The science is clear: temperatures are increasing, weather is getting more erratic, and sea level is rising. The question is: what should we do about it? In the final installment of our Cape Change series, we take a look at Massachusetts’ officials’ attempts to find the right balance between stopping climate change and preparing for it … starting with some lessons from the natural world.
When it comes to climate change, plants and animals face a tough ultimatum: adapt or perish. Trevor Lloyd-Evans has spent the past forty years observing the wildlife – particularly birds – that surround his lab at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. He says it’s obvious the natural world is responding to rising temperatures.
“There really is a change,” says Lloyd-Evans. “There’s a noticeable, measurable change, which is amazing to me. I mean I learned that evolution worked extremely slowly, and it still does. But natural selection can work quite quickly. And we’re seeing recognizable changes just in three or four degrees. Which is an astonishing thing.”
As he walks through the woods on a chilly late December morning, Lloyd-Evans points out some of those changes – here a southern tupelo tree, there a pair of turkey vultures that he says would have been a rarity in mid-winter thirty or forty years ago.
The turkey vulture is one of nearly two hundred eastern bird species whose winter territories have shifted north in the past fifty years, in some cases by hundreds of miles. But Lloyd-Evans says that even more important than where birds spend the winter is where they are come early spring.
“So in the spring they are feeding on a very temperature sensitive prey,” he explains, “which would be insects that are hatching out in correlation with leaves that are coming out and coming out earlier and correlating with temperature.”
Birds who opt not to fly south for the winter are guaranteed to be here when the bugs emerge, but migrating birds need perfect timing to hit that all-important spring bloom. Lloyd-Evans says that birds who time their spring migrations based on temperature cues are arriving back in southern Massachusetts as much as nine days earlier than they did just forty years ago. But long-distance migrants who rely on internal clocks aren’t making the adjustment.
“So if you are in South America, there’s no way you know it’s a warmer spring,” Lloyd-Evans says. “You have to rely on, again, that internal clock, that annual rhythm. And you come back at the same time. And the hope is that it has not been a warm spring up here. And that the food supply that you need for migration has not already passed over a peak”
With average temperatures expected to rise another four to five degrees Fahrenheit over the next several decades, that’s an increasingly risky gamble. Lloyd-Evans sites examples of bird populations already in decline because they’ve fallen out of sync. He says the birds hold a cautionary tale for humans: those unwilling or unable to adapt to a changing climate could face harsh consequences.
Last fall, scientists and state officials gathered at the Wareham headquarters of A.D. Makepeace to recognize the company’s initiatives to prepare their real estate developments and cranberry bogs for a warmer, more volatile climate. A few years ago, such efforts might have been controversial, viewed by some as giving up on the higher goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hector Galbraith is director of the Manomet Center’s Climate Change Initiatives. He says that’s changing as more people realize that we’re already seeing the impacts of global warming, and additional disruptions are inevitable.
“Even if we stopped all of the greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere right now,” says Galbraith, “the climate will continue to warm for another two, three decades because of inertia in the climate system. So we have to adapt.”
But this isn’t an either-or situation. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are already almost one and a half times what they were two hundred years ago. Without efforts to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Galbraith cautions, we could find ourselves pushing the limits of what we can adapt to.
“Without mitigation there is no adaptation,” stresses Galbraith. “And that is correct because if we’re really heading toward a tripling of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – and that’s entirely possible – it’s going to be very difficult to adapt. A doubling of greenhouse gases, yeah, we can probably do something about that. Tripling gets very, very difficult”
Massachusetts has committed to cutting emissions to one fifth of 1990 levels by the year 2050. That’s what the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said is necessary to avoid the most devastating affects of global warming. Last year, state officials released a plan that calls for increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy production and decreasing emissions from transportation. But some question whether that will be enough to get us to the ultimate target.
“We have a goal of an 80% reduction by 2050,” says Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, “but most of our effort has been focused on the near-term, what we can do before 2020, and that has really focused on what the low-hanging fruit is, not the more difficult changes that really take a lot of support for altering the way we live.”
State officials show no sign of such doubts.
“Whichever way you want to measure it,” says Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Richard Sullivan, “whether you’re talking job growth or smarter decisions on energy, or carbon sequestration and carbon emissions reductions, we are hitting our targets and we are going to be the national leaders.”
Manomet’s Hector Galbraith says Massachusetts’ officials have good reason to be proud, that New England – particularly Massachusetts – is way ahead of the curve when it comes to public policies on climate change. And with the failure of both federal climate legislation and international greenhouse gas treaties, many analysts say the state and local level is where the real action is when it comes to addressing climate change.
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