A Changing Climate at the World Parks Congress

By Emily Darling

Last month, 6000 delegates from 170 countries attended the once-in-a-decade World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. The summit, hosted by the IUCN, is a global forum to discuss the successes and future for protected areas– an ever timely issue given the threats to wildlife and wild places around the planet. There have been several excellent blogs (see here and here) highlighting the take-away messages of the Congress and the “Promise of Sydney”, a roadmap that will guide the ecological, economic and social investments in parks over the next 10 years.

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  Mua Voyage at sea, sailing a message to the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. © Pacific Voyagers

Mua Voyage at sea, sailing a message to the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. © Pacific Voyagers

Here, I’ll focus on climate change – an issue that was front and center at the Congress. “Responding to climate change” comprised an entire stream of plenaries, World Leader Forums, workshops, symposia, roundtables, side events, youth engagement and art pieces over the weeklong congress. To sum up, here are my four takeaways on climate change and protected areas from the World Parks Congress.

1. Climate and Conservation Planning

Protecting intact habitats was a major focus of climate adaptation at the World Parks Congress. For example, Palau announced a new marine sanctuary at the Congress that will provide protection for 80% of the nation’s ocean habitats. © Jurgen Freund / WWF-Canon

World Parks highlighted protected areas not only as key places for wildlife, but also as a natural solution to store carbon and buffer biodiversity from the impacts of a warming and more volatile climate. But while there is much hope that protected areas can buffer and buy time for biodiversity and ecosystem services, there is also the recognition that protected areas are immensely threatened by climate change – shifting environments push species beyond protected borders, sensitive species protected within parks can be devastated by climate anomalies, extreme climate events of droughts and marine heatwaves can stress protected populations and eliminate sensitive habitats. An overall goal of the Promise of Sydney is a “healthy network of well-managed protected areas that anticipates climate and ecosystem change and contributes to the solutions the world needs to face up to this crisis.

Many sessions in the climate change stream addressed this question – how to make a climate-smart network of protected areas? Discussions included size – bigger is better for protected areas by encompassing more populations and more genes for climate adaptation; location –climate refuges and more stable environments should provide species with more time to adapt; intactness – whole landscapes with less development and fragmentation may be more stable and more buffered from the increasing impacts of climate change; and networks – connecting locally adapted populations as critical stepping stones for species to move between/into areas of new and suitable habitat.

For example, Nosy Harina became the first MPA in Madagascar to incorporate climate change adaptation into its management plan. Monitoring for the parks now includes early-warning signs of climate shocks, such as coral bleaching events and coastal erosion. This initiative also supports local communities moving towards climate-ready economies, such as planting climate-resistant crops and setting aside fishery reserves for climatehardy crabs. Globally, the National Geographic Pristine Seas expeditions are surveying the most remote and intact corners of the oceans and linking their protection to blue carbon initiatives, e.g., where intact ecosystems can sequester large amounts of carbon in seagrasses, tidal marshes and mangroves as a climate adaptation and mitigation strategy.

2. Climate and Culture

Our ocean is vast but not limitless…. growing global populations and the relentless pursuit of unsustainable development is reducing the ability of our ocean to sustain life.
— Mua Voyage, 2014

A major theme at the World Parks Congress was that climate change not only threatens ecosystems and economies, but also cultures. And further, that responding to climate change will only be successful by including indigenous cultures and local communities in climate adaptation and mitigation. For example, before the Congress had even started, the Mua Voyage, a fleet of four Polynesian vaka, journeyed 11,000 kilometers from the Cook Islands through Samoa, Fiji and Vanautu to deliver a message that the World Parks Congress must deliver commitments to island cultures and the world’s ocean, in part due to the threats of climate change.

3. Climate and Technology

NASA released a new visualization of carbon dioxide – highlighted in red – largely emitted in the northern hemisphere and swirling between continents on weather systems. © NASA

Technology was well highlighted at the World Parks Congress by Google and NASA who brought multi-panel screens and effective presentations to show how we can store, visualize and share data on our planet like never before. For example,  Global Fishing Watch – a prototype tool from SkyTruth, Google and Oceana – highlighted the power of harnessing satellite data from fishing vessels to map global fishing activity in real-time to provide governments the ability to see over the horizon and track fishing in their territorial waters. NASA released striking visualizations of carbon emissions swirling over the poles on global weather systems – eventually perhaps providing a real-time tool to track and visualize the invisible emissions of climate change.  The crowds of people around these tools certainly suggest scientists, managers, planners and policy makers are eager to embrace and harness new technologies to conserve and manage our planet. From a climate change perspective, real-time tools could link climate shocks to adaptation responses. Global maps of sea surface temperatures or ocean acidification could provide early-warnings to sensitive fisheries or ecosystems, like coral reefs. One of the legacies of the World Parks Congress will be the integration of technology in supporting the science, management and decisions for nature in collaboration with technology partners like Google Earth Outreach and satellite imaging companies.

4. Climate and Reality

Global Fishing Watch provides the first real-time view of global fishing activity using satellite data and Google

Earth visualizations as an innovative tool to effectively enforce to ocean’s protected areas. © Global Fishing Watch

And finally, climate change at the World Parks Congress was also met with a dose of reality. The Congress was held in Australia, recently ranked the worst-performing developed nation on climate performance. The Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, looms on the brink of being listed as “In Danger” due to the politically supported expansion of coal ports alongside it’s world-famous reefs. A recent plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef makes no mention of climate change, which is one reason experts say this plan is destined to fail. A reality-check indeed.

To truly address climate change, environmental leaders need to work with business and industry to set aside intact ecosystems, to not mine and frack and drill every fossil fuel out of the planet in order to ultimately curb global carbon emissions. To me, the World Parks Congress was desperately missing leaders in business and industry. This relationship becomes even more important through the lens of climate change. With the ongoing COP20 meetings in Lima projecting more than 2 to 3°C warming, business-as-usual will threaten wildlife and wild places as we know them. Overall, the World Parks Congress was a diverse celebration of global parks, wildlife and cultures – my hope is that we will have even more success to celebrate at the next Congress in 10 years – notably some success on new partnerships to curb and cope with climate change.