What is to be done?
Climate is one of the pivotal and dynamic forces in the natural history of the Earth. Paleoclimatology provides us a long view of the ebb and flow of climate change and a framework within which to interpret its ecosystemic consequences. In some times and places climate change explains processes of biodiversification, in other times and places a reduction in biodiversity. In this long view, the history of life on Earth is integrally related to climatological history.
For the first time in natural history, the conscious actions of one creature—Homo sapiens—have come to influence the course of Earth’s natural history, not just in local ecosystems but on a planetary scale. This has been the case since humans began a process of populating the whole Earth about one hundred thousand years ago. Ecosystems were revolutionized by the sustained yield harvesting technologies of hunters and gathers, then the farming and animal husbandry technologies of self-sufficient peasantries, and most recently and most intensively by the global division of labor of the industrial revolution, market-directed agriculture, the widespread clearing and harvesting of forests, and the use of fossil fuels.
It is now widely accepted that the most recent phase of human society has had an impact on the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases are heating up the Earth. Ice that was permanent until recently is rapidly melting. Sea levels are rising. Extreme weather events are occurring with greater frequency. Different regions are affected by these changes in different ways.
Some of the changes we are experiencing today may be part of the course of natural history. Other changes, many scientists agree, are the byproduct of human activity. Key questions include the following: How do we measure and explain these changes? What are their immediate and likely future impacts? And what is to be done? These are questions of practical concern and growing urgency.
What are the impacts on ecosystems, communities, species, and genetic diversity?
There is today the potential for disastrous impacts on ecosystems, communities, species, and genetic diversity that could well lead to mass extinctions in a relatively brief period. For instance, the special effects of glacial melt on mountain and riverine biodiversity and that of sea-level rise on coastal and mangrove systems raise concerns for the future of biodiversity. The effect of climate change on coral reefs is already a major concern. Increased rainfall variability (in especially monsoon regions) could dry up or expand wetlands temporarily, which in both scenarios would be disastrous.
The most affected ecosystems will undoubtedly be situated in mountains, forests (especially evergreen types), grasslands, deserts, and wetlands. Glacial, riverine, and coastal ecosystems will also be altered. Knowledge currently available by simulating possible changes in Dynamic Global Vegetation models, clearly demonstrates that there will be further species loss. Many species ill-adapted to environmental disturbances may vanish without a trace before scientists can detect decline.
The specific regional impacts on biomes and the vulnerabilities of different ecosystems across the globe need to be assessed. There are parallels between some areas, while there are subtle and complex dissimilarities between the changes that are occurring in different parts of the world. These include floods, drought, forest fires, hurricanes, and other sporadic events that could devastate endemic species and threaten microhabitats.
Some ecosystems could be highly vulnerable and will not be able to respond even to short-term impacts such as natural disasters. In the presence of climate change, these short-term events could be even more cataclysmic. The possible impacts of invasive alien species that will spread due to climatic change are very little understood and could be devastating.
The possibility of "ecological surprises" in sensitive areas also needs to be addressed. Extreme weather events could be especially damaging. Thus, there is a great need for scientists and practitioners to be brought on a common platform that will at least reduce the ill effects on species ecosystems and protected areas.
How have we been agents of climate change? How will we be impacted by climate change?
Humans are agents in climate change due to their production of greenhouse gases and their patterns of land use. Humans will also be affected by climate change in many ways: including shifting shorelines, declining agricultural productivity, crisis of food supply, availability of water, the health of populations, and extreme weather events. For instance, environment related diseases could spread rapidly in epidemic proportions with changes in water availability and quality.
These impacts will be felt differentially in developed and developing worlds. Marginalized populations of people may not only have their lives and livelihoods affected, but also be affected by declines in species abundance and diversity of ecosystems upon which they are dependent at a landscape level. In heterogeneous landscapes with a mix of wilderness islands within a changing agricultural environment, urbanization, and industrial spread could well increase pressures on protected area networks as the effects of climatic changes increase. Agricultural communities, especially traditional farmers and pastoralists, may be forced to shift into what is now within the protected area networks in developing countries.
How do we impact the future course of natural history?
This peculiar creature in natural history, homo sapiens, is increasingly being recognized by scientists to be an agent of climate change, though the precise mix of natural and human causes has yet to be determined. With conscious agency lacking in other species, comes a unique species responsibility for the future course of natural history.
On the experience of the past one hundred thousand years, humans are clearly capable of adaptive responses. Our species has the capacity or can develop the capacity to nurture nature though a period of transition, for instance by creating corridors to assist species adaptation and inventing new agricultures which alleviate and mitigate the effects of climate change. Humans are also capable of precautionary action, reducing greenhouse gases for instance as part of a broader strategy of sustainable development. We may even be able to master technologies which balance and stabilize climate change.
The key, however, will be the extent to which our species can take a proactive role, be that technological or acts of social and political will that produce changed patterns of land and energy use. Like no other creature in natural history, and like no other time in this creature’s history, this is moment when the future of the planet is in our hands. The consciousness which made us a unique species perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, for the first time today puts us in a position of unprecedented responsibility for the course of natural history. Climate change is a key intellectual and practical challenge for today’s science, economics, politics, sociology, and ethics.