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Field notes from a Nature Conservancy meeting

Filed under: — eric @ 21 October 2008

I had the opportunity to attend a three-day meeting of the Nature Conservancy last week in Vancouver. I was there with my RealClimate hat on, to offer ideas and insight on blogging in particular, and public communication of science in general.

While at the conference, I had a rare chance to see some of the inner workings of one of the world’s largest and most successful environmental organizations (this was an invite-only conference, and only a handful of us were other than Nature Conservancy staff and trustees). The Nature Conservancy has a reputation of being very non-partisan, and this was abundantly evident at the conference: There were representatives present from the Shell Oil Company, from the Christian Coalition, from Environmental Defense. This broad level of buy-in of Nature Conservancy goals is perhaps not surprising, given that the main thing this organization is known for is its method of protecting land: buying it. Neither free-market boosters (if there are there any remaining) nor lefty environmentalists have any trouble with this.

What was news to me, though, was the extent to which the Nature Conservancy is also working towards influencing policy on climate change. Getting serious about climate policy is no longer a partisan issue in the U.S.: both John McCain and Barak Obama are on record for supporting cap and trade carbon markets. But one might well ask what climate policy has to do with the buy-the-land-to-protect it method of the Nature Conservancy. As I learned at the conference, there are two rationales.

First, the Nature Conservancy has a strongly science-based policy for making land-purchasing decisions. They take into account things like the minimum viable ecosystem size in determining which acquisitions will actually have lasting impact. Trouble is, for many areas, the conditions those decisions are based on may change. Areas near sea level are an obvious example. But so are the more than 10,000 acres of native tallgrass prairie that they have protected in Kansas. How much will that ecosystem change with the projected changes in precipitation in this region? Obviously, the Nature Conservancy is taking into account such projections, as best they can. But they have also decided that the risks of climate change to the world’s ecosystems are too large to simply adapt to: hence their interest in helping to push governments to enact policies that will help mitigate it.

Second, it turns out that the Nature Conservancy’s mission is — and has always been — much broader than is widely recognized. As they note on their mission statement page they can’t possibly buy all the places they want to protect. To achieve their mission — “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive” — they will clearly have to do something much bigger. The buzzword here is sustainability, and the nature Conservancy is now launching what they call their Campaign for a Sustainable Planet. This means a serious focus not just on direct ecosystem protection but also on sustainable development. International sustainable development goals, of course, are impossible to separate from international energy policy. And one cannot today talk about energy policy without talking about climate policy. It is therefore quite logical for the Nature Conservancy to be drawn into weighing-in on climate policy.

Now, what does this have to do with RealClimate? Well, the Nature Conservancy is interested in expanding their web-based communication toolbox. They already have a great deal of information on their web page: see for example their article on climate change adaptation, here; but they’d like to do more. And in particular, they are interested in getting more information out there from their scientists. As I already pointed out, The Nature Conservancy — which has over 700 full time scientists working for it — prides itself on being strongly science-based. So do we here at RealClimate (read our welcome page). Unlike us, whose day jobs are to produce and broadly disseminate scientific results (through teaching and publication), Nature Conservancy scientists don’t necessarily publish their work. There is no doubt a lot of really interesting and important work being done that doesn’t get out to many other scientists, let alone the general public. A blog, or something like it, could provide those scientists with a place to talk about their work. Hence my attendance at the meeting, to offer a bit of advice and perspective.*

Here at RealClimate, we look forward to seeing where Nature Conservancy goes with this, and wish them best success in their efforts. [Watch this space for an announcement, if and when they launch something.] For my part, I’ll be especially enthusiastic if the Nature Conservancy doesn’t limit itself to talking about its various projects around the world (interesting as those may be). What I’d really like to see is a site that provides their perspective on some of the more difficult — but really important — questions in the area of climate change impacts. How much danger are polar bears in, really? How will agriculture in Asian monsoon regions be affected? What are the broader effects of ocean acidification (beyond the immediate impact on coral reefs)? The Nature Conservancy won’t be the last word on this — any more than RealClimate is. But their perspective, from field scientists “on the ground”, could prove extremely valuable.

One additional thought. In several of the sessions I attended at the Nature Conservancy meeting, reference was made to the need to stabilize global temperature rise at no more than 2°C, and correspondingly to stabilize CO2 levels at no greater than 450 ppm (strictly speaking, this should be 450 ppm CO2-radiative-equivalent; there is a big difference, and it is often neglected). In each case, reference was made to the IPCC reports as the source of these numbers. Yet these numbers really don’t derive from the IPCC, which (rightly) shied away from being policy prescriptive. Rather, they have their origin in a small number of documents, notably the 1995 report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, papers related to the Exeter conference on “avoiding dangerous climate change” and in European Union Council decisions (see the 1996 and 2006 Presidency Conclusions here). Clearly, the 2°C/450 ppm numbers have completely permeated the policy-advocacy realm. Yet while they are arguably derivable from the IPCC reports, it is actually not clear to what extent the larger scientific community really believes these are the right numbers. There simply has not been a process to evaluate this that compares in depth and breadth with the IPCC. A new and much more comprehensive analysis, by a much greater group of scientists, would be valuable at this juncture. Scientists are fond of saying that they cannot summarize their projections with a small handful of simple numbers, but simple numbers are what are being discussed in policy circles. If the “right” numbers are really so low as Jim Hansen believes (see our post on this, here), then the Nature Conservancy has an even more difficult task ahead.

