But climate change adaptation is a difficult concept to grasp. To help explain it, Nature.org talked to Jonathan Hoekstra, The Nature Conservancy’s director of science for Washington, to get the details and find out why the Conservancy is a global leader in this area.
"Climate change adaptation is aimed at treating symptoms early so that they don’t get worse, and so nature can eventually recover as we bring greenhouse gas emissions into check."
Jonathan Hoekstra, director of science for The Nature Conservancy Washington
What exactly are we adapting — and how can people possibly help nature adapt to climate change?
The Conservancy's adaptation strategy is in many ways like helping nature stave off an illness. We try to prevent damage and to ensure that habitats are healthy enough to survive. The goal is to safeguard nature — and the human communities that depend on it — from irreversible harm by a changing climate.
For example, in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea, where warming oceans threaten to kill-off coral reefs, the Conservancy helped local communities design a network of marine protected areas that will be able to bounce back from coral bleaching and ensure more sustainable fisheries. To do this, we link the reefs through currents, which allow larvae from healthy reefs to replenish those that have experienced bleaching.
In New Mexico, hotter, drier conditions will make forests more vulnerable to bark beetle outbreaks and devastating fire. So the Conservancy is using cutting-edge science tools to identify the most vulnerable areas in the state, so that proactive forest management practices can be put in place.
In each of these cases, we are helping change how we protect habitat and how we manage natural resources to resist and recover from the damaging impacts of climate change. For more than 50 years, we've worked to protect places of exceptional ecological importance — and our adaptation efforts are an extension of that work.
You mentioned human communities. Why should people care about adaptation as a strategy and support it?
Because climate change threatens far more than just natural places. For instance, changing patterns of temperature and rainfall threaten people’s water supplies and alter how and where we grow food. And more intense and frequent storms, floods and heatwaves will threaten our health and safety.
Can you give examples of specific strategies to adapt to those threats?
Sure. For instance, restoring floodplains would improve river health and help slow and store floodwaters. Preserving barrier islands saves sensitive coastal habitats and protects coastal communities from punishing storms. And protecting healthy coral reefs safeguards these jewels of the sea and helps sustain fisheries and other sources of economic livelihood for coastal communities.
In a way, aren’t we accepting defeat in the face of climate change by trying to adapt to it instead of trying to stop climate change from happening through emissions reductions?
If you seek medical help when you get sick, you aren’t surrendering in your efforts to stay healthy.
Even as we seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reverse climate change trends, melting polar ice, forest pest outbreaks and other changes in the natural world are symptoms of a growing global fever.
Climate change adaptation is aimed at treating those symptoms early so that they don’t get worse, and so that nature can eventually recover as we bring greenhouse gas emissions into check.
Why is nature-based adaptation more important than infrastructure adaptation? Why should we spend money on habitat when we also need to shore up roads, levees, bridges and tunnels?
It’s not that nature-based adaptation is more or less important. Rather, it’s that nature-based adaptation and infrastructure adaptation offer alternative solutions to some of the problems stemming from climate change.
Faced with rising sea-levels and increased storm exposure, communities could choose to build levees and concrete sea-walls, or they could choose to maintain natural floodplains and coastal marshes that provide similar protection.
There’s good evidence that nature-based strategies can be cost-effective. In Vietnam, 12,000 hectares of mangroves were planted as a buffer against typhoon damage. According to the Red Cross, that project cost $1.1 million — but saved $7.3 million each year in dike maintenance costs. The new mangroves also provided nursery habitat for local shrimp fisheries, thus providing additional benefit to local families.
What’s the one essential thing we should know about the Conservancy’s climate change work and what are some examples of our adaptation work?
- We have demonstrated how to design resilient coral reef networks in the Coral Triangle.
- Our Sea Level Rise Network connects Conservancy project sites like North Carolina’s Albermarle Sound and New York’s Hudson River Valley with others to share experiences, lessons and innovations for dealing with rising sea levels.
- Utah’s Dugout Ranch is a natural laboratory for understanding interactions between climate change, grazing, recreation and water.
- In China, the Conservancy is working to understand the impacts of melting glaciers on Yunnan’s alpine ecosystems, and to help China design a national conservation blueprint that anticipates how species may change distribution because of climate change.
Jonathan Hoekstra is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy Washington. He previously served as the director of the Conservancy's global climate change team. He earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in biological sciences from Stanford University, and a Ph.D in zoology from the University of Washington.