What To Do About Climate Change? Everything You Can.

Nature’s adaptations to a warming world offer us lessons in flexibility that should inform our own response.

Staselė Jakunskaitė for Noema Magazine
Credits

Thor Hanson is an author and biologist, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Switzer Environmental Fellow and winner of the John Burroughs Medal. His latest book is “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change” (Basic Books, Sept. 28, 2021).

“Looks like it oughta be blowing bubbles,” the yard worker grumbled, and I had to admit that he had a point. In the place where an engine would typically sit, the electric mower featured a dome of white and orange plastic, with a gaping slot for the battery pack. While I liked the idea of cutting grass without burning fossil fuels, this contraption hardly seemed up to the task — particularly for our lawn, which might be more accurately described as a half-tame pasture.

But it quietly and efficiently trimmed our haphazard yard as well as any gas-powered machine I’d ever owned — and has continued to do so with no need for oil changes, air filters, spark plugs, new carburetors or any of the other things that make the repair side of an equipment business viable. The same can be said of our new electric chainsaw, our plug-in car and a host of other battery-powered items my family has switched to in recent years.

To be honest, I had been putting off making the transition away from gas and diesel, fully expecting the electric options to underperform. It wasn’t too long ago that electric yard tools were notorious for slicing through their own extension cords, and I’d known someone who had an early electric car that required constant recharging — even while driving — with a gas-powered portable generator. But to my surprise, every piece of modern electric gear we’ve tried has been a substantial step up from its polluting predecessor, making at least this one small act for the planet a no-brainer.

To be clear, buying electric lawn mowers will not be enough to stop climate change. Even if everyone converted to battery power for their yardwork and daily driving, fossil fuels would still be deeply embedded in the global economy, from agriculture and air travel to shipping, construction and manufacturing (including the production of electric mowers and cars). Nor does a tweak in power use by those lucky enough to have backyards and vehicles address the complex social and political implications of the crisis, with its gross inequities in cause and consequence.

But when faced with a challenge that feels overwhelming, there is power in practicality. I subscribe to a philosophy expressed to me by Gordon Orians, an eminent American biologist who, in his seven-decade career, has studied everything from blackbird behavior to the evolution of fear. When asked what a concerned citizen should do to combat climate change, his response was immediate and concise: “Everything you can.”

“I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
—Edward Everett Hale

In that simple phrase, Orians managed to capture both urgency and agency — the seriousness of the issue, combined with the importance of taking action at a relevant scale. It’s not a new idea. Nineteenth-century thinker Edward Everett Hale expressed something similar in a verse conceived long before anyone was worried about climate change. “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something,” he wrote. “And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

The value of the advice from both Orians and Hale lies in their choice of the word can, a verb rooted in possibility and adaptable to any circumstance. It helps us focus our energy on tasks immediately at hand: tangible things like how we drive, shop, eat, travel, protest, vote and, yes, cut the grass. Naysayers will claim that taking personal action is trivial, an empty gesture in the face of a problem so large. But that position is wrong — and not just slightly wrong. It is the opposite of the truth.

In nature, the responses of individual organisms determine the fate of populations, species and entire ecological communities. The same pattern applies to society. Addressing climate change requires a fundamental cultural shift in our relationship with energy, from how we produce it to how much of it our lifestyles demand. That makes individual action more important, not less so, because it is the collective behaviors and attitudes of individuals that define and change a culture. Yes, we need stronger climate policies and strong leadership to carry them forward, but those things will be the results of cultural change, not the cause of it.

Plants and animals are already changing their habits and behaviors to adapt to a warming world — often with a resourcefulness and flexibility we can learn from as we formulate our own response. When faced with a climate challenge, species don’t simply give up — they do all that they can to adjust. Sea butterflies, for example, rank among the ocean’s most vulnerable creatures. Known for their winged feet and coiled, glass-like shells, these tiny swimming snails are a vital part of plankton communities from the equator to the poles. But they build those delicate shells from a type of calcium carbonate that is easily eroded, and as seawater absorbs more and more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it is becoming increasingly acidic and corrosive.

“Yes, we need stronger climate policies and strong leadership to carry them forward, but those things will be the results of cultural change, not the cause of it.”

Scientists have already found wild sea butterflies with thin, pitted shells and conducted laboratory simulations that dissolve their shells entirely. So it was welcome news when researchers also found that sea butterflies could repair their damaged shells, building patches up to four times as thick as the original. No one knows whether that strategy will be enough to save them in the long run — repairing shells is costly and diverts energy away from foraging, reproduction and other important activities. But it shows that even small creatures can be resilient when conditions change. Many larger species are adjusting too, in some cases giving up behaviors once thought to define them.

On Alaska’s Kodiak Island, it is axiomatic that bears like salmon. Kodiak’s brown bears can grow to 1,500 pounds, bulking up on the abundant salmon that spawn every summer in the island’s many rivers and streams. Yet, a recent study of that relationship found a surprising change. At the height of spawning season, just as salmon numbers began to peak, the bears suddenly stopped fishing and disappeared from the streams. Researchers followed them uphill and immediately saw what had drawn the bruins away from their fishing grounds: berry season.

Certainly, there is nothing unusual about bears eating berries. Autumn-ripening blueberries, crowberries and other tiny fruits are rich in carbohydrates and have always been an important source of late-season calories. But warming spring and summer temperatures have begun triggering earlier harvests, particularly for red elderberries — a food that bears apparently prefer above all else. High in protein as well as carbohydrates, elderberries are a perfectly balanced bear food that adds to fat reserves even faster than salmon. Biologists hadn’t realized how important they were until climate change forced the bears to choose. 

