World Resource Institute

Question Four: Must We Fundamentally Change Course to Conserve Ecosystems in a Changing Climate?

Do we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach to conserving ecosystems and their services in a changing climate?

Ecosystems - Earth's natural capital - provide services such as clean water, food, climate regulation, fiber and fuel that are vital to the well being of human society. Over the past five decades, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, ecosystems have undergone more transformation than at any other point in the past, primarily driven by increased human consumption and the demand for, and overuse of, ecosystem goods and services.  Ecosystem degradation has continued at the expense of the long-term conservation of the vital services that ecosystems provide to human communities and has resulted in an unprecedented rate of species loss.  These trends are now being exacerbated by climate change, even as recognition grows that ecosystem conservation and sustainable management techniques will play critical roles in improving the resilience of communities to climate impacts.

While ecosystems will naturally adapt and evolve in response to climate change, this adaptation may not occur in a form that enables the continuation of existing ecosystems services for people and maintains existing species diversity. This is especially true if ecosystems are so degraded by non-climate factors (such as habitat fragmentation) that they do not have the capacity to adapt in a manner that will preserve existing properties. Such circumstances are of particular concern for the rural poor who overwhelmingly depend on natural resources. The absence of concerted efforts to conserve ecosystems and their services in a changing climate could threaten tens of millions of livelihoods and even lives.

The 2010 World Resources Report is focusing upon how governmental decision-making at the national level can contend with a changing climate, and specifically how policymakers and planners can better react to and prepare for climate change's uncertainty, surprises, time lags, and heightened change and variability. The conservation and sustainable management of ecosystems and their services can assist in the design of long-term approaches to climate change adaptation.  Such efforts can also assist communities in preparing for and reacting to climate-related risks (for example, via mangrove conservation to protect against sea level rise).

Yet, the world has long failed to adequately conserve ecosystems and their services even in the absence of climate change risks. We know already exactly what barriers need to be overcome to conserve ecosystems and their services: divided oversight or management responsibilities, short planning horizons, uncertainties surrounding ecosystems valuation and inadequate incentives for conserving ecosystems, among others.  The real issue is this:  in the face of climate change impacts, is overcoming such barriers enough?  Or do we need wholesale changes in managing ecosystems if they and their services are to be protected in a changing climate? This leads us to pose the following critical question in this paper series:

Do we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach to conserving ecosystems and their services in a changing climate?

This question seeks insight into whether we should continue, with more urgency, to pursue existing practices for incorporating ecosystems into decision-making processes and overcome related barriers or whether we need to adopt radically different approaches in the way we contend with the additional stress of climate change on ecosystems.

We ask authors to consider the following issues in their responses. Please do not feel limited by them or required to address them all. Where possible, please provide relevant examples on the ground.

  • Please take some time to explain your views on the role of ecosystems in adaptation including benefits and limits. What are approaches for communicating this role to government decision makers and communities?
  • Today we use a combination of command-and-control, incentive-based, voluntary, and other types of policy instruments. Does the additional stress that climate change poses on ecosystems place a premium on command-and-control measures that can lead to explicit controls and limits on access to resources (e.g. rezoning to prohibit further development of marshlands)?  If so, given that command-and-control instruments do not explicitly maximize cost efficiency, how can governments justify such decisions to their citizenry?
  • Given incomplete information with regard to how climate change will interact with other drivers of ecosystem degradation and how it could potentially trigger irreversible change, how do decision makers determine the acceptable risk to an ecosystem?  To what extent does climate change place a premium on the precautionary principle - as opposed to cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment methods - justifying more significant action?
  • At what point should decision makers accept ecosystem change and attempt to cope with it rather than take proactive measures to slow down and halt such transformation? How should they make such decisions?

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Expert Perspectives

Bruno Locatelli and Emilia Pramova: Locatelli and Pramova assert that the linkage between forests and climate adaptation is two-fold: first, forests play a role in the adaptation of broader society...» Read Full Paper

Musonda Mumba, Richard Munang and Mike Rivington: The authors argue the need for a fundamental shift in the way ecosystems are valued and managed due to the threats posed by intensifying multiple pressures from a changing climate and unsustainable...» Read Full Paper

Yolanda Kakabadse: This paper looks at the role of ecosystems through a focus on water management for climate-sustainable development. The author, Ecuador’s former environment minister, argues that the...» Read Full Paper

Janet Ranganathan and Craig Hanson: This paper examines the triple challenge of climate change, ecosystem services degradation, and the need to double food production to sustain a growing population. It describes the dominant influence...» Read Full Paper