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Darwin’s Denial in the Comforted Forest

Evolution is fact. Climate change is fact. The two are racing ahead on a collision course. Now is the time for Dudley to do right.

Climate-change-graphThe world’s climate is warming. The pace of change is practically undetectable, a radical transformation only seen by an accumulation of degrees. We notice an incremental loss of arctic ice, a rise in sea level measured in millimeters, the power of a hurricane intensified by a few miles per hour. Yet the sky has not fallen, and our lives have not been impaired in a way yet that would demand that we care.

We respond well to catastrophe. Flood waters start lapping at the door and we are quick to bail. Earthquakes, avalanches, forest fires, and volcanoes inspire action. Climate change inspires political bickering.

In politics denial is part of the game. In business denial is a part of the profit. Political leaders deny climate change to kneecap an opponent that actually understands the science and has the chutzpah to say so. Business leaders deny climate change to avoid responsibility when science doesn’t bend to their favor.

Not all businesses are deniers. Not all political leaders are deniers. But enough of each brings meaningful efforts to ameliorate the impacts of climate change to the current stalemate. I leave it to you to judge who is pulling and who is pushing back.

Yes, the world’s climate is changing. There are legitimate debates over causation. Is climate change due to a natural process or the hand of man? Most of the science points to man. Political and business leaders point to the hand of God.

Co2_emission_1800_2000The climate has changed before. Only 15,000 years ago we were coming out of an ice age. But only in catastrophic times has the climate changed so rapidly. A volcanic eruption may cool the earth, but only for a brief moment. An epoch length climate change leads to a wholesale substitution in life’s game.

The current climate change is forcing species to adapt and evolve in a geological nanosecond. Life has evolved on this planet at a glacial, not a meteoric, pace. We cannot rely on Darwin’s survival of the fittest. There simply isn’t enough time.

Deniers, those unalterably opposed to the notions of evolution or climate change, should travel to an area where both are obvious. I recommend the Dominican Republic. Island biogeography is an ideal milieu for considering evolution and the ways in which climate change may affect those that have evolved to this moment in time.

Hispaniola (the island divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti) is a continent turned on end. Latitude is vertical here. The elevation rises from sea level to over 3000 meters in a short distance, and life zones are measured by meters of elevation rather than kilometers north or south.

Climate-change-chart Hispaniola comprises an area of less than 75,800 sq km, smaller than the state of Maine and less than half the size of Cuba. Yet elevation splays life in more than one direction. An organism that finds its way to an island such as Hispaniola often radiates into niches and nooks that are arrayed along the vertical as well as horizontal axis. The result is endemism.

Consider the Caribbean. According to the CEPF (Critical Ecosytems Partnership Fund),

The Caribbean Islands Hotspot supports a wealth of biodiversity within its diverse terrestrial ecosystems, with a high proportion of endemicity making the region biologically unique. It includes about 11,000 plant species, of which 72 percent are endemics. For vertebrates, high proportions of endemic species characterize the herpetofauna (100 percent of 189 amphibian species and 95 percent of 520 reptile species), likely due to their low dispersal rates, in contrast to the more mobile birds (26 percent of 564 species) and mammals (74 percent of 69 species, most of which are bats).

Evolution, the fundamental process first glimpsed (or at least understood) by Darwin, is obvious here. You will only miss it if you choose to. One butterfly species flits to the island and radiates into 40. One antecedent anole becomes a dozen. Each fits into it own niche, a balance of factors such as elevation, temperature, rainfall, and competitive exclusion. Each dances to Darwin’s music.

Domican Republic_1913 03 15_0582_edited-1Climate change reshapes these factors. A niche once ideal for a particular species becomes inhospitable. The impact does not need to be direct. A rising temperature may not directly affect a particular Calisto butterfly, but the loss of a critical food plant may.

Whether the change brings lower rainfall, higher rainfall, lower mean temperatures, higher mean temperatures, lower humidity, or higher humidity, all reshuffle the cards. The pace of our climate change does not leave these endemics time to adapt and evolve. We are asking them to remake themselves overnight.

Consider only one of these factors – moisture. A warming climate heats the oceans, and ocean temperature shapes cloud formation and rainfall. El Nino and La Nina are examples. Whether rainfall increases or decreases isn’t the point. What is critical is the length of time for which these changes are felt.

