How is Climate Change Adaptation Different from Business as Usual?

By Eliot Levine, WWF-US

“How is climate adaptation work different than what I have been doing?” This is the number one question I hear as a member of the adaptation team here at WWF-US. From San Francisco to Nairobi to Hanoi, it’s everyone’s first question at the beginning of a meeting or at a start of a workshop. It’s also the trickiest to answer. So ok, here is the answer: Adaptation is a means, not an end.

Everything clear now? Are we all ready to begin adapting?

I didn’t think so…

That’s because adaptation work is all about context, and as such my very general answer is really not that helpful. However, at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, I think that thiskey concept, that adaption is not about what you do but why and how you do it, is something that many people need to absorb if they are going to successfully integrate adaptation into their work. Sure, it doesn’t provide any of the conservationists I have met around the world with the strategies needed to protect a particular species, but it does answer the question.

For the sake of illustration let’s consider two different conservation planning scenarios:

Two different international conservation organizations are concerned about a particular species of bird. From a number of studies and surveys of the species, both organizations know that populations of this bird have decreased significantly over the past 5 years. Unsure what to do about it, the two organizations have set out to help this species recover in the coming years. 

Organization X’s strategy:

After a series of population surveys throughout the country, and an analysis of development trends and natural resource extraction efforts in key habitats areas, Organization X concluded that the top threat to the species was habitat loss due to increasing deforestation and mining. Their analysis also concluded that mining and deforestation had the largest impact on populations in the south of the country where surveys showed the most severe decrease in the numbers of birds. The good news was that the northern section of the country actually showed an increase in numbers. 

As a result of this information the organization decided to pursue the establishment of numerous protected areas in the southern region of the country to ensure that the remaining habitat in the south would have sufficient carrying capacity to support a viable population of birds in the future. 

I think it’s pretty obvious that the strategy carried out by Organization X is most definitely not climate adaptive work. First, current climate impacts or future climate change were not taken into consideration as part of the threat analysis. Second, variations in the local environment due to climate change were not a factor in the ultimate decision.

Creating protected areas is not a new tool for the conservation community. However that is not to say that the establishment of additional protected areas can not be a climate adaptation strategy. Ensuring that there is adequate habitat for species in the future is definitely an important component of conservation work. Climate change does not decrease the value of that work. It should, however, alter the process for planning new protected areas.

Organization Y’s Strategy:

Organization Y went through much of the same process that Organization X did and also saw the same population changes and increased threat of habitat loss. However, Organization Y’s planning process included an analysis of regional climate trends and variation over the past 10 years. Their climate analysis showed that the southern portion of the country has been experiencing increasingly warmer daytime and nighttime temperatures. Additional studies also seem to indicate that many of the birds located in the habitat areas in the south were actually migrating north as a result of these temperature increases. These studies revealed that the bird’s primary food source, a tiny aquatic insect, has been negatively impacted by the rising temperatures. As it turns out the higher temperatures slowed the reproduction processes of the insect and has resulted in a vastly diminished food base for the species. 

As a result, Organization Y determined that establishing protected areas in the north would be the most effective way to conserve this target species. Doing so would ensure that the remaining forests at higher, and much cooler, elevations would buffer both the birds and the insects they feed on from the rising temperatures. Additionally, Organization Y decided that allocating money for the protection of birds in the southern region of the country was not a smart use of their funds as the remaining habitat could become completely unsuitable for the species in the near future.

Organization Y's strategy is a good example climate adaptation work. The team has made a decision to protect a species from both development and climate change induced threats via a process that considers current and future climate impacts. The end result in each of the scenarios is pretty much the same (the establishment of protected areas), however the difference is in the reasoning for such an action and the process through which that action was decided.

These scenarios are, of course, very simple. Some argue that climate change impacts represent only one category of threat that needs to be considered when planning conservation actions. This is true. Conservation practitioners are dealing with a multitude of threats (deforestation, infrastructure development, human migration) that require a prioritization of actions. Climate change impacts must be evaluated and prioritized along with these other, more traditional threats. However, climate change is different in that it can have synergistic effect on the traditional drivers of environmental degradation. That is, it can make traditional threats more severe, less severe, or result in something completely new.

And this is where many people get really worried. How is it possible to understand all of these complex problems not only now but in an uncertain future? Well, the simple answer is you can’t. Adaptation, like any other conservation strategy, must be considered as part of a process. What this means is that planners, in both conservation and development fields alike, need to regularly assess how their object of interest (species, community, natural resource, infrastructure) is going to be affected by climate change impacts.

I began this entry by saying that climate change adaptation is a means, not an end. However while this may be important conceptually, it doesn’t provide a starting point for practitioners. Most people I have met recognize that climate change just made their jobs a lot more complex. What they want now are concrete steps they can take to better understand what their problems are and the best ways to move forward. Vulnerability assessments (VA), an analysis of how changing climate conditions and development trends will make your object of interest more or less vulnerable, are a great place to start. Essentially these are knowledge management tools that can help conservation and development practitioners understand the changes they are currently seeing and expect to see in the future. In my next ClimatePrep article I will focus entirely on VAs and how to do one successfully.