Our Work Safeguarding Wildlife and Ecosystems from Global Warming

Photo of ice formations on Otter Creek Beach, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Michigan

Rapid climate change is putting more than a century of conservation achievements at grave risk, and will have profound implications for the very fabric of the nation's natural systems. Safeguarding our wildlife and ecosystems in the face of global warming has become an urgent priority for conservation and resource management communities. Referred to as climate change adaptation, this work will largely define a new era of conservation in America and around the world.

Climate change adaptation involves steps we can take to prepare for and cope with the impacts of climate change. These actions can range from enhancing the resilience of fish and wildlife strongholds to creating movement corridors that enable plant and animal species to shift their ranges in response to changing climate patterns.

NWF's global warming safeguards work focuses on:

Aggressive Action Needed on Two Fronts

The threat that global warming poses to wildlife and ecosystems is well documented. These impacts will not just take place at some distant point in the future: they are here now. Similarly, although climate change is a global process, the impacts are not restricted to distant locales: they are local and increasingly affect our own communities and backyards.

Meeting the challenge of conserving natural ecosystems in the face of this unparalleled threat will require aggressive action on two fronts:

  1. We must confront the underlying causes of global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases--referred  to as mitigation.
  2. At the same time, however, we must address the impacts of global warming on wildlife and ecosystems through adaptation.

 

Wildlife's Future Remains Uncertain

As our native plants and animals respond to changes brought on by global warming, one thing is clear: the ecosystems of the future will be different, either dramatically or subtly, than those we now know and depend on. Some may even disappear altogether.

Species and ecosystems are often finely tuned to respond to specific and predictable environmental cues, such as seasonal patterns of temperature, precipitation and day length. The synchronization of responses across many plant and animal species is what allows, for instance, song birds to time their nesting with the emergence of protein-rich insects, and flowers to bloom when their pollinators are available. Similarly, species often have very specific tolerances for heat or cold, as well as for drought or flooding.

As global warming alters the local climatic regimes in which our native wildlife evolved and adapted, we will begin to see varying responses. Some species will be able to accommodate the new conditions, others--especially more mobile species--may be able to track the new conditions by moving northward or up in elevation. Still others may have little ability on their own to cope with these new conditions and will decline or may go extinct.
 

Jaguar

Transforming Conservation

Conservation traditionally has focused on preserving pristine or intact landscapes, or on restoring impaired ecosystems to some desired historical condition. A new paradigm for conservation is required that takes insight from the past, but does not attempt to recreate it. Instead, we will be challenged to envision conservation of our lands and waters in an uncertain and climate-altered future. Although most of the tools in the conservationist's arsenal will likely remain the same--for instance, land acquisition and active management--where, when, and how these tools are deployed will need to be considered through a climate change filter.
 

Climate-Smart Conservation

The National Wildlife Federation is taking an active role in helping to develop and advance the emerging field of climate change adaptation, with a particular emphasis on wildlife and natural ecosystems. Much activity and interest surround these developing climate-smart approaches to conservation with adaptation planning efforts underway at local, state, and national levels. As the field of adaptation planning and implementation is still in rapid development, one of the most important things that NWF can do is help to connect scientists and practitioners in order to share information and knowledge, as well as successes and failures.

NWF has established a number of mechanisms to help conservationists and wildlife managers exchange information and share knowledge about climate change adaptation. These include:

  • Adaptation 2009 - In collaboration with the National Center for Science and the Environment, NWF convened a major national conference designed to explore management and policy responses to climate impacts on key natural ecosystem types--including forests, grasslands, freshwater systems and coasts. Information on this conference is available by clicking here.
     
  • Climate Change and Wildlife Webinar Series - NWF in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a series of web-based seminars ("webinars") on Safeguarding Wildlife from Climate Change. Presenters have included a number of leading scientists, government officials, and representatives from conservation organizations. Archives of these webinars can be accessed here.
     
  • Climate Change and Wildlife Action Plan Workshops - Federally mandated State Wildlife Action Plans are now available for all U.S. states and territories and collectively provide a nationwide blueprint for conservation action. Because most of these plans do not consider the effects of climate change, NWF is working with states and local partners to hold a series of workshops designed to help states incorporate climate change into these important plans
     
  • Vulnerability Assessment Guidance - Developing effective adaptation plans requires an understanding of the likely impacts from climate change on particular species and habitats. NWF, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and with support from the Department of Defense, has convened an experts working group to develop guidance on Wildlife and Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments.

 

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