“There is agreement that the most flexible species have an edge.”

The Kodiak story involves two climate-driven adaptations: elderberries responding to warmer temperatures by fruiting early and bears responding to the berries by changing their feeding habits. Both the plant and the animal involved had an inherent ability to react to new conditions, something biologists call “plasticity.” But not all species (and relationships) are so flexible.

Death camas is a spring wildflower native to the American West. It is so toxic, scientists gave it a name that amounts to a Latin exclamation point: Toxicoscordion venenosum var. venenosum, “Poisonous bulb poisonous poisonous.” Only one bee, the death camas bee, has apparently mastered the trick of tolerating that poison, gaining a nearly exclusive source of food in the process and becoming the plant’s primary pollinator. In many locations, however, death camas now flowers weeks earlier than it used to, responding with plasticity to warmer air temperatures in springtime.

But the bee nests in the ground, where temperatures are warming more slowly. It remains on the old schedule, a mismatch that threatens to pull these two codependent species apart — not in space but in time. Their plight is a reminder that species don’t respond to climate change in lockstep. They react in different ways and often on different schedules, creating disparities that can upend age-old ecological connections.

While biologists are reluctant to identify climate change “winners” and “losers,” there is agreement that the most flexible species have an edge, particularly if they can move. Over 30,000 climate-driven range shifts have already been documented, as dragonflies, foxes, whales, plankton, trees, barnacles and more fan out across landscapes and oceans, searching for the conditions they’re familiar with. Some have found opportunity, like the long-spined sea urchins surging south from coastal Australia to Tasmania, where their appetite for algae has transformed local kelp forests into rocky “urchin barrens.” Bark beetles in North America have also boomed, following warmer temperatures northward and decimating pine forests that have no experience defending against their gnawing attacks.

“For some species, even mobile ones, a warmer world offers few places to go.”

Range shifts for most species, however, are far less dramatic. Brown pelicans, for example, now venture hundreds of miles north of their former habitats on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but they have yet to establish new nesting colonies. Like any new arrival, they face the significant challenges of settling into a new home. They might have to switch to unfamiliar foods or adjust to new predators, competitors and diseases, all within a community that is being continuously upended by a steady flow of other species on the move. Still, if plants and animals can relocate to a place with their preferred climate — and survive — that is considered a good outcome. For some species, even mobile ones, a warmer world offers few places to go.  

The search for cooler temperatures generally leads plants and animals toward the higher latitudes — north in the Northern Hemisphere and south below the equator. That pattern is well established. But they can also beat the heat by climbing mountains, which begs an obvious question: what happens to the species already living at the top? If entire habitat zones and the creatures within them migrate upslope, then those at the peak are at risk of being pushed out, a scenario dubbed “the escalator to extinction.”

That idea remained theoretical until recently, when biologists reenacted a decades-old bird survey in the Peruvian Amazon. Following the same methods on the same route up the same undisturbed ridgeline allowed a direct comparison to the data recorded in 1985, and the results were unequivocal. Most birds had indeed shifted uphill by an average of 130 feet in elevation.

And at the top, where the rainforest gave way to a dwarf woodland of short, moss-covered trees, the extinction escalator was running at full tilt. Of the high elevation specialists common in 1985, nearly half had disappeared, and several of those that remained were now scarce, restricted to the final stop on the survey, right below the summit. For the time being, the missing species could still be found on other, higher mountains nearby. But the trajectory of the trend was unmistakably dire. In tropical Peru, or anywhere the temperature is rising, it’s a bad time to be a bird on a mountaintop.

“If tiny snails can learn to patch their shells in an acid sea, then perhaps we can find the motivation to skip an unnecessary flight or remember to turn off the lights.”

It remains too soon to say which climate change responses will ultimately succeed and which will fail. Even clear patterns like upslope migration have notable exceptions — 17% of the birds surveyed in Peru, for example, had extended their ranges lower in elevation. Scientists also continue to find new and surprising climate adaptations. The bills of Mulga parrots in Australia, for example, have grown 10% over the past century and a half, expanding the bird’s unfeathered surface area to help dispel body heat in a warmer environment. With so many conditions, behaviors and body traits in flux — and so many species moving and coming together to form novel ecosystems — perhaps only one biological prediction is certain: expect the unexpected.

Lessons from nature’s responses to climate change offer vital insights into our own. The proliferation of range shifts, for example, tells us something about the upswing in human migration. And the rapid pivots we observe in species like brown bears and elderberries alert us to our own remarkable plasticity — and how important it will be to remain flexible as the planet continues to warm. Models and predictions certainly point to an unsettled, even chaotic future, but nature is filled with examples of resilience that should help inspire us.

If parrots can evolve larger bills in response to this crisis, then shouldn’t we at least be able to change a few behaviors — how we drive, for example, or where we set the thermostat? And if tiny snails can learn to patch their shells in an acid sea, then perhaps we can find the motivation to skip an unnecessary flight or remember to turn off the lights when we leave a room. Biological responses to climate change are playing out all around us every day. They are a constant, thrumming call to action and a reminder that we humans are governed by the very same forces affecting plants and animals. What we choose to do now will not just determine what comes next in nature; it will determine our place within it.

This is a modified excerpt from “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change” (Basic Books, Sept 28, 2021).