Photo Credit: Mollivan Jon - Flickr
November 14, 2012

Climate Complexities

It’s been a while since I’ve written a “top picks” post – so, no time like the present!  I decided to focus in on one conservation-related theme this go ‘round:  articles related to climate change.  As you’ll see, even within a singular issue such as climate change, there is a plethora of topics to hone in on – some may be fairly predictable but others were surprising to me.  Please share your thoughts with us and let us know if there are particular conservation-related issues you would like to see us focus on in future posts.  

I am partial to reptiles and so will start with a story on one of the most ancient species still alive today.  This story focuses on the effects of climate change on a singular species:  tuataras.  They have survived 230 million years and now face serious trouble because of warmer temperatures.   As Robert Krulwich of National Public Radio points out, tuataras have endured through the meteorite crash that drove the large dinosaurs to extinction, survived ice ages, invasive species (including humans), and volcanoes.  But this may be the end of the line for this ancient species.  The story is one of a tragic combination of climate change and life history traits that predispose this amazing creature to vulnerability.  This lizard-like critter (though it resembles most lizards, it is part of a distinct lineage) takes 10 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity – one male cited in the article fathered his first 11 hatchlings at the ripe old age of 111 years!  Additionally, tuatara gender determination is very sensitive to temperature (a common reality for many reptiles).   Temperatures over 72 degrees result in hatchlings that are most likely to be males and under 72 degrees, they will likely be females.  As it gets warmer, there will be fewer and fewer females for males to mate with.   Unlike many reptile species, the tuatara can actually remain active at temperatures as low as 44 degrees Fahrenheit – this is, in fact, how they compete with other reptiles.  So, warming temperatures not only result in predominantly male populations but also reduce the tuataras’ competitive advantage.   

My 2nd pick comes from the L.A. Times and was written by Kenneth R. Weiss.   Mr. Weiss’s article focuses on the effects of climate change, specifically acidification on our world’s oceans.  Since the Industrial Revolution, oceans have taken a huge hit in terms of carbon absorption:  500 billion tons of carbon dioxide has been absorbed and most of that is due to the burning of fossil fuels.  As a result, the oceans have become 30% more acidic.  The fallout effects from acidification negatively impact biodiversity, the economy, and even human health.  Increased acid levels reduce the abundance of calcium carbonate in the oceans, and shellfish larvae are unable to form their protective shells.  This has huge effects on the bottom rung of the food chain as well as economic effects on the shellfish industry.   Additionally, USC oceanographer Dave Hutchins found that harmful algae actually thrive and produce more toxins in high carbon conditions.  Shellfish then consume the toxic algae and become, in turn, toxic (sometimes lethal) to the humans who consume them.  

Lastly, I’ll end with my favorite post of the week.  Not because the piece is particularly uplifting – it’s actually quite sobering.  This post really shook me – it offers a unique perspective and challenges the assumptions that climate disasters encourage public engagement and positively shift views on climate change.  In the NY Times’ Dot Earth, Andrew C. Revkin writes about George Marshall’s research on climate and communication.    This article is, of course, very timely in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  It turns out that severe weather events such as Sandy may actually hinder communication efforts regarding the validity of climate change and the dire calls to action many scientists have been making for years.  Disasters often reinforce social networks.  If those networks were previously skeptical of the effects of climate change, then as Marshall writes, “areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interest of social cohesion”.  An issue as complex as climate change is much more difficult to communicate than the narratives so often heard following climate disasters (stories of resilience, community, and local pride).   The trick for those of us who work in environmental conservation is to figure out a way to compete – for our narrative to not be overwhelmed.  And timing is everything.  The worst time to try to communicate about climate change is on the heels of a climate disaster when communities are more interested in talking about their collective ability to overcome challenges than looking in the mirror and asking, ‘what could I be doing differently?’.

About the author:
Gwynne Corrigan, M.S.
Director of Communications
Gwynne is the Director of Communications with CBI, and is also involved with a variety of projects doing outreach, communications, research and writing. Her educational background is in ecology and biology with a particular interest in endangered species.
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