Fighting Global Climate Change with Portfolios of Local Conservation

By Emily Darling

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.
— Bob Dylan, American musician

The public is becoming increasingly aware of climate change with more climate-related disasters occurring around the world, recently called the ‘climate swerve’ by the New York Times. However to many conservation scientists, climate change is a fight on an unimaginable scale: our entire planet.  Many conservation success stories occur locally, such as local fishermen selling old nets to recycle into sustainable products, or protecting and recovering small populations of endangered species, like the white rhino in South Africa. In comparison, fighting a global battle against climate change can seem immense and impossible.

Climate change threats are affecting our ecosystems, our economies and our cultures, and will continue to do so for years to come. For our blue planet, climate change really means ocean change. Eighty-eight per cent of the heat building on our planet is transferred to the oceans. Thirty-three per cent of carbon dioxide is absorbed by our seas and fundamentally alters ocean chemistry through acidification. Sea level rise is indeed happening in our seas and affecting our coastlines. The frontlines of the battle with climate change will be our oceans. How can local ocean management face the global Goliath of climate change?

Some scientists say this is a battle for the future. In a recent report on status and trends of Caribbean coral reefs over the last 40 years, the authors state that while the threats of climate change and ocean acidification “loom very large for the future, [they] have not been the major drivers of the decline of Caribbean corals. Furthermore, overemphasis on climate change distracts attention,” and “provides an excuse for managers and governments not to make the hard decisions required to stop overfishing, coastal pollution, and unsustainable development.” When faced with global climate change, what can local managers and decision makers do to support healthy ecosystems?

In a recent scientific review published in the Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology, we assessed the evidence for conservation strategies, new and old, in the face of climate change. This identified a suite of conservation actions that can target both landscapes and individual species to support biodiversity in a changing climate. There is substantial evidence that climate change is here to stay, and we cannot ignore its impacts. Rising temperature, changing ocean chemistry and the myriad impacts of climate change “ignore boundaries, armed guards and the best-laid defenses.” To combat these insidious threats, we must do a better job at incorporating climate change into how we manage and protect our ecosystems. In other words, “the biodiversity show must go on”.

Our review identifies a number of ‘coarse-filter’ landscape approaches and ‘fine-filter’ species actions that can conserve both the stage and the actors of changing ecosystems (see figure below). We also identify a series of conservation actions in a portfolio approach that values different strategies for different places, such as protecting important land facets, prioritizing climate refugia for protection, translocating sensitive species as suitable habitat shifts with climate change, restoring key habitat, and connecting shifting landscapes with corridors and stepping stones of intact habitat to facilitate species movements with shifting environmental conditions (see figure below). We provide examples of how these strategies are being applied in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems around the world.