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MSU researchers urge policymakers to protect climate change refugia

Jesse Bauer

Michigan State University researchers say North America plays a pivotal role in worldwide conservation efforts. But, more needs to be done to preserve critical areas and limit global warming.

The team’s goal was to identify which parts of North America should be protected to ensure conservation efforts are most productive.

Ideally, the findingswould help inform conservation policies like the 30 by 30 plan, which aims to conserve 30% of Earth’s land and oceans by 2030.

Along with MSU researchers, the team included members from the National Audubon Society, the University of East Anglia in England and James Cook University in Australia.

Researcher Sarah Saunders is a senior manager of Quantitative Science in the National Audubon Society’s Science Division and an adjunct scholar at MSU’s Department of Integrative Biology.

She says the team found there’s ample opportunity for policy makers to protect refugia in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

The team defined refugia as areas that are going to retain at least 75% of their current species under different warming scenarios from 1.5 to 4 degrees Celsius of warming.

“[Policy-makers] really should be considering refugia as one of the aspects to consider in conservation planning because you’re then building in this long-term forward thinking perspective,” she said.

Saunders said earth has already passed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, adding to the urgency to reduce emissions and protect refugia.

Less than 15% of climate change refugia has been protected, according to Saunders. In the U.S., only 2.2% to 6% is protected.

“So there’s a lot of potential here that exists to protect as much as 68% of refugia on average across America,” she said.

However, she says once global warming passes 2 degrees Celsius it becomes more difficult for species to thrive in a refugia, especially for plants and fungi.

“Which is concerning because then that can have consequences for herbivores’ ability to adapt and then other species…that difference in the refugia availability between 2 and 3 degrees is really driven by those lower trophic levels, which in turn is going to have complex and kind of unpredictable effects of the rest of the food web,” she said.

Saunders says Earth is experiencing a dual biodiversity climate crisis and if the goal is to protect biodiversity then more needs to be done to mitigate climate change and emissions.

Currently, protected areas were designed to protect geographic, scenic and topographic diversity rather than biodiversity, Saunders said.

“Especially not within [a] climate change context, so even though some areas may be designated because they currently have high species richness, that’s not to say that they’re actually going to facilitate the persistence of those species under climate change,” she said.

Saunders said the team didn’t consider people in the study but policies should include community input.

“Once you zoom down and you start focusing on those areas locally, then it’s really about working with those communities to understand how to define protection of those areas in such way that you’re not taking away from people’s livelihoods and their subsistence on land,” she said.

Melorie Begay is the local producer and host of Morning Edition.
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