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Climate Change Challenge: Collaborating to Adapt

Anthony Flint / Aug 02 2008

For Release Sunday, August 3, 2008

Anthony Flint

If there were ever compelling evidence that cities, regions and the natural world are co-dependent, take a look at the climate change news of the last year.

On the one hand, accelerated ice melting in the Arctic, plus growing concerns about the Antarctic’s long-term stability, raise fears of rapidly rising seas that could threaten many of America’s and the world’s oceanside cities.

And now comes the case of Dendroctonus ponderosae, otherwise known as the mountain pine beetle. By laying its eggs under the bark of mature jack-pine and lodgepole pine trees, this voracious insect is laying waste to millions of acres of forests in the Rocky Mountain West, from Colorado to British Columbia.

Previously, the beetle population was kept in check every fall when the temperature drops below freezing and the larvae is killed. But rising temperatures and delayed frosts have allowed the beetles to flourish, not only in their traditional habitat but further northward. Foresters are seeing the beetle in places never seen before, and the ravaging populations may even start to infest different species of trees. This summer, aerial photographs show the tell-tale brownish red swaths of dead forests over thousands of square miles.

The consequences are grim. The dead trees no longer soak up carbon dioxide, release carbon as they rot, and a create a tinderbox for forest fires. Yet as people have left towns, building homes at high and exposed elevations, controlled burns to eradicate the beetle often become too risky to undertake.

The destruction wrought by the pine beetle is just one example of climate change’s spreading impacts. Two-thirds of California’s unique plants – 2,300 species that grow nowhere else – will be wiped out due to rising temperatures and changes in weather patterns, according to a recent study.

Severe weather is spoiling recent advances in soil conservation and the management of working landscapes and agricultural lands, as soil nutrients and pesticides run off into waterways. In the U.S. Southeast, drought is stressing water supplies, throwing a long shadow over the growth of the “Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion.”

The discussion of global warming has focused, appropriately, on mitigation efforts – regulating carbon, alternative energy, building transit, sequestering carbon from power plants, and changes in land use patterns for more compact development. Setting and adhering to goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been difficult: it takes major effort and expenditure of political capital for local and metro leaders to sell the public on steps today that may head off a crisis seen years in the future.

But the other half of the challenge lies in adaptation – managing and responding to impacts of climate change as they happen, and changing the way we do business in every area from town layouts to land conservation across broad regions. And the urgency of that task is right in front of us. Like mitigation, adaptation will require innovation and serious funding.

The land conservation community has already begun to rise to the challenge. A wide range of organizations and conservancies has done a stellar job in recent decades of protecting millions of acres of land. Now that work is threatened, because global warming has changed all the rules. For example, wildlife protected by conservation easements has begun to migrate elsewhere.

Yet there are common sense ways that a city or region can plan and achieve a robust green infrastructure to help address climate change through adaptation, argues Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute in Portland, Ore. And the issue is not just parks and recreation areas, as vital as they are. “Containing residential development within compact urban areas will reduce the need to spend huge sums of money bailing people out of flood-prone areas and fighting fires where the only reason to fight the fire is to protect sparsely developed exurban residential territory,” Houck contends.

James N. Levitt, director of the Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest, says that adaptation to climate change must necessarily become part of the land and biodiversity conservation agendas in the years ahead. Levitt has been gathering land conservation leaders at Lincoln Institute conferences in Washington, discussions targeted specifically at finding creative pathways toward adaptation that protects our natural heritage. Initiatives to protect landscape-scale corridors for species migration, safeguards against spread of invasion species, and new water usage and fire regimes are being crafted.

All too few urban leaders are engaged in parallel discussions — especially on a scale larger than their own communities. They might think about the example of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative ( — a guide and connector for environmental groups, businesses, foundations and citizens concerned about a grand piece of North America’s landscape.

There are other reasons to work across boundaries — and to think of cities as they interrelate with the natural world. Climate change – both on adaptation and mitigation — looks like it will be our biggest motivation yet.

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