Climate Cartography

Maps are not things that people normally get excited about.  In fact, with the use of in car GPS systems that will speak directions and turn-by-turn directions from Google Maps, many people simply have no more need for maps.  Maps have been relegated to the backgrounds of society – they are ubiquitous but, like the code that underlies the Internet, are rarely directly interacted with.  But this lack of direct interaction belies their importance.  Maps provide a critical framework within which our society – heavily reliant on private property rights – can function.  As such, it is important not to forget what maps represent and, most importantly, how changing them might facilitate more sustainable development.

Maps are a critical element of any system that relies on private property.  The ability to draw a straight, clear line that delineates what is mine and what is yours means that I can restrict access, sell it, or protect it in court.  Without an agreed upon reference that records property  ownership, it is difficult, if not impossible, to do anything with it.  Maps serve  as that reference.  But as they permit actions on property, they also restrict what types of property are recorded and therefore protected.  This bias is often unconscious but is important, particularly when thinking about sustainability and the environment.  Man-made objects tend to be distinct, clearly separable, and stationary.  Compare a farmer’s field – well-defined rows of crops and straight fence lines – with the random, chaotic jumble of a forest; man-made objects lend themselves to mapping.  It is easy to draw a square box on a map that marks off a farmer’s field.  The field isn’t going anywhere, crops will not randomly walk out of the rows in which they are planted, and the next farmer over is fully aware that he should not cross the fence separating them.

Nature knows no such boundaries and does not lend itself to the easy, straight lines that define maps.  Yes, maps have natural features – mountains, oceans, lakes, and rivers – but these are rarely, if ever, as accurately represented as the man-made features on a map.  More importantly, some of these objects have an inherent dynamism that man-made objects lack and that static maps cannot accurately represent:  rivers and shorelines move with erosion, prairie and forest interchange as temperatures shift, and species do not recognize boundaries.  These features make it difficult to include nature on maps and, as a result, they are often shortchanged when property is recorded.  That results in a systematic undervaluation of the services provided by natural capital and presents a serious challenge to the creation of ecosystem services markets that accurately value these services.

Recognizing the limitations of current maps and cartographic practices, two professors from the Netherlands recently suggested some shifts in the way maps are drawn that might make them more amenable to recording natural features and thus enable their inclusion in ecosystem services markets.  First among these is the use of “fuzzy” boundaries that can shift as natural elements do; for example, lines that reflect the way a river moves  without having to be redrawn.  A second suggestion is the use of buffer areas around boundaries that allow natural phenomena to fluctuate, and remain part of a piece of property, without changing the fixed boundaries.

Recognizing the importance of incorporating changing elements of natural systems on maps is important in theory.  But what does this mean in practice?  The answer to that is unclear.  Maps are a framework; they are not a solution in and of themselves.  They aid in defining property rights but laws are still required to protect those property rights.  Bennet and van der Molen point out, rightly, that laws must be rewritten at the same time the maps are redrawn to incorporate the new aspects of property that can be represented on a map.  New thinking about maps and about how the natural world contributes to the economy has provided a new framework that must now be codified by law.

One area in which this shift could be particularly useful is in the creation of migration pathways for species attempting to adapt to climate change by shifting their habitats to higher elevations or northwards.  While there is debate about how successful this form of adaptation will be, it is clearly an area in which incorporating the dynamism of the natural world into a static map would be useful.

Reshaping Federal Land policy so that it considers the need for migration corridors is one way to allow for these types of adaptive movements by species.  But what if, rather than drawing straight, strict lines on a map that set aside land now for a migration that might happen there in twenty years, the maps were created to adapt themselves as the migration occurred?  Property lines could be tied not only to a longitude and latitude coordinate but a specific ecological zone and as that zone shifted with a changing climate those property lines shifted as well.  Species would not migrate out of a protected area to keep up with climate change: their protected area would migrate with them.

Obviously implanting protected areas that migrate with their species requires much more than redrawing maps.  It would represent a dramatic shift in the way that we think about property and the relationship between domesticated land and “wild” land.  But it is a shift that is made possible by changing the way in which we think about how we draw lines on a map and what those lines represent.  Changing these representations will help to create a more sustainable relationship between the economy, property, and the environment.