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…



Is climate adaptation a science?

This is my pet topic, it has been ever since I started my PhD in 2009 and dived head on  into the world of climate change adaptation.

I identify as an adaptation scientist much to the dismay of some as there is an on-going debate as to whether climate change adaptation is simply a topic of interest, an actual discipline, or a discipline about to turn into a science.

The debate often divides people into two camps:

On the one hand, there are those who argue that pure focus on adaptation leads to a narrow self-referencing scientific community who ignores most of the lessons already learned from other disciplines.

On the other, there are those who argue that climate adaptation is evolving into its own discipline and/or science that draws upon the richness of other disciplines while still developing its own theory and practice.

For those outside of this field this following discussion might seem trivial and unnecessary. But for those of us who research and work in climate change adaptation it is an issue that seems to divide people. People even get quite emotional about it although often in the end they say it doesn’t really matter.

But, it does.

It does because the way we define something also influences on how we think it should be approached, which methodologies and theories should be used, which assessments are most reliable, and who has authority to make claims in this particular area.

The next generation of adaptation scholars is growing up right now

During my PhD I co-authored a commentary with five other early career researchers on the kinds of issues that climate change adaptation as a field of study is facing, how to take some of these issues forward, and what that means for the development of the field.

In our piece, “ Climate adaptation research for the next generation”, one of the core questions we posed was “How much knowledge specific to adaptation does one need in order to contribute to the field and what should the balance be?”

The answers to this question are still very relevant because the answer that we each give clearly signals also the way we think about climate adaptation, and what it means to truly “know the field”.

I ended up arguing about our statements with more senior people who did their studies at a time when climate change adaptation did not even exist as a separate issue for study.

For them, it is easy to argue that climate change adaptation is just a new lens that we now use to study social science issues, and that we should ground our work in existing disciplines and not purely on climate change adaptation as this is not a discipline.

That viewpoint is certainly alive but, however, history.

Climate adaptation now has its specific conferences, forums, journals, university courses and networks and we have seen the emergence of adaptation ‘experts’. As Dovers and Hezri noted in 2010, climate adaptation has evolved into its own epistemic community.

More recently, Saleemul Huq also noted the following: “There may not be an adaptation science yet…but there is certainly one in the making and in five to 10 years from now there will be a body of knowledge specific to climate adaptation”.

This relates to what it means to “grow up” in a scientific sense in the realm of climate change adaptation. My co-authors and I all did our PhDs more or less grounded in climate adaptation while we drew upon many different disciplines.

But we all shared a somewhat common understanding of climate adaptation, its strengths and weaknesses and theoretical underpinnings because we had been following the field and had an understanding of its history.

The need for consolidation  

Given the prominence of climate adaptation for research and policy and increased available finance, we are seeing increasingly people entering the field and the emergence of adaptation specific expertise.

Yet, we lack in many ways the global consolidation of the field, acceptance and agreement of the common methodologies and frameworks, and what qualifies as expertise in this new field.

Don’t get me wrong, we definitely do not lack frameworks since every new project, organisation, and program comes up with its own framework for climate adaptation that then drives project outcomes and research outputs.

This is in fact a major frustration that I have encountered many times from stakeholders in the Pacific Islands where the array of different climate adaptation frameworks and methodologies sometimes seems confusing.

Simultaneously the Paris Agreement has as one of its goals “global adaptation goal” that then needs to be measured and tracked, making adaptation a very much global issue.

So the question is: how do we consolidate a field that is forming, and consists of many different strands of knowledge, experiences, policy agendas, and a mix of global-local scales? And how do we validate adaptation expertise?

How to consolidate the field: Concise guidance on climate adaptation

For many who enter this field, whether as a scientist or practitioner, it can be overwhelming trying to grasp what climate change adaptation is. In this learning process it is essential that there would be common guidance to explain which are the key foundational papers in climate adaptation and how these have shaped the field.

One good example of this is Lisa Schipper’s and Ian Burton’s Reader for Adaptation to Climate Change which has collated major papers in the field, and provides so to say history of many of the core ideas that are still used in the field. Many of these foundational papers are highly cited and still pop up in reference lists in even recent papers.

There is also PROVIA guidance on how to assess Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation that provides guidance for academics, policymakers and alike on the most commonly used methodologies and tools available. One of the very reasons for the guidance has been in fact the increasing number of available tools and methodologies leading to confusion what works and where.

A new Global Centre of Excellence for Climate Adaptation has also been established that is going to synthesise much of the available information on adaptation and provide consolidation of that information. Australia likewise has its National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility that has supported much of this synthesis and new research into what adaptation looks like in the Australian context.

