Assessing vulnerability and adaptability

Cost-effective conservation incorporates the human dimension

Nathalie ButtUntil now, most planning assessments of how future climate change will affect our land and seascapes have been incomplete as they haven’t properly factored in how those landscapes have already been modified by human activities, such as land clearing. Too often, assessments that have been done on future climate vulnerability have looked at the Earth as a blank slate, assuming that the level of warming a landscape or species faces is the only thing that determines future persistence. In fact, the planet has been modified in vastly different ways wherever humans have settled. We found that when human land-use-change data are combined with future projections of climate changes, the results are very different to previous climate vulnerability assessments.
Species adapt to change all the time, and humans are no different. Indeed, it could be said we’re at the forefront, adapting to the changing climate in various ways. And that includes how we undertake natural resource management. People are changing their agricultural activities due to changing rainfall in the mountains of the Albertine Rift and the valleys of the Congo Basin in Africa, while on the islands off Papua New Guinea, local communities are constructing seawalls to slow down the impact of sea-level rise. In the Arctic, mining activities and transport routes are on the increase as sea-ice retreats, and Dutch architecture has evolved in a completely new direction, designing and producing floating homes and other buildings as a way of avoiding flood damage and destruction; a possible solution to flooding in other countries too.
These efforts at human adaptation are of course resulting in significant ecological consequences (Watson, 2014). The increased agricultural production in Africa is causing widespread loss of critical species habitats, including the critically endangered mountain gorillas. The creation of seawalls has led to the wholesale destruction of some of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world. The increased human access in polar regions is causing havoc for its delicate biodiversity with declines in shorebirds, seabirds and mammals being reported. The large-scale development of floating infrastructure has potentially detrimental impacts on water quality and ecology through eutrophication.
Conservation science has not been strong on planning for how biodiversity can persist under changing and future climates, and

Nathalie Butt is a postdoctoral research fellow in CEED at the University of Queensland. Her work is concerned with the interactions between biodiversity and climate/climate change, previously focussing on forests in tropical South America and temperate Europe. She is currently working on global-scale analyses of climate and human impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem function and processes, and species’ and ecosystem vulnerability to climate change.

almost all assessments discount the fact we are in the midst of a global extinction crisis. Most of the climate oriented conservation science we produce does not consider the fact that many species are already vulnerable due to human activities (past and current). This oversight has serious ramifications: it means that we don’t really know where species are most vulnerable, what actions we need to take, and which actions are most cost-effective. Our new vulnerability assessment took this into account. It asks how modified vegetation communities are in different regions, and then considered how stable that ecosystem is expected to be under predictions of future climate change. Using this method, we identified southern and south eastern Asia, western and central Europe, eastern South America, and southern Australia as some of the most vulnerable regions. Previous assessments, based only on climate change exposure, often identify the most vulnerable regions as central Africa, northern South America, and northern Australia.

“This approach has moved WCS away from the assumption that all adaptation actions are suitable everywhere and moves it towards matching actions to target situation.”

By placing vulnerability in a context of future climate change, and past levels of vegetation change, WCS is starting to identify the different management recommendations that can be applied across the different terrestrial regions on earth. This approach has moved WCS away from the assumption that all adaptation actions are suitable everywhere and moves it towards matching actions to target situation. In almost all cases, the most effective adaptation is that which considers interactions between human activity and biodiversity.
For example, ecosystems with highly intact vegetation and high relative climate stability are arguably the best locations for expending money on future protected areas, as these have the best chance of retaining species. In contrast, ecosystems with low levels of vegetation and high relative climate stability could merit efforts at habitat restoration. Ecosystems with low levels of vegetation intactness and low climate stability would be most at risk and would require significant levels of investment to achieve conservation outcomes.
This type of assessment – that takes into account human activity
– is crucial but it is really only the beginning. We need to start to acknowledge that humans are going to respond to climate change, and we need to start planning for this. There is no point in investing in conserving a particular species in a particular habitat, for example, if it is on land that is likely to be converted for agriculture (as human food production needs change) or cleared for urbanisation (as human accommodation demands increase or shift). We need to be pragmatic and realistic in terms of financial investment in conservation planning and activity.
As argued by the current IPCC report, the next one to two decades is when we need to put our adaptation actions into place. With regard to our own backyard, southern Australia is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world and it is obvious that there is huge pressure on natural resources and biodiversity from human activity here. Strategic assessment and integrated planning at the landscape scale is the only way to go if we are to effectively protect biodiversity and support human progress and development in the same space and at the same time.
Our global analysis, however, also shows Australia has fantastic opportunities for proactive adaptation as most of the continent is relatively stable and relatively intact (when compared to other continents). Conservation practitioners will have a much greater chance of influencing the intactness of an ecosystem (by reducing land clearance, for example), rather than its robustness to future climatic conditions (which can only be changed through international mitigation efforts), and thus a focus on maintaining ecosystem integrity should always be a primary conservation objective when we think about climate change. Protecting areas such as the Kimberely in north­western Australia, the Great Western Woodlands in WA, and other large intact ecosystems that are features of Australia’s great outback, is therefore also an essential adaptation strategy.
What is needed is the recognition that current ‘climate-blind’ planning is unlikely to be effective and that there is an urgent need to undertake ‘climate-smart’ assessments. This includes assessing the best places to do conservation activities such as restoration, while recognising that some landscapes may not be a good conservation investment.

More info: Nathalie Butt
Watson JEM, T Iwamura and N Butt (2013). Mapping vulnerability and conservation adaptation strategies under climate change. Nature Climate Change. nclimate2007.html#affil-auth


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