by David Suzuki
We live on a changing planet. Unnaturally rapid global warming is altering everything, including lands and waters. Evidence shows we’ve already emitted enough greenhouse gases to change the structure of ecosystems and the interactions within them. Because many greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, impacts to the planet will continue even if we stop all emissions tomorrow.
Approaches to conservation are also changing in response to climate disruption. Protected areas were initially established primarily for the benefit of people – to preserve breeding grounds for preferred game, or to optimize areas for human recreation. Over several decades, efforts have shifted toward prioritizing the ecological integrity of Canada’s parks, and recognizing the role of Indigenous leadership in conservation and stewardship.
Protected areas can be excellent climate mitigation tools. Mature forests, peatlands, oceans and marshes store significant amounts of carbon; disturbing these ecosystems releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Evidence shows Earth is heating at an accelerating rate, outpacing the capacity of numerous plant and animal species to adapt. To safeguard biodiversity, protected area planning is having to address habitat changes brought on by climate disruption.
This planning isn’t new. Twenty years ago, the World Wildlife Fund produced Buying Time: A User’s Manual for Building Resistance and Resilience to Climate Change in Natural Systems, based on the premise that strategic conservation measures could give nature breathing room until the transition to zero carbon energy was complete.
“Climate change is happening now and nature is experiencing its impacts first,” the report says. “Whether one looks at coral reefs, mangroves, arctic areas or montane regions, climate change poses a complex and bewildering array of problems for ecosystems. The key question is, what can be done – in addition to the rapid reduction of CO2 emissions now – to increase the resiliency of these ecosystems to climate change?”
The WWF team developed three broad approaches: protect adequate and appropriate space, limit all non-climate stresses, and use adaptive management and strategy testing. This means maintaining functional ecosystems and keystone species, reducing stresses like chemical pollutants, fragmentation by roads and industrial activities, and regularly assessing methods and outcomes.
More recently, an article in the journal Environmental Research Letters explored “climate-wise connectivity,” natural area connection “that specifically facilitates animal and plant movement in response to climate change.” Climate-wise connectivity looks at conservation strategies amid the climate crisis as emergent ecosystems appear. These include increasing the amount of protected habitat, adding corridors between protected areas, creating small “stepping stones” of habitat, buffering areas of rapid habitat change with areas of slower change, and maintaining biologically rich hot spots.
At the heart of it, connectivity corridors linking conservation areas provide wildlife with pathways on their journeys to continued survival. The article notes that “geophysical features that create a diversity of microclimates are important to focus on as they can buffer the effects of climate change, giving species more opportunities and time to track the changing climate.”
As both landscapes and our approaches to conserving them shift, so too must our social systems. Climate justice and social justice are intricately linked. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted climate change will continue to disproportionately affect the poor and most vulnerable – internationally and within Canada.
Humans are part of nature. We form what some social scientists call a “social-ecological system” and human resilience within that system is shaped by many factors: where we live, our relationships with the land, government support systems, and our personal economic and social resources. So we can build resilience in our own lives while supporting others less fortunate than ourselves.
Activism is one way to foster resilience. It can help overcome despair. As people living in Canada, we must help shift social and economic structures to advance climate and ecological resilience. This includes advocating for the establishment of protected areas as tools to maintain carbon, supporting Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, and demanding justice for those displaced or impoverished by climate change.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Boreal Project Manager Rachel Plotkin. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org