These movements to me signal the process of recognition of climate adaptation as its own distinct sphere, whether as adaptation science or discipline.

What I am certain of is that there are more and more scholars and practitioners who are taking firm steps in becoming climate adaptation specialists and who will identify themselves more with this new discipline or science than any other area of study.

Time will tell what that science looks like but for now, my dream is that one day we do have a globally recognised robust adaptation science that has commonly accepted and tested methodologies, underpinning theory, degrees and curriculums, and certification of expertise for best practice.


There’s plenty of space for leadership here.


The fine line between productive habits and stalling points

 I came across recently Morten Hansen in Coaching for Leaders episode 337 where Morten discussed his recent book Great at work.

Morten’s five year study shows that the most successful people who excel at their work do not work more but less. They are more focused when they work and they also are agile learners: they ask for immediate feedback and learn from that; they change their routines and constantly seek to improve what they do.

Many of us have heard about Malcolm Cladwell’s 10 000 hours concept: you need to fine-tune a habit or routine by keeping at least 10 000 hours at it if we want to excel. This is true for talent development for sure: we do need to practice in order to improve and become better in a task or a skill.

Yet, Morten’s study actually shows that there is a fine line between a productive habit and a stalling point. Once we form a habit that becomes part of our routine, it can become a “stalling point”: we settle into using this habit or routine and lower ambition in that area of our life because we are already so good at it. In other words, habits are an excellent way to create comfort and kill innovation.

It’s common wisdom that great leaders are great learners. This has to do with the kind of humility that such people embody: they recognise that despite all of their achievements they are still learning. They also recognise the need for what Morten calls “the learning loop” where they continuously seek to learn and ask for feedback. Such an attitude gives them real time data how they are doing and progressing.

Interestingly Morten Hansen debunks annual performance reviews. It makes no sense to review performance annually because there is no feedback loop or opportunity to learn. Finding a more agile way to measure impact would be beneficial but in my mind this would also require clearer setting of goals, and creating personal tracking metrics that would start generating data to see how a particular goals is being progressed.

Tracking learning and soft skills

As a demonstration of how one can constitute an immediate learning loop and start tracking soft skills, Morten tells about one director at a hospital in the US who decided she needed to be able to track how well she was leading meetings and asking questions. She began to track each meeting and noted down the number of ideas generated and the number of ideas implemented. She sought to improve her way of asking questions and generating debate and innovative ideas.

During the next 12-months, she wrote down after each meeting how many innovative ideas her team came up with and then also tracked how many of these were actually implement. After 12-months of tracking, she could clearly see massive improvements in herself and in her team, and also in the overall improvements in patient care and staff satisfaction.

Point is: soft skills are trackable, even if it is harder to do so.

I have thought about this for a long time in a university context. Most of our metrics focus on the number of publications and the ranking of the journal (impact factor) although many universities are starting to broaden the definition of “research impact”.

But there are so many other ways that academics actually add value other than writing purely scientific peer-reviewed articles. We write different commentaries to news outlets, blogs, we give interviews, engage with community groups and governments, we host podcasts, make infographics, give keynotes and speeches at various events, find new research gaps and needs from talking to wide variety of people, lecture and build the next generation of researchers. Many of these are soft skills that are not as easily tracked as statistical information.

In my field of climate adaptation, many argue that since adaptation is a vague and often such an all-encompassing concept (everything is adaptation) that we cannot really measure how well we are doing it. But perhaps we are looking into wrong metrics to show actual progress?

Perhaps what we need to do is to start asking different kinds of questions as to what counts as adaptation, whether it’s the number of people who agree that they have benefited from an adaptation project, the times they have been able to make an informed decision on how to protect their assets from extreme weather event, a clear decision they have made based on climate adaptation information. In the end, it all comes down to having a clear goal and clear steps how to get there.

Start with clarity

The importance of knowing what your goals are, what the process is how you are supposed to achieve them, what you should and can make decisions on; all of this has to do with clarity.

Ann Latham writes in Forbes that we really need to understand four kinds of clarity: strategy, productivity, process and confidence.

Latham argues that

“When people know precisely what they need to accomplish, how, when, and with whom, they can ‘get in the zone’ and make great strides”

This also applies to such issues as confidence. If you know what your decision space is (what you can make decisions on) at work, such clarity will enable you to confidently drive your work and tasks forward. Organisations and individuals need to invest in such clarity and transparency so that everyone is super clear what they aim to achieve, why and how. This also relates to learning: we have to take a focused approach on what we want to learn and where we can improve our skills.

