5 Ways to Help Nature and Communities Build Climate Resilience

Pew collaborates with communities, Tribes, governments, and others on conservation projects tailored for a changing planet

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5 Ways to Help Nature and Communities Build Climate Resilience
A young boy kayaks in a narrow river lined with trees on both sides.
A young boy kayaks along a river in Southern Appalachia—an aquatic biodiversity hotspot.
Gary S. Chapman Getty Images

The United States is one of 17 nations worldwide that scientists have defined as megadiverse—an area that harbors the majority of Earth’s species and also contains high numbers of species found only in that place.

Our mountains, forests, rivers, and coasts provide immense benefits to nature and people, from clean drinking water and wildlife habitat to recreation including hiking, swimming, fishing, boating, and viewing wildlife. These landscapes and waters also hold cultural and spiritual importance for many people and serve as economic engines for communities nationwide.

But many of these special places and the life they harbor are at risk. One million of Earth’s 8 million plant and animal species face extinction, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Further, the warming climate and related increased frequency of natural disasters is damaging ecosystems, harming livelihoods and property, and straining state and federal finances.

Addressing the interrelated threats to America’s natural environment and people is critical for our future. Fortunately, nature and people can better withstand impacts from a changing climate if there is a greater emphasis on considering future conditions when communities and governments are making decisions about managing the built and natural environments. Tested, science-based strategies can be employed that anticipate and lessen harm to wildlife, ecosystems, and humans, and help people and nature adapt to predicted future conditions.

Updated science shows that holistic conservation approaches are more effective than focusing on a single river, wetland, forest, or species. Experts increasingly favor a more comprehensive view of conservation because rivers, forests, coasts, and oceans—and the habitats within and around them—function as interconnected systems. Such management of large, integrated landscapes is good for biodiversity, helps keep the air and water clean, and provides other benefits to people.

For these reasons, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project will increasingly focus on addressing climate change impacts and declining biodiversity.

Our work takes five approaches: protect ecosystems, especially those with high biodiversity; conserve, restore, and connect fish and wildlife habitats; help nature withstand changing conditions; prepare communities for climate impacts; and capture carbon in nature. Here’s a summary of each approach.

Protect ecosystems

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, large protected areas are important lines of defense in combating climate change and biodiversity loss simultaneously. If effectively managed, such areas can safeguard nature and cultural resources, protect human health and well-being, and contribute to sustainable livelihoods.

A red-rock butte rises from a desert landscape of low, brittle bushes and sandy dirt. The sky is lit by the colors of a brilliant southwestern sunset.
Sandstone slabs at Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, are among the canyon’s archaeological treasures that rest amid a species-rich landscape deserving of conservation.
Mark O. Kaletka BY NC SA

Such is the case with the Greater Chaco area in the high desert of northwest New Mexico, where Chaco Canyon cuts through miles of juniper-dotted mesas, buttes, and badlands. Elk, bobcats, rabbits, porcupines, badgers, wild horses, rare plants and reptiles, and more than 100 bird species call the canyons and woodlands home. The Greater Chaco Landscape is a sacred, living place for Pueblo and other Native American Tribes, but oil and gas leasing development has degraded and fragmented the land. Pew has worked with Tribes and stakeholders for years to protect this region, culminating in a recent 20-year administrative ban on new oil and gas leasing and a bipartisan vote in Congress to sustain the moratorium.

Conserve, restore, and connect fish and wildlife habitats

Throughout the U.S., many fish and wildlife pathways and migratory routes have been obstructed by roadways, dams, culverts, and other infrastructure. Eliminating or retrofitting some of those barriers or building new crossings helps fish and wildlife maintain their pathways and migratory routes and access food. For example, restoring the natural flow of streams to larger rivers that lead to the ocean benefits not only the resident aquatic life in those rivers but also aids in the flow of nutrients and sediment to coastal habitats. And as warming temperatures alter the availability of food and water, improved connectivity helps species move freely to find new food sources, water, and more suitable habitat.