I recently visited the Sierra de Bahoruco Oriental near Cachote. This high-elevation forest (over 2100 meters) is odd. Cachote has elements of cloud forest, with moisture transported by the fog and mist that frequently envelops the highlands. Yet heavy rain falls here as well, nourishing elements of a broad-leafed rainforest.

There is a short trail, developed and maintained by the community, that connects our camp (Canto del Jilguero) to Cachote. The forest floor is carpeted in bryophytes. Domican Republic_1970 02 03_0700_edited-1 The mosses sponge the moisture from the mist and fog creeping through the forest. The moisture coalesces as droplets on the plants, eventually falling ever so slowly to the forest floor. Water that would otherwise be lost is trapped by plants no higher than my shoelaces.

The water recharges the springs that feed the creeks and rivers in this watershed. The watershed supplies the communities below. The water needed by Dominicans begins as one drop on the leaf of an obscure moss.

Now let’s consider a scenario where a changing climate reduces the moisture flowing across these mountains from the Caribbean. The mosses trap less moisture, the flow in the creeks and streams is reduced, and the communities below find themselves without water to drink.

Of course this focus is on the fate of humans. But every organism that has evolved in these conditions is impacted as well. Whether frog, damselfly, snake, butterfly, or bird, each is subject to the same ecological conditions and constraints.

These same climate changes will impact agriculture, fisheries, industries, communities, as well as ecologies.Domican Republic_1970 02 03_0642_edited-1 The risk is to more than an obscure butterfly. We may love to see the jilguero or the barrancoli, but they are inextricably glued to the butterflies, anoles, orchids, ferns, bromeliads, and us. We share a common fate; we float through the voids of space on the same star dust.

Evolution is fact. Climate change is fact. By fact I mean that the preponderance of evidence supports their existence. The two are careening down the field on a a crash course. The world is watching the lead up in slo-mo, trying to avert its gaze and pretending that it can ignore the helmet-to-helmet collision that will inevitably come.

Some deny from ignorance. Some deny from strategy. Some deny from greed. No matter the rationale, denial may be a death sentence for Cachote and the Sierra de Bahoruco Oriental. The only question is who and what is able to adjust to the changes thrust upon them, and who disappears with the mists that no longer comfort the forest?

Aves Caribe is being organized to connect people to the birds of the Caribbean. We want people to care about Caribbean birds, to be concerned about their fates, and to enjoy their existence. Our trail is also an interpretive platform, and, as Freeman Tilden said, the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. Climate change is a threat of our time, one whose potential impacts are easily seen and understood in the Caribbean. To be concerned about Caribbean birds requires that we be concerned about the effects of climate change, and we will continue address the implications as we extend the trail from Bermuda to Trinidad.

Link to my Pinterest Board with images of our recent work in the DR

Link to my Smugmug gallery of images from our work in the DR

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • Craig

    Oh for God’s sake who is denying climate change? No one is denying climate change. Informed, educated, well-intentioned people disagree about “global warming” and more specifically what can or should be done about it – if anything. Treating skeptics as flat-earthers and fools only diminishes you. The climate is going to change, that’s a fact. What is causing it is way too complicated to distill down to humanity burning fossil fuels, and specifically the emitting of carbon dioxide.

    I am sick and tired of the debate being waved off as if we who question proposed drastic measures are knuckledragging protohumans. There is a legitimate debate to be had about what should be done.

  • Craig, I wondered how long I would have to wait before one of the denier birders would speak up. You comment that “treating skeptics as flat-earthers and fools only diminishes you.” Nonsense. Undermining you are the histrionics about the subject and your inability to actually offer a “legitimate debate.” So here is the invitation, Craig. Gut it up and show us your data. Let me see the peer reviewed studies that would argue otherwise. Give us your case that argues against this being “way too complicated to distill down to humanity burning fossil fuels, and specifically the emitting of carbon dioxide.” Don’t just snivel. Debate.

  • For those like Craig who are nonplussed by climate change (what a way to rain on a parade?), here are a few current papers related to the science rather than the politics.

    If you are not up to reading these papers, at least read this last one. As the authors state, “But there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.”

    Craig, anthropogenic means caused by man. Your comment that climate change is “way too complicated to distill down to humanity burning fossil fuels” is contrary to the published science. We await your data.


  • Alejandro Ramirez

    I think datum more likely than data in this case.