Find your learning points

Perhaps what we really need are “learning points” instead of stalling points: we need to recognise where we have fallen into a routine and where we actually can direct our learning to improve our skills in that category or sector.

For some of us, this sounds like another additional thing we need to schedule into our lives. Yet, Morten says the best way to learn is active learning on the job. This means make a commitment prior you go into a meeting e.g. “this week I want to learn to ask better questions/learn how to ask for feedback/learn to negotiate”. Then use your next meeting to try to learn that, and try to get immediate feedback on how you did.

Learning points can be implemented on daily basis as Morten notes: try out your strategy or idea on your peers first and get feedback. Then use that feedback to pitch the idea or strategy to where you intend it to go, whether it is top management or the top journal in your field.

What in your own life could you measure that you currently think you are doing pretty well? Can you recognise any routines that have accumulated over the years and that you feel very comfortable with? Where have you stalled and stopped to grow because you feel you have mastered something? Where is your learning point?

And when it comes to climate adaptation, do we even have learning points yet?

Don’t think of a (damaged) reef

A rather fierce debate has been circulating in recent weeks in Australia about the state of the Great Barrier Reef, “the largest living thing on Earth”  and what should be done about it. Great Barrier Reef in the state of Queensland is one of the seven wonders of the world and pulls in large number of both domestic and international visitors each year.

Just to sum up the debate for those outside of Australia, several high profile academics, such as Professor Terry Hughes at James Cook University , recently published research showing an increase in the frequency of coral bleaching events worldwide (when water gets too hot and corals begin to die), including the Great Barrier Reef. This means that the reefs do not have enough time to recover from one bleaching event before next one occurs. Bleaching occurs due to normal than higher sea water temperatures, which impact on coral reefs.

The tourism industry has attacked these studies and called for defunding of Professor Hughes’ work. The sector is obviously nervous: if the reef gets a bad reputation, this can influence people’s travel decisions whether to come to see the Great Barrier Reef or not.

The government is now determined to invest 2.2. million dollars in installing underwater fans among other strategies in the hopes of cooling the water and enabling the reefs to persist in their current condition. Another strategy will be the culling of crown-of-thorn starfish from the reef, a program that again is against scientific experts’ advice and has not proven effective. These investments and strategies have gone to the expert panel review, which rejected them as ineffective and potentially causing more adverse impacts on the reef itself.

While Professor Hughes has continuously argued that the real cause of bleaching (increasing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and warmer sea temperatures) should be addressed, much of this debate has multiple views and frames that different actors are using to justify why their option to help the reef is the most effective.

To me, this is a classic case in how the definition of the problem drives the choice of the strategy or option.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Berkeley, explains in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” , how words are our frames to understand the world.

Try not to think of an elephant when you hear the word ‘elephant’. Most of us can’t not to think of an actual elephant because that word already has a particular frame in our mind.

Lakoff puts this simply: “frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions” (p. xv).

The party that is successful in using particular words and creating a frame in people’s mind (what the issue is about) has more buy-in from the public and better chances of influencing which strategy people vote for or accept.

It is not just about how you speak but which ideas you are able to spread by using particular words. Once people share or start accepting the particular idea that you are proposing (a particular frame), it will drive also the information or knowledge that they accept as valid in that particular case:

“To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off” (Lakoff, 2004, p. 17).

The reef debate illustrates this well: we have the frame of climate change (warmer sea water temperatures because of increases in emissions), science (studying the state of the reefs and bleaching), economy and livelihoods (bad reputation of the reef diminishing jobs and income), and invasive species (culling particular species off the reef to increase reef health). Each frame has a set of knowledge and information that is used as evidence.

All of the frames are interconnected in real life. But each will drive a different set of strategies to deal with the problem. The question is: which of these strategies are actually effective, can ensure the long-term health of the reef, and well-being of people who depend on the reef for their livelihoods but also for those who want to experience the beauty of the reef as tourists? (not to mention all the marine life and its wellbeing as well).

The science is clearly showing an alarming trend in the frequency of bleaching events and shows that something is occurring in the reef environment that did not use to happen. The tourism sector is aware of this frame of environmental damage but is trying to push a healthy reef frame in its efforts to continue attracting tourists to the area. The political frame seems to be focused on short-term solutions against scientific advice where some results can be gained by quick action.

The struggle for the reef and explaining the causal factors for its condition will go on without a doubt, but recognising and thinking about these frames can provide at least some clarity into where the conflicts are and why. Yet, not thinking about the damaged reef gets harder when the evidence of the changing trends is in.

