‘Planning’ for climate change

Incorporating climate change into spatial conservation prioritisation


Key messages:
  • 96% of studies on spatial prioritisation don’t incorporate any aspect of climate change
  • Those that do mainly forecast changing species distributions
  • There is a need to incorporate extreme events, and human responses to climate change into conservation planning

Climate change presents a real and present danger to our natural ecosystems yet most studies on spatial conservation planning don’t even incorporate it in their analysis. Pictured here are the impacts of the 2016 bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo courtesy of Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Climate change presents a real and present danger to our natural ecosystems yet most studies on spatial conservation planning don’t even incorporate it in their analysis. Pictured here are the impacts of the 2016 bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo courtesy of Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Human-forced climate change is affecting biodiversity in many ways, including changes in species ranges, mass coral bleaching events, and changes in the timing of biological events (eg, breeding or fruiting seasons, see Decision Point #93). On top of this, human responses to climate change are also threatening biodiversity, through agricultural expansion, construction of seawalls and changes in fishing areas (see Decision Point #79). And the impacts are likely to worsen, with climate change expected to become the main cause of species extinction over the coming century. So, what can conservation planners do?

We recently reviewed the literature on different approaches to spatial conservation prioritisation that incorporate climate change. We examined the impacts and timeframes being incorporated in the different methods. The first thing to say is that the vast majority (96%) of articles on spatial prioritisation don’t incorporate any aspect of climate change. Of the papers which did incorporate climate change, most forecasted species distributions and aimed to either protect future species habitats or identify areas where climate change will have the least effect.

Forecasting species distributions is a useful strategy as it is applicable to a wide range of taxa, and can be targeted to single or multiple species. However, such forecasts are limited to wellknown species, because climate data is not fine-scale enough to forecast distributions for rare species or those with small range sizes.

Identifying areas where climate change will have little effect is good for large-scale prioritisations, especially where predicting species distributions is limited by data availability, but it is difficult to target this strategy towards specific species. We also found that human responses to climate change, and extreme events such as droughts and coral bleaching, are almost totally ignored in the literature. This is alarming, as human responses to climate change are predicted to be as damaging if not worse for biodiversity, than the direct impacts of climate change.

On Pacific islands, for example, humans are being forced inland by rising sea levels. As humans move they clear forest for agriculture and housing, and the impacts of this activity are likely to be worse for biodiversity than the habitat lost directly from sea level rise. Human responses to climate change can also impact existing protected areas, as changing crop suitability and increased food scarcity make people more likely to exploit protected areas for food and fuel.

Overall, despite numerous mandates and calls for climate change to be incorporated into conservation planning, the methods available for conservation planners remain few, and ignore some of the most harmful aspects of climate change. It is essential that future research develops planning approaches which both strengthen current conservation efforts, and also anticipate and respond to future conditions. Most actions which strengthen current conservation efforts (eg, increasing the size and effectiveness of protected areas, reducing poaching pressure) will likely be good actions to take, even if climate change plays out differently than projected. These would constitute ‘no-regret’ responses.

Anticipating and responding to future conditions is hampered by uncertain climate predictions, but the impacts of climate change will be so great that there is no option but to accept this uncertainty and continue planning regardless. While identifying how species will respond to climate change is important, the crucial challenge is in developing planning methods that incorporate the full range of climate impacts. Only by doing so will we give biodiversity the best shot at surviving rapid climate change.

More info: Kendall Jones kendall.jones@uqconnect.edu.au

Reference

Jones KR, JEM Watson, HP Possingham & CJ Klein (2016). Incorporating Climate Change into Spatial Conservation Prioritisation: A Review. Biological Conservation 194: 121-130.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320715301877

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