Is conservation missing the boat on climate adaptation?

This week I have attended the 5th European Congress on Conservation, organised by Society of Conservation Biology.

My reason attending this conference is that I am curious as to how climate adaptation is treated/examined in other fields (it’s also in Finland, which of course is a plus).

In general, I want to have a better understanding of conservation and ecosystems research as these are obviously integral to climate adaptation approaches such as ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. 

Coverage of climate change and adaptation

In the opening plenary of the conference, the Executive Secretary of IPBES, Dr Anne Larigauderie, spoke about the important linkages between Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)  and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Climate change has been getting coverage in other presentations as well but mostly in terms of mitigation, carbon offsetting, bioplastics and bioeconomies.

What is interesting to me who thinks about climate change and adaptation on daily basis is that much of the research presented at this conference is directly relevant to climate but the link is often not simply made.

I went to a presentation on indigenous communities and how they were using local knowledge to preserve biodiversity. The presenter outlined the main threats to conservation (increased floods, droughts and extreme events) but climate change was not one of these.

One keynote had even climate change in the title but focused mostly on ecosystem and conservation planning without discussing what changing climate means for conservation planning.

But luckily I am not alone in these observations.

A colleague from a government ministry noted the exact same thing and posed the question: why are we not talking about climate adaptation in the context of conservation in this conference?

In the conference program, there are only 4 presentations/posters that mention the word “adaptation”.

Those that do mention adaptation (mind you, I am one of those 4 and 1 of those cancelled attendance) do not really look at climate adaptation but how climatic variables potentially impact on species. The closest that this comes was a talk on assisted migration of species in changing climatic conditions, and how novel tree planting methods could count as adaptation to climate change.

Participants that I have spoken with at this conference about including climate change and adaptation in their research either a) give me a bewildered look or b) are very interested in thinking how they could consider this in their research.


Building bridges between concepts and disciplines

Much of the research conducted in conservation and biodiversity has lots to offer to climate related research.

A researcher I spoke with is actually looking at what the disappearance of salamanders does to an ecosystem with a case study in Belgium. These species are highly impacted by a fungus related disease that can wipe out whole populations.

This to me is very relevant for how we plan for a changing climate. We need to understand this kind of research (super complex I might add!) to understand how ecosystems function, and how these could be impacted by climatic changes.

But what this conference has really reinforced to me is that we need a stronger bridge between conservation science and adaptation science.

There are many lessons that both sides are overlooking at the moment.  Such lessons could provide much richer research and generate broader lessons that can feed both into conservation and adaptation planning and policy approaches.

Sustainable livelihoods and well-being are for example investigated across presentations, and how protected areas could be planned and what they need to consider.

Another neat concept is that of “conservation culturomics” where researchers are using big data to understand better how our cultural preferences impact on our views on species conservation.

There has been also discussion on biodiversity offsetting but yet again in the absence of linking that to climate change and what role changing climate could pose for such efforts.

Main take home messages

My aim with this post is not to put down the conference by any means. The presentations in themselves have been excellent and the organisers have done an amazing job in putting the conference together.

What I am trying to do however is to raise awareness of the importance in conducting research in a non-stationery rapidly changing climate that needs forward-thinking.

I appreciate that climate adaptation in particular is not an easy to issue to include in modelling efforts but this is not why it should be excluded.

The missing of adaptation could imply partly a gap in future-oriented thinking. If we focus on researching what is happening now, we need to also draw lessons what this could mean for the future in the long-term.

What then when increases in temperature propel species to move or causes significant population decline? Or when an ecosystem composition changes so significantly that the current plans and models are no longer accurate? In such cases we can come up to adaptation limits that then necessitate very different actions.

But what I have also learned from this conference is that my understanding of climate adaptation and of those who specifically work on this topic is very different, and that many other areas of research contribute indirectly to adaptation science.

That, to me, also calls for more reflection as to in what context and how adaptation fits across different disciplines, and how my work can better draw from and integrate with those working in conservation and ecosystems research.

ps. and this was written even before Will Steffen’s keynote on planetary boundaries that won’t paint a pretty picture…



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