Plants and trees live on a wildlife bridge built over a busy highway running through woods and along a body of water
A wildlife crossing spans Interstate 90 in Snoqualmie Pass, Washington. A network of bridges and culverts in the North Cascades is improving ecological connectivity and helping to make the region more resilient to climate change.
Washington State Department of Transportation Flickr Creative Commons

State policymakers are recognizing the benefits of connectivity. The Utah Legislature in 2023 approved $20 million for construction of wildlife crossings—over- and underpasses specifically designed for animals to use on their hunting, foraging, and migratory routes. And in recent years, the California State Legislature appropriated almost $200 million for crossings and directed state wildlife managers to identify migration routes to help prioritize the location of the crossings.

Wildlife-friendly infrastructure helps reduce the up to 2 million collisions between motor vehicles and large animals that occur each year across the nation, killing about 200 people, injuring roughly 26,000, and causing at least $8 billion in associated costs.

Help nature withstand changing conditions

State and federal agencies responsible for overseeing public landscapes are often required to develop management plans for effective stewardship. Climate-ready management plans can anticipate and address climate change impacts on ecosystems by using science and local knowledge to assess predicted changes in environmental conditions such as increased temperatures, sea level rise, or the added risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Three fish swim across a bed of seagrass.
Abundant fish and other marine life live within the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve in Florida, which helps protect wildlife and habitats vital to the coastal way of life.
Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts

For example, Florida developed its first climate-ready management plan in 2023 for the newly protected Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, a stretch of nearly 400,000 acres of seagrass that supports scalloping, fishing, and world-renowned manatee watching while helping to reduce coastal flooding. The plan included engagement with more than 100 local stakeholders, science-based goals and objectives to address projected future conditions, and comprehensive habitat and water quality monitoring framework. As temperatures and sea levels rise, the plan calls for proactive measures such as establishing thresholds for seagrass conservation and tracking impacts on coastal resources to guide management approaches.

Prepare communities for climate impacts

Protecting communities from natural disasters and other climate change impacts demands collaboration among all levels of government and an engaged, informed public. But resilience planning to prepare for and reduce damage from floods, wildfires, or sea level rise is somewhat new for states.

A state resilience plan can address these challenges by anticipating future conditions, laying out strategies to adapt, and targeting resources to socially vulnerable communities and those most exposed to climate risk.

A natural resource officer navigates a small boat past houses on a flooded street.
West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Lieutenant Dennis Feazell watches for debris as he navigates a boat through a flooded neighborhood in Rainelle, West Virginia, in 2016.
Steve Helber Associated Press

After flash floods devastated parts of West Virginia in 2016 and 2022, the state worked with Pew and other partners to pass a law mandating development of a state resilience plan. The plan, which could be finalized this year, can help the state better prepare for, respond to, and recover from floods. But to do so it must prioritize nature-based solutions, such as living shorelines, over hardened infrastructure. Other possible ideas for the plan include improving flood warning systems, enhancing stormwater management, and mapping floodplains. Other inland and mountain state governments should look to this plan and process as a model for improving flood resiliency.

Capture carbon in nature

While countering the severity of climate change requires immediate and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, additional gains can be made by protecting ecosystems that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them. Healthy freshwater and coastal wetlands, including peatlands, mangroves, seagrass, and salt marsh, can store more carbon per acre than any other habitat on Earth. These places also buffer communities from sea level rise, floods, and fires; improve air and water quality; provide wildlife habitat; and support cultural resources.

An aerial photo shows a snaking body of water flowing through woods.
These tidal forested wetlands in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve near Charleston, Oregon, are among the natural landscapes that the state will leverage to mitigate climate change under a new state law.
Oregon ShoreZone

That’s why Oregon’s new Climate Resilience Package establishes a permanent fund for natural climate solutions, including the conservation, restoration, and improved management of lands that store planet-warming carbon dioxide. The law also includes one of the nation’s first strategies to explicitly account for the carbon-storing powers of coastal habitats, broadly referred to as blue carbon.

Preparing for increasing temperatures and protecting biodiversity hinge on partnerships and collaboration among government, communities, businesses, and others. Through planning smartly, sharing ideas, and coordinating efforts, policymakers, stakeholders, and rights holders can halt the decline of species and build adaptable and resilient communities.

Jennifer Browning leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project.

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