Adapting to climate change: Let us consider the ways

In late June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released an assessment of how the consequences of climate change, from rising temperatures and sea levels to changes in precipitation patterns and sea ice cover, might impact the military. The report recommends that the Pentagon develop a better plan to respond to and mitigate such impacts.

The title of the report, “Climate Change Adaptation,” sounded familiar. That’s because it was very similar to the working title of this issue’s cover story. And although our article deals with the feathered and flowered worlds of plants, animals and other creatures — and not military infrastructure — biologists are similarly concerned with how natural populations might respond to the consequences of climate change. The feature “Quick change artists” tells an important story about some of the ways that vulnerable organisms might adapt to a changing world. 

As freelance writer and Science News “Wild Things” blogger Sarah Zielinski reports, many organisms do have tools to deal with sudden environmental changes. Migration, of course, is an option for species that can move and find suitable habitats. Genetic variability may enable others to evolve quickly enough to survive in their existing ranges. And flexible behaviors could also help some organisms adapt to shifting climes. Still, there will be those that are unable to cope. And others might survive only with interventions from people. Although there are still many questions left to answer about the extent organisms can adapt to climate change, the scale of the issue suggests it’s a crucial area to investigate.

The politicized nature of climate change means that Congress will probably fight over the GAO recommendations. Some members don’t want money spent on anything to do with climate change — even planning options. But it’s good to remember that plants and animals can’t engage in any debate. Many species are already on the brink (this issue’s “Science Visualized” presents the latest maps of vulnerable birds). The survival of many more may soon be on the line as well. To them, adapting would probably sound like a wise option.

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