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Conservation Easements, Climate Foresight and Resilience
Alex Steffen, 21 Jan 08

Back in 1930, Anna Fahey's grandfather bought 100 acres on Washington's remote and stunning Cypress Island, for a $50 down payment at an auction. In a story that many native Westerners will recognize, that land became her family's anchor place, and a place they came to care enough to fight for. It's one of the great untold stories of the American West, that for thousands and thousands of regular families who wanted a place in the beauty that surrounded them, owning land came to mean being in some fundamental sense owned by it. A great number of the staunchest, brightest and most visionary rural sustainability advocates in the West are these folks.

Anna wrote a great piece, My Grandfather's Legacy about how her family has moved to protect their own parcel through a conservation easement, which is a legal strategy that more people ought to know about. But what really hit me was Anna's writing about how her family is having to practice some climate foresight as they think about the legacy they want to leave:

The easement process led to some pretty unusual dinner-table conversations for our family over the last year. There was no question about our intentions: To preserve the place as it is today, to continue our stewardship beyond our lifetimes. But thinking through the details, forced us to imagine the world 10, 50, 100 years from now -- and beyond. We wound up working through some tough questions -- and facing some tough realities -- about our hopes and fears for our family, our region, and for humankind.

The fact is these conversations forced me, perhaps for the first time, to acknowledge the reality of climate impacts on my own life and the places I love. It's ironic, I know. I have my nose in climate change science and policy on a daily basis. But it took this process to make it real, personal, concrete. My dad would trace his finger on the map along a new shoreline, as we imagined how the land-mass itself might change if sea levels rose. Walking through tall stands of fir and lush undergrowth, we imagined how the island's ecosystems could be altered or certain species diminished with higher temperatures, drought, or ice. We imagined worse-case scenarios about economic chaos in the region; would we want to take refuge here? Would our grandkids? Would others? Through these conversations, I've become even more invested in promoting smart climate solutions with my work at Sightline.

As it turned out we were the first easement donors to the Skagit Land Trust to ask that our contract take into account some of the uncertainties of climate disruption. It wasn't anything much -- just some allowances in case water levels change the acreage considerably or the little cabin my grandparents built as newlyweds from beach-combed lumber is someday washed away. But imagining the future of a specific and beloved place reinforced for me the stake we all have in energy policies being devised right now - in Portland, Oregon, or Bali or Washington, D.C., Moscow, and Beijing.

Which sounds about exactly right to me.

And it brings up another thought. Most climate geeks would say that the Faheys are practicing adaptation to climate change, but I find a tension inherent in the concept of climate adaptation, and I think they're doing something different.

Clearly, we've already entered an age of climate commitment: climate change is here, and the carbon we have already released, combined with the carbon we're already committed to releasing in the future, will together produce a pretty serious amount of climate chaos no matter what we do.

Just as clearly we want to act boldly to forestall even climate disasters by slashing climate emissions as dramatically as we can (80% by 2030 is beginning to look like realism). The difference between a hard landing and a soft landing -- between catastrophic climate chaos and serious climate effects -- may be the survival of civilization, and that's a stake worth fighting for.

We should fight like hell, but no matter what, we're going to have at least the consequences of a seriously altered climate to deal with. Thought that's true, I dislike the term adaptation. First, it seems to imply to me that we actually can adapt to climate change, that we can move smoothly from being people who live in this climate to people who live in that one. But we don't know what that climate will be like, or even if it will be a stable-but-different climate or an oscillating pattern of various weird climates. Nor do we have any real sense whatsoever of the real second order effects climate change will trigger. We may live in a world where not only is the weather really weird on a frequent basis, but all sorts of other unpredictable things keep happening: tropical disease outbreaks in temperate areas, wild growths of invasive species, mass-migrations of refugees, sudden water shortages.

If the nature of even non-catastrophic climate change is to make the world much more unpredictable, adaptation is impossible in a meaningful sense.

What is possible is planned resilience: we can make our own systems more rugged and distributed, our natural systems protected and managed in ways that best preserve their ability to respond to (and incorporate) disturbance while preserving ecosystem services and biodiversity. We can plan to become good at dealing with chaos. But that is quite different than adapting to a singular change, and it takes dramatically different kinds of priorities.

Now, "Resilience!" is not exactly be the battle-cry we're looking for. Anyone else got a suggest about how we might compellingly describe the goal here?

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Steve Schneider put it well in a climate classic 20+ years ago: "The Coevolution of Climate and Life."

That's what we're doing now, co-evolving with a dynamic system whose changes are triggered by OUR changes etc. etc.

The evolutionary record is, at least, encouraging on the speed at which species can evolve under some circumstances. A lot of very rapid changes are upon us. Our vocabulary may be unable to keep up!

Posted by: Ted on 21 Jan 08

System disruption is an issue for both the climate AND our technological infrastructure.

There is a common-cause to be made here with the security establishment in pushing similar language for increasing our future security by making systems of ALL sorts resistant to disruption, whether deliberate or accidental.

We cannot allow cascading failures in our power grid any more than we can in our watersheds or food supply, for example.

So: 'Climate Security'?

Posted by: Michael R. Bernstein on 21 Jan 08

Hmm. I meant to preview.

Here are a few more suggestions:

Ecological Security

Secure Ecosystems

Bio Security

Posted by: Michael R. Bernstein on 21 Jan 08

OK, one more:

Ecosystems are Infrastructure

Posted by: Michael R. Bernstein on 21 Jan 08

I've been talking about resilience for a couple of years now in both my independent writing and my consulting work, and I've been pleased at how the meme is starting to kick in. I've been getting a very good response to the concept in the last half-year or so from a wide variety of audiences/clients.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 21 Jan 08



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