Founded in 2009, the Climate Change: Impacts & Responses Research Network is brought together by a common concern for the science of, and social responses to, climate change. We seek to build an epistemic community where we can make linkages across disciplinary, geographic, and cultural boundaries. As a Research Network, we are defined by our scope and concerns and motivated to build strategies for action framed by our shared themes and tensions.
The conscious and unconscious actions of one creature — homo sapiens— have come to profoundly 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. Nevertheless, the most recent epoch ushered in by the industrial revolution and marked by market-directed agriculture, the widespread clearing and harvesting of forests, and the use of fossil fuels has had undeniably course altering impact on the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases are heating the Earth. Ice that was permanent until recently is rapidly melting. Sea levels are rising. Extreme weather events are occurring with higher frequency. The effects feel differently, and regions are affected by these changes in different ways. Evidence is inevitably wrapped up in ecological, social, and economic systems. In the current persistent challenge of universalizing evidence-based approaches, the struggle is often a proxy for a broader conversation about the vested power of those who have benefited from this epoch-defining economic model. If we are to stem the tide of change — indisputably revealed in the evidence — and look to benefit from the opportunities associated with new models for development, we must supplement the evidence with longer views of building resilient societies and economies.
Today we live in the shadow of already occurring and potentially disastrous impacts on ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity. For instance: the special effects of glacial melt on mountain and riverine biodiversity; sea-level rise on coastal and mangrove systems; the effect of sea temperatures on coral reefs; increased rainfall variability in monsoon regions. These are just a few examples. The specific regional impacts on biomes and the vulnerabilities of different ecosystems across the globe need to be assessed in their specificity. 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 challenge in front of us is to consider solutions that can operate at micro and macro levels.
Humans are agents in climate change. Humans are affected by climate change: shifting shorelines, declining agricultural productivity, crisis of food supply, availability of water, the health of populations, and extreme weather events. 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. In considering human impacts we must consider unique contexts, both for effects and responses. How are certain communities bearing the burden of climate change? In what ways are attributing responsibility and to whom for the current reality? How do we measure responses on in the context of local, national, and global human life?
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.