Mitigate, adapt or suffer: the gauntlet laid down by climate change

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Mitigate, adapt or suffer: the gauntlet laid down by climate change

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The best slogan I've come across for dealing with the challenge we face from climate change is 'mitigate, adapt or suffer'.  I first heard it from government chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, in his recent lecture series.  The sad truth is that it is now not a question of whether we can avoid suffering, rather how much effort we are prepared to take to prevent a lot of suffering (for both people and nature).

Tomorrow's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was heavily trailed in the papers this weekend.  This report (which you will be able to read here) will focus on the impacts that climate chaos is having and could have on people and nature.   It is the latest reminder of the urgency to act and the suffering that we will cause if we don't.   The scientific consensus is that unless we stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at 400-450 parts per million (we are currently at 393.1), then we risk the global temperature rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial averages and that would commit thousands of species to extinction.  A rule of thumb is that for every one degree rise in global temperature, 10% of species will be at risk. 

While much of the climate change debate in recent years has focused on the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and end our dependency on fossil fuels, this winter's storms has put the spotlight back on adaptation.  

Golden plover silhouetted in flight, by Chris Gomersall,

Five years ago, we produced a document on wildlife and adaptation which highlighted 20 tough questions and offered 20 rough answers (see here).  I really like this report.  Written by my colleagues Olly Watts and Ruth Davis (the former still working for the RSPB and the latter who has since moved on to Greenpeace), it  argued that governments must have a bold vision for adapting to climate change to help protect the world's vulnerable people, species and ecosystems. We ended our report with some principles to help wildlife survive, thrive and adapt.  We wanted...

...resilient populations in healthy habitats

...a massively increased area of land managed for environmental benefits

...a countryside more permeable for wildlife

...biodiversity safeguards built into adaption plans of other sectors.

These principles seem as relevant today as five years ago - there is even a clear section on re-wildling which I think even George Monbiot would enjoy.  

In many ways these are the same principles that have guided nature conservation since the Second World War.  The big difference is that the scale of environmental change is greater than ever before - climate change compounding the existing, major threats from habitat desctruction, overexploitation, pollution and the introduction of non-native species.

While we have not seen the impetus in activity we would have liked when we produced the report, we have been applying these principles for many years in our practical conservation work and advocacy... 

...we continue to target our finite conservation resources on threatened species and their habitats to buy them time to adapt

...we continue to press for improved protection and management of natural and semi-natural habitats in protected areas and argue for more land/sea (we say 20%) to be managed primarily for nature alongside other objectives.  

...we continue to argue for sea/land uses (especially agriculture, forestry and fisheries) outside of protected areas to be managed more sympathetically for wildlife

...we try to prevent perverse consequences from action desgined to tackle climate change - for example by opposing unsustainable renewable energy projects or flood protection schemes that damage wildlife and natural flood defences and

...we factor in climate change considerations when planning our practical conservation work.

As I shall report in further blogs later this week, this final response has made a real difference for a number of species driving, for example, the much celebrated revival of the bittern.  

My hope is that this inspires others to do more for wildlife by offering a coping strategy in this rapidly changing world.  And I also hope that tomorrow's report catalyses action to deal with climate change, thereby preventing needless suffering in the future.

  • But don't be silly, Martin - we can't afford all this in a time of austerity ! Or can't we ? It's rare that such a complex and difficult issue as climate change gets brought into sharp focus, but this winter the annual savings on the Environment Agency budget of (a much disputed) £140m/ pa looks like having cost the economy at least £3 billion - for every pound saved, that is £20 lost. A clear route to economic growth ! And this isn't an isolated one off - the 2007 summer floods again cost an estimated £3 billion, roughly what we spend on agricultural subsidies.

    The RSPB have very clearly been leaders in acting, not just talking about, adaptation - the Bittern story must be one of the best case studies, and who would have guessed that the brave and expensive decision to 'climate proof' Titchwell would be tested so soon and so extremely ?