Newspaper article

Will Genetic Engineering Be Necessary to Save Humanity from Climate Change?

Newspaper article

Will Genetic Engineering Be Necessary to Save Humanity from Climate Change?

Article excerpt

The uncontrolled global experiment of manmade warming is working visible change on earthly life at all scales, from genes to species relationships, and at a rate that may require genetic engineering to head off catastrophe.

That's the conclusion of a new paper in the prestigious journal Science, wherein a multidisciplinary team of 17 scientists surveys the state of biological knowledge about climate impacts on organisms from water fleas to polar bears -- including food sources from wheat to salmon.

"Previous reviews have covered many of the obvious changes in species ranges, phenologies, and population dynamics but have usually focused on one ecological system at a time," they write. "Here, we discuss the full range and scale of climate change effects on biota, including some of the less obvious disruptions observed in natural systems."

Cited research runs to 191 footnotes in this paper; the authors express regret that they couldn't list all the work they looked at because of Science's length limits.

So you could say they were thorough, and for coherence they organized their assessment into 94 core ecological processes that "underpin ecosystem functioning and support services to people," such as population health, inhabited range, migration patterns, maintenance of body mass.

Of these 94 core processes, 82 already show evidence of climate impacts: population declines (and occasional increases), shifts in natural range and migration patterns, altered gender ratios, shrinking body mass due to the "increased metabolic costs of living in a warmer world." In the aggregate the news is not so good:

The many observed impacts of climate change at different levels of biological organization point toward an increasingly unpredictable future for humans. Reduced genetic diversity in crops, inconsistent crop yields, decreased productivity in fisheries from reduced body size, and decreased fruit yields from fewer winter chill events threaten food security. Changes in the distribution of disease vectors alongside the emergence of novel pathogens and pests are a direct threat to human health as well as to crops, timber, and livestock resources.

Humanity depends on intact, functioning ecosystems for a range of goods and services. Enhanced understanding of the observed impacts of climate change on core ecological processes is an essential first step to adapting to them and mitigating their influence on biodiversity and ecosystem service provision.

Wistful thinking

There was a hopeful period, lasting perhaps into the late 1990s, when it was possible to think of climate change as a long-term, gradual process of adjustments that, depending on your point of view, might not be all bad.

If a warming Minnesota had weather a bit more like Iowa's, and Manitoba became more like Minnesota's, would that be so awful? Gotta like those longer growing seasons, especially if you're raising corn or beans or wheat for the world market.

This was a blend of wishful reasoning and folk wisdom, founded on an expectation that plants and animals -- perpetually evolving anyway, right? -- and their relationships could not only keep pace with the changes in temperature, precipitation and other factors but would do so in an integrated, virtually coordinated way.

Too many people, including some scientists, still hold onto that wistful thinking. But as global warming accelerates, and a host of climate-change indicators also pick up the pace, a much bleaker picture seems more likely: that climate change will drive the disaggregation of natural systems, because their members will adapt at vastly different velocities.

Phytoplankton in Venezuela's Gulf of Cariaco, the new paper notes, have adapted to a 15-year change in water temperature of about three-quarters of 1 degree Celsius "by adjusting their thermal niche" by a half-degree. A certain Daphnia water flea has adapted to warming conditions in the UK, as has a cornflower in France, and it seems likely that some corals will be able to respond in a similar way (very good news considering the grim state of the world's great reefs). …

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