Conservation's changing climate

With world leaders failing and New Zealand ranked in the bottom five of the world's worst emitters for climate policy response, conservation campaigners have to think differently about ways to help nature weather the coming storm

The IPCC synthesis report is in and, hopes Bill McKibben:

“At this point, the scientists who run the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must feel like it’s time to trade their satellites, their carefully calibrated thermometers and spectrometers, their finely tuned computer models – all of them for a thesaurus. Surely, somewhere, there must be words that will prompt the world’s leaders to act.”

The report’s predictions will be underestimating the likely severity regarding sea level rise in particular, and yet “severe, widespread, and irreversible” is the experts’ verdict on what we can expect if effective action isn't taken now.

Climate Negotiations Minister Tim Groser thinks it’s under control, and Groser will be feeling pleased with himself, as New Zealand is the architect of a new proposal talked up in a recent speech by US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern as the "most interesting proposal on the table". The NZ Herald reported it with what seemed a sort of tragic, servile eagerness (NZ wins approval!) but might be no worse than not much critical thought.

The proposal is that the successor to the now defunct Kyoto protocol would be a schedule of voluntary commitments: countries would set domestic emissions targets of their choosing, then face legal obligations to tell the UN when those cuts will happen and submit to review measures; but the targets themselves would not be legally binding, nor need they be sufficient to reach the (likely insufficient) but internationally agreed target of no more than 2°C warming.

So to sum up: the extent of any remaining ambition, for 2015 anyway, is to get developing as well as developed countries to say what they will (or might) do, and write it down. And then mumble… something something… success! (or not) like a rabbit out of a hat: this sort of magical thinking is what we call progress now.

Truly, it is a victory for recycling: recycling of the media statements of everything said five years ago at the 2009 collapse of Copenhagen and the unveiling of the Copenhagen Accord (“a historic step forward”), in which we understood that agreement on 2°C as the threshold probably wasn't enough but accepted it as the compromise, with some pledges that collectively weren't enough to remain within that target, no binding obligations to adhere to the pledges, and subsequent domestic and international failures to even halt let alone reverse emissions' rise. Because all of the things said then, as those talks fell apart and we tried to console ourselves, seem equally true and applicable now. I can't see how Groser's idea moves us forward. It is, approximately, the entrenchment of the inadequate Accord with a new status and no exit route. In five years - five years, it will be six years in 2015 - is all that we're left with hot air?

Current climate action is taking us, at best, to a 3.7°C warmer world, New Zealand and Mr Groser among the leaders in the race to the bottom. The synthesis report, conservative as it is, predicts 3.7 degrees at best and up to 4.8.

As a person looking on with helplessness, growing incredulity, bitterness: what can anyone do? Civil disobedience? A salute to Mr Groser? - on beaches on December 7 we’ll be sticking our heads in the sand. Please come and join that event! Do not accept political inaction and equivocation, these failures and these lies.

But away from the rooms filled with men in suits, and milling crowds of activists and lobbyists now gathering for another set of talks, some whom have flown for many miles, I need to believe there’s a way to stop talking and start to act; to not rely and count too much on a process that may fail us - has already failed us - although it is necessary to keep the faith. I cannot bear to watch it. I cannot sit and hear it without erupting into bitter laughter. I want to go away. 

It is time for environment campaigners, local government, gardeners, farmers, caretakers of public land, communities, to open up another front. One of the places for that to happen is out in the forests and the fields.

These are not either-or strategies. No local adaptation can cope with the recurring drought, fire, sea-level rise, flood, and seasonal disruption that will follow warming of 5, 6, 7 degrees or more - remembering that real-world outcomes have been consistently tracking at the high end of modelled projections, and emissions continue to riseWe need the climate campaigners, and inspired courageous diplomats; we need to fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground; we need to keep exposing self-serving lies and telling the truth; and what we also need more than ever now is people focused on land and habitat - land use and habitat protection, together, at local and landscape scale.

New Zealand ecologists Matt McGlone and Susan Walker say that although the greatest short-term climate threats for NZ nature would lie in poorly chosen mitigation and adaptation efforts (like irrigation, hydro damming, and using exotic forestry for carbon sequestration), climate change is nevertheless a significant biodiversity risk within 50 years: pests, weeds and disease, species movement, temperature sensitivity (eg, sex selection of tuatara - there may be no males above 2C), inability to translocate in some species’ cases.

Former president of the NZ Ecological Society Wren Green, in a recent DOC paper, notes that with relatively little variability in NZ's climate, NZ species and ecosystems are poorly adapted to even small amounts of change. Coastal and freshwater ecosystems would both be at high risk; more generally, we need riparian planting and joined-up habitat - and these are opportunities, not costs.

Just as a revolution in our energy supply is all win, with big, proven economic and social benefits for anyone not invested in big oil and the status quo, things that will help nature and people in a warmer world are things that are needed anyway. Healthy, beautiful, useful living places can be the same places, and the same actions, that offer our best short- and long-term outcomes for conservation, biodiversity, freshwater quality and climate resilience. They might be our only shot.

It is a big philosophical shift, that potentially poses some quite profound dilemmas for conservationists. Typically, we conserve looking backwards. We stop some things and kill some things, and we leave some places to nature, relatively alone. The Conservation Act deals with historic places protection, as well as natural heritage. Which direction is conservation trying to travel in: is it towards the future, or back to the past? 

Can it be both?

The first frontline tasks are bread-and-butter business-as-usual tasks as we know them: protect what fragments of habitat we already have from development and invasive weeds and pests, halt the biodiversity decline. This is climate change response work, as well, now. It helps to strengthen and brace nature to weather the coming storm, by removing or minimising other stresses.

But crucially, a campaign for living landscapes needs to strengthen and connect by joining up broken and scattered dots. I'm talking about

  • how we use road verges and create wildlife crossings; 
  • riparian planting along rivers and streams to keep them shady and cool and the life in them alive; 
  • corridors (of adequate size and shape) connecting private covenants to each other and with public conservation land; 
  • forested food gardens that are also 'gardens for wildlife'; 
  • making public land in parks and schools habitat-rich living places. 

In such a landscape species can move, if they need to and are able, but more importantly, it has some critical mass that an ecosystem needs.

This is not a fight between the land that people need and use, and what we give nature back. It is the opposite. It is a true eco-system, where production and protection happen in the same place: where nature thrives, and so do we. 

It is a task of decades. To meet climate change impacts in the coming 40 years, we need to start today.

But can we conservationists handle it - celebrate it - when it's willows and poplars and tree lucerne, perhaps for forage in times of drought, that a farmer wants to plant? Does a kereru care, when it rests in a sycamore or feeds on a plum, rather than a miro tree? By what criteria will we, as conservationists, judge the rights and wrongs of different species if they can help in any way at all?

The objective here is not to assume we're going to fail on the climate change front. Win or lose at the climate talks, it's making New Zealand a living place, where man [human] lives in harmony with nature, which is all that Aldo Leopold defined conservation to be.