World Resource Institute

Towards Ecological Intelligence: Thoughts on the Inter-linkages Between Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainable Development Objectives

By Guy F. Midgley, Chief Director and Specialist Scientist, Climate Change and BioAdaptation Division, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town


Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 4: Must we fundamentally change course to conserve ecosystems in a changing climate?


Human beings as a modern species are clearly the product of a world characterised by rapidly changing and challenging climatic conditions. For much of our deep history, our ancestors were likely to have found benefit in periodic migration, possibly anchored for shorter or longer periods of time in suitable localities. The successful rise of our species to global dominance can be linked to warm, generally wetter and stable climatic conditions that have transpired over the past six to eight thousand years. Evidence for a facilitating role of higher atmospheric CO2 level in enhancing productive sedentary agricultural activities is also suggestive. We have since become a largely sedentary species, with a plethora of formal or informal regulations that control and limit land use and land ownership, and a highly complex set of socio-economic systems that boosts productivity through specialisation and trade. A high degree of dependence of such socio-economic systems on a relatively stable climate over time scales of decades to centuries is suspected, but has proved difficult to show incontrovertibly.

Despite some evidence for catastrophic societal failures under extreme or changing climate conditions during the past few millennia, and considerable evidence of naïve efforts to influence the climate through religious behaviours and rituals, it is only recently that modern society has begun considering global multilateral cooperation to avoid potentially destabilizing climatic conditions. Along with these efforts, multilateral discussions are exploring the potential for better ways of adapting to anticipated climate change, and more practically and pragmatically, for learning from historical exposure of society to climatic conditions considered extreme. Policy makers are now engaging actively with the need to anticipate, manage, and respond to climate risks of various types and at a range of time scales. This engagement is arguably much belated, as climate variability has been a regular feature in determining critical outcomes in modern human history. It is the prospect of anthropogenic climate change that has brought this policy shortcoming to the fore.

The Objective (Article 2) of the multilateral UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) provides a challenging shared vision for achieving a balance between mitigating and adapting to climate change, stating in its second sentence “Such a [dangerous] level [of anthropogenic interference with the climate system] should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”. There has been an increased focus on adaptation in the UNFCCC in the past decade, in the realization that some level of anthropogenic climate change is unavoidable, and that the moral hazard of accepting this is outweighed by the potential benefit of allowing adaptive responses to absorb or deflect the adverse impacts of anthropogenic climate change. This acceptance raises a number of key issues, among them those highlighted in the four papers being addressed here. These include, firstly; to what extent can sustainable development objectives, absent climate change, synergise with objectives for climate change adaptation? Secondly; to what extent does the inherent buffering capacity provided by natural ecosystems enhance societal ability to adapt to and mitigate anthropogenic climate change? Thirdly; are there levels of change to both or either the physical and biological environment that are essentially irreversible (on a human societal time-scale), and even self-reinforcing, and thus beyond any credible human adaptive capacity (sometimes referred to as “tipping points”)?

Insights From WRR Papers

The four papers cover fundamentally important themes – Ecosystems, Food, and Water, and the complex trade-offs that have become so evident as human demands for resources impinge on ecosystem resilience and even persistence. Examples abound in the water theme – such as the demise of the Aral Sea, the collapse of natural river flow on most continents around the world, and the many related effects that are emerging on interconnected ecosystems and ultimately on societies and human well being. Paradigm shifts seem to be needed to avoid worsening these outcomes in the future. Mutual objectives of sustainable development and climate change adaptation include focusing on patterns of water use that anticipate future variability in flows, the use of effective indicators of ecosystem viability (such as sustainable river flow rates), management at basin scale (across political boundaries where necessary), and holistic management of the hydrological cycle. These are all examples of the substantive increase in ecological intelligence required to achieve these mutual objectives.

Similar tradeoffs and dismal historical outcomes can be seen in the issue of food production, food security and related ecosystem resilience and persistence. The example of the degradation of the Minqin Oasis in Central China, and downstream impacts of U.S. Midwest agricultural production intensity stand in stark contrast to the apparent increase in human well being associated with greater food availability in the short term. This set of examples also raises the issue of lags between cause and effect, feedbacks, and potential “tipping points” that might be transgressed almost unknowingly, due to inadequate use of relevant indexes of change – such as an inability to quantify and value ecosystem services adequately. Such adverse outcomes may play out on a much broader spatial scale than that of the original impact, with the role of the Amazon Basin a well-known example of this regional-to-global connectivity.

Taken together, the examples provided across this broad set of four papers show clearly that an inherent buffering capacity of natural ecosystems can be critical for environmental sustainability, but even more especially so under scenarios of climate change. This buffering capacity extends across both global mitigation and local adaptation objectives. The biologically derived mitigation benefit of terrestrial ecosystems is currently estimated at about 25% of annual anthropogenic emissions (another 25% is due to ocean buffering capacity, largely physically based, and with apparently adverse associated biological impacts). It is not difficult to convert this directly to a financial benefit using carbon market assumptions – a benefit that dwarfs those derived from current societal efforts. But the mutual adaptation and sustainable development benefit to society due to ecosystems is very poorly constrained in financial terms, and requires urgent attention in order to establish credible values. What these four papers show when read in conjunction, is their powerful inter-linkages that could be of great societal benefit, but which also promise a daunting set of disservices if signals are misread and thresholds are inadvertently crossed.