Anthropogenic climate change is an issue of urgent importance for both the overall health of Earth and the stability of human societies. An extensive literature documents the physical science of climate change and its association with rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, and rapid loss of biological diversity. Instead, this essay highlights a smaller but complementary and growing body of work that explores, from an ecological and evolutionary perspective, the implications of climate change and apparent limitations of human efforts to acknowledge and confront it. While emphasizing books and online resources, there is citation of a few seminal works from the open access, primary literature, as is essential given the rapid proliferation of work in this area. This bibliographic essay begins by discussing resources that frame historical climate changes as formative in biological evolution and in the histories of human societies. It then reviews works that consider how information on the ecology of individual species can be used to predict vulnerability or resistance to climate change. While the overall stability of ecosystems is, ultimately, of tremendous importance for human societies, works to date have focused principally on plants and animals whose fates have immediate implications for human well-being, including crops, livestock, pests, and infectious diseases and their vectors. This essay discusses works that frame human reluctance to address climate change as a direct result of the contemporary ecology and evolutionary history of the human species. These perspectives lead to a somewhat optimistic conclusion by discussing how awareness of these features of the human species, coupled with an ecological and evolutionary perspective on climate, may inform strategies for preserving even critically imperiled species.
Rapid loss of species is among the most devastating consequences of the present era of dramatic, anthropogenic climate change. These sharp declines in Earth’s biodiversity are well documented through case studies in Elizabeth Kolbert’s popular The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and led the Noble Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen to dub the present era the Anthropocene—the first era in human history for which the rate of extinction is driven principally by human activities.
While extinction is clearly a dramatic and irreversible outcome of climate change, other responses are possible. Current climate changes are clearly occurring with unprecedented rapidity, but some level of climate volatility is routine in some environments, and may vary in their ecological and evolutionary capacity to survive rapid change in the Anthropocene. For example, some species may harbor sufficient genetic diversity and/or high enough mutation rates to survive climate change through upsurges in the frequencies of genetic variants that increase survival probability in a rapidly changing climate. Other species may have dispersal capacity sufficient to shift ranges in response to altered temperature and moisture regimes and rising sea levels. How an individual species responds to shifting climate conditions should therefore depend heavily on the details of its own biology, evolutionary capacity, and ecological niche, and the outcomes should be at least somewhat predictable through careful study of the traits and genetic diversity of individual species under present climate conditions.
Is the urgency of work to combat climate change lessened by the view that ecological and evolutionary responses may protect some species against the dire threats of the Anthropocene? Certainly not. If present rates of species loss are any indication, adaptation leading to survival will be the exception, not the rule. However, it seems possible that identifying features that can poise a given species to adapt to a changing climate can inform management and conservation strategies for more vulnerable species, perhaps buying a bit more time for humans to implement policies to lessen our devastating impacts on planet Earth.
The goal of this essay is to review an emerging literature that considers climate change from an ecological and evolutionary (rather than strictly physical science) perspective. To provide some foundation on climate change itself, the essay authors begin by highlighting a few general works on climate change, from among the many available that will be accessible to readers with backgrounds in the biological rather than physical and climate sciences. The authors then focus on three clusters of biology-focused publications that seek to predict the ecological and evolutionary responses by individual species; understand human reluctance to implement resolute policy on climate change as a byproduct of the biological and cultural history of the human species; and propose approaches for leveraging insights from ecology and evolution to protect biodiversity in a changing climate.
Diane P. Genereux is a senior scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She studied mathematical biology at Emory University and the University of Washington, and taught genetics at Westfield State University. Her research focuses on population epigenetics and human evolution in the context of infectious disease.
David A. Lovejoy is professor of biology and herbarium curator at Westfield State University in Westfield, Massachusetts where, since 1970, he has taught evolution and a variety of environmentally oriented courses. He is the author of Vascular Flora of Springfield, Massachusetts.