Field notes from a Nature Conservancy meeting

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.

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