Climate change is not a long-term problem

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I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t it though? Depending on what we do now, we’re in for at least hundreds of years of warming. But also you might be thinking, well I know it’s not. We’re experiencing impacts now.

And both those reactions are correct. Climate change is a problem that is happening — accelerating — now, and will have ramifications for the long-term. But it’s that notion of “depending on what we do now…” that I want to pick apart a bit from the perspective of tightening the links between science and action.

What inspired me is a seemingly innocuous line I read in a new paper from Record et al. (2019):

“Climate change is often viewed as a long-term problem, and in this context, mean species range shifts could be a useful tool.”

The author goes on to explain that mean shifts assume animals can adjust quickly to changes in their environment. Building on that, it’s in better understanding that relationship — between animals and their conditions — that science can improve how we help. Tightening our grasp on such interconnections has the potential to make decision-making not only smarter, but more nimble. There are two key factors I would argue we have to consider to get that right: Our relationships with each other as participants in stewarding the environment; and closer alignment between the processes of producing and using scientific knowledge.

To back up a bit, the Record et al. paper essentially links circulation changes due to warming in the Gulf of Maine to distribution shifts in the planktonic copepod, Calanus finmarchicus. Calanus also happens to be a primary food source for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. And we are seeing evidence that the right whales are responding to these shifts in their food by moving north potentially in search of better feeding grounds. This complicates identifying where and when to put in place restrictions to protect right whales, such as designation of critical habitat areas, vessel speed restrictions, and reducing fishing gear entanglements.

In my last post, I discussed the notion of scientists embracing the role of public servant, and that practically speaking this is about alignment: The ways science and scientists can better align with society’s needs and the processes by which society makes decisions.

What we are observing is Calanus and ultimately right whales attempting to adapt to changing ocean conditions. How that continues to play out in terms of more permanent shifts in their behaviors and life histories remains to be seen (though there are predictions about Calanus in the literature). However, decision-makers simply can’t wait for that to get figured out. Decisions must be made, are being made, now.

For science to more closely align with decision-making here, we can ask ourselves:

  1. What are the decisions managers are making now, and will need to make over the next 5–10 years?
  2. What are the research needs that will help them master change on those timescales?
  3. And how can addressing such research needs also improve our overall trajectory beyond those timescales?

Then the relationships between us part: Finding constructive answers to those questions is a two-way (really multi-way!!) dialogue between scientists and decision-makers, stakeholders and other thought leaders engaged on this or any issue.

Another way to put it is mapping out how scientists can bring our evolving understanding of how systems work into closer alignment with how right whales are managed, and forging relationships with those engaged in that process throughout. Think about it, systems are changing now, we are also making decisions about those systems now that will have future implications, all the while often relying on data and knowledge that comes from yesterday.

One idea to get at this is to conduct research on the timescales on which decisions are being made. Look at the decision-making process around the system or resource you are studying, identify the points of input for data and knowledge, and contribute. Another idea is to look for knowledge gaps that are inhibiting progress. Often it’s a missing puzzle piece. Through engagement you can find it. And on a larger scale (and I’ll have to take this up in its own post at some point) envisions ways to improve our scientific system of knowledge production to keep pace with and in the long run accelerate decisions over time.

Going back to North Atlantic right whales, Record et al. conclude by arguing that actions to protect the whales will need to anticipate changes in their movements and habitat usage. And science can help facilitate such progress by developing forecasts on sub-annual timescales. The larger point being finding ways science can adequately support more dynamic management in order to keep pace with change.

Doing that comes back to alignment and relationships on all fronts. I can’t say it enough. Between animal and conditions. Between scientists and society. Between production of knowledge and uptake of it.


Record, N.R., J.A. Runge, D.E. Pendleton, W.M. Balch, K.T.A. Davies, A.J. Pershing, C.L. Johnson, K. Stamieszkin, R. Ji, Z. Feng, S.D. Kraus, R.D. Kenney, C.A. Hudak, C.A. Mayo, C. Chen, J.E. Salisbury, and C.R.S. Thompson. 2019. Rapid climate-driven circulation changes threaten conservation of endangered North Atlantic right whales. Oceanography 32(2),