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Ecological and Evolutionary Responses to Climate Change (July 2017): A Long-Standing Force

By Diane P. Genereux and David A. Lovejoy

A Long-Standing Force

As documented by C. P. Summerhayes’s extensive account entitled Earth’s Climate Evolution, climate change on Earth is certainly not unique to the Anthropocene, suggesting that the ability to respond to a changing climate may lie within the ecological and evolutionary capacity of at least some species. Two works by Brian Fagan use case studies to document some of these changes. In The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300–1850, Fagan considers the impacts of a millennium of climate change from a principally human perspective, arguing that a 500-year interval of cooler-than-typical temperatures, associated declines in agricultural productivity, and shifts in the distribution of crop pests can help account for the present-day distribution of humans across the Earth. Given that the effects of these earlier climate change events are so strongly reflected in the contemporary distribution of human species, Fagan argues that humans are shortsighted to think that contemporary climate change will not cause comparable or even greater disruption. In a related work, The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, Fagan emphasizes the biological implications of climate change on human populations, noting that increased rainfall, coupled with higher-density human populations, created the ecological conditions necessary for bubonic plague to jump from animal reservoirs into human populations.

In The Climate Connection: Climate Change and Modern Human Evolution, Renée Hetherington and Robert G. B. Reid focus more explicitly on how climate change has shaped the evolution of humans by shifting exposures to various infectious diseases, and in determining which crops succeed or fail in a given region. Those seeking a broader overview of these issues, potentially more appropriate for beginning students, might prefer another work by Renée Hetherington, Living in a Dangerous Climate: Climate Change and Human Evolution. It is worthwhile to note that Hetherington uses the term evolution as more commonly used in anthropology than in biology, to refer to both genetic changes and shifts in societal norms and problem solving. In Climate Change Adaptation in Africa: An Historical Ecology, which is a detailed account appropriate for advanced students, Gufa Oba takes a similar perspective, discussing how climate-driven shifts in water availability have shaped agricultural practice over the past several decades.