Climate Change in Real Time: Inside World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Crowd Initiative

The following is a guest post from the World Wildlife Fund.

Climate change is occurring all around the world, in both developed and undeveloped regions. Populations respond to and cope with events tied to climate change — such as heat waves, flooding and severe storms — in a variety of ways depending on their socioeconomic status and geographic location. When it comes to environmental health and biodiversity, however, do human reactions to climate change do more harm than good?

In order to answer that question, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has created Climate Crowd, an interactive mapping platform designed to collect and share reports on how rural communities are responding to changes in weather and climate and how their responses impact biodiversity.

How Do Humans' Reactions to Climate Change Cause More Damage?

One example of a case where human behavior has become problematic for the surrounding environment is the practice of subsistence farming in Uganda. Subsistence farmers in this country often experience extreme weather, such as erratic rainfall or extended drought. When these events occur without intervention, Ugandan communities become vulnerable to crop failure (causing food insecurity) and increased rates of disease among the sick and elderly. Sometimes livestock, their primary form of capital, dies off due to unavailable water or food. These communities cope by building irrigation systems, changing planting dates or clearing wetlands to increase cultivation area. For Ugandans, coping mechanisms that increase food security for the coming year are a necessity for survival.

Sometimes these coping mechanisms can disrupt local ecological systems and wildlife habitats such as forests and wetlands. For example, a farmer may clear an additional hectare of forest to supplement lost yields due to erratic rainfall in the previous year. Such an occurrence is known as an indirect impact of climate change on the wildlife that relies on that forest for food and habitat. Sometimes, the indirect impacts of a changing climate can be greater than the direct impacts. While the direct impacts of climate change have been well-documented, the indirect impacts — some caused by human behavior — have not. Climate Crowd seeks to fill that knowledge gap.

Climate Crowd in Action

The idea is simple. Volunteers from a number of partner organizations collect and submit data through an online portal. Using this data, which is displayed on Climate Crowd's interactive map and data archive, conservationists, development specialists, researchers and community groups can learn about how climate change is affecting rural and remote communities around the world, how these communities are responding to these changes, and about current impacts on the world's biodiversity. This information promises to enlighten the design, promotion and implementation of appropriate climate change adaptation strategies that will maximize co-benefits for communities and biodiversity.

Climate Crowd's first activity was launched in 2014 with the help of a small group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in Uganda interested in climate change. The WWF project team developed a semi-structured interview template as well as a qualitative research methodology to guide volunteers through the process of collecting data. Each volunteer submitted interviews with individual community members or groups within the community. The majority of these interviewees were subsistence farmers and pastoralists, but in some cases they were teachers, park rangers or employed in other occupations. In addition to interviews, volunteers submitted photos and videos to contextualize the setting.

While the direct impacts of climate change have been well-documented, the indirect impacts — some caused by human behavior — have not. Climate Crowd seeks to fill that knowledge gap.

Data collected by PCVs painted a picture of climate change impacts in Uganda. In the first year of the project, a majority of interviewees reported drought conditions and an increase in temperature. These events led to loss of water sources and increases in plant and animal pests, diseases, poor health and malnutrition. Human responses to these changes included fertilizer and pesticide application, tree planting and implementation of irrigation schemes.

The situation is dire in some settings. In one community, stories surfaced about community members who entered Mgahinga National Park to gather resources during a drought period. According to one of the reports, "People lack food, [so] they go to the forest to hunt for game meat when crop production is low. While doing this illegal hunting in the forest some get injured by the buffaloes ... . People go to the forest to gather water from streams in the national park, where the native wildlife is most common, during a prolonged dry season."

In other regions, residents have turned to planting trees to help mitigate the effects of climate change. An exotic tree species, however, will not provide critical habitat or food for animals. Transplanting trees that are not native to those regions could also reduce water availability in the soil. According to a community member living in the West Nile subregion of Uganda, "People are now trying to plant trees to help the forests grow back. There are still problems with this because the eucalyptus trees that they plant are not good for the soil here. They drain too much water and even though … their intentions are well-founded, doing so add[s] insult to injury."

WWF Climate Crowd is helping to uncover these issues to build collaboration and resolve conflict over natural resources for the continued benefit of humans and wildlife. Human responses to climate change and impacts on biodiversity are hard to connect, but there is a need for more dedicated research surrounding the issue because healthy ecosystems are good for both people and wildlife. As we continue to bring these stories to the attention of conservation and development professionals around the world, we encourage you to get involved.

Learn more about Climate Crowd and other WWF Climate Adaptation and Resilience projects by visiting wwfclimatecrowd.org to view the interactive map, read stories and post your own experience. To improve your knowledge of climate change and related initiatives like climate adaptation or mitigation, take free online courses and more at wwfadapt.org.

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