excessive grazing and trampling) has left many peatlands in the UK degraded. In response, conservation organisations and private landowners, supported by partnerships like Moors for the Future in the Peak District, are restoring peatlands, blocking drainage ditches, revegetating areas of bare peat and replanting the Sphagnum moss required for them to thrive. Not only is this good for biodiversity now, it locks away the carbon stored and increases resilience to future climate change. A triple win!
Golden plovers are a charismatic wader of our upland peatlands vulnerable to climate change as warmer summers reduce the abundance of the craneflies that their chicks need. Hot, dry summers cause young cranefly larvae in the surface of the peat to dry out, impacting the ecosystem and reducing the amount of food for golden plover chicks the following spring. However, by blocking drainage ditches, it is possible to increase cranefly numbers by up to 5 times, making vulnerable golden plover populations more resilient to future warming.
Climate change causes species to shift polewards, which raises several questions on the importance of static protected sites under climate change. Mounting evidence has shown that maintaining an effective network of protected areas across the country, and around the world, is more important than ever. By protecting areas of natural habitat, not only do nature reserves make a valuable contribution to the conservation of species and habitats now, but they also provide landing pads for species that are shifting their distributions in response to climate change, preventing their ranges simply contracting in response to warming. For example, it is only the existence of wetland reserves that has enabled birds like the cattle egret, great white egret and night heron, or damselflies like the willow emerald and small red-eyed damselfly (both of which are found at A Rocha UK ’s Foxearth Meadows nature reserve in Essex), to colonise the UK as the climate warms.
Although the subject of climate change may lead us to despair, our monthly blog series shows that there is much we can do in response. Effective mitigation can reduce the magnitude of future warming whilst there are many things we can do to help the natural world adapt to climate change. We just need governments and societies to respond to the challenges of climate change at sufficient scale. If you want a simple overview on how we can do that, have a look at the recent blog from A Rocha UK CEO, Andy Atkins in the Tablet magazine.
You can also make a difference, through biodiversity monitoring to track the impacts of climate change, or supporting conservation organisations. Keep praying, particularly for wisdom for our leaders in the run-up to the Glasgow COP. Whatever you do, please do not despair: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1-3).
About the author: Professor James Pearce-Higgins is the Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology and a trustee of A Rocha UK.
This blog was written for A Rocha UK’s Wild Christian email, August 2021. Sign up here to receive future Wild Christian emails and join this vibrant, growing on-line community.