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Vegetative Response to Climate Change: Celebrate, Don’t Fret

A new study has concluded that shifting climate is leading to shifting vegetation patterns across the globe.

My response to this announcement was “Terrific! The biosphere was responding the way it should to changing conditions.”

To my surprise, this enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the study’s authors. In fact, lead author Patrick Gonzalez seemed downright glum:

“Globally, vegetation shifts are disrupting ecosystems, reducing habitat for endangered species, and altering the forests that supply water and other services to many people.”

A very negative spin on what should be cause for celebration.

Despite how much we, humans, have sliced and diced the landscape, natural systems are still doing their best to respond to climate changes—just like they always have.

The only way to see this in a negative light would to hold the belief that everything that humans do to the world is bad. This seems like an odd philosophy, for more than likely the holder of such a philosophy wouldn’t exist today had it not been for everything that humans have done to make the world a better place and vastly improve our health and welfare. Just 150 years ago, as the industrial revolution was set to take off, the population of the world was about 5 times less than now and the average human lifespan was about 30 years. 

I am not saying that there aren’t some negatives for some species when the climate changes. Of course there are. But what I am saying is that there are plenty of positives as well. And it takes no more imagination to come up with positives than it does for negatives.

But for some reason, there is a fixation on the negatives. And it is this fixation, and practically only this fixation, which has led to “global warming” becoming the prominent issue that it has.

Just imagine what the attitude of the day would be like if we were under a constant barrage of all the good things that climate change may bring, instead of the bad. We’d all be driving SUVs, eating platefuls of meat, and keeping our thermostats set to comfortable levels. OK, but, we’d be feeling a bit less guilty about it.

The Gonzalez paper includes a prime example of this pervasive negativity. It quantifies the impacts of future climate change on vegetation biomes in units of “vulnerability”—employing the IPCC definition as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects.”

Nowhere, however can I find a quantification of “opportunity”—by my definition “the degree to which a system is able to expand or flourish under new conditions.”

The word “vulnerability” occurs more than 70 times in the article (including the title) and the word “opportunity” occurs only once.

What Gonzalez and colleagues find so “disrupting,” according to their press release is that there is ample evidence that

“over the past century, vegetation has been gradually moving toward the poles and up mountain slopes, where temperatures are cooler, as well as toward the equator, where rainfall is greater.”

And,

“Moreover, an estimated one-tenth to one-half of the land mass on Earth will be highly vulnerable to climate-related vegetation shifts by the end of this century, depending upon how effectively humans are able to curb greenhouse gas emissions, according to the study.”

This is an example of using “vulnerable” instead of a neutral word like “responsive” or even a positive such as “receptive.”

A few years ago, researcher Ramakrishna Nemani and colleagues took a look at global vegetation and found that the combination of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and a changing climate has led to an increase in the “greenness” of the earth.

As to be expected.

Carbon dioxide is a plant fertilizer—the more of it there is in the atmosphere, the better plants grow. Aspects of climate can act in a similar way. More sunshine in cloudy areas, more rainfall in dry areas, and higher temperatures in cold areas can all act to boost plant growth. And it is precisely these types of climate changes that have taken place over the past 20-30 years. And as a result, the world’s plants have responded positively. Figure 1 shows the trends in net primary productivity (NPP)—the ultimate measure of how much plant growth is taking place. Upward trends in NPP (green areas in Figure 1) mean that plants are growing better. This is occurring across most land areas across the globe.

nemani_figure
Figure 1. Trends in net primary productivity (NPP) from 1982-1999. Green areas indicate increasing NPP, red areas indicate decreasing NPP (source: Nemani et al., 2003).

So from a global perspective, it doesn’t seem like the planet’s plant life is responding negatively to climate change. Are some species suffering? Undoubtedly. But, as is also the case, many others are flourishing. And in net, the change in plant growth since the early 1980s is positive.

Gonzalez sums up his “vulnerability” study with this:

“Approximately one billion people now live in areas that are highly to very highly vulnerable to future vegetation shifts… Ecosystems provide important services to people, so we must reduce the emissions that cause climate change, then adapt to major changes that might occur.”

He’s definitely got the second part of what we need to do right. As to the first—reducing emissions in an effort to stave off future changes in vegetative growth patterns—that one is a value judgment that is comes down to the value placed on change. And as far as the net global vegetative response, that value would seem to be positive.

References:

Gonzalez, P., et al., 2010. Global patterns in the vulnerability of ecosystems to vegetation shifts due to climate change. Global Ecology and Biogeography, doi: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00558.x

Nemani, R.R., et al., 2003. Climate-driven increases in global terrestrial net primary production from 1982 to 1999. Science, 300, 1560–1563.

5 comments

1 Andrew { 06.21.10 at 8:04 am }

There is something else wrong with the quote: “we must reduce the emissions that cause climate change, then adapt to major changes that might occur.”

The priorities are badly mixed up, ignoring the fact that we need wealth and economic growth in order to maximize our ability to adapt. Saying, reduce or economic output (which we would need to do to significantly reduce emissions), then adapt, is bass-ackwards.

2 Jon Boone { 06.21.10 at 10:06 am }

This is yet another portentous study that gives science a bad name, with methodological inconsistencies combining with slippery operating definitions that should make peer reviewers wince with shame. Wolfgang Pauli once chided people like Gonzalez for not even being wrong: “Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!”

As Chip Knappenberger shows, even the story line may be twisted in this account, for the climate change glass may actually be 90% full….

3 Richard W. Fulmer { 06.21.10 at 6:23 pm }

Translation (courtesy of Babble Fish): “Not only is that not correct, it is not even wrong!” – Wolfgang Pauli, Austrian theoretical physicist and quantum physics pioneer.

Jon,
Cut us dumb terminal jockeys some slack.

4 “Global warming” set to feed the world’s poor | ChristianGovernance.ca { 07.10.10 at 9:35 pm }

[...] Read the complete article here. [...]

5 7LeagueBoots { 07.12.10 at 10:25 am }

There are some good points made in this blog, and some poorly made ones as well.

Vegetation patterns are changing as they always do, yes, that’s true and it is a good thing that the environment is attempting to adapt to this new climate system. There are two main reasons for why people talk about the changes as being potentially harmful;

1) many of the greatest shifts in climate are centered in food producing areas, suggesting a disruption in the food supply to many people and a tremendous shift in the growing locations for crops resulting in massive economic changes for many nations (eg. the US midwestern grainbasket growning area shifting into central Canada), and

2) for the enviroment to respond naturally and efficiently in terms of animal and plant movement the movement of those species cannot be restricted as is currently the situation with the massive amount of barriers to movement such as roads, fences, and urban/suburban areas.

Several readers will probably say, “But I see plenty of animals in my yard.” True, but those species that can co-exist with our way of live are a very small subset of the total range of species out there, may have very specific habitat requrements which are not met by the areas these animals would have to move through in the search for new suitable habitats. Edge sensitive species, for example, will not be able to move freely in search of new habitats.

Another thing, take a good look at the vegetation map the author of this blog posted. If you look, you’ll realize that all the areas with an expected increase in vegetation are currently wet, forested areas. These are not areas we rely upon for our agricultrual systems. Some of them are areas we rely on for luxury wood based products, but they are not areas suitable for sustaning the type of lifestyles we are acustomed to.

There are other points to be made, but just those should provide some prespective on why people use the words they do when discussing climate related environmental changes.

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