Adapted from Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change [p. 14-16, 107, 109, 114-115, 204-205, 211-213], by Thor Hanson. Used with permission of the publisher, Basic Books. All rights reserved.
The OECD Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—to exchange expertise and perspectives across sectors. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
When complex ideas are attached to a narrative, they immediately become more relatable. There is a reason why Plato framed so many of his philosophical dialogues around the drama of the trial of Socrates, and why Carl Sagan chose to teach astrophysics from the glowing deck of an imaginary spaceship. Stories engage parts of the brain left untouched by facts alone, releasing chemicals that demonstrably change the way we think, feel, and remember. Learning about climate change is no different, and much of how we understand and act upon it will ultimately boil down to stories—those we tell, and, in another sense, those that it tells to us. My own perspective has shifted dramatically over the course of my career, transformed from detachment to utter fascination by narratives—not necessarily the ones found in headlines or policy debates, but by those playing out in some place more fundamental: the lives of the plants and animals I’ve studied.
Like biologists everywhere, I’ve watched climate change leap from background to forefront in project after project, because while people may have spent the past thirty years struggling to even think about a response, every other species on the planet has simply been getting on with it. Their reactions remind us that the outcome of every future climate scenario, no matter how complex or contentious, relies ultimately on one thing: how individual plants and animals respond to change. If every living thing on Earth got along just as well in any situation, then tweaking the weather wouldn’t matter in the slightest.
Conditions for life, however, are anything but universal. Biodiversity stems from specialization— millions of species intimately adapted to the nuances of their own particular niche. Altering those conditions forces a response, and when that alteration comes quickly it can restructure whole ecosystems. The speed of climate change is a large part of what makes it a crisis. But for scientists, farmers, birdwatchers, gardeners, backyard naturalists, and anyone with an interest in nature, it also creates an opportunity. Never before have people been in a position to witness such a radical biological event, and if the early results are any indication, it has a great deal to teach us. Because just as the planet is changing faster than anyone expected, so too are the plants and animals that call it home. […]
More on the Forum Network: Rescuing the Sea? UNCLOS at 40 by Guy Standing, Professional Research Associate, co-founder of BIEN, University of London
Since at least the 1850s, experts have used the word plasticity to describe what can sometimes amount to a superpower for plants and animals: the ability to stretch and bend their habits, and even their bodies, in response to environmental change. In a broad sense, plasticity refers to adaptation in real time: the various adjustments that an individual can make within a single lifespan. […] When bears alter their diet, that behavioral shift is a form of plasticity. But plastic changes can also be physical, something we all know intuitively from our own experiences as we adjust to changes in the weather. […]
If you want to become a virtuoso on one particular instrument, you can’t keep playing every part in the orchestra. The result is an evolutionary tension between specialization (useful when things are stable) and plasticity (useful when things change).
There is no doubt that plasticity helps plants and animals roll with the punches on a changing planet, but it’s far from evenly distributed. Some species have a lot of plasticity, with a wide range of potential physical and behavioral responses already built into their genetic code. The seed of a common dandelion, for example, will grow into quite a different plant under different conditions, blooming at ground level to avoid a mower blade, for example, or shooting up nearly three feet (0.9 meter) in an open field. Dandelion leaves can be toothed and full of bitter latex when the plant is growing in a dry, gravelly roadside, or tender enough to serve as salad greens when found in a well-watered lawn a few feet away. Dandelions can flower during any month, live for a year or a decade, and produce thousands of seeds without the need for pollination. Such traits make them the bane of weed-weary landscapers, but in the context of climate change their plasticity is like an insurance policy, a hedge against an unpredictable future. The closely related California dandelion, in contrast, exhibits very little plasticity. It blooms exclusively in early summer, requires bees for cross-pollination, and grows only on the fringes of wet, subalpine meadows. Though the two species look nearly identical, differences in plasticity help make one ubiquitous and resilient, while making the other critically endangered, and restricted to a handful of precarious locations in the rapidly warming San Bernardino Mountains. […]
