Extensive stand of severely bleached coral at Lisianski Island in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. Photo by NOAA
By BRIAN HIRES
For more than two decades scientists have been warning of the devastating impacts climate change will have on the planet’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Sharing the meaningful and timely actions the Service is taking with partners to mitigate those impacts is key to smarter, more engaging communications.
As a public affairs officer working on Endangered Species Act and imperiled species issues in the United States, every day I read or hear about species impacted by climate change, including red knots, migratory birds that are losing an important food source in Delaware Bay, Key deer in Florida will likely lose their habitat to flooding, and moose in the Midwest and Northeast that are being devastated by ticks and disease caused by warmer winters.
The Florida Key deer's habitat is threatened by sea-level rise and other impacts of accelerated climate change. Photo by John Oberheu
A Most Difficult Issue to Communicate
You don’t need to be a communications expert to see what a tremendous challenge it is to make the climate change discussion engaging, constructive and inspiring. Just try to put a positive spin on news involving out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions, rising temperatures, melting glaciers and acidifying oceans that spur yet other problems for people, wildlife and ecosystems, all at some uncertain time in the future. These threats include habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, disease, and drought and water availability. Climate change is also mired in both political controversy and an ostensible, but really non-existent, debate over its reality. Further, while we all contribute to climate change through our daily activities, there are few clear actions individuals can take to meaningfully affect the direction of global climate policy negotiations. These traits overwhelm and depress people, even those deeply concerned about the issue, and as a result people tune out on climate change.
For climate change to gain traction in the public mind, say leading climate scholars and social scientists, we must find a way to instill a sense of optimism that we as individuals and as a society can take meaningful action. How can this be possible, however, if leading countries and the planet as a whole continue to increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and blow past mitigation targets for avoiding the worse consequences?
Service’s Communications Opportunity
The Service occupies a unique space in our ability to gather diverse stakeholders to mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change on wildlife and engage the public with real solutions that groups and individuals can take. The Service is well-positioned to engage scientists, communicators, state wildlife agencies, conservation groups, federal agencies and private landowners to clarify the climate impacts to imperiled wildlife and ecosystems across the country and then address them.
Removal of the Westecunk Creek Barrier in Eagleswood, New Jersey, restored fish passage for both migratory and year-round resident fish and increased the resiliency of the ecosystem. Photo by Rebecca Reeves/USFWS
The Service has already been actively forging and leveraging diverse partnerships and implementing forward-thinking solutions. Just a few of the many examples include:
- Across the country, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) are fostering unparalleled collaborations between state, federal, local and international agencies; tribes and First Nations; nongovernmental organizations; universities; and interested public and private organizations to discover shared conservation priorities, increase their collective science and management capacity, and address climate resiliency at a level of coordination rarely seen.
- The Service, U.S. Geological Survey, state wildlife agencies, National Park Service and National Academy of Sciences are developing on “climate vulnerability assessments,” a new strategy for evaluating the impacts of climate change on plants, wildlife and entire ecosystems and how well they will adapt to that change. Knowing these factors will allow us to create effective, timely conservation strategies for imperiled species.
- In Florida, the Service is working with partners to model the state’s rapid population growth, sea-level rise, land-use planning and financial resources to conserve wildlife and natural resources in the face of climate change. The Peninsular Florida LCC and the Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy are critical tools in bringing diverse partners together and developing coordinated, region-wide strategies. “We should not decide what land to conserve in today’s world,” says Service senior biologist and science coordinator for the Peninsular Florida LCC Steve Traxler. “We need to look 20 and 50 years down the road to see where migratory birds, the Florida panther and other wildlife can survive.
- In the South Pacific, where the Service manages coral reef habitat in 11 wildlife refuges, scientists are seeking ways to reduce coral vulnerability to bleaching. Since tropical reefs around the world are dying due to acidification as oceans take up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, our science and conservation efforts could help reefs not only in the South Pacific but around the world.
- In the Northeast, the Service and is working with local, state and federal stakeholders is removing high-risk dams and other barriers. Reconnecting waterways makes them more resilient to flooding, extreme weather and sea-level rise. Since 2009, our efforts have restored connectivity on thousands of river miles from West Virginia to Maine, and is resulting in cleaner water for local communities, restored fisheries and increased tourism and recreation.
- In Hawaii, the Service is working with scientists from other agencies and institutions to measure the impacts climate change will have on bird species there that are already barely holding on in the wild. Higher temperatures will allow malaria-carrying mosquitoes to expand their ranges upslope and threaten imperiled bird species such as the akekee, ‘akiapola’au, akikiki, ‘akohekohe and others.
- In northern and central California, the Service and partners are protecting tidal marsh ecosystems in the face of sea-level rise and to recover imperiled species such as the California clapper rail, salt marsh harvest mouse, Suisun thistle, soft bird’s-beak and California sea-blite.
Public and partner understanding of and support for these efforts, why they are important and what is further needed are critical. As such, the work of Service communicators and public affairs will be equally important. These efforts should get a boost from the National Climate Communications Strategy due later this year. The plan prioritizes improved internal communications and engagement between Service employees and between the Service and our partners. We will also roll out the Climate Portal later this year, a first-of-its-kind tool for Service scientists, leaders, communicators and employees working on climate change to share, collaborate and inspire.
Challenges for Getting There
Given the scale and severity of the threats posed by climate change to America’s wildlife, special places and our way of life, few will argue that much more needs to be urgently done. Are we conserving, collaborating and communicating at a scale and in a time frame that meets the challenge? Are we clear what those challenges are and are we communicating them as well as our successes? As the oldest and most accomplished federal conservation agency in the world with a diverse, skilled workforce and the most powerful conservation tools on the planet, we have an opportunity to engage, inspire and leverage local, national and international stakeholders by resoundingly answering these questions.
BRIAN HIRES, External Affairs, Headquarters
|This article appeared in the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.|