On the Climate Change Frontline

I love to hash over climate policy and politics as much as the next peon blogger. And I love biting the ankles of melodramatic bloviators. But I also love reporting, which often means reading documents and talking with people on the phone.

So this week I’ve tried to tamp down my enthusiasm for bloggy smackdowns and do some actual reporting on climate change. I’m especially interested in how society is going to adapt to the very uncertain yet profound climate changes that are anticipated (and in some cases, already happening), no matter what greenhouse gas reduction strategies we embrace next month or next year. That remains to be seen, of course.

But there is a group of people in government who now feel it is important to act swiftly on climate change, even though the efficacy of their actions seem as fuzzy as their outcome. Thats ballsy. And damn admirable.

I’ve focused on the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) because, well, I’m familiar with its mission and the people charged with carrying it out.  Over the years I’ve written a lot about endangered species and conservation biology-related issues. I’ve spent countless hours in field offices and in the field with dedicated and unsung FWS biologists. Long ago I realized that their task as the nation’s principal stewards of wildlife was herculean and thankless. And that was before any of them ever uttered a word about climate change to me.

So after I learned that the Service was undergoing a major strategy shift that embedded climate change as a core concern of its mission,  I started calling two places where I’ve covered ecological issues extensively–Arizona and Florida. (Additionally, I spoke with FWS staff in Virginia and North Carolina.)

I discussed here the two types of adaptive managment likely to be broadly implemented, and some of the specific challenges climate change poses for Arizona wildlife biologists.

When talking with FWS biologists in the southeast, I was struck by how they all expressed the same immediate concern about climate change: sea level rise and storm surges.

And they all voiced the same sense of urgency mixed with frustration, which Howard Phillips, the manager at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, in Columbia, North Carolina said best:

The big issue is not whether climate change is occurring but how fast is the change happening and how can species deal with it.

Phillip Hughes, an endangered species biologist with FWS in Big Pine Key, Florida, said a day doesn’t go by where climate change isn’t mentioned–either in a meeting, presentation or in passing conversation.

For him, ameliorating some of the fallout from climate change has become a priority. “When I cam here [six years ago], all I would talk about and deal with is habitat destruction and the recovery plans. So that was a fulltime job, including ‘don’t feed the deer’ and ‘drive slowly,’ and that’s still a big part of the job. But now I find myself increasingly focused on these new and ominous threats related to sea level rise and storm surges.”

For example, Hughes told me that storm surges (from hurricanes) in recent years have devastated the key tree cactus. (Yes, hurricanes are a natural shaper of the Florida landscape, but FWS biologists believe that more frequent storms, combined with the creeping sea rise already documented by NOAA–presents a clear and present danger to wildlife and ecosystems.) “The  [key tree cactus] declined 80 percent,” said Hughes, “which for a long lived cactus is tantamount to plummeting towards extinction.” After the storms, FWS salvaged tissue and seeds, what Hughes calls “down and doomed parts.” There is a plan afoot to move the tree cactus to higher ground, using those salvaged materials to propagate a new population.

Will it work? Who knows? But people like Hughes aren’t waiting around for a cap and trade treaty. They’re not even thinking much about the ins and outs of a national climate change policy. They’re already implementing their own version on the fly.

One Response to “On the Climate Change Frontline”

  1. […] I wrote here several weeks ago, global warming is already changing South Florida’s ecology. The difficulty […]

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