Given the obvious advantages of plasticity, it’s worth asking why any species would evolve to lack it. The answer lies in a situation at odds with the current moment: climate stability. During periods of relative calm, which can persist for thousands of years or longer in some habitats, evolutionary pressure often favors specialization. Over time, competition drives some species to find efficiencies—dominating or exploiting particular resources or lifestyles to gain a small but crucial advantage over their neighbors. This often happens at the expense of flexibility— if you want to become a virtuoso on one particular instrument, you can’t keep playing every part in the orchestra. The result is an evolutionary tension between specialization (useful when things are stable) and plasticity (useful when things change). The coral-eating butterfly fish embody that push and pull. Mastering the difficult task of digesting stony corals opened up an opportunity and helped them proliferate when times were good, but now that the ocean is warming and corals are in decline, that narrow diet leaves them vulnerable. Changing their demeanor from aggressive to docile has helped them save energy, but [scientists] see it as a stopgap measure. If bleached corals don’t recover, the long-term success of butterfly fish may depend upon an act of even greater plasticity—finding something else to eat. Similar dilemmas are playing out everywhere, as species struggle to reconcile adaptations that worked well in the past with a new set of rapidly changing conditions. […]
That Was Then, This Is Now
From extreme weather to extreme politics, it’s easy to find a climate signal running under the surface of recent events, including the 40 percent rise in armed conflicts since the year 2000. The Syrian Civil War, for example, began during the worst drought in that country’s history, spurred in part by the desperation of more than a million displaced people who migrated from failing farms to crowded urban centers. And while many pressures led to the Arab Spring uprisings, the critical early protests were sparked by bread shortages, traceable in turn to heat waves and failed wheat crops in Russia and Canada the previous summer. Migration is also on the rise globally, with telling differences between the places that people are leaving and the places they hope to reach. Studies of both internal and international patterns show measurable migration trends toward relative climate stability and away from landscapes prone to excessive heat, drought, flooding, rising seas, storms, and wildfires.
In the end we’re just one more species in a changing world, facing the same climate challenges, and drawing on the same basic toolbox of potential solutions.
In its role as a threat multiplier, climate change has become a constant presence in the daily news cycle. While writing this paragraph, I scanned the headlines and quickly spotted stories on record-setting forest fires across the American West, with people stuck inside on “smoke lockdowns” to avoid inhaling the dangerous haze. There was a piece on evacuations ordered in the path of an approaching Atlantic hurricane, and another describing “managed retreat” as a strategy for coastal communities fighting sea level rise. More subtly, a story detailed rising government subsidies for crop failure insurance in India. More overtly, there had been a shortage of air conditioners in Arizona. Seen through the lens of climate change biology, human activities often echo the responses of plants and animals in the wild—moving, adapting, taking refuge. Such parallels are not surprising, because in spite of the complexity of our societies, and the technologies we surround ourselves with, in the end we’re just one more species in a changing world, facing the same climate challenges, and drawing on the same basic toolbox of potential solutions. With one notable difference. Unlike any other organism on the planet, people have the ability to do more than simply react to climate change. If we so choose, we can alter the behaviors that are causing it to happen. [….]
Read the brochure OECD work in support of biodiversity to learn more about good practices and remaining challenges
Everything You Can
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, we have seen how the responses of individual organisms determine the fates 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.
If butterflies can evolve larger wing muscles 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?
Doing everything one can about climate change is also a fitting approach biologically, because, as [I show in my book] again and again, that is precisely how plants and animals are responding. When faced with a climate challenge, species don’t simply give up—they do all that they can to adjust. Some succeed and some fail, and taking the time to learn why gives us new insights into our own reactions. The proliferation of range shifts in nature, for example, tells us something about the upswing in human migration. And the adaptations we observe in fish, bears, and other species alert us to trends in our own behaviors, and how our remarkable plasticity will become more and more important as the planet warms. 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 butterflies can evolve larger wing muscles 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 lizards can alter the gripping power of their toe pads in a single generation, then perhaps we can find the motivation to skip an unnecessary plane 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.