*[For those interested in slogging through it, there’s a video of our session, here. It’s not just about me. There is also some really interesting stuff from Nature Conservancy staffer Jonathon Colman and from the folks who started the conservation clearinghouse and collaboration websites and, as well as a demonstration (not altogether successful) of the emerging virtual reality conferencing technology which (when it works) might help all of us travel to conferences less often. A word of advice: skip all this and instead take a look at the Keynote lectures, by far better orators than me: Mark Tercek, Nature Conservancy CEO, Jerome Ringo, Apollo Alliance President, and CARE C.O.O. Steve Hollingworth

107 Responses to “Field notes from a Nature Conservancy meeting”

  1. 101
    Rich Creager says:

    Just read the thread. Asteroid Miner’s suggestion(27) that the Nature Conservancy buy coal mines seems brilliantly focused to me. I support the NC now, but would definately dig deeper if I knew my contribution were directly reducing coal extraction. We have to stop mining coal, and it’s politically hard to imagine ceasing in one fell swoop, so reduction, if it happens, will be incremental. Time to start.

  2. 102
  3. 103
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    I am Mark J. Fiore, and I posted comment # 3. I read thru all the comments after mine, and was quite impressed with the level of discourse.
    However, Re:Comment # 50, Jason,I am NOT Mark Fiore the San Francisco famous political cartoonist. I get that mistake a lot, with phone calls to me asking if they have reached the cartoonist Mark Fiore. He is an entirely different person than me, and someday I’ll look up and view his work, because lots of people tell me it is great.
    Thanks for all the “feedback” comments on methane.Pun intended. I liked them all.
    Let’s just hope for the best on the massive methane releases, shall we?
    Mark J. Fiore (not the political cartoonist)!!

  4. 104
    Hank Roberts says:

    This is a good introduction to the work by cartoonist Fiore:

  5. 105
    pete best says:

    Re #82, the world allegedly wants/needs 50% more energy come 2030 at the presrnt time but I would imagine that the world could grow their economies by this 50% energy without requiring much more energy if countries like the USA embarked on a large scale energy efficiency drive. However this is unlikely whilst oil remains relatively cheap at around $3-4 a gallon and whilst oil can be imported to the tune of 20 mbpd overall use. It is just too easy to keep that 10 – 20 mpg car.

    Another issue of interest here is patents and spreading the new technology around. Giving China the new technology once the west has developed and deployed it might be seen an anti capatalist due to patent infringement and the costs of development may be inhibitive.

    My personal opinion for what it is worth it that there is at present little incentive to develop and deploy new technologies to reduce overall global carbon output. By the time there is we will be cutting it fine on the timeline.

    Still it is possible that a massive offshore wind expansion coupled with solar thermal a new low resistance grid might do the job to some degree but fossil fuels will always be part of the plan. As an example the worlds 13,000 commercial aircraft would require a land area the size of europe to grow enough crops for biofuel to fuel those planes. We would need a efficiency gain of 8x before it became viable or some other source such as algae maybe.

  6. 106
    Ed says:

    RE: 69 Chuck
    The basis for my prediction is that the Polar bears will adapt. They evolved originally from brown bears to survive in an Artic environment. IF, and it’s a big if, the planet warms enough to completely melt artic ice then polar bears will move to land and compete for food there. The jury is still out on whether AGW is part of a cycle or a flawed prediction using GCM’s to project 30-100 years from now. In case you have not noticed, global temperatures are not warmer than they were 700-1000 years ago and the Polar bears survived that time period fairly well. Global temperatures are not any warmer over the last 10 years and that is something the GCM’s did not predict.

  7. 107
    David B. Benson says:

    Ed (106) — Sigh. I fear you have it quite, quite wrong. First, read “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart:

    Review of above:

    is help you to discover that AGW has already happened and is happening now, a few years of less than maximum global annual temperature notwithstanding. See the five year averages for the HadCRUTv3 global surface temperature product:

    Global temperatures are certainly warmer now than 700–1000 years ago; see the latest paper by Mann et al. Here is a direct observation that in Britich Columbia temperatures are warmer than at any time in the last 7000 years;

    Similar ancedotal data for many parts of the world is easy to find; try for the Alps.