Climate Change: Option C and Its Exploits

By Frank Landis, Chairperson Conservation Committee

On June 10, the state CNPS Chapter Council passed the following position statement:

"Climate is a significant factor effecting natural ecosystems, including California flora.

"CNPS recognizes that climate change is real and that the current rate of global warming is faster than nonhuman natural forces would produce. Based on overwhelming evidence and broad scientific consensus, we hold that human actions, including greenhouse gas emissions, are major contributors to local and global climate change. This recognition follows the work of world leading institutions and organizations, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States National Academy of Sciences, and the American Geophysical Union. CNPS recognizes that climate change is a current and future stress on California's native flora, especially when added to other human activities, including habitat loss, introduction of non-native species, and blocking landscape linkages.

"CNPS supports science-based, rational policies and actions, on the local, state, national, and international levels, that lead to the reduction of greenhouse gases without endangering California's native flora. We urge all Californians and CNPS members to do their part to protect California's native plants.

"CNPS recognizes that because the effects of current climate change will span centuries to come, we need to identify and enact conservation measures that must be undertaken now and in years and decades to come, given the context of predicted but uncertain future conditions. We also recognize that further efforts, many of them unforeseeable, will be needed to protect California's native plants.

"CNPS supports research on climate change and its effects on California native plants. Such research can include, but is not limited to, studying probable changes in local microclimates and their effects on native plants, and novel conservation methods."

This is an important statement, because up until the moment this statement was approved, CNPS had no official position on climate change, even though we've been dealing with it on an ad hoc basis for years. Still, it's not the end. Since I helped write it, for my sins I'm now part of the committee that will help figure out how this position statement affects CNPS' existing policies and to help craft new ones.

That's what I'm thinking about at the moment, with my incredibly cynical thought about Option C. It arose from the debate in passing the statement. Originally, I had included language after the phrase "novel conservation methods" to include topics like assisted migration, which we'd actually spent much of last fall's Chapter Council session talking about. Several people went ballistic about "assisted migration." Even though the paragraph was about researching topics that everyone knows are controversial, they assumed that we were asking CNPS to support assisted migration and they wouldn't support the position statement because of those two words.

For a group that calls itself science-based, it was a great example of what science-based means in practice. We're no more immune to buzzwords and hot buttons than anyone else is. And that leads to the idea of Option C, which I suspect most people will find problematic, but it needs to be talked about.

Right now, to oversimplify, conservation in CNPS has two options: Option A is that we win the hard fight to protect something so that it will stay as it was when we fell in love with it, and at best we temporarily win and it is protected(ish). Option B is that we lose and it's destroyed, in which case we hug each other and cry, or do whatever else it is we do to console ourselves. It's a terribly Romantic (capital R deliberate) thing, struggling to preserve the swiftly vanishing traces of our cherished past, and the effort has a certain tragic nobility to it. But now we've got a problem: climate change. Due to human activity (including that of CNPS, with our long- drive field trips and flights to chapter councils and other events), the climate is changing, and it will continue to change for centuries. While climate change is not new to this planet, it is extremely destructive to the worldview that supports Option A, the Romantic notion of protecting the timeless past against the pointlessly changing present.

Is Option B then our only choice in the face of climate change? If not, what's Option C? This is where things like assisted migration become part of the conversation. This is also where we have to make a decision: what are we fighting for, if not the past?

Personally, I'm all in favor of standing against the oncoming mass extinction, but a surprising number of people seem to be stuck with an all-or-nothing view. If it can't be preserved as it was, a living museum on a preserve, they don't want it saved at all. At least on an emotional level.

If you happen to be one of the people who feels this way, I hope you take some time to sit with your feelings and contemplate this topic. I'd submit, very gently, that this particular ideology might be getting in the way of conservation, rather than enabling it. Is the past so important to you that it's the only thing worth saving? Or are you willing to help native plants as refugees, and give them shelter elsewhere? That's the essence of assisted migration. Given the violence around human migration and refugees, it's not surprising that non- human migration should meet with strong emotions too, and that's why we need to sit and contemplate it. And it is an ideology, one sprung from the Romantic movement of the 19th Century that was in itself a rebellion against the excesses of the scientific Enlightenment.

That's the contradiction at the heart of CNPS conservation. Our hearts Romantically want to save the past, but we espouse Enlightenment botany as the best guide forward. It's this contradiction that we need to sort out, individually, as a chapter, and as a society.

Unfortunately, that's not the only issue.

It may seem that I tarred my fellow Chapter Council members as Romantic know-nothings in their attack on assisted migration, but their objection was fact-based as well as heartfelt. They protested that assisted migration was a scam, bad science, and an excuse for all sorts of crap. That's the other side of things like assisted migration: how can they be exploited?

This is a key question going forward, because as CNPS develops policies to deal with climate change, we've got to figure out what's going to cause damage, so we can avoid doing it. That's why I'm starting to learn about all the ways bright ideas like assisted migration can be exploited.

There are a lot of them. The big one is all the sleazy, third-rate "restorationists" who will plant anything anywhere, so long as they get paid. Assisted migration is a gold mine for them, because it allows them to plant species beyond their current ranges in the name of protecting them from climate change. When is what they are doing a good idea, and when is it slimy profiteering? We need to wrap our heads around the state of the science and determine how to deal with the fraudsters, and whether it's something that requires expertise (Gaia help us) or whether there are simple measures that we can teach everyone. 

For example, I often "joke" about Limonium perezii, Perez's sea lavender (pictured above), one of the weedy sea lavenders along our coast. There are only 350 plants of it in the wild, all growing on a steep slope on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries. When climate change (or a deranged billy goat) kills those off, should we treat our Limonium perezii as an honorary native and let it infest, excuse me, inhabit, parts of our coast? Or is it now a stateless weed, due to be exterminated wherever it escapes a garden, because there is no native population to protect? This is a silly example, picked because many of you know this plant, but we're pretty close to that scenario with the rarest California native plants; the ones, like the Franciscan manzanita that survived as a single plant on a freeway verge until it was hauled into captivity. It no longer has a native population. Is it now a mere ornamental? What if it's planted up in Mendocino? Is it then a weed? You get the idea (and yes, I know that Franciscan manzanita is federally listed as endangered). If there's no native population left, do we still have any obligation to protect a plant? What does that mean for the term California Native Plant? 

We in CNPS need to figure out how we're going in the face of climate change. Our current response is that locally native is best, but if all that's going to do is result in a bunch of dead plants that would have been happier somewhere else, what's our Option C?

And so it goes. It's not the most pleasant thing to talk about, and I definitely prefer Option A, where we win, and win, and win again. But the world's changing, and if we don't want to get stuck with Option B, we need to figure out which Options C are realistic and acceptable, even if we never stop mourning for that glorious and vanished past. I hope you're willing to help out, this only works if we agree on what's an acceptable response to an uncertain future.