When we were putting the finishing touches on this issue, Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas as a deadly category 5 storm—one of the strongest and longest-lasting hurricanes on record in the Atlantic. It then raked the U.S. shoreline from Florida to North Carolina, sending coastal populations scrambling to prepare for yet another devastating storm.
Five years ago, when Audubon published its first report on birds and climate change, scientists might have observed that Dorian—which moved slowly, gathering strength from warm sea and air temperatures—is precisely the kind of extreme-weather event one would expect to see more frequently with climate change. Now, thanks to a rapidly advancing area of research called attribution science, they can calculate the extent to which climate change contributes to such an event. This is the science behind the photographs of heat waves, storms, floods, and droughts we featured in this issue's photo essay. There is no longer any question that climate change is here, and that it’s affecting birds and people.
That much is obvious. The only question now, and the one we grapple with for the rest of this special issue, is what to do about it. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have a very short window of time—less than 12 years—to prevent climate change’s most consequential effects. To do anything less would imperil the future of 389 species of North American birds, according to Audubon’s new climate report. That’s a devastating number, and it could be a debilitating finding if the solutions were not also right in front of us.
The first and most obvious strategy is to keep carbon locked underground, where it can’t further exacerbate rising temperatures, and tied up in ecosystems that benefit both human and avian communities. The boreal forest is one such place, and together Indigenous peoples and Canada’s government are pioneering a model for how to protect it effectively and respectfully. The prairies and wetlands that provide the first line of defense against epic flooding are another.
Of course, tactics to prevent further warming also often help us adapt to the warming that has already happened. Take, for example, the Audubon sanctuary at Pine Island along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As its staff gears up to test approaches for absorbing a meter or so of sea-level rise, its marshes did during Hurricane Dorian (as they did during Hurricane Florence the year before) what marshes are supposed to do: act as a sponge, reducing the storm surge. In Maine, scientists are also viewing nature—specifically seabirds—as an ally in adjusting to the changes at hand.
Across the United States, cities and states have taken the lead on advancing a range of other ideas, all of which will be needed. More drastic innovation will have to be in the mix, too. But we also look at climate solutions through the lens of what you, reader, can do right now, in your own home and community, to make a difference, and how you can level up those actions to become part of a more inclusive national climate movement. Because that’s also what this challenge requires.
Climate change has inspired many people to attempt to bend the course of history, as the trailblazers scattered throughout this issue illustrate. We asked several fiction writers to help us stretch our imaginations as to what is possible even further (wherever that may lead). You can find those pieces, which reflect a burgeoning literary genre called cli-fi, here. And now we invite you to join us in envisioning the world you want to live in—and to start to write that future.
This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 issue as “This Is What Solutions Look Like.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.