As a scientist, my hope of course is that any policy or strategy decision is based on the most robust science possible. At the same time I recognise that I don’t understand yet all the complicated factors in this debate and I look forward learning more about the governance of the reef.

To end this with Lakoff’s words: “reframing is social change”. Whoever is most successful in spreading their ideas will eventually gain the most support for whatever action they propose, whether this is giant underwater fans or action to drastically reduce emissions.

What I do think though is that whatever decisions are made regarding the Great Barrier Reef, a long-term management strategy is needed that is responsive to changes in trends that include both slow-onset processes and extreme events. We are still learning how such strategies can be implemented on the ground. Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a learning process first and foremost but one that is clearly already here and not in the future.

Bats are boiling and green turtles are turning female: how close are we to adaptation limits?

This week’s Twitter feed has been particularly concerning, some would say crazy, regarding the changes and shifts in weather and climate trends that are occurring worldwide. In Australia, bats are boiling in the sky  and the asphalt is literally melting as heatwaves have come through in various parts of the country. In the US, NOAA has just released a report announcing that 2017 was and is the costliest year on record for weather and climate related disasters, and 2017 is also the 3rd warmest year on record for the US.

Terry Hughes, Professor at James Cook University, was just part of a large study looking at the bleaching of coral reefs worldwide. The study concluded that bleaching events are occurring more frequently, which means that the reefs do not have time to recover in between the events. This shorter space between events, such as natural disasters, was also a concern in a study that we did with disaster agencies in Australia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu: many of the staff and volunteers have had their rest and recovery periods shortened as the disasters seem to be occurring more and more frequently.

What worries me is that these kinds of news are coming through daily, with studies after another noting how particular trends have shifted and changed over time. This is not about a fluke event, an anomaly that can’t be explained, but most of these studies are starting to clearly show a trend towards warmer temperatures and even unexpected impacts such as bats boiling and turtles changing sex. As much as it would be nice to think that we’ll be alright and just need to get on with things, the future is starting to look rather bleak for many of the core ecosystems and their services that we rely on. What would the world look like if there was no Great Barrier Reef, or the keystone species such as turtles would have disappeared?

Our book on Limits to Climate Change Adaptation could not be more timely the more that I read news and hear about these impacts. Many of the chapters really provide detailed explanations how communities are relocating in the Pacific and what different impacts really mean in practice. To me, all of these discussions signal the increased necessity to study and collect these changes in a systematic manner so that we have a better understanding of the concept of adaptation limits and also how we know when we are dangerously close to one.

So far much of the literature has focused on conceptualising adaptation limits but we now need to move past that and start really thinking what constitutes an adaptation limit in practice, how that evaluation is done and how we can build in signals in our planning systems, business plans, and community observations about when a limit is seen to be close enough. For a community living on a tropical island, this could be an instance when the reef is being bleached x number of times a year, reducing significantly the potential to fish and use the natural resources associated with the reef. Bleached reefs will also have an impact on the scale of coastal protection they can give, another important area for further research.

As the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees and the Sixth Assessment Report are getting underway, the concept of adaptation limits needs serious attention. This is not a matter of inserting a synthesis table on adaptation limits in one chapter but needs to be considered in each sectoral chapter especially under Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and also in the Special Report.

There is a clear linkage also here to the concept of Loss and Damage (L&D) and that evidence base is still also very anecdotal, which means that much of this information and case studies are unlikely to reach the IPCC process. Documenting these cases has already begun in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g. in Climate and Development journal and by Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative) but more comprehensive assessments are necessary especially on country and community levels. In these processes, we need to also think how we deal with missing or shifting baseline data and what that means for robust assessment.

But in the end, this is not just about science but about the way we live our lives and how the things we treasure, such as amazing wildlife, coral reefs, and nature in general, might in for a ride of a lifetime that is not going to end up well. I do have hope that people making these decisions will wake up and there is so much innovation already happening in the energy and technology space. But the actual question as to how far we have already moved towards particular limits still remains. For this end, the scientific community is gathering such knowledge but the political systems and businesses will need to also get on board and use that knowledge.

For my part, I do want to understand the decision-making processes better in governments and businesses, and how science could support or inform such processes in a way that is useful both from scientific, business and political perspectives. Not every event or impact can be traced directly to climate change but having seen the science, for me personally it is high time to move past the ‘true-or-not’ debate and start thinking strategically how we can deal with what is happening already now in a more insightful manner. Now if anyone can tell me how to do this effectively…