Every Species Has a Climate Story

By Danny Cooper

As people around the world have been told to avoid other humans due to the ongoing pandemic, many have felt closer than ever with the “nature” around them – myself included. Unable to spend time in person with other people, I am spending more time than ever outside.

I’ve become more intimately acquainted with the life around me – befriending the bunnies that live in my backyard and noticing what flowers in the garden the bumblebees love. Filled with anxiety about the state of the world in a devastating pandemic, I am finding solace within my surroundings. I have begun to observe the species around me more carefully and really wanted to know more about the snakes, dragonflies, and other critters and plants who required no social distancing.

Climate change doesn’t only affect us – it’s selfish just to think of humans as their own separate entity away from “nature”. The world we live in is incredibly interconnected. As feminist science scholar Donna Haraway reminds us, our bodies are not just human, but a complex of multiple species including things like our microbiome. When considering the effects of the anthropogenic climate crisis – we can’t just consider how humans are being affected – we have to look at every species. Haraway notes that “immense irreversible destruction is really in train, not only for the 11 billion or so people who will be on earth near the end of the 21st century, but for myriads of other critters too.” She urges us to “make kin” with the organisms we share the Earth with – and that starts with understanding the species around us and hearing their climate stories.

PPEH has been asking humans to share their climate stories, i.e., how they are sensing–seeing, smelling, feeling, even tasting–climate impacts in places they love, and how those changes are making them feel. (You can contribute your story here and learn more about it in this 3-minute how-to video.) Last year, I was part of PPEH’s Climate Storytelling team. Now, amidst the ongoing pandemic, I wanted to know: How is climate change affecting all of these lives around me? Has the range of the mosquito biting my arm shifted North? Did this wildflower always grow here? To get the full picture of climate change, we need to “think like a mountain” and consider every aspect of the ecosystem.

With all of this in mind, I am extending PPEH’s My Climate Story campaign beyond humans this summer. I’ve been developing tools and templates for climate stories beyond the human, trying them out myself and play-testing them with my Beyond the Lab collaborators.

Eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), and Eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis).

Three species I’ve seen while quarantined in South Jersey (southern New Jersey) have been the Eastern cottontail, Eastern pondhawk, and Eastern ratsnake. Here are their climate stories.

The Eastern cottontail’s range has been shifting due to climate change – while they are an adaptable species due to their rapid breeding, the effect they have on their new environments can often be transformative. Still, climate experts predict two thirds of rabbit species are at risk due to climate change, including the Eastern cottontail. The Eastern pondhawk, like many dragonflies, can be seen as climate indicators. That is, they make epic migrations every year that are highly dependent on temperature, and as temperatures rise worldwide, these patterns become incredibly vulnerable to disruption. Many species are already decreasing in population.

Eastern rat snakes have seen their populations decline throughout their range up the east coast of North America from Texas to Canada. Snakes are ectotherms and are heavily reliant on temperature. An unusually warm day during the wintertime can cause snakes to emerge from hibernation early and be at risk if temperatures don’t stay at that warm level for the rest of the season. In addition, shifts in ratsnake behavior due to climate change have altered the intensity and timing of avian nest predation – having cascading effects in their local ecosystems.

Anthropogenic climate change can sometimes be seen as a looming future threat, but people around the world are already facing the consequences of massive atmospheric and geological disruption. And humans aren’t the only ones being impacted. The plants, animals, and other organisms that live all around us are feeling climate change as well.

I am cultivating an online community of citizen-ecosystem observers and building a data bank of observations that help bring to light how non-human organisms are being impacted by climate change. I’m continuing to develop and refine storytelling prompts for humans to share more than human stories. In the meantime, I’d be glad if you would test out these tools too: Snap a pic of whatever you see, research how that species is being impacted by climate change, and add to PPEH’s new project on iNaturalist, My Climate Story: Beyond Humans!

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