  • Craig

    Gee, thanks for the vocabulary lesson on anthropogenic, I never knew… This is exactly what I mean, by the way, about the arrogant superiority complex you folks display toward anyone who differs with you. Consensus scientific or not isn’t necessarily the truth. I can get a list together of nice links that will say exactly the opposite – if I must. (I’d start with

    One question that has always bothered me and none of you can answer without a hockey stick. How did medieval man “cause” global warming? And even more important how was it bad for humanity? Everything I have read points to nothing but good coming out of warmer temperatures for health and well being of mankind.

    But let’s just say you’re right about absolutely everything. What should we do that’s practical, rational and dare I say actually doable. Wasting billions on carbon sequestration and other redistribution schemes is none of these. As Lomborg suggests the rational thing to do is to learn to adapt to warmer temperatures just as mankind learned to adapt to colder temperatures a few centuries ago. Science and technology will continue to advance just as it has since the dawn of the industrial revolution and practical solutions will arise – yes, before it’s too late. Or, just in time for the next anthropogenic ice age.

  • Craig, a few things. First, your statement “Everything I have read points to nothing but good coming out of warmer temperatures for health and well being of mankind.” You apparently need to read something a bit less biased. Warmer temperatures are likely to be disastrous to mankind for a number of reasons, starting with tropical diseases like malaria and dengue spreading over wider areas of the globe. Agricultural pests will similarly spread more readily from the tropics into temperate zones. Throw in increased demand for electricity and water, demands that many communities are already struggling to satisfy.

    That assumes that warmer temperatures actually happen. It’s called “global” climate change, not “your neighborhood” climate change, for a reason. A temperature 5 degrees (F) warmer in any one state or even country would be barely noticeable. A global change of 5 degrees would just about end life as we know it. But a global change is not going to change every single place on the planet by the same amount; some areas will likely get cooler. And the changes of real significance are likely to be in areas indirectly affected by temperature, such as precipitation, evaporation, ocean currents, etc.

    As for medieval man, they were certainly capable of burning wood, which on a per-unit-of-energy basis is thought to generate more climate change than burning fossil fuels. They also had livestock, considered a source of atmospheric heat-trapping gases including methane (more potent than carbon dioxide). They clear-cut many forests which releases a great deal of carbon from organic forms into the atmosphere. And really, the data on the medieval warming period indicates that it was milder than the current one, and possibly not even global.

    Adaptation is a fine idea for those who can do it. Unfortunately, adaptation requires money and resources. Many countries lack those. So the poorer countries wind up stuck with that other, less pleasant sort of adaptation, the Darwinian natural selection sort, where the fittest survive and everyone else dies. For the wealthy countries who have generated most of the greenhouse gases, and profited hugely from doing so, to fret about the monetary cost of carbon sequestration and other climate stabilization strategies, is not going to be received well if people in poorer countries are dying and think that we made most of our money while causing it.

    I’m also surprised how much that you, ostensibly a birder, emphasize the survival of humans. If climate change takes place as predicted, we are going to see an avalanche of extinctions of birds, mammals, fish, and other life forms across the planet. Our adapting does nothing to help other species. Some of us care about that.

    Not surprised that you mention Bjorn Lomborg. Unfortunately, the man’s area of expertise is political science; both his Master’s and Ph.D. were in that area. He lectured a bit on statistics within the political sciences, but never earned any degrees in that area. And everything that he knows about climatology and the rest of the natural sciences, he learned after he had already made up his mind to oppose environmentalism, which allowed him (maybe conciously, maybe not) to cherry-pick the bits that supported his preconceived notions and conveniently overlook the parts that were contrary to his personal views. To get a degree in a field, you have to learn the entire thing, not just the parts that you find agreeable.

    Which brings me to your claim “Consensus scientific or not isn’t necessarily the truth. I can get a list together of nice links that will say exactly the opposite” A collection of links vs. scientific consensus. Links come from websites that Ted, or I, or you, or anyone else could put up. I could pull a bunch of numbers and graphs out of my behind and post it on a website. More to the point, I could post my opinions somewhere even if they were based on a complete misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the facts. Scientific consensus rides on publications, which each have to make it through a long and arduous process of quality control involving dozens of people before they make it into print. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations get corrected by this process. If any conclusion seems wrong, other scientists can repeat the steps of the study and try it out for themselves, and if they find out that the previous study was wrong, they can publish that too. Contrary to the conspiracy theories, it happens all the time. So, links vs. scientific consensus? Not much of a choice there.

  • Craig

    Why is everything I read biased? Because it disagrees with your “consensus”? Don’t even try to tell me there hasn’t been shenaigans played with the science behind these theories. There is a lot of money riding on making global warming scary – we must do something NOW. Billions have been thrown at scientists and there are billions more at stake. Scientists need to eat too and this research has been an incredible boon monetarily. Sorry if I don’t trust the ultimate motives behind all this. (You of course are above reproach) Call me a conspiracy nut if you must.

    My point is there is probably not much man can do – reasonably – that would make a difference considering the cost/benefit ratio. Mankind has adapted to climate change way before the evil ones drove their cars and fired up their power plants. Populations soared during the Medieval Warming Period and plummeted during the Little Ice Age – people suffered. I’m sorry but warmer is just better.

    There is absolutlely nothing wrong with taking all reasonable measures to mitigate the junk mankind throws up into the air. But going backward economically will never get us there – ever. How does a economically weaker “West” make the world a cleaner, greener place? Poverty stricken countries and emerging countries like China and India are belching cesspools, yet they were never going to be required to adhere to the standards the West was facing. In my view advancing science and technology from a position of economic strength is going to do far more good than forcing the West to reduce our wealth through direct confiscation and the high prices of false scarcity.

  • Craig, to answer your question “Why is everything I read biased?” You said before that “Everything I have read points to nothing but good coming out of warmer temperatures for health and well being of mankind.” There is an avalanche of evidence pointing to warmer temperatures being disastrous to mankind for a wide variety of reasons, some of which I already listed. If you have not read any of that material, then what you have read is presenting only one side of the issue. That is a dictionary definition of “biased”.

    A little light reading for you:
    This is not a scientific article, but the author is at least familiar with the scientific basis of climate change and the predictions it makes for human welfare. I do not necessarily agree with 100% of the article’s content, but it’s certainly closer to reality than what you’ve been reading.

    The population numbers from the medieval warming period and little ice age do not apply to our current situation. World population then was a tiny fraction of what it is now. Populations boomed during the warming period because we were making advances in agriculture, medicine, exploration. Populations plummeted after the warming period because, oh yeah, the Black Death, among other things. The climate was not driving the population changes.

    If you really want to stay buried in your conspiracy theories, then nothing I say will penetrate the sand in which you’ve buried your head. But just look at your own statements like “There is a lot of money riding on making global warming scary” and think about that. How much money is there in making global warming *not* scary? Several million times more. Scientists’ grants are a pittance relative to the revenue pulled in by the industries that extract, process, sell, and consume fossil fuels.

    Now, if you want to make the arguments about affordability of the various schemes to stabilize the climate, or about the fairness of deals that demand the West make changes while exempting rapidly developing countries with far higher populations, you might have valid arguments there. Unfortunately, any points you make in those areas have been sorely undermined by your disputing the scientific evidence. When you make claims that are unsupported by the facts, it casts doubt on your opinions in the areas where facts may actually exist to support your case.

  • Craig

    Conspiracy theories??? Ever hear of ClimateGate? Cmon. There have been numerous fallicies that have come to light as the pushers ramp up the fear mongering. I am neither a scholar nor a scientist (probably obvious by now) but I am a bullshit detector. All up and down the cast of characters pushing this notion are bullshit artists and profiteers along with the serious scientists. These folks have the megaphone of the major media and the money of superpower governments so the constant drumbeat against the “oil companies” and the “Koch Brothers” bank rolling the opposition is falling on my sand-filled deaf ears.

    There is BS and dishonesty on both sides of this debate. Just like anything else identified and embraced by the left-side of the political spectrum the elements of truth and rightousness are buried in the rubble of the sledge hammer they (always) employ. This is probably why the opposition is so adament. Cooler heads and wiser men could probably come to a compromise that would work for both sides. Me, I still think techological advancements (not friggin’ windmills) will make most of the pollution/spewing elements of this debate just go away. Maybe not as quickly as you would like, but eventually.

  • I have just returned from 12 days in Jamaica working on the Caribbean Birding Trail. I missed this exchange. Pity. Here is the latest from one of the climate change skeptics. Craig, you might find this